Biochar: How to make the market work

In short, it's darn-near impossible:

“Biochar Will Save the World!” proclaims a group page on Facebook. Popular Mechanics writes of an “ancient charcoal” that can “put the brakes on global warming.” More than its prospects as a carbon sink or a fuel, it has massive prospects for development (the economic kind) for developing countries and emerging markets. A very wise Finance professor* once told me, “Anytime anybody tells you they have a market for that, be very suspicious.” It’s not that biochar couldn’t work, but that the market to make it work would have to be nuanced and highly regulated.

“One of the dangers of a biochar industry in developing countries is that you can divert your biochar to fuel or that you can somehow create more of a demand for wood which would be completely counterproductive. What is a more sustainable system is to use agricultural and wood wastes,” explains Dr. Simon Shackley, at the UK’s Biochar Research Institute in Edinburgh.

Biochar as a fuel is in the middle of a hierarchy of fuels commonly used in developing countries. Dr. Shackley explains that the poorest tend to use wood, then charcoal, then propane. In developed countries charcoal is a luxury fuel, and it would be “absurd” for people in developed countries to all of a sudden switch to heating our homes with it. There in lies the problem: biochar is viable on the market as both an agricultural tool and as a fuel in developing countries.

The best strategy then, according to Shackley, is to find sustainable feed stocks. He gives an example, “if you’ve got a rice paddy system... the rice husks are thrown into the paddy field and they decompose for methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. So in that case, it’s much more efficient to put the rice husk into a pyrolysis or gasification machine, carbonize it, and put that into the field and you’re returning the nutrients to the soil.” And then you get a carbon negative process. Depending on the machine, the pyrolysis process itself can produce energy that can be used as well.

Sounds great, right? In principle, sure.

Few problems:

In terms of accounting biochar is only carbon neutral or negative if the biochar is replanted into the soil right away and not used as a fuel. More likely is that it is stored. Shackley says that common practice is not to count pyrolysis process in the CO2 footprint. Pyrolysis does produce CO2. And if the biochar isn’t planted but used as a fuel then it is carbon positive. Sure it emits less carbon than fossil fuels, but using it as a fuel would distort its price as an agricultural input.

This leads to the second problem: logistics. Shackley describes the process, “You’ve got a lot of movement of material: you’ve got to grow it somewhere, you’ve got to use quite a lot of land to grow it, you’ve got to move it [left over wastes], you’ve got to store it, you’ve got to process it, you’ve then got to store the biochar before it goes onto the field. And if you’re talking about very large volumes, you’ve got to store it somewhere.”

In biochar manufacture and use there is a temporal delay: Shackley says often the feedstock waste from agriculture will come from the end of a harvest, but the most useful time to use it would likely be the following spring or summer. Logistics are a huge part of the process but those details are often glossed over.

Only loosely mentioned is a third problem: no one is entirely certain of the optimum composition of biochar for maximum temporal carbon sequestration. An article about biochar on MNN mentions in passing, “Plowing biochar into soil sequesters the carbon for a long time -- biochar fields have been found in South America dating back thousands of years and still full of their carbon solids.” A long time sure, but it depends on what it’s made of.** Scientists may be able to test terra preta to see what it’s been made of in the past, but other materials will be used to create modern biochar.

So why not only make biochar from certain specific materials? Simplistically: Soil contains bacteria and mineral nutrients that help plants grow. Biochar contains minerals as well that are beneficial to plant growth, which makes it beneficial as a fertilizer. Different biochar compositions could provide optimum minerals depending on the soil composition. It’s common sense that in order to be sustainable, biochar be composed of native organic materials. So, wherever it’s used its make up will vary.

Biochar can be made of almost any material and some materials, according to Dr. Saran Sohi, a soil specialist at the UK Biochar Research Institute, are more stable than others. Stability determines how long carbon will be trapped (sequestered) in the soil. There’s not yet been enough research to determine how long certain materials will sequester carbon.

