Protecting Country

SUBHEAD: Organization Seed explained to banks impact to Aboriginal communities if mining projects went ahead.

By Staff on 2 September 2016 for Future Perfect -

Image above: Seed co-founder Larissa Baldwin at center. From original article.

Climate change affects everyone — but not everyone evenly. If nothing is done to stop the impact of climate change, some of the oldest living cultures in the world could die out. An all-Indigenous youth activist group in Australia has risen to the challenge. 

When Larissa Baldwin first heard about Australia’s first youth summit for climate change activists, she thought she had found her people. She bought a ticket, planned which talks and workshops to attend, then travelled down to Brisbane for PowerShift 2011.

“When I walked through the doors and looked around the foyer, I nearly just walked straight back out again. I couldn’t see anyone like me. It was a sea of white.”

Larissa is an Aboriginal woman of the Bundjalung nation, one of over 500 nations that make up present day Australia. “I took a seat at the back of the room. But before the opening speech had finished, I was out of there.”

But Larissa’s mark on climate activism didn’t end that day. Rather than turn her back on the group that organised the summit, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), she joined them.

Larissa volunteered with the AYCC to help coordinate PowerShift 2013 and make sure there were more ‘black fellas’ like her in the room. It was at PowerShift2013 that AYCC agreed it needed more than a handful of Aboriginal voices: it needed an exclusive sister organisation run for and by young Aboriginal activists.

And so, Seed, Australia’s first all-Indigenous youth climate network, was founded and Larissa was appointed National Co-Director.

Planting the seed for a movement
Larissa, now 29, studied a combined degree in Media Communications and Health Science at Queensland University of Technology, and after graduating was appointed Communications Relations Officer at the Stronger, Smarter Institute, an organisation that promoted Indigenous leadership in schools around Australia.

Larissa’s Co-Director is 22-year-old Amelia Telford who is also a Bundjalung woman. Amelia turned down a placement to study at UNSW Medical School to take up the reigns at Seed. “When I learnt that climate change was not only affecting the places I loved, but also people and our cultural heritage, I knew I had something to do about it,” says Amelia.

When the pair founded Seed, they made clear, “We want Aboriginal people to be able to continue to live on country.” Aboriginal people use ‘country’ to refer to the traditions of the region where an Aboriginal person lives or where their ancestors came from. Climate change is threatening the ancient way of life for Aboriginal people.

Bush fires now flare nearly all year round, draughts are more frequent, and floods are more catastrophic. And the 7,000 people who live in the Torres Strait Islands – between Australia’s north coast and the South of Papua New Guina – already have to reckon with rising sea levels.

“It's not a new concept that our people are the first environmentalists or the first conservationists," says Amelia. “It's always been a part of our culture and a part of who we are.”

How does Seed sprout change?
More than half of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are under 25. And with young Aboriginal activists right across Australia joining the network, Seed is continuing to grow.

Today, Seed employs a staff of 15 across fundraising, campaigning and an education team that tours high schools. But the network’s real power are thousands of volunteers across Australia, including in remote Indigenous communities. Among them are around 100 core volunteers who commit regular hours.

Seed teaches young Aboriginal people how to organize a demonstration, run a campaign, stage a media stunt, and start conversations about the need to act on the climate crisis. The organization’s effect branches out much further than climate activism, however.

“Seed doesn’t have the capacity to work on every issue facing young Aboriginal people,” says Larissa. “That’s why we make sure the training we deliver is transferable. If they can learn the skills to make change, they can use these skills to tackle: aboriginal youth suicide, housing issues, Aboriginal health, land rights, you name it.”

With so many abstract numbers and with its distant consequences, climate change can be hard to grasp and easy to dismiss. “Talking about the science of climate change is a really ‘white’ way of tackling climate change,” says Larissa Baldwin. “It doesn’t really work in Aboriginal communities where there’s a lower level education base and English might be someone’s fourth or fifth language.”

Larissa has a grasp of her native language, Widjabul, but there are around 150 Indigenous languages spoken throughout Australia.

“So we don’t talk about ‘climate change’, we talk about ‘protecting country’. And when you talk to Aboriginal people about it, they start listing off all these things that are impacts of climate change. We don’t have to convince them that climate change is real. They live on country. They see what most Australians don’t.”

Going out on a limb
Larissa says Seed learns a lot from AYCC, but many of the tactics the Australian Youth Climate Coalition use don’t work in Aboriginal communities. Just last year, for instance, AYCC’s campaign Dump Your Bank tried to persuade people to change banks if their bank was funding the expansion of fossil fuel mining. However, a lot of people in Aboriginal communities are on basics cards (social welfare) so they can’t move their money.

So Seed took a different approach. “We sent an email to 5,000 employees at all the major banks. We explained what it would mean to Aboriginal communities if mining projects went ahead on our land – mining projects funded by their employer.

We included a survey so we could gauge what bank employees cared about and the responses were incredible: there were people willing to quit their jobs if their banks didn’t stop funding the mines.

The banks couldn’t ignore their own employees, so they issued statements saying they would not fund the mines. That was a really successful campaign.”

 Seed is funded entirely by donations, including small cash donations, monthly donors, and major private donations. It is a founding principal of the organization to not accept any corporate or government sponsorship. This way they are free to put pressure wherever it’s needed.

Ancient roots, not holes in the ground
Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels. Larissa argues that Australia’s mining industry is not just the source of carbon emissions, but it is also a site of structural racism. “We reject that the only way for Aboriginal communities to gain economic advantage is to sell off our land to these companies.

And the only government investment that goes into our communities is earmarked for mining. We think that’s wrong. Mining is what people end up doing when they don’t have options.” To Seed, the climate crisis is also an opportunity to create a more just and sustainable world.

Larissa spoke in Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria recently. “We ran some workshops around employment options with the local people. Education and eco-tourism were the biggest interest areas we identified.” She went on, “The reason we are so well received in Aboriginal communities like Borroloola is because we never go in there trying to get something out of people.

We don’t actively discourage Aboriginal people from working in the mines or signing land use agreements.

We just try to make sure they have the knowledge to make the best choice. We go there to inform, to empower people to make their own choices.”


Banksters behind the Pipeline

SUBHEAD: Bank of America, HSBC, UBS, Goldman, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan et al are in for  $4billion.

By Amy Goodman on 6 September 2016 for Democracy Now!  -

Image above: Illustration "Oil is Bankrupting Our Future" in support of indigenous rights. From (


Over 1,000 people representing more than 100 tribes are gathered along the Cannonball River by the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to resist the construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. It’s been described as the largest unification of Native American tribes in decades.

On September 3, the Dakota Access pipeline company attacked Native Americans with dogs and pepper spray as they resisted the construction of the $3.8 billion pipeline on a sacred tribal burial site.

Saturday was also the first day of a two-week call for actions against the financial institutions that are bankrolling the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline project.

A new investigation has revealed that more than two dozen major banks and financial institutions are helping finance the Dakota Access pipeline. The investigation was published by the research outlet LittleSis.

