Kwolz's Adventures in Saving the World

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How Soil Can Solve Climate Change

Posted by kevinwolz on March 11, 2012

Just ran the numbers…I’ve been meaning to do this for quite a while now…

There are 1.89 quadrilion (10^15) pounds of carbon (C) in the atmosphere (as carbon dioxide – CO2). That’s a lot. Here’s a better way to think of it…that’s about 1.2 lbs of C for every sq. ft. of land on Earth’s surface. Taking this a bit further, with ~40% of Earth’s land surface today covered by either cropland or pasture, that’s ~3 lbs of C for every sq. ft. of agricultural land – a much easier number to wrap your head around.

Those numbers are for today’s situation, with atmospheric [CO2] at about 393 ppm. Pre-industrial levels were about 290 ppm, and while it’s important that we eventually get back down to those levels, it is commonly argued by scientists that bringing [CO2] down to just 350 ppm will at least stave off the worst of climate change – a good first goal.

Getting back down to 350 ppm [CO2] in the atmosphere means removing just ~11% of the CO2 currently up there. Again using our easy metric from above, that’s about 0.3 lbs of C for every sq. ft. of agricultural land.

So why am I using this metric that refers to agricultural land? Well, when one thinks of ag land, the first thing that comes to mind is soilSoil comes in many varieties, which mainly differ by their relative composition of sand, silt, and clay, soil’s three primary components. In addition, however, soil contains organic matter. Organic matter is the decomposing matter that was once part of a plant or animal, and it’s about 58% carbon. The amount of organic matter in soil typically ranges from about 1-10%, depending on the type of soil and its health. Prairie soils before the plow came through were on the higher end of this range…conventional ag soils today are on the lower end of this range.

SO, even though the typical agricultural soil today only contains about 1-3% carbon, this number is not fixed – we can change it. In the typical agricultural “loam” soil, raising soil organic matter (SOM) by just 1% in a cubic foot of soil locks up ~0.5 lbs of C. See where I’m going with this??

THEREFORE, all we need to do to bring us back to manageable a CO2 level (350 ppm) and prevent the worst of climate change is to increase the soil organic matter in the top foot of the world’s agricultural land by just 0.62%! Since conventional agricultural practices have managed to bring down SOM by at least 1% on most agricultural land in the last 100 years, bringing it back up by just 0.62% should be EASY! How? An agricultural system that uses perennial polycultures in nature’s image to produce food, fuel, and fiber while simultaneously restoring ecosystem services and sequestering carbon. Simple.

Want to mitigate climate change? We need to get carbon back in the soil!

Posted in Climate Change, Sustainable Ag | Leave a Comment »

I Won The Lottery!

Posted by kevinwolz on November 1, 2011

Okay,not really…But that’s a catchy title isn’t it? I bet you feel pretty gullible now don’t you? That’s okay though because this post requires you to be pretty open/ready-minded. While the chances of winning the lottery ($245M currently in the Illinois PowerBall) are pretty small, especially if, like me, you don’t even buy tickets, it’s still really fun to think about what you would do if you actually hit the jackpot. Gadz, my ever-optimistic roommate, thinks about this all the time, and lately he has been inspiring me to do the same. If this is too much of a fantasy for you, then just think of it as me making a lot of money at some crazy future job. Either way, what follows is my fantastic dream of how I would spend $100,000,000 if I had it my back pocket today (in order of priority).

Note: All numbers are completely made up and only have a tiny amount of rationale associated with them. I’d like to hear your thoughts!

Personal Land – $5,000,000

There is quite possibly nothing that I want more than my own land where I can firmly plant the roots of my adventures in saving the world. Everything needs a home. Revolutions are no exceptions. I don’t want land so I can make money. I want land so I can create an example and use it as a tool to create change. It will start modestly of course, but eventually, it will have all the things that I dream about day and night. At its core, this land will aim to produce as much food, fuel, and fiber as possible, while sequestering tons (literally) of carbon and using practically no inputs. There will be much more on this in coming posts…after all, it’s the top priority.

Ecological Design & Consulting Firm Startup Costs – $10,000,000

What is the most effective way to make change? Government? Industry? Academia? Grassroots? I ask myself this everyday, and I have yet to find an answer. Nevertheless, some of my friends and I have been talking about starting a company together (a la Applied Ecological Services) for quite a long time. This lump sum would easily get it off the ground and to the forefront of today’s problems.

Farmer Training Program – $10,000,000

During my own daydreams about starting a farm, I have realized just how few resources are available to new (especially young) farmers… particularly the ones that want to do agriculture the right way. Aside from directly building supply (as in the allotment two below), we need to building capacity and knowledge. We need farmers!

Illini Wind Farm – $20,000,000

This is my idea of investing…insider investing.

