Biochar - Something Old And Something New


by James Sauer September 14, 2015

Biochar is not really anything new. It really should be considered a lost technology of sorts that is now being recognized as something new. Biochar's comeback is fortunately happening at a time when we desperately need it. Until recently, there was no driving force to bring about a clear need for it. We seemed to be getting along just fine with conventional ways of producing our food, and our farmland soils have been productive with chemical supplements. We were also content with extracting what we thought was an endless supply of oil gas and coal from the ground without any regard to increasing carbon dioxide levels. Those days are over.

The fact is that some prehistoric civilizations of our Earth used biochar and thrived on it.  Most notably, ancient Amazonian cultures' livelihoods were actually based upon it.  Locations have been found throughout those regions to have soils enriched by biochar.  The char was obviously and intentionally used by ancient peoples over the course of many years. The fertile soils these people created with biochar are still evident today, providing stark contrasts against vast expanses of nutrient poor jungle soils of the region.  Historians and scientists have established that the ancient cities of the region could not have survived without an agrarian ability to sustain themselves--and the biochar-enriched soils clearly provided the only way for this to be possible. The photos below show cross-sections of soil from the Amazon region for comparison. As you can see, the fertile biochar-rich soil is on the right.


Some day I would love to go down there myself and see it first hand, being so focused on biochar. Maybe it's a bit nerdy, but I even find myself wondering what life would have been like back then for the Amazonian people. I wonder how they discovered and then so efficiently exploited such a beneficial resource--how come we have forgotten, only until recently, how vital this resource can be?

I guess we can only hypothesize the correct answer to this quandary. It could have started from a simple observation of plants growing vigorously at the site of an old fire pit with residual char left behind. It could have been knowledge handed down from many generations before. Who knows, it might have been little green men from outer space that gave them the knowledge concerning biochar. Whatever the case may have been, the introduction of biochar to these societies was certainly a powerful technological breakthrough.
 
We can draw some parallels between what happened back then and our re-discovery of biochar in the modern era. In both cases, urgencies brought about the need and use of biochar. The Ancient Amazonian's had to find a way to feed their communities as efficiently as possible. Our civilization today, on the other hand, faces climate change and depleted soils that threaten our existence. I guess our time of urgency is a bit more complex, but just as vital to our continued ability to survive and thrive. 

As it turned out, a significant portion of Amazonian civilization was wiped out shortly following exposure to small pox and diseases introduced by Spanish explorers who arrived in the sixteenth century. This exposure was something Amazonian people could not anticipate or prepare for in any way. Our modern society may be faced with things that come up suddenly and out of our control as well. But climate change is not one of those things. We have been given notice of the problem by countless scientists. There is no reason why we can't use our intelligence to come up with some solutions for correcting the high levels of greenhouse gasses we have created.  I have complete faith that the problem will be solved through an orchestration of creative ideas, including biochar. 

I'm not saying that making biochar is going to save the world in one fell swoop.  But employing it is a step in the right direction, and can make a big difference if accepted for the benefits it is capable of. The amount of char made in a BioCharlie during an evening fire might seem insignificant, like a drop in the bucket. But many drops are what oceans are made of. It has been very refreshing and encouraging for me to see how many people want to be a part of the solution. 

Many thanks to you all,

Jim

 




James Sauer
James Sauer

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