It details how Bank of America, HSBC, UBS, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and other financial institutions have, combined, extended a $3.75 billion credit line to Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access. For more, we speak with the author of this investigation, Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher with Food & Water Watch.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! Well, Saturday was also the first day of a two-week call for actions against the financial institutions that are bankrolling the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline project. A new investigation has revealed more than two dozen major banks and financial institutions are helping finance the Dakota Access pipeline, the investigation published by the research outlet LittleSis. It details how Bank of America, HSBC, UBS, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and other financial institutions have, combined, extended a $3.75 billion credit line to Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access.

For more, we’re joined by the author of the investigation, Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher with Food & Water Watch.

Hugh, you only have a minute here; we’ll continue the conversation after the show and post it. But tell us what is most significant to understand. What companies and banks are responsible for this project?

HUGH MACMILLAN: Well, there’s too many to list in a minute, that’s for sure. It’s 30-plus, all told, on the order of 10 billion, that is backing the Energy Transfer family of companies. And really, this is a slice of the much larger fracking pie for these banks. These banks have succeeded in equating energy security in this country—in, more precisely, North America—with widespread fracking. And this action—you know, I think we can look forward to a history that is kind to the Sioux in helping us question whether that’s a good idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain who owns the Dakota Access pipeline company and Energy Transfer Partners?

HUGH MACMILLAN: Yes. So, behind this pipeline is—it’s a joint venture of joint ventures. It’s typically opaque. You have—the key players are a Energy Transfer family of companies. You have Marathon, you have Phillips 66, and you have Enbridge. Enbridge and Marathon both—both bought in just a month ago for $2 billion.

AMY GOODMAN: And the banks?

HUGH MACMILLAN: Well, the banks have set aside some $7.75 billion for the Energy Transfer family of companies. And through work with Rainforest Action Network, we also know that $2.5 billion has been provided specifically for this pipeline by some 17 different banks.

AMY GOODMAN: Hugh MacMillan—we’re going to have to leave it there; we’ll post the rest online—of Food & Water Watch. Special thanks to Laura Gottesdiener, John Hamilton and Denis Moynihan.

Banks pay for pipeline security

By Amy Goodman on 7 September 2016 for Democracy Now!  -


We continue our conversation with Hugh MacMillan on his new investigation revealing the financial institutions backing the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline project.

This is Part 2 of our conversation with Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher with Food & Water Watch.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

I’m Amy Goodman. In North Dakota, over a thousand people representing more than a hundred tribes are gathered along the Cannonball River by the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to resist the construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. It’s been described as the largest unification of Native American tribes in decades.

Well, this past weekend, on September 3rd, Labor Day weekend, the Dakota Access pipeline company attacked Native Americans with dogs and pepper spray as they resisted the construction of the $3.8 billion pipeline on a sacred tribal burial site.

Also, Saturday was the first day of a two-week call for actions against the financial institutions that are bankrolling the Dakota Access pipeline project. A new investigation has revealed more than two dozen major banks and financial institutions are helping finance the DAPL, the Dakota Access pipeline.

The investigation was published by the research outlet LittleSis. It details how Bank of America, HSBC, UBS, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and other financial institutions have, combined, extended a $3.75 billion credit line to Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access.

For more, we’re joined by the author of this investigation, Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher with Food & Water Watch.

Hugh, welcome to Democracy Now! This is Part 2 of our conversation. Tell us what’s most important to understand about the structure of the Dakota Access pipeline company.

HUGH MACMILLAN: Dakota Access, LLC, is a joint venture of Phillips 66 and a joint venture of two members of the Energy Transfer family—Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics.

Enbridge and Marathon Oil have bought into this, this joint venture. Together, they now have about a 37 percent stake in the pipeline, in the Dakota Access pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: How are the banks involved?

HUGH MACMILLAN: Well, that’s—they are banking on this company and banking on being able to drill and frack for the oil to send through the pipeline over the coming decades. So they’re providing the capital for the construction of this pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the banks are. Which banks are they? And how are they involved?

HUGH MACMILLAN: Well, I’ve got a list of the 17 banks that are specifically providing financing for this project. And it’s also coupled together with a Energy Transfer—Energy Transfer Partner project to convert an existing pipeline that would connect to the south end of the Dakota Access pipeline and run oil all the way down to the Gulf Coast, where there are refineries and also export infrastructure.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us that list of 17 banks?

HUGH MACMILLAN: I can. Citibank is the bank that’s been running the books on the project, and that’s the bank that beat the bushes and got other banks to join in. So, we have Wells Fargo, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Mizuho Bank, TD Securities, ABN AMRO Capital, DNB First Bank—and that’s actually a bank based in Philly; it’s not the DNB Bank based in Norway, which is actually provided several hundred million to the Energy Transfer family separately—and ICBC London, SMBC Nikko Securities and Société Générale.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, it’s Citibank—is that right?—that’s running the books, as the report points out, for Energy Transfer and Sunoco Logistics, which own the Dakota Access pipeline?

HUGH MACMILLAN: That’s right, by and large. So they have the largest share, and they’ve spearheaded the effort. So, what we published in LittleSis was the 30-plus banks that have provided general financing for Sunoco Logistics and Energy Transfer Partners.

Through working with Rainforest Action Network, we were able to—who has access to Bloomberg Terminal, we were able to determine these 17 banks that I just listed, who are providing the direct financing for the Dakota Access project and, in addition, for an Energy Transfer Partners project to extend this pipeline on down to Texas. So, collectively, this pipeline would run from near the Canadian border on down to the Gulf Coast of Texas over 1,800 miles.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just talking to an oil trucker in the plane back from North Dakota, and he trucks from the Bakken fields to other areas of North Dakota, just locally. And he said it is stunning to see the drop in demand for oil just in this past year. He has been trucking for four years. What about this decline in demand and what this will mean?

HUGH MACMILLAN: Well, you know, if you ask Morgan Stanley, they said a year ago that the oil producers are getting into prison shape—and without irony. So, you know, this is a long-term—these are long-term investments from the banks. There’s fully the—they fully expect the United States to maximize its production of oil and gas through widespread fracking.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, "prison shape"?

HUGH MACMILLAN: Well, I have a note here. They explain that "Some prisoners"—and I quote—"contrive clever equipment in workouts that result in fitness levels that surpass the traditional gym shape." And so they’re speaking in—they’re drawing an analogy to prisoners getting in good shape, drawing an analogy from that to oil and gas companies, fracking companies, learning how to do things more cheaply and more efficiently.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Hugh MacMillan, as we wrap up, what do you think is most important for people to understand about the corporate structure of the company, Dakota Access pipeline, that is building the Dakota Access pipeline?

HUGH MACMILLAN: Well, I think it’s important to see the forces behind this particular pipeline as the same forces behind numerous other pipelines across the country, both for—both to support fracking for tight oil as well as fracking for shale gas, all toward maximizing production of oil and gas, when the science is clear that we need to maximize what we keep in the ground. Our current policy has not made that switch.

And if you look at the Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Technology Review published a year ago, you’ll see, under clean energy technologies, permeability manipulation is included, along with improved understanding of well integrity and improved understanding of injections and how they’re causing earthquakes, such as occurred over the weekend. The Quadrennial—

AMY GOODMAN: In Oklahoma.