  • The University of Illinois has committed to getting energy from renewable sources. Every time it tries to do that internally, it epically fails. Market? Check.
  • Turbines have been going up throughout central Illinois at an amazing rate lately. The wind here is clearly adequate. Location? Check.
  • Climate change is happening. Peak oil already passed. $h|! will soon hit the fan. Incentive? Check.

Commercial Farm Education Center  – $10,000,000

This would be an initial investment in a large commercial farm. Central Illinois is a food desert. There is practically no food grown in the entire state, despite the massive amounts of arable land. Unfortunately, most of it is wasted for these horrid crops we know as corn and soy beans. Demand for local, fresh, healthy, tasty food is currently much higher than the supply. This investment would be a big step towards fulfilling that and beginning to change the Ag culture of this state.

Food Hub Development and Implementation – $10,000,000

This one directly relates to the previous allocation. A Food Hub is a place where locally produced foods can be stored, sorted, processed, preserved, distributed, packed, shipped, purchased, etc. It is the core of the decentralized, sustainable agriculture model. Very few successful hubs are currently in existence. This funding would aim to get a few big ones of the ground in order to gain attention and begin a revolution.

Podcast Donations – $1,000,000

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have learned much more from listening to podcasts than I have from practically all of my schooling combined. They are amazing, and they are the future. I may have to spend a bit of this money to go and actually meet the hosts as well. The main podcasts in line are Deconstructing Dinner, This Week in Science, and The Naked Scientists. Each of these shows runs not-for-profit and relies on donations to keep running. Deconstructing Dinner had such a profound impact on me over the last few years, and now it’s off the air due to lack of funding. I want to make sure that never happens again.

RunningAhead Donation – $500,000

RunningAhead is the online running log that I use to record and analyze all of my training. See my last post for a great adventure into its abilities. As I mentioned in the last post, I greatly admire the site owner for his leap of faith by essentially putting his life on the line in order to pursue his passion. With this money, he could really take the site to the next level and start the next great running revolution.

IXC House – $1,000,000

For those of you who don’t know, I currently live in an apartment building that has been completely taken over by runners. Every apartment in the building (and now overflowing into the one next door as well) is runners from either the club or varsity cross country/track teams. It’s great! Except for the fact that we have the worst landlord in Champaign County and the apartments are pretty darn crappy. Regardless, as the Illinois Cross Country and Track Clubs have grown, we have day dreamed on runs about how neat it would be to have a building we could call our own. Oh, and seeing as this would more or less be a fraternity/sorority, we’d have to give this place a Greek name. ΓΨΝ. Gamma Psi Nu. The letters don’t mean anything, but look at them: “I RUN”!

FPDCC Palos Forest Preserves Restoration – $5,000,000

Volunteering withe Palos Restoration Project during high school was probably the core reason that I ultimately decided to choose biology as one of my college majors. I also ran through these preserves nearly everyday while in high school. They are very near and dear to my heart. But they need help. Invasives are spreading faster than volunteers can restore the land. This money could finally put us ahead in the war against invasives.

Open Source Ecology Donation – $1,000,000

I will soon have an entire post dedicated to Open Source Ecology, but for now just watch this video. These guys ARE the synthesis of engineering, agriculture, sustainability, technology, peak everything, innovation, creativity, and everything that I am interested in. They are doing some amazing things and need the support to expand.

Tesla Roadster & Model S – $500,000

Tesla not only produces the fastest, badest electric cars in the world, but it also has more swag than any other car company. I don’t like cars, but these things are just too sweet to pass up. And yes, I would get both, with all the extras. Gotta save a little room for splurging in this budget…

Endowed Professorships – $5,000,000

Through my experiences on campus, I know that professors can have a major influence with what gets done at a school. And frankly, I’d like to get some professors here at U of I that think like I do! Supposedly it currently costs about $1M to endow a professor at U of I, so $5M should get me five, one in each of the following areas:

  • Local & regional food systems
  • Engineering/Science education
  • Endurance Training (1/2 time appointment, with the other half being the head coach of the Illinois Cross and Track Clubs)
  • Atmosphere-Biosphere Interactions
  • Savanna Agriculture/Permaculture

Stock Market – $1,000,000

I’m listing only a measly $1m for the stock market, because I really don’t like the stock market. As you can probably tell from everything else listed here, I am much more of a micro-finance/venture capital kind of guy. I guess I would just put this in there anyway to keep up with how it’s going and play around.

Personal Savings – $10,000,000

The engineering economics class that I’m currently in has taught me well the “time value of money”, so I guess that some of this money should be saved for future use. I’m not sure if I would put this wad of cash under a floorboard or actually somewhere productive, but if I did it right, this should cover anything personal in my family for quite a while, no?