“When you pyrolyze material you end up with a complex substance. And some of that is volatile,” explains Shackley. Any biochar used as an agricultural fertilizer (carbon sink) will have to be stable for well over 100 years, “Ideally we want to keep 75-80% of carbon in a stable form for hundreds of years. If it all comes out as CO2 after 100 years, in my view, it isn’t worth it.... Because if we haven’t solved the problem, and it all comes out again in 100 years time could get billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide back in the atmosphere and we might be having a severe climate crisis and it could be disastrous.”

Forth, the market model is uncertain on several levels: Sohi says that more research must be done on biochar composition so that the benefits to farmers (i.e. increased crop yield) can be clearly enumerated. Until then a market price for biochar as a fertilizer will be hard to pin down. It will also be difficult to displace traditional chemical fertilizers with this “natural” alternative, where the added yields are certain. Any market in developing countries where charcoal is used as a fuel (even as a low-carbon alternative) and an agricultural input must be heavily regulated: in order that charcoal remains cheap enough to be used as a low cost agricultural input, to prevent people trading the biochar at profit to be used as fertilizer (rather then fuel too), then from turning to another fuel that might degrade the environment.

After years of colossal f-ups, the development community has to come to an agreement that aid must be nuanced-- that is, designed specific to the environment in which it’s implemented. The financial crisis(es) have shown us that we need heavy market regulation, not just of financial markets but commodities as well. In order to address climate change we need to use all of the technology at our disposal, which includes biochar. But unless we take our time, and correctly implement its use, biochar could do more harm than good. The US’s biochar bill might be something to be weary of. Shackley points out that such a bill will drive more investment into research and make certain that regulators ask the right questions about safety and benefits. On the other hand, history has shown that governments dolling out money must be monitored to make certain processes are safe. More research must be done on biochar, its use should not be rushed into, and the market must be heavily regulated.

* Dr. Paulo dos Santos, SOAS.
**For example manure, palm tree litter are more volatile.

Scopes Climate Trial

I had the fortune to see Kevin Spacey’s “Inherit the Wind” at the Old Vic during its run. The film is a fictionalized account of the Scopes monkey trial which pits nature against religion in the strictest sense (for a full summary click here) in a court room. Watching Spacey's version of "Inherit the Wind," for me parallels a friction that exists in a neo-secular modern world: where evolution science becomes climate change/ new-economics and creationism traditional Market capitalist ideology. This is a dichotomy I’ve run into with increasing regularity in the last few months.

“Progress has never been a bargain, you have to pay for it! Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “Alright, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam you may vote but at a price: you lose the right to retreat behind your powderpuff or your petticoat. Mr, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline. Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came but for this insight, this knowledge, we must abandon faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.”

Beyond the American Chamber of Commerce’s backwardness on climate change and the American penchant for putting ideas on trial, the new evolution science is climate science. Strikingly similar to the evolution of evolutionary theory the story has a conspicuously missing middle: we know the world is changing but we're fuzzy about the extent and rapidity of that change, much like the missing evolutionary hominids during Darwin’s time. Put another way, climate science is uncertain to the extent that changed world-wide average temperatures will have on individual places and people.

A study by O’Gorman and Schneider at the MIT and Caltech Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change find that for every 1 degree Celsius increase in average global temperature increases the likelihood of extreme weather events by 5 to 6%. Another study from the same program by Sokolov and Prinn (et al) finds that by 2100 there is a 90% chance that average global temperatures will rise between 3.5-7.4 degrees Celsius. While it is clear that our lives will change, we are collectively grasping at straws about what to expect.