HUGH MACMILLAN: That’s right, in Oklahoma. The Quadrennial Technology Review speaks of a future mastery of the subsurface toward maximizing production.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Hugh MacMillan, I want to thank you for being with us, senior researcher at Food & Water Watch, author of the recent investigation, "Who’s Banking on the Dakota Access Pipeline?" We will link to that report at I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

Go to Part 2: New Investigation Names Wall Street Banks Behind $3.8 Billion Dakota Access Pipeline


Pipeline temporarily halted

SUBHEAD: Dakota Access Pipeline construction temporarily halted as protests rage.

By Ryon Koronowski on 6 September 2016 for Think Progress -

Image above: Jon Don Ilone Reed, an Army veteran and member of South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, at an oil pipeline protest near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in southern North Dakota, Aug. 25, 2016. Reed said he fought in Iraq and is now fighting “fighting for our children and our water.” Photo by James McPherson. From original article.

The emergency court hearing followed a weekend of protests that turned violent in North Dakota.

A federal judge brokered a temporary agreement in an emergency hearing over the construction of the Bakken pipeline, or Dakota Access pipeline.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe agreed to the deal along with the pipeline’s builders, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers. It halts construction on some, but not all, of the 1,172-mile pipeline that would pump oil from the fracked shale deposits in North Dakota to an oil hub in Illinois.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg partially halted construction until he reached a more complete decision on Friday. But the judge did not halt work from progressing on nearby private land.

An attorney for the tribe said it is grateful for the partial stoppage but “disappointed that some of the important sacred sites that we had found and provided evidence for will not be protected.”

The fight over the pipeline’s construction has prompted protests that turned violent over the weekend. Construction crew bulldozers went 20 miles out of their way to demolish sacred sites along the pipeline’s pathway in North Dakota, according to Tim Mentz, former historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

When protesters demonstrated near the construction site on Saturday morning, private security officers hired by the pipeline’s owner, Energy Transfer Partners, confronted them with dogs and pepper spray.

Injuries were reported on both sides, with some security personnel and dogs suffering minor injuries, and several protesters reporting injuries from dog bites, including a child and a pregnant woman. Dozens reported being pepper sprayed.

The tribe has gone to court to challenge the permits granted by the Army Corps of Engineers, and while the Corps has not changed its opinion about the way in which the permits were granted, they did agree Monday that a restraining order against Dakota Access LLC was warranted.

Mentz said that the tribe’s historical preservation experts had only recently been granted access to private land that would be disturbed by construction when, after a short examination, they found signs of burial rock cairns of historic significance.

The Dakota Access pipeline would carry oil across four states from North Dakota to Illinois through South Dakota and Iowa, cost $3.8 billion to construct, and enable higher production from the Bakken Formation. This shale deposit became the center of the U.S. fracking boom last decade, though production has slowed as global oil prices have dropped.

“On Saturday, Dakota Access Pipeline and Energy Transfer Partners brazenly used bulldozers to destroy our burial sites, prayer sites and culturally significant artifacts,” Tribal Chairman David Archambault II said.

“They did this on a holiday weekend, one day after we filed court papers identifying these sacred sites. The desecration of these ancient places has already caused the Standing Rock Sioux irreparable harm. We’re asking the court to halt this path of destruction.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a temporary restraining order on Sunday following the violent altercation on Saturday.

Protesters made their position clear outside the U.S. District Court building in Washington, DC during the emergency hearing.


Native Americans attacked with dogs

SUBHEAD: Dakota Access Pipeline Company attacks Native American protesters with dogs and pepper spray.

By Amy Goodman on 3 September 2016 for Democracy Now! -

Image above: Dog used by private security for pipeline construction company used to attack Native Americans attempting to stop bulldozers. Still fame from video below.

On September 3, the Dakota Access pipeline company attacked Native Americans with dogs and pepper spray as they protested against the $3.8 billion pipeline’s construction.

If completed, the pipeline would carry about 500,000 barrels of crude per day from North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield to Illinois.

The project has faced months of resistance from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and members of nearly 100 more tribes from across the U.S. and Canada.

Video above: Democracy Now! was on the ground at Saturday’s action and brings you Amy Goodman reporting from demonstration at site of North Dakota Access Pipeline. From (

Violence at Standing Rock Reservation 
 SUBHEAD: Construction for the North Dakota Access Pipeline was halted through nonviolent direct action.

By Cody Hall  on 3 September 2016 for Red Warrior -

Video above: Democracy Now! was on the ground at Saturday’s action and brings you Amy Goodman reporting from demonstration at site of North Dakota Access Pipeline. From (

Today, as we offered prayers to commemorate the 153rd anniversary of the Whitestone Hill Massacre against the Ihanktonwan Dakota peoples on the banks of the Cannon Ball River, a call to action was made to stand and block bulldozers as they plowed through an area containing ancient burial and cultural sites.

At approximately 3 pm, water protectors successfully stopped Dakota Access pipeline construction as it reached Hwy 1806 through nonviolent direct action and mass assembly.

In that process, private security employed by Dakota Access, LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, deployed vicious attack dogs, pepper spray and physical assault against the water protectors. According to the most recent update, 6 water protectors were bitten by dogs, a dozen or more pepper sprayed and numerous were physically assaulted; which included women.

It was reported that a North Dakota state patrol helicopter was flying overhead during the attack.
"The only comment I have is that people trespassed and workers were hurt." stated an unidentified North Dakota State Trooper after the incident. When pressed about the use of excessive force and attack dogs by a private security firm, the trooper referred reporters to the Morton County Sheriff.

This latest action comes one day after the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe submitted additional findings to the federal court to further support their case against the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

Tribal historian Tim Mentz was invited to survey the property of a landowner whose land is in the pipeline corridor. In his statement to the court, Mentz states that his survey located at least 27 burials, 16 stone rings, 19 effigies and other features in or adjacent to the pipeline corridor.

Mentz also stated that there are some features that are "unquestionably" eligible for listing under the National Historic Preservation Act.

The call for support was made by a Lakota Vietnam combat veteran who happened to come upon the destruction of the sacred sites area, just one mile north of the encampment.

We felt the need to protect these significant sacred and cultural sites on the land, because neither Dakota Access LLC or the U.S. federal government is not protecting them.

Red Warrior Camp was nonviolent and unarmed throughout this action. We will remain nonviolent and unarmed. We ask supporters to do so as well.

Additionally, we ask that supporters keep the attention on the fact that Energy Transfer Partners feels justified in using this level of force against unarmed and nonviolent water protectors AND the state officers that are sworn to protect the people allowed it.

We are calling for ALL water warriors around the world to come stand with us. If you are not able to join us physically, we ask that you join us in prayer and commit to our Weeks of Global Solidarity Actions from September 3-17, 2016.

Red Warrior Camp will update as we obtain further information.

#NODAPL #rezpectourwater #nojusticenopeace #waterislife #nativelivesmatter #wearethemedia #redwarriorcamp

A pleasant lull

SUBHEAD: We’d rather crash and burn than change anything about our behavior, or even our perception.