Chicago Urban Agriculture Project – $5,000,000

While I don’t think that Urban Agriculture is the solution, it definitely an important part of it. Currently, Will Allen at Growing Power is blowing everyone away in this arena. I’d like to become a partner in his revolution and start a similar large-scale project in Chicago.

Direct Action Against Fossil Fuels – $5,000,000

I’m not sure exactly what this would consist of, but I know it would be epic and I know that it would help prevent any new coal power plants from being built and towards making the lives of oil executives extremely miserable (a la The Yes Men?). I know that this is not the most effective way to make things happen, but there’s still a place for it, and it can definitely be fun!

Posted in Climate Change, Community, Education, Energy, Food, Habitat Restoration, Politics, Social, Sustainable Ag | 2 Comments »

Costa Rica Update #9: Envidia Tropical

Posted by kevinwolz on July 24, 2011

If I hadn’t been expected elsewhere, I would have stayed. Finca Amrta was incredible. I arrived randomly on their doorstep in the pouring rain knowing nothing about their farm and slightly desperate for a place to stay after a few farm flops. My initial intent of two nights there quickly turned into four, then five, then a week. As everyone keeps telling me, “the best things happen when you´re open.”

The daily routine and setup there was similar to that of the first farm, but with more cooking all around. The volunteers were supplied with all the staples, but we had to cook for ourselves, which was really fun and produced some quite epic meals. The farm’s crop diversity, location, community, and overall plan were better than any we had previously experienced. The owners were two U.S. expats who knew so much about the 200+ varieties of trees alone and countless other plant species on their land. The “short” tree tour took two hours.

Over the two weeks on spent on farms in Costa Rica, and especially at Finca Amrta, I was able to interact with many new crops and really learn what agriculture is like in the tropics. Prior to my agricultural experiences in Costa Rica, I had what I would call “tropical envy.” I was convinced that the tropics were any plant’s paradise and that these farms would put anything I had previously experienced to shame. Now, while there is certainly some truth to these claims (hell, Costa Rica’s insane biodiversity certainly speaks for something), my jealously has subsided quite a bit.

Sure, the tropics still win in the sheer number of possible crops, but we (temperate region folk) have a whole separate subset of cool-weather crops that they can’t even begin to touch (rhubarb, Brassicas, asparagus, etc.). The tropics may not have snow or frosts, but their dry season can be just as harsh with droughts. The tropics may have more rain, but this is often too much, causing many crops we know and love (e.g. tomatoes) to only survive under the protection of a roof or barrier. The tropics may have a stronger sun, but we have the day length advantage. The tropics may have a varied terrain, but we have 10 times the top soil.

The comparisons are interesting, and my thoughts have run far deeper in the last two weeks. Overall, I still have no doubt that a well-run tropical farm can out-produce a well-run temperate farm…that’s basic ecology. However, the divide isn’t as steep as I previously thought, and my perspective is much more balanced. We can do some “epic $h!t” up north. I know. I’ve seen it. If only the vasty majority of our country wasn’t ingrained in a system of epic stupidity…

I definitely plan on returning to Finca Amrta in the future. Not quite sure when that’ll be, but if I learned anything there it was that if I’m open, things will likely fall into place. “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.” The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

But, alas, my interests are wide and my time here is short. I left the farm with just under a month left on my topical journey and an entire country yet to experience. So, on Monday, Chelsey and I parted ways, and I headed first for San Vito, Costa Rica. San Vito is home to the Las Cruces Biological Station, one of three stations in Costa Rica owned by the Organization for Tropical Studies. OTS is an organization of universities from around the world that conducts research and educational programs in tropical biology. Their two month-long intensive tropical ecology program was the program that first brought my attention to Costa Rica. Last summer, I was ready to come to down here for their program, but the whole universe once again conspired towards a different plan (forgive me…just read The Alchemist…anybody??), and the rest is history.

Las Cruces seemed as if someone had taken a small chunk of a University and dropped it in the middle of the forest. There were laboratories, dorms, dining halls, conference rooms, offices, smart professors, tired grad students, and confused undergrads (like me). Las Cruces, like the other OTS stations, serves as a central hub for biologists to access all the facilities and info they need to conduct research in the surrounding forest. Many students also come through to take classes or do research on a variety of topics. Overall, it was a really neat academic microcosm that served as a good stepping stone towards Panama. I spent one night at Las Cruces and then finally headed towards to border. Little did I know that a great adventure was awaiting me ahead…

Posted in Biology, Costa Rica, Sustainable Ag | 2 Comments »

Costa Rica Update #8: Las Fincas

Posted by kevinwolz on July 14, 2011

After meeting my friend Chelsey in the middle of San José, we began our several-bus-long journey to the first farm on our list. Upon arrival, we immediately met a great group of volunteers from all over the world and the awesome young Tico owner. The farm is a family farm that doesn’t sell anything to the public; everything is used for the family and volunteers. A huge variety of crops are grown in both mono- and polycultures: every tropical fruit you can think of, your basic garden annuals, and then some special crops like sugar cane (for sugar), Jatropha (for biodiesel), and a variety of tropical hardwoods (for lumber). As far as the working situation goes, the basic setup was this: Get up and have breakfast at 7am to be ready to work at 8am. Work a variety of farms jobs for 3-5 hours. Help cook lunch and eat around noon. Have the afternoon/evening to do as you please. Go to bed early in the volunteer bunk house (12 bunks with mosquito nets, two showers, and outhouse…all under roof but not enclosed).