No one (except maybe backwoods rednecks and dedicated, disillusioned contrarians) doubts climate science anymore. But what climate believers still doubt is the necessity to alter our value systems or our ability to do it. Marketing green the same way, well, everything has been marketed in the past: green is the new black, strategies to sell climate change to the consumer. There are two telling examples of this:

The IPPR released a report called “Consumer Power: how the public thing climate change can be made mainstream.” The report recommends continuous re-consumerization of sustainable products and behaviors into “objects of desire,” to attract a key group of consumers: the Now People. The report goes on to suggest not to mention climate change when selling climate change (and not to mention environmentalism either) because it isn’t “cool.” It suggests talking about climate change with humor because humor will “sustain the attention” of the “Now People more than communications that are overly serious.” The report finally recommends that anyone talking about carbon emissions substitute the word “pollution” for emissions because emissions are invisible but pollution isn’t. While the report discusses a certain subset of people, marketers being marketers, it’s safe to assume that these suggestions will be used to market green to everyone. (As an aside, a psychologist friend of mine looked over the report and said that it was typical of marketing psychology, that the approach worked best for the general public but that the Now People wouldn’t be fooled.)

The other indicative example is the extent to which the carbon derivatives market (still not properly regulated-- warning bells should be going off) is said to expand in the near future-- to £4.3 trillion by 2015. According to the report Fortifying the Foundation: State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2009, trade in the voluntary carbon market around the world more than doubled in 2008 from $313 million to $705 million. Most of carbon market is voluntary: 48% world wide and over 45% in Asia alone. As little as three years ago there were over 20 carbon offset standards in the global carbon market and today there are fewer than 10.

The extent to which the free market has made carbon derivatives markets more “efficient” is probably over-- the market has consolidated. The extent to which it can be manipulated-- well, the “carbon cowboy” era maybe ending but prospect for vast manipulation remains. As long as national markets remain unintegrated, regulation within and between borders is ambiguous, the more complicated the CDM process at the UN, and the longer explicit offsets are delayed the greater the prospect for near future manipulation, a near future in which these markets need to work (leaving aside the debate on whether or not they are a good idea).

What has been done in both instances: the Now People marketing strategy and the Carbon market has just carried on old, market economics and old climate change science. For all the talk Stiglitz et al (Duncan Green over at Oxfam has a great discussion of it here) and NEF make about revaluing the economy there are very few people and fewer world leaders who either get it or are willing to engage in the debate (new economics/climate change science). Very bluntly, while we accept that climate change is real, the ambiguity with which it will present itself and its effects on our lives is keeping us from fortifying our societies for earth shifting changes we physically face as a species.

Evolution versus creationism hasn’t ever been settled and thus “Inherit the Wind” remains perennially relevant to the American political sphere. But new economics versus market capitalism is a debate that must be settled. And it must be soon. In almost two years past the beginning of the financial crisis we’ve done very little to re-regulate financial markets, to say nothing of the house cleaning needed in the carbon markets. I would hate to see welfare reformed growth metrics discussion on the international stage go the way of the creationism- evolutionary debate in the US.

Some serious journalism going on here...

I've had some success lately:

The Third Rail of Climate Change: Climate Refugees

The Little Climate Campaign that Could: 10:10 sparks three hour debate in parliament

Carbon Trading Schemes Don't Just Fall From the Sky

(Sam Nelson approached me to write the story... very flattered)

Social responsibility in journalism, new media, niche media at the start of the 21st century-- an indictment

I’ve had an odd confluence of events yesterday:

In the morning I interviewed Mark Brayne for a feature I’m writing about the psychology of climate change. And in the afternoon I had a fight with my boss about the content for the green blog video site I blog professionally for.

The interview with Brayne was mostly about how society becomes convinced enough about the prospect of climate change to actually change our behavior. As a former journalist and current psychotherapist, Brayne has a unique perspective on the ability of the media to influence behavior (scroll down to hear a podcast of our conversation about the media). He also has a very profound indictment of the state of the modern media.

Taking a step back, during and before both world wars propaganda campaigns were waged by governments to aid the war effort. More specifically, during World War II, the British government needed the British population to behave in a certain way: austere behavior in the buying and use of goods. Austerity, green-economic experts like Andrew Simms believe, needs to be revived to make the public transition to the mentality necessary to adapt to climate change and continue to survive on this planet.