By James Kunstler on 5 September 2016 for -

Image above: Illustration of a classic backyard American holiday barbecue. From (

A pleasant lull lies over the land where today fewer people labor honestly — and some labor gruelingly for too little — while a matrix of rackets sustains the illusion that our living arrangements have a future.

Is Quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the minds of the millions moiling around their backyard barbeques?

I applaud his refusal to stand for the national anthem, though not for the reasons he stated. Rather, because I’m sick of vulgar symbolism in a dark moment of a fraying culture that demands more than cheap talk and lame gestures.

In case you’re wondering, the reason we’re subject to all these repetitions of The Star Spangled Banner is not for love-of-country but something quite the opposite: the fear that its promises are empty.

Ever wonder why every public official in the land has to wear a flag lapel pin? Should it be necessary for the president of the US to signal his devotion to duty?

Wouldn’t we normally just assume this to be the case?

No, it signals the widespread and generalized anxiety that the national condition is dire and that we don’t have the confidence or the clarity to face the challenges of the time. President Obama might as well wear a crucifix or a bulb of garlic in his lapel.

In this presidential election year especially, Labor Day serves as a sort of collective deep breath before the plunge into a season of political anguish. The number of potential voters disgusted with the choice between two clueless monsters of egotism must be epic.

If WalMart held a sale on bullshit filters, they might stand a chance of turning a Q3 profit. Otherwise, expect economic performance to be increasingly frightening even if The New York Times and CNN continue to spin out tales of unicorns jumping rainbows.

Events, not personalities, are going to demonstrate where things are at in the late-stage techno-industrial crack-up at hand. The shamans at the Federal Reserve have exhausted their repertoire of incantations for levitating the financial markets and, more ominously, the value of the US dollar.

The prankish god they serve has arranged things so that the very faith needed to sustain their illusory influence will run down the drain as November 8 creeps closer. They must be getting awfully nervous down at the Eccles Building.

The sudden bankruptcy of South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping Company ought to send shivers down the scaly spines of globalism’s cheerleaders. Fragility is everywhere in this unraveling network of gigantic, far-flung promises and obligations.

The former middle class of America has lost its ability to absorb anymore smart phones or Kardashian brand Pure Glitz hairspray©. They’re pacing grooves in the faux hardwood floors of their McHomes through reams of unpayable bills trying to stave off the re-po squad while Grandma slips into a diabetic coma.

These are the good folks who supposedly comprise 70 percent of the so-called economy, a.k.a. “consumers.” You can stick a fork in them — and maybe we’ll hear a few reports of that on Tuesday when the holiday barbeques smolder their last.

More concerning, though, are the conditions of the banks. When their true insolvency is revealed — which may coincide with the height of the election season — look out below.

The bankruptcy of one measly shipping company will look like a zit on the ass of a diving blue whale as countless trade operations seize up for lack of confidence that they will ever be paid. Then what?

Then we are forced to pay attention to the actual dynamics now at work in the world. Or be driven crazy by our refusal to get with the program. I tend to think we’ll opt for the latter.

We’re too unused to reality. We’d rather crash and burn than change anything about our behavior, or even our perception.

Both Trump and Hillary are perfect avatars for this date with a hard landing. The disorder both of them are capable of inducing will be a spectacle for the ages.


Hanjin shipping bankruptcy

SUBHEAD: Just-in-time is very efficient financially (until it isn't). But just-in-time is not very resilient.

By  Kurt Cobb on 4 September 2016 for Resource Insights -

Image above: Hanjin container ship "Hanjin China" underqway with containers. From (

We are about to learn once again that lack of resilience is the flip side of efficiency. The world's seventh largest shipping firm, Korean-based Hanjin Shipping Co. Ltd., failed to rally the support of its creditors last week and was forced to file for bankruptcy.

Retailers and manufacturers worldwide are in a bit of a panic as the fate of goods on Hanjin ships shifts into the hands of courts and lawyers for creditors intent on seizing Hanjin assets in order to ensure payment of outstanding bills. Much of Hanjin's fleet is chartered, that is, owned by others, and those owners want to make sure they get paid their charter fees or get their ships back pronto.

The result has been that half of Hanjin's container vessels are currently blocked from the world's ports for fear that the ports will not be paid for their loading and unloading services. Other shippers which include trucking companies which carry containers to their final destination are reluctant to take on Hanjin freight for fear of not getting paid. (You are perhaps seeing the main theme here.)

Meanwhile, the sudden drop in available shipping containers and ships has caused shipping rates to soar as businesses scramble to make other arrangements for items still to be shipped.

U.S. retailers are so panicked that they have asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to step in to help resolve the breakdown which is likely to hurt those retailers during the upcoming Christmas shopping season.

Let's take a step back to understand how this all happened. Clever business owners have learned to run so-called "lean" operations to compete with their equally lean competitors.

One way to be lean is to reduce idle inventories which just sit in expensive warehouses by arranging to have what the business needs delivered practically every day. The approach is often referred to as a warehouse on wheels and also as just-in-time delivery.

With little or no inventory of essential goods and raw materials retailers and manufacturers are subject to disruptions all along their supply chains which reach around the globe. A breakdown at any step can quickly bring activity to a halt on the factory floor or on the sales floor.

Just-in-time is very efficient financially (until, of course, it isn't). Little money is tied up in inventories or the space to warehouse them. But just-in-time is not very resilient. It used to be that businesses stockpiled goods and critical resources to ensure against disruptions.

But the advent of computerized tracking combined with more efficient shipping practices worked to end the stockpiling of inventories.

I wrote about the vulnerabilities of just-in-time delivery systems back in 2006, 2008 and updated the 2006 piece in 2011. My suggestion back in 2006 that just-in-time systems were likely to recede in the wake of repeated shocks has proven to be premature.

But the wisdom of running hospitals, for instance, on just-in-time supply principles seems foolhardy. It seems logical for hospitals as emergency facilities to be prepared for a mass catastrophe (earthquake, hurricane, etc.) with substantial medical supplies.

Along these lines, does a three-day supply of food now available in most metropolises seem like wise planning?

The Hanjin bankruptcy also calls into the question the wisdom of allowing so much freight--7.8 percent of all trans-Pacific U.S. freight--to be handled by one carrier. And yet large size and just-in-time systems create what economists like to call economies of scale. Goods and services are provided more cheaply.

But such systems are not resilient. Resilience often requires redundancy and that spells inefficiency in today's business climate. It is, however, what we see in nature. Humans have two kidneys, but can survive with just one. Some genes are redundant, able to perform the same functions. There are 4,186 known species of diving beetles, lots of redundancy to ensure survival and biodiversity.

Two organizations worldwide practice redundancy on a major scale. Space exploration agencies build multiple redundant systems, especially for manned flight, to ensure the survival of spaceships, probes and people. Space exploration is so hazardous that even these redundancies don't always ensure survival as the loss of two space shuttles has shown.

The world's militaries also practice redundancy to ensure survivability and deterrence. The United States, for example, continues to maintain a trio of nuclear armaments on land, on and under the sea and in the air at all times on the theory that in order to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent, the U.S. military must have nuclear arsenals that are difficult to destroy in a first strike.

If some of those arsenals are deep in the oceans in nuclear submarines or on bombers in flight, some of those will likely survive to strike back--though sane people will ask what of human civilization will be left after such an exchange.

And when it comes to oil, the lifeblood of the world economy, countries across the globe now have what are called strategic petroleum reserves, oil reserves controlled by or mandated by governments to ensure against disruption of oil deliveries.

All of these redundancies would be considered "inefficient" in the business world. But they create much more resilient systems. Tightly networked systems with little redundancy such as the worldwide logistics system we now live under are highly efficient but vulnerable to widespread breakdowns from small hiccups. What seems rational on the surface is deeply irrational underneath.

The Hanjin bankruptcy is unlikely to bring down the world logistics system. At most it will shutter some factories temporarily and result in store shelves that are a little less diverse this fall. But the Hanjin affair will make clear that efficiency does not always come cheap, and that efficient systems are only efficient if they function continuously.

Should the pressures we saw in 2008 return, we may wish that just-in-time systems had been abandoned or least modified so as not to create the large and cascading disruptions that are an inevitable cost of such "efficiency." And should the financial uncertainty experienced at the end of 2008 after the financial crash return, we may find far more Hanjins filing for bankruptcy and far more serious disruptions occurring than we are experiencing today.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Europe revolts against TTIP

SUBHEAD: United States faces major trade negotiation setback as Europeans revolt against TTIP.

By Andrei Akulov on 4 September 2016 for Strategic Culture -

Image above: Europeans demonstrate against American corporatism of TTIP. From original article.

France wants to halt thorny EU-US trade talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) as President Francois Hollande underlined there would be no deal until after President Barack Obama leaves office in January. Matthias Fekl, the French minister for foreign trade, has said his country will call for an end to the deal.

France has been sceptical about the TTIP from the start and has threatened to block the deal, arguing the US has offered little in return for concessions made by Europe. All 28 EU member states and the European parliament will have to ratify the TTIP before it comes into force.

The statements came just a couple of days after German economy minister Sigmar Gabriel had said talks for TTIP had de facto failed. Gabriel, who leads Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic party and is vice-chancellor in the coalition government, said Europe mustn’t submit to the American proposals.

Mr. Gabriel’s statement is in contrast with the position of Chancellor Angela Merkel who supports the deal. Meanwhile, the US-German conflicts are growing. US courts and authorities took a hard line against the Volkswagen Group, Germany’s largest car manufacturer, in relation to its exhaust scandal. In a deal that does not include all damage claims, VW is required to pay up to 13.6 billion euros.

There is a growing chorus in Germany saying that the country should orientate more to Asia. This perspective shared by the organizers of the anti-TTIP lobby, including the German Trade Union Federation (DGB), the Left Party and the Greens.

The fact that former British Prime Minister David Cameron – an outspoken proponent of TTIP – is no longer involved in negotiations is another major setback for the deal, which at this point is believed by many to be dead in the water.

TTIP negotiations have been ongoing since 2013 in an effort to establish a massive free trade zone that would eliminate many tariffs. After 14 rounds of talks that have lasted three years not a single common item out of the 27 chapters being discussed has been agreed on.

The United States has refused to agree on an equal playing field between European and American companies in the sphere of public procurement sticking to the principle of «buy American».

The opponents of the deal believe that in its current guise the TTIP is too friendly to US businesses. One of the main concerns with TTIP is that it could allow multinational corporations to effectively «sue» governments for taking actions that might damage their businesses.

Critics claim American companies might be able to avoid having to meet various EU health, safety and environment regulations by challenging them in a quasi-court set up to resolve disputes between investors and states.

In Europe thousands of people supported by society groups, trade unions and activists take to the streets expressing protest against the deal.

Three million people have signed a petition calling for it to be scrapped. For instance, various trade unions and other groups have called for protests against the TTIP across Germany to take place on September 17. A trade agreement with Canada has also come under attack.

US presidential candidate Donald Trump has promoted protectionist trade policies, while rival Hillary Clinton has also cast doubt on the TTIP deal. Congressional opposition has become steep. The lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have railed against free trade agreements as unfair to US companies and workers.

These developments take place against the background of another major free trade agreement - the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) - hitting snags on the way to being pushed through Congress. The chances are really slim

The likely failure will be a great setback undermining the US credibility in the Asia Pacific region and the world. According to Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for America’s friends and partners, ratifying the trade pact was a litmus test for US credibility and seriousness of purpose.

Both deals have been problematic, primarily because they contain clauses that would allow corporations to sue sovereign nations and are seen as a US attempt to assert political, diplomatic and corporate influence.

As illustrated above, even Americans reject them, blaming the North American Free Trade Agreement for the exodus of American manufacturing to cheaper destinations. But the failure to push through both agreements will put into doubt the US status of global superpower.

Inside the US wealth inequality is growing.

Student loans are up. So too are food stamps and health insurance costs. In the meantime, labor force participation, home ownership and median family incomes have plummeted. The US government's $19 trillion debt is a huge problem.

Long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have exacted an enormous price - immense financial expense, estimated to be as high as $6 trillion (£3.9tn). The detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, as well as the NSA and Wikileaks spying scandals, have undermined the belief in American values and American diplomacy.

The defense expenditure is huge, but its effectiveness is questioned. «We’re in a dramatic crisis now. There is no question that we’re capable against the threats on the counter-terrorism side, but we’ve reached a point where we’re in fact—not heading towards—but we’re already hollow against a high-end threat, said House Armed Services Committee majority staff director Bob Simmons speaking before an audience at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on June 21.

We lack the capacity and capability that we need to effectively deter on the high-end.

Among the foreign policy disasters in the Middle East, the rise of the Muslim extremists in several nations has created a crisis for all of the West, including the United States but most immediately and especially for refugee-swamped Europe.

The West is reaping the results of America’s foreign policy failures as it struggles to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring out of Syria and the Middle East.

>There is scant evidence that this century the US has achieved any progress pursuing its foreign policy goals. And while the US has stagnated, some countries, like Russia, China and many others, have prospered. This combination of decline at home and rise abroad has reduced America’s international power markedly.

At the turn of the century few argued when the 20th century was dubbed the «American Century». Over the past 16 years, America's fortunes have changed with dizzying speed. The safer bet is that the 21st century will not be America’s. The TTIP’s rejection by European leaders and grass roots’ protests against the agreement testify to the fact.

Kauai General Plan Update

SUBHEAD: The Planning Dept and Opticos Design Inc has presided over a complete failure to produce a new plan for our future.

By Juan Wilson on 3 September 2016 for Island Breath -
Image above: Page 37 from Kauai Plan Closing Workshop on Hanapepe-Eleele showing the expansion of the Urban Neighborhood center, Neighborhood General, Neighborhood Edge and Residential Community "doubling" in area, indicating a doubling of population planned for this area. this will eliminate vast areas of the best potential acreage for growing food near the current residents of Hanapepe-Eleele. From (

For some background on this issue see:
(Ea O Ka Aina: Kauai Plan Disappoints) 9/12/15
(Ea O Ka Aina: Lihue loss of vision) 9/5/14)

When I moved to Hawaii in 2000 Kauai County issued the Kauai General Plan. It was produced with community participation in 1998-99 and was actually a pretty good effort. It can still be found on the County website at (

The plan looked ahead twenty years and hoped to guide planning over that period in an alignment with the hopes and wishes of the residents of the island. The take away from the 2000 Plan was "Keep Kauai Rural!".  To those on Kauai involved with the plan that meant, NOT urban and NOT suburban! "Chapter 2: Community Values" stated:

The Community Values were formulated by the Citizens Advisory Committee, using input from 25 outreach meetings with a variety of community, business and public interest groups.