Post WWII, Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna and his nephew Edward Bernays were instrumental in spreading consumption as the driver of economic growth. Post-war people were too frugal, the market for newly produced goods wasn’t big enough. Bernaise figured out how to appeal to our animal instinct in order to get us to buy things and fulfill subconscious needs.

Brayne has a rather profound indictment of early 21st century journalism and it’s its effect on human behavior: “The concept of modern independent free media that I can write what I like and that’s it’s really just about ratings and sales is profoundly irresponsible.... The media don’t want to be regulated, actually they don’t want to be accountable to anybody. Journalists have a massive responsibility to take their profession more seriously than they do.”

“And if journalists say ‘well, I’m only in the business of giving people what they want, and entertainment,’ I think the media at the beginning of the 21st century is not fit for purpose. I don’t think politics is fit for purpose. And I don’t think consumerism--economics-- is fit for purpose.”

(To listen to our conversation about the media in full, click below: )

What does this have to do with my day job as a professional green blogger?

The site I blog for professionally is partnered with NGO's, businesses, and government agencies. My vision for the blog is to make a discussion space for different views about transitioning to a sustainable economy: like juxatopsing Alstom and their “green” plans for carbon capture and storage next to Greenpeace which opposes coal power (we have videos from both). Without saying too much about the dispute: there are plenty of frivolous green websites that sell themselves using celebs, nudity, and material-culture to consumerize green. The green video site I blog for has a responsibility to be bigger than consumerism. And it is well positioned in the UK market to be exactly that.

Franny Armstrong in a video says about the stakes of climate change, “It’s everything you know, everyone you love, everything’s at stake.” Brayne is right, the media helped consumerize our culture and now it has a deep and profound responsibility to contribute to the sustainable transition. That’s the kind of journalist I want to be.

*for more information about Brayne's work on climate change psychology, see his consortium website

Update 20 Sep: My boss and I did have it out and I've retained my editorial freedom for now on the basis of the success of the blog. But if it comes to blogging about celebs and porn I'll quit first. And that would be sad for the green video site because I am unpaid labour: if I walk the blog shuts down. The environment is too important for failure.

Open access to data breeds corruption. Open access to data breeds transparency. Which is it? Both.

Free the data. Open access to data breeds corruption. Open access to data breeds transparency. Which is it? Both.

You’ll notice I haven’t posted on either of my blogs in a while. That’s partly to do with most of my ideas have gone to my professional blogging, but also because I’ve been cooking this post and having trouble with the argument and linking all the bits together. Leave a comment: tell me if I’ve put the pieces together right, what I missed that’s related. I’m relatively certain this is still a naive viewpoint:

At the end of July I was at a Barcamp Transparency mini-conference in Oxford. Most of those attending were open source guys. The connection between information transparency and open source technology is that information, especially statistical information, can be used to create software that can tell businesses about consumer behavior, for example. Advertisers collect this information on the internet, on blogs and online newspapers.

And therein lies the issue: do you want data on your spending habits to be available to corporations, or your credit card monitored by government for suspicious activity in ostensibly to predict crime? Tie these two together and you get something like Amazon deleting copies of 1984 from it’s Kindle via remote (admittedly, the government was not involved in this but thinking about it, it’s not a large step to think it could be-- see Farhad Manjoo on the topic).

But what if freedom of access to information also leads to your ability to monitor government and know when they spend tax payer dollars on duck hutches and moats (for the Americans in the audience, see MP allowance scandal)-- sounds good in that instance. Transparency in government is another issue in the open access to information hemisphere.

More broadly, thinking about transparent information also brings up the changing model of journalism: the pay model for online newspapers. As a blogger (prefer bloggess, actually, but...) I can’t do what I do unless I have access to news articles and reports. For bloggers in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran, the ability to view free news (stories, full reports) and have free access to information diffusion services (google’s Blogger, Facebook, Twitter) means something completely different-- those who live in oppressive regimes can hold their governments to account on the world stage by using the free information and information services online to do everything from blog about injustice to launching full scale campaigns.