The statement was revised based on public review and the initial round of Planning District
meetings in June 1998.
  • Protection, management, and enjoyment of our open spaces, unique natural beauty, rural lifestyle, outdoor recreation and parks.
  • Conservation of fishing grounds and other natural resources, so that individuals and families can support themselves through traditional gathering and agricultural activities.

  • Access to and along shorelines, waterways and mountains for all. However, access should be controlled where necessary to conserve natural resources and to maintain the quality of public sites for fishing, hunting, recreation and wilderness activities valued by the local community.

  • Recognition that our environment IS our economy, our natural capital, the basis of our economic survival and success.
  • Balanced management of our built environment, clustering new development around existing communities and maintaining the four story height limit.
  • Diverse job and business opportunities so that people of all skill levels and capabilities can support themselves and their families.

  • Government that supports and encourages business.
  • Balanced economic growth development promoting providing good jobs and a strong economy, without sacrificing our environment and or our quality of life.
  • Respect and protection for the values and rights of our many cultures, in compliance with our laws and responsibilities as citizens.
  • Preservation of our cultural, historical, sacred and archeological sites.
  • Appreciation and support for the traditions of the Native Hawaiian host culture and the many other cultural traditions and values that make up the Kauai community.

Those were the community values that would guide planning going forward to 2020. The vision forward forward was also in Chapter 2:

The Vision describes conditions on Kauai in the year 2020 and is written from the standpoint of that point in time. It reflects not only the Community Values but also the issues and opportunities foreseen by community members. The Vision expresses what Kauai should strive for, in the context of realistic conditions as they are understood in 1999.

The Vision is presented first in summary, then in a longer narrative. We envision that in 2020 Kauai will be . . .
  • a “garden island” of unsurpassed natural beauty;

  • a rural environment of towns separated by broad open spaces;

  • a vital modern society formed by the people and traditions of many cultures;an island of distinctly individual towns and communities, each with its own unique history and character;

  • a community which values its historic places and where people practice and draw strength from ancient languages and cultural traditions;

  • a rural place whose population size and economy have been shaped to sustain Kauai's natural beauty, rural environment and lifestyle;

  • a community which cares for its land and waters, leading the way with best management practices in the development of roads and other public facilities and in its land development and environmental regulations;

  • an agricultural center, producing a wide range of crops, food, and forest products for local consumption and export;
  • a resort destination where visitors are welcomed, supported with adequate facilities, and provided with a variety of cultural and recreational opportunities;

  • a resort destination whose government and industry leaders respect the island’s residents and their need to have a community life where visitors are not always present and who find effective ways to protect residents’ customary use of special places for religious and cultural observances, fishing, gathering, hunting and recreation;
  • and an island whose government supports the labor force and small business owners, firmly holding to essential policies and regulations while eliminating unnecessary red tape.

In fact the Kauai General Plan 2000 was too good for the land speculators and project developers intent on making a killing in Kauai real estate aided and abetted by county employees and public servants. So, as a result, the General Plan was put on a shelf and ignored.

Ten years after the work done to put together the General Plan, a wave of dicey real estate deals were frothing through the American economy. Kauai had more than its share. Over ten thousand units of speculative condos, timeshares, and residents were moving forward in places like Poipu and Kapaa.

Fortunately for those on Kauai who don't live here for the nightlife, shopping opportunities and traffic; that real estate bubble crashed before totally engulfing Kauai with suburban sprawl like Mililani, Oahu or Kihei, Maui, where traffic congestion and national franchises rule the land.

The County Planning Department has recently been involved in a process to update the plan looking forward another generation.  To do this they conducted community meetings around the island and hired a planning consulting firm, Opticos Design, Incorporated. The city of Flagstaff, Arizona used this same firm for its 2011 zoning update. The Flagstaff website tells the tale:
The intent of the new Zoning Code was to not only update and modernize the Code, but also to create regulations that reinforce the community's desires as expressed in the Regional Plan to promote Sustainable Development practices and Smart Growth principles.
For those of you who don't know planning jargon Sustainable Development translates to DEVELOPMENT and Smart Growth translates to GROWTH.

When I looked at the current effort that Opticos Design that is detailed online the first thing that caught my attention was the url that's a commercial domain. Not a ".org" or even more appropriately a ".info". The ".info" is for credible resource websites ("org".edu" and ".gov." are other non commercial designations). Whereas the ".com" (and ".biz") are reserved for commercial enterprises. Why would an online public planning effort be a commercial enterprise?

The Plan Kauai website seems to avoid telling you what it is really up to. There is a lot of "eye candy" layout and graphics and "feel good" pictures of local sites and residents. But the planning substance is hard to find, incomplete and poor in quality.

A simplistic concept of concentric levels of density around core "urban centers" has been used to explain and rationalize filling out every community on the island with denser development. Some of these "urban centers" are not much more than four corners with a stop sign.

Opticos Designs website reports on the planning effort are not up to date.

Below are links to four of the latest planning documents for different parts of the island. I challenge Kauai residents to find this information on the Plan Kauai website. Obviously eastside Lihue-Hanamaulu and the southside Koloa-Kalaheo areas are not listed below (and it seems unavailable to the public for review this late in the game). By the way, each of the PDF files below are more than half identical boilerplate for the first 30 so so pages.

Waimea to Kekaha:

Hanapepe to Eleele:

Wailua to Anahola:

Kilauea to Hanalei:

I recently wrote to my colleagues on the Executive Committee of the Kauai Group Sierra Club

Fellow Ex Comm Members:

I reviewed the final Kauai Plan Closing Workshops proposals this morning. I looked in some detail at the Westside, because I know it best. That includes Hanapepe-Eleele, Waimea-Kekaha.

As far as I am concerned the plans are a complete failure. They do not address the future, but look to the trajectories of the past and decided the best course was to continue on the same path we are on and step on the gas.

Development, Growth, Suburbanization are their guides and Sustainability,  Self-reliance, Food Security are unmentioned.

Also unmentioned are Global Warming, Climate Change and Ocean Rising.

Even pretending this is a serious effort on the part of our Planning Department is an insult to planning.

I’ll give you example closest to my home of a “total failure” of planning in Hanapepe Valley. The area I live in is designated by the State of Hawaii as “Rural”. Not “Urban” or “Agricultural”. It is heavily wooded and has acres of taro, pasture, and small farms. There are residences and junkyards.

Food is produced here, birds have forested refuge and there are horses, goats, pigs, domestic chickens and hunting dogs. Much of this would not be happening in a urban or even suburban development.

The General Plan proposal for the area I live in is for filling in more residential suburban development like Hanapepe Heights and Eleele. Both totally unsustainable living areas. This plan if implemented would destroy the old Hawaiian style way of living in a valley in Hawaii.

The motto of the previous Kauai Plan was "Keep Kauai rural!” Obviously, that idea was thrown under the bus by the Planning Department.

I recommend the Sierra Club reject this update of the Kauai General Plan.
 Juan Wilson: Architect-Planner

In the case of where I live in Hanapepe-Eleele this planning approach would result in doubling the developed area and population of the community in 20 years. I think if this criteria is used throughout Kauai for planning the island could not be self-sustainable.

Moreover, in the future  when imported fresh vegetable and frozen food are no longer routinely available from the mainland our outer islands of Hawaii will be required to not only sustain themselves but also support the currently unsustainable population of Oahu.

Not if, but when the current model of international global marketing fails, we in Hawaii will greatly regret doubling the needed  carrying capacity of our islands. Kamaaina (people raised locally) translates in Hawaiian to the "fruit of the land". Hawaiian culture places human communities a subset of the local watershed based biosphere. or "ahupuaa".

Nature cannot be a subset of human activity. That way lies apocalypse.


Mni Wiconi! Water is Life!

SUBHEAD: No oil pipeline! To indigenous Lakota protecting the water is equal to saving the world.

By By Kelly Hayes & Deseree Kane on 3 September 2016 for TruthOut -

Image above: Dale American Horse shackled himself to construction equipment at the North Dakota Access Pipeline construction site on Native American Lakota Territory. Photo by Deseree Kane from original article.

On Wednesday, the struggle waged by Indigenous Water Protectors against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline raged on when a surprise act of civil disobedience halted construction for 6.5 hours.

Dale American Horse, known to community members as Happi, played a pivotal role in the action by using a blockade apparatus to attach himself to a piece of equipment, forcing a shutdown of all construction equipment in the area. For hours, officials attempted to remove Happi in a variety of dangerous ways that included the use of a reciprocating saw -- which is not a precision tool -- and an ill-conceived effort to lift Happi with a hydraulic crane.

As thousands of Natives from around the country continue to gather and rally at Standing Rock, it has become clear that a historic stand worthy of song and story is being made in North Dakota.

The first proposed path of the Dakota Access pipeline was scrapped, in response to complaints that it would endanger the drinking water of North Dakota's capital. The route was subsequently revised, such that the pipeline would cross the Missouri River -- a half-mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

This exercise in erasure and Native disposability has been squarely rejected both by the Standing Rock Sioux and by Natives who have flocked from around the country to join their cause.

For those who are paying attention, the question of whether or not Indigenous peoples can repel the Dakota Access pipeline has begun to embody one of the larger questions of our time: Will non-Native people finally hear Indigenous voices, and help shift the course of history?

It's no secret that all life on Earth stands imperiled, during a period that many scientists have described as the world's sixth mass extinction event.

We have been told, again and again, that our entire way of living and our entire culture of energy dependence must be transformed if we are to have any hope. And yet, greed has kept us on a global collision course with catastrophe.

At Standing Rock, the camps that have formed to stop the pipeline carry many lessons. They carry the wisdom of elders. They carry the stories of struggles past. They hold the vibrancy of their youth who have stepped into struggle for the first time. And Wednesday, they carried the power of a fierce resistance.

Happi's mother, Cheryl Angel, who supported her son's choice to get arrested in the action, explained in an interview, "Sometimes you have to put yourself out there if you want people to understand what you're doing. It seems like the state of North Dakota doesn't understand that the people who have lived here for a millennia have a relationship with water."

Across the Earth, Indigenous peoples are leading struggles to hold back humanity's assault on the natural world. In North Dakota, protesters -- some of whom prefer to be called "Water Protectors" -- are using prayer, community building, art and action to make the world at large aware of their struggle to preserve what they cherish.

"Water is sacred to us. We use it every day not just to live, but for ceremonies, for spiritual cleansing, for healing and for blessing," said Angel.

Image above: Dale North Dakota State police move in, telling Water Protectors that they are obstructing a governmental function. Officers yell, "Move or you're going to jail" as community members lock arms. Moments later there were multiple arrests. Photo by Deseree Kane from original article.

A total of eight Water Protectors were arrested over the course of Wednesday's action. While awaiting her son's release, Angel spoke of his sacrifice as being grounded in a cultural understanding of water, and our human relationship with the Earth.

"In our Lakota language we use the word Mni Wiconi, which means 'water is life.' Protecting the water is equal to saving the world. I honor that, Happi honors that. Everyone standing with Standing Rock understands that no one can live without water."

Who does what in the soil

SUBHEAD: Part 3 of The Cosmos, the Earth, and Your Health – The Story of Soil.

By Toby Hemenway on 29 August 2016 for Toby Hemenway -

Image above: Healthy soil can't help but support life. Photo by Jack the Lizard. From (

In the first two episodes of this series on how soil is formed, we’ve been operating at the cosmic level, talking about the how the elements of life were molded during the Big Bang, inside stars, and in explosive supernovae. It’s time to come back to earth, and to reverse scales from the mind-bogglingly large to the infinitesimally small.

When we left our story, the main actors had taken their places on stage; the elements critical for life had formed. Now, as we wait for the curtain to rise, we can look at the playbill to see who these characters are and why they are so beautifully suited for their roles in creating life and building soil.

We can divide the elements of life and soil into two main categories based on how they behave and what roles their structure allows them to play. (I say “in life and soil” because the two are virtually identical: Soil is where most life comes from, and there are almost no elements needed for life that can’t be found in healthy soil.)

The first category is a batch that chemists call “main-group elements” because how they cluster in a large group in the periodic table. The main-group elements involved in soil include carbon, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. These are, obviously, major players in story of soil, and copious amounts of all of them get cycled around by living things.

A second group of elements are less abundant in life, but are every bit as crucial in living processes because of their hyperactive, social-butterfly qualities.

They are members of a group that chemists call “transition metals.” That word “transition” hints at the shape-shifting nature of their character that makes them so dynamic and able to play multiple roles in living things.

They include iron, nickel, copper, zinc, manganese, cobalt, and molybdenum. There are many more transition metals, but those seven are the most common and the ones whose roles in life we know best.

I’ll give you some brief biographies of the major players to show what role they fill in life and likewise in soil.

Carbon, that’s a word that’s constantly in the news these days, and often not in a good way. But carbon has been at the center of events long before the fossil-fuel era. It’s hard to conceive of life that isn’t based on carbon.

That’s because it is uniquely multi-functional among all the elements. It comes in several forms; soft graphite, hard diamond, soot, and nanotech inspiring fullerenes are each pure carbon, and each has wildly different qualities from the others.

Carbon can construct nearly 10 million known compounds, vastly more than any other element.

And although a few other elements can bond to one or maybe two others of its kind, only carbon can build chains of itself. When it combines with hydrogen, its most common partner, it forms a tetrahedron, and any Bucky Fuller fans out there know that tetrahedra have almost magical properties.

Water, another molecule with unexpected qualities, also forms a tetrahedron, and that’s food for thought.