Social media comes into play here, witness Iran’s tw-evolution. Social media is access to real time information. And there’s a fantastic argument to be made (as @apesphere does) for making Twitter a social enterprise to guarantee freedom of speech as a universal human right.

NPR’s Kevin Anderson was on the Guardian’s Media Talk podcast recently (31 July), teaching the British how NPR continues to free information: it asks for money. MoJo does something similar by putting the tipjar on it’s page. LinkTV displays a huge link, “Support LinkTV.” These site explain exactly what certain dollar denominations buy the consumer: however many $ = an episode of “Morning Edition.” That makes it explicit and that’s why it works. (The British I’ve noticed, are uncomfortable explicitly asking for money. They need to get over it.)

As an aspiring journalist I realize that if the pay model isn’t figured out, then I won’t be able to make a living. But as a bloggess, if the pay model is too heavy on the pay bit, then I won’t be able to make a living either. Some bloggers make money through advertising (admittedly, not very much).

There is an interesting dimension to open access to information when it comes to advertising, as Jay Rosen wrote on PressThink , “Advertisers aren’t in business to advertise; they do it to reach customers making a buying decision.” In other words, advertising on the internet is used to gather information. It’s not profitable in and of itself, but because it can theoretically help corporations make better marketing strategies at some point in the future. According to Rosen (via doc Searls), there’s a lot of economic cost inefficiency or market leakages here.

If advertising isn’t a viable business option for funding information sources, then what? Paying by link? No, linking to my sources in blog posts make me accountable.

I firmly believe that access to information has to be free-- it ensures that governments are accountable to their citizens, businesses to their consumers, and the media to the citizens it serves. As long as information is free (not unprotected, mind-- this is another issue) and (most) data transparent, the tools are available to protect us all. The internet and online newspapers must remain free.

Reslicing the African Cake: Emerging Markets are the Neo-Neo-Colonialists

WE all remember seeing it in high school history class: the cartoon caricatures of 19th century world powers looming over a cake labeled "Africa," poised to carve it up (anybody out there got a URL for a copy of this cartoon? I’d appreciate it). And thus began the pre-World War I scramble for resources. At the beginning of the 21st century, as at the close of 19th, the story hasn't changed but the players have: China, South Korea, India, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Dubai, and the US (to name a few) are seeking to protect their people's future as climate change begins to drastically alter the ability for these countries to feed (and power) themselves.

According to recent reporting in the Guardian Environment, China is an instructive case study: China has recently halted reforestation projects in “marginally arable land” on fears of food shortage. These reforestation projects would have helped offset increased carbon emissions from Chinese industrialization, slow desertification in southern China, and ease water shortages. How? Land that is not used for agriculture is allowed to rest, and by doing so becomes healthier again as the soil regains nutrients; less crop irrigation means that there would be more water in the system generally. Most forms of crop irrigation use water inefficiently.

China is facing triple pressure: rising food prices, the need to keep industrialization growing a pace, and changing ecological conditions due to climate change. In western China, according to a recent article in the Guardian, new industrial projects will cut into arable land. In other areas, desertification and failing soil will cut into agricultural production. By the end of 2008 China’s arable land has decreased to within 1% of the 120 million hectare land area needed for China to maintain food self-sufficiency. That’s why Chinese interests have secured land for food and biofuel crops in sub-Saharan African countries, and Asia too. There are over one million Chinese farmers in Africa.

Decreased arable land due to climate change will threaten every country. And the decline of fossil fuels will push up food stuff prices all over the world. Last summer the Philippines and India both restricted exports of rice to protect domestic prices and because they feared they wouldn’t have enough to feed their own populations. Environmental groups have launched “buy local” campaigns. The trouble is, many developing countries and emerging markets (I’m differentiating here between the 2nd and 3rd world) remain heavily dependent upon the export of primary products. If the “buy local” movement has its way and a carbon tariff is imposed upon imported food, these countries’ export markets will decline and their economies will suffer. In the run up to World War I not only did colonial holdings increase, but trade protectionism did as well. Protectionist policies designed to mitigate climate change in conjunction with a new resource stripping of Africa via land sales makes it difficult for Africa to reach full economic development in the future.