Carbon is immensely changeable, depending on what it is linked to. When hydrogen is its principal partner, it forms hydrocarbons. These are liquids such as gasoline, oils and tars, and solids such as plastic. When oxygen is added to the carbon-hydrogen pairing, the result is gums, waxes, fats, sugars, and other gooey substances that we associate with life.

Adding nitrogen yields dyes, amino acids, and alkaloids such as caffeine and psilocybin. Add sulfur, and antibiotics result. Blend in phosphorus and we get DNA and a crucial energy-carrier called ATP.

It’s ability to form innumerable compounds is one reason that carbon plays such a big role in life, but there’s another reason just as powerful: It can store lots of energy when it bonds to itself, and then release that energy when those bonds break. It’s that energy that makes carbon in soil, in the form of organic matter, so important. Just as we do, soil life such as microbes and insects need a constant supply of carbon compounds for their easily available energy.

When the enzymes and acids within living things break carbon bonds, the energy released is transferred to compounds in the organism such as ATP and sugar, moved to places that it is needed, and released again to power more molecule building and unbuilding.

That’s most of what metabolism is: the transfer of energy from carbon compounds, otherwise known as food, from one place to another, to do various important tasks via other carbon compounds such as proteins, DNA, and vitamins that are especially suited to those tasks.

Carbon Compounds Final
Image above: Some of the many forms of carbon. Even if you can’t read chemical structures, you can see that the patterns that carbon creates are many and varied. From original article.

I could write a book on the marvels of carbon (and may some day!) but before carbon’s nuggetized biography takes over this whole article, I will sum up by saying that carbon’s ability to store and move energy, and also to bond with so many other elements and thus shuttle them from place to place, make this element the backbone of life. Soil lacking in carbon—in organic matter and the soil life it breeds—is dead soil, and it creates dead food.

Nitrogen is a much-touted soil nutrient, critical but often so over-emphasized that other nutrients just as valuable get overlooked. It’s needed to build protein, which is found in structural tissues such as muscle and cell membranes, and also in enzymes, active, flexible chains of molecules that are the construction equipment of life.

Enzymes weld together protein, starch, and DNA chains; push needed molecules through cell membranes; repair and regulate DNA, and do essentially all the building, transport, and disassembly that go on within living things. Every living being needs nitrogen to keep protein in good supply.

Nitrogen is also a major ingredient in chlorophyll, the compound that uses sunlight to build sugar out of carbon dioxide in the air. That’s why plants green up so fast when they get a dose of nitrogen. Too much nitrogen can prompt insect damage, because bugs need lots of it and can “smell” when plants have it in overabundance.

Phosphorus stimulates root formation, improves flowering and seed production, strengthens stems and stalks, aids nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and increases disease resistance. It’s used in DNA, special fats that make up cell membranes, and in ATP, which is a principal energy-storing molecule.

Phosphorus is stored in large amounts in seeds as phytin, where it can by used by the developing seedling. Phosphorus also aids in transporting other nutrients around the cell. Some scientists and activists believe we’re rapidly depleting phosphorus supplies and feel that we need to be much better at stewarding it.

Potassium has a role that is less understood, but it is needed for many enzymes to function, and it helps young plants get started, in part by strengthening roots. Potassium-deficient plants are more susceptible to cold, extreme heat, drought, insect predation, and disease.

Calcium is a neglected nutrient that is just beginning to get its due. The textbooks will tell you that calcium is needed in modest amounts to build cell walls, protect against heat stress and disease, aid in nitrogen fixation by bacteria, improve fruit quality, and help in the uptake of other nutrients. That last role conceals a mountain of important and often dismissed functions for calcium.

Maverick soil scientist Dr. William Albrecht was among the first to sniff out calcium’s unsung role in soil biology, nutrition and health, and his work spawned a school of advocates, including the Acres USA publishing team, and soil specialists such as Michael Astera and Steve Solomon. I recommend checking out their work for an expanded and radical view of soil minerals that has helped me immensely in growing nutrient-dense food.

For example, agricultural lime (calcium hydroxide) has been used for millennia to make acidic soils sweeter, that is, to raise their pH. But Albrecht found evidence that it’s the calcium in lime that reverses the nutrient deficiencies that common wisdom claims are due to acid pH. In other words, when soil contains enough calcium, soil acidity matters much less. This is, to put it mildly, controversial, but a view that some serious plant growers swear by.

Calcium also loosens sticky clay soils. So this new school of calcium aficianados recommends much higher levels of calcium in soil than conventional agronomists. They also believe that soil levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron, zinc, and a few other nutrients should be adjusted to an ideal ratio, roughly 65% calcium,
15% magnesium, 4% potassium, and 1-3% each of the others.

For more on these ratios and the thinking behind them, check out and Michael Astera’s book The Ideal Soil. For an opposing view, see what soil scientist Neal Menzies has to say.

My personal view, and the one that guides my fertilizer recipes, is that most soils benefit from adding more calcium than the conventional guides say, but there is a lot of leeway in the ratio of calcium to other nutrients. I don’t worry about achieving a perfect 65/15/3 balance, just something in the ballpark, or even in the same part of town.

Magnesium is at the center of the chlorophyll molecule, just as iron is at the heart of the very similar hemoglobin molecule in mammals. It’s essential for ferrying phosphorus and iron to where they are needed.

Many of the enzymes that synthesize sugar, fats, and oils contain magnesium. In soil, it increases the stickiness of some clays, so levels that are too high can make soils gummy and even anaerobic. In soils low in clay, adding magnesium sometimes helps soil hold more water and stabilizes organic matter.

To wrap up this segment of our series on soil: Carbon builds structure and stores energy. It’s not properly a nutrient, but its presence in soil in many forms is critical for ecosystem function and everyone’s health.

The elements that make up what soil folk call the primary nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Those three are, I think, overemphasized, a legacy of some of the earliest experiments done on plant nutrition that used anything resembling the scientific method.

Justus von Liebig, a brilliant German chemist who made major contributions to organic chemistry and invented important chemical equipment, examined the content of ashes from grains. He found principally nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and since then generations of farmers and soil scientists have concentrated on—and used staggering quantities of—these and only these as nutrients.

The roles of carbon and of the other mineral nutrients were neglected for over a century, leading to depletion of most of the world’s farmable soil and a precipitous decline in nutrition in our food.

The secondary nutrients, calcium and magnesium, are only secondary in sheer mass required, but not in importance to plant, soil, animal, and human health. The same goes for the trace elements. Chalk up another victory for the “quantity over quality” mindset, and a loss for all of life.

I’ve used more words than I expected to get to this point in our tale. We haven’t made it to the trace elements and why those transition metals are so magical and important—so important that some scientists joke that life arose simply as a way to move them around.

We’ll talk about that next time, and begin looking at how to tailor your soil to yield lush amounts of nutrient-dense food: both quantity and quality.

See also:
TobyHemenway: A big Bang for Big Soil 8/9/16
TobyHemenway: The Cosmos, the Earth and Soil 6/22/16

• Toby Hemenway is the author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, which was awarded the Nautilus Gold Medal in 2011, was named by the Washington Post as one of the ten best gardening books of 2010, and is the best-selling permaculture book in the world. His new book on urban permaculture, The Permaculture City, was released in July, 2015.