In the future, the largest global population increases will come from Africa, according to the UN. But given the state of most African economies, jobs do not and will not exist when Africa’s labour force begins to peak later this century. According to Oxfam, as a result of the global recession, 100 million more people slipped into “hunger” and of the now 1 billion people living in hunger worldwide, one-quarter are in Africa. If food prices are increasing, Africa is selling its arable land to foreigners, and it can’t feed itself now, how can it hope to do so in the future?

African governments desperate for cash will allow countries to buy up their resources now, in order to maintain political stability (which will attract future investment). But with climate change already beginning, will Africans have enough resources to reach full economic development themselves in the future? The G8 failed on their Gleneagles promises. This week in L’Aquila they have promised a new $20 million in food aid to Africa. Will they follow through this time? Likely not. G8 governments are heavily indebted and don’t have enough money to carry through plans for greener energy. Infrastructure throughout Europe and America need massive reconstruction if governments' plans to green energy are to be successful. Ironically, Africa’s lack of infrastructure has historically been a barrier to aid absorption and one of the reasons that the developed world has been reluctant to carry-through on promises to double aid to Africa.

As Africa is re-carved by emerging and declining economic giants, it isn’t another lost-decade of development Africa faces as the global recession carries on. Africa faces becoming the continent lost to climate change.

[This is a good place to stop, but anybody worth their salt studying the social effects of climate change will realize the migration implications—and I’ve already ranted enough, I think about missing the (immigration policy) bear.]

Please take note: my sources for this article are mainly from the Guardian articles linked above.

More on Missing the Bear

Check out my next two blog posts on Missing the Bear:

Meghan McCain: the saviour of the republican party?

Climate Refugees

Missing the Bear-- when the media misses the target

My secondary blog is Missing the Bear: when the media misses the target.

First blog post: Eon at the Guardian Climate Change Summit

The End of the Line

I went to see "The End of the Line" last night, at one of the premier venues in London. I posted a review to Newsvine.

Climate Change Campaigner's Biggest Challenge: Changing the Use Value of Money

28 May 2009

By Ann Danylkiw

“Clinton got it wrong. It's not, 'it’s the economy stupid,' it’s : the economy is stupid, stupid.” This, the final conclusion from Elaine Brook, the third of three panelists to discuss “How Green is your Money?” at the Guardian’s Hay on Wye literary festival Thursday. Brook, Alistair Sawday and Barbara Haddrill, an activist, a publisher, and travel book writer respectively, explained that the oft missed point of a “green economy” is re-evaluating valuation dynamics of modern economic growth.

Economic growth is commonly measured in national statistics as GDP or GNP, gross (domestic) national product—comprised of consumption (by far the largest proportion) plus investment (private) plus government spending (public investment) plus national savings plus parenthetical imports minus exports (usually vastly negative for developed countries like the US, UK, and EU and thus enviously positive for emerging economies like China and India). It lacks a coherent cost-benefit analysis of used environmental capacity or quality of life (though supposedly tackled by utility theory, the analysis utility provides is still wanting). These are topics tackled more recently by the New Economics Foundation, and many years ago by Marilyn Waring (MP, New Zealand). GDP says a lot about the volume and velocity of money flowing around an economy and very little about the way its people live.

Each panelist in turn makes their own experiential case as to why we, as individuals, must actively take positive decisions that force the economy to respond to a slower pace of life. Haddrill did so several years ago when she attended a friend’s wedding in Australia in a way that was compatible with her low carbon-lifestyle. “I saw being an environmentalist as a positive choice… I had the idea of slowing it [the trip] down so that the journey was the point, and not just the destination.”

Haddrill is a late twenty-something. In a loose hippie-style blouse and billowing brown trousers, her authority is classically statuesque: “The more I planned my travel, the more I thought about our addiction to flying and was it improving our lives? …What was it about—time or money? …All these people that have no time also say 'there is no way I could spend 7 weeks getting to Australia… its alright for you.' But why is it alright for me? I gave up my job and my life that I really loved and before I left really 80 percent of me probably actually didn’t want to travel ‘round the world by bus, boat, and train, but I did it because I made that choice and I believe we can always make that choice,” she insists.

Sawday speaks next. He is the typical perpetually “chillaxed” mid-lifer: gelled grey hair, plaid button up shirt, khaki trousers, loafers. Seeming almost like a new age preacher-man, he extols the virtues of authenticity, awareness, the political and social conviviality of the Slow Food movement—“through food, we can effect, individually, a small revolution if we buy a pig from the man next door who has grown it with love and isn’t particularly concerned about the profit and we eat it slowly and convivially with our friends, we are part of a small revolution.”

As a society, he urges, we must begin to favor people that take their time—“those that walk over those that drive,” artisans over mass production. And more importantly to acknowledge the affect the modern, faced-paced lifestyle has had on our society. He relates the time he stayed with the Amish community in Michigan, “they are intelligent about the way they view the outside world… they take a telephone and they realize that the telephone can completely disrupt and destroy their lives, but it is very clever. So they take it and put it outside their house, in a special box, and only use it between five and six in the evening, and never answer it otherwise… and the efficiency is still there… and so are the Amish.”

Elaine Brook, finishes out the trio of presenters and is the founder of a business network, Greenlinks. The view of the Green movement has evolved, in her view, “We have started with we have to want what we want now, but in a Green way—and that has moved to want something different that is Green. People have decided that they want something different and they just do it—and businesses respond!”

Brook, embodies the true spirit of a British woman—a charismatic explorer in her white linen suit, short blonde hair arranged to look casually swept back. Cheerily she recalls the years she spent living with Himalayan Buddhists, “an example of a real zero fossil fuel economy…people have really nice, big houses, a fantastic social life, they had enough to eat.” An ecologist, business woman, and activist, she says she had trouble “selling” the theory of zero carbon economies upon her return because for modern, Western societies there is no blueprint for people to relate to.

This vision of what Brook and the others suggest is very far from where we are today, but is nevertheless compelling. “I think it's possible to run a business with a lower expectation of profit and a higher expectation of community contribution. Every business is a real part of a community,” Sawday concludes; time and human contact, an awareness of the world around us—both our effect on it, and its effect on us.

As they finish there is applause, but yet a vapid sense of agreement. They make it sound so easy: make a positive decision and change the way you react to the global economy and the economy will respond via simple comparative statics. And it is an easy decision, for an audience almost entirely composed of grey hairs, twenty-something females employed by NGO’s, and white upper middle class couples. Granted this is crowd the Guardian Hay-on-Wye literary festival draws—but there is a lingering feeling that this is not the crowd that needs convincing.

Should Michelle Obama Lose Weight?-- oh Come ON!

The unfailing ability of feminists to discredit the potential of the new First Lady (and burn down our own agenda in the process)

The Huffington Post recently posted an opinion piece entitled “Should Michelle Obama Lose Weight?”[1] The very imposition of this question today is not only insulting to all women but utterly absurd! For only the second time in recent history the First Ladyship is occupied by a woman who has the potential to change the feminine paradigm in two ways: first, she can act to change the role of First Lady from passive (traditional feminine) support to an Office and in doing so, in a secondary capacity, shift the paradigm of the feminine roles as wife, mother, and hostess—thus, effecting the overall perception of women’s equity in society.

Examining the national visibility of recent first ladies

The Bush Ladies chose the paradigm of what I’ll call debutante society wives: pet cause promotion and charity work, not to be taken too seriously or make too much noise so as to obscure or threaten their husbands’ agendas/profiles. What they lacked, and what Hillary Clinton attempted and Michelle Obama has the potential to change, is to act in a more advocatory capacity. It is true that First Ladies aren’t elected, but they do hold an important nationally symbolic position.

Hillary Clinton was vilified via the media for attempting to play a more active role in her capacity as a national symbol: Clinton held health care meetings and was criticized for treating those meetings as government functions and told she could not continue because First Lady is not a government office—she had no authority to explore policy. However, de facto, the First Lady could be perceived as a government role by combining the important traditional, matriarchal role with the role of women as professionals. This role must be defined in practice, through evolution by example. Michelle Obama has the potential to do this. With Clinton, she shares several traits: highly educated, a professional (and successful one at that) and an advocate in her own right.

But despite the increasing number of women present in the media, the majority of the coverage of Michelle Obama has been limited to her fashion sense and her weight. To the extent that women in the media have a responsibility to effect the way other women are portrayed in society, women in media have tripped over themselves both when they failed to stand up adequately for Hillary Clinton during the campaign when her outfit was criticized as “inappropriate” because she showed too much cleavage and for portraying Michelle Obama only in the traditional feminine capacity. The Huffington Post article about Obama’s weight concluded something to the effect “Michelle Obama is a size 12, which is appropriate for her height,” and her health adds to her husband’s potential to set an example for America. What about her ability to set an example as the embodiment of modern American femininity? Alas, her superficial qualities are all that seem to be relevant—very seldom was she quoted on the campaign trail, deemed worthy only as arm candy for her husband’s campaign and speculatory rhetoric about how she will help the fashion industry survive the economic crisis.

Lady Obama’s Potential

It is curious in this age with women in the workplace all but a forgone conclusion, that the role of the nation’s First Woman remains “traditional” in the wife/mother/hostess sense. While her husband gets props for introducing an equal wage bill, Michelle Obama has the potential to take women’s equality even further through active advocacy. To place “active” in juxtaposition: passive advocacy can be understood to be what the Bush Ladies did: make statements about the importance of women’s rights. A prime example occurred in the last month of Laura Bush’s husband’s presidency: Afghani school girls were attacked with acid and Mrs. Bush responded by making a strong condemnatory statement. Where active advocacy would be more like Hillary Clinton’s health care meetings during her husband’s first term; the First Lady, in effect, becomes an active participant (as all Women are) in the perpetual forward motion of society, whether or not forward motion (i.e. reform) is delegated to the First Lady to further her party’s agenda, or one of her own. Why should presidential wives be side-lined when as non-political wives they actively shape society anyway?

Michelle Obama has the potential to transform the role of First Lady. Obama’s husband’s campaign broke paradigms (which are obvious and I won’t go into here because quite enough has been written about him), and the American establishment is primed for “Change.” Additionally, an important argument was made for Elizabeth Edward’s husband’s presidential ascendancy based upon her education and medical public policy prowess: “two for one,” argued some pundits. Lest we fail to make a big deal about Obama’s husband considering Mrs. Edwards for a cabinet position!

Drawing on honorable traditions of the wife as cultural preservationista and moral center, Michelle Obama has the potential to historically redefine this social feminine paradigm. This paradigm is of the wife as active partner in both society and marriage—where the roles in both cases equalize (finally) between men and women. Not only does Lady Obama stand as an equal with her husband welcoming foreign diplomats and domestic leaders to the seat of American government, representing the women of America, she does so as an educated professional and equal.

Dwelling on superficialities like weight and designer clothing is not only self-defeating for the evolution of American women but sabotages Obama before she has the chance to get going. Admittedly, Mrs. Obama has not yet made much indication of her agenda as First Lady, beyond her commitment to Military families. However, the point is worth making—the time has come to change the role of First Lady of the United States of America. The previous examples set by the First Ladies of the free world is more akin to the paradigms US Presidents have attempted to change through foreign policy than an example that feeds that foreign policy. Michelle Obama has the ability to rise to this challenge and it is our responsibility as Women (and men) of America to support her. So let’s please cease with this self-defeating superficial discussion of weight and clothing, shall we!
Ann is a freelance new media journalist, educated in Finance Economics. She considers herself to be a citizen of the world, though she is American by nationality, and a legal resident of the state of Wisconsin (yeah, go ahead and chuckle). See her other blog: Missing The Bear.
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