Jobs included anything from hand-weeding gardens or machete-weeding tree crops to constructing or painting new buildings. By far, however, my favorite task was harvesting bananas and plantains from the many “trees” around the farm. It required lots of machete action and large bunches of tasty fruit falling into your arms. Afternoon activities included hikes to swim at waterfalls deep in the forest, walking down the road to tour other local farms, hanging out with the Tico owners to learn more about their life, and just exploring the farm more deeply on your own. Despite the countless new crops and novel tropical agriculture, I was slightly disappointed by the seeming lack of a system or plan to the farm. I was really hoping to experience some intense and mature Permaculture-type tropical system, but that just wasn’t the case here. This may have something to do with the fact that the farm is a Tico farm that is more focused on maintaining old traditions and just feeding themselves. Perhaps a longer stay would have revealed more. Nevertheless, my eyes have definitely been opened to the opportunities that different climates can provide.

After four days at the first farm, we figured that we had absorbed just about as much as we could in a short stay and decided to head out to Farm #2 . This farm, however, was a good five buses away…more than we wanted to endure in one day. So, we decided to spend part of the weekend in Dominical, a laid back Pacific beach town, as a half-way point. Despite the horrible hotel room (think ceiling fans held up by strings and wood trim attached with band-aids…not our most successful travel decision), we were right on a beautiful beach. Consequently, we got to spend some quality time in the sun and waves, not to mention watch an incredible sunrise over an ocean storm.

From there, the three of us (Chelsey and I were now traveling with one of the volunteers we had met at the first farm.) headed on to the second farm, which we were told had great food and “the best shower in Costa Rica,” something that I was desperately in need of. Upon arrival, however, we had mixed feelings. While there was quite a bit to observe and learn on the farm, the owner didn’t really have any work for us to do and ended up being a creepy old man. The shower and food were good enough to keep us there two nights, but then we decided to head out pretty quickly.

Since a few unfortunate emails the night before had signaled that Farm #3 was also a flop (for completely different reasons), we quickly found ourselves in quite a jam. However, luck would have it that the hippie-FBI-most-wanted-farm-worker-lady told us about another really cool farm down the road. Not exactly trusting her judgement, and wanting to prevent another farm flop, we headed on a quick reconnaissance mission and, after successful results, decided to pack our bags for Finca Amrta…Farm #3b.

Finca Amrta was AMAZING…more or less exactly the type of farm/experience we had been envisioning from the start. We have now been at here for two days (although our travel companion left yesterday for Panama) and plan to stay for about a week. I’ll describe this farm and subsequent plans (still in the works) in my next post. Pictures will also have to wait until I get back to my computer in a month.

I’m really loving the more rural Costa Rican experience as a contrast to what I did for the first six weeks here. I’m learning a lot and seeing so many new things. Can’t wait to see what’s next…Pura Vida!

Posted in Costa Rica, Sustainable Ag | 4 Comments »

I almost sued my University.

Posted by kevinwolz on May 21, 2011

A quick interlude from Costa Rica posts for this one that I never had the chance to post before I left:

A few weeks ago, I wrote my traditional post reflecting on my classes for the semester. While I definitely learned a lot in my classes, this semester would probably best be described as a predominantly extracurricular learning experience. Sure, I’ve always been involved in a bunch of organizations and groups, but I think those activities did more to make me grow as person this semester than anytime before. So, here’s another post reflecting on my extracurricular experiences of last semester.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request: Coal Ash

I should probably start with the project that explains the somewhat dramatic title of this post. My University receives half of its electricity and all of its steam from a coal/natural gas power plant located on campus…two blocks from my apartment. Last year, Students for Environmental Concerns (the premier student environmental group on campus) launched a “Campuses Beyond Coal” campaign with the ultimate goal of getting our campus to stop using coal and switching completely to natural gas until renewable sources can be realized.

As part of this campaign, we wanted to know more about the toxic waste product that comes out of the plant, known as coal ash (it’s the same concept as the ash in your fireplace, except this stuff is carcinogenic and has every heavy metal you can think of in it). To get this information, a friend and I FOIAed the University. FOIA is an amazing state law that allows citizens to request any public document. Since the University is a public institution, it is subject to this law as well.

The University subsequently provided us with the requested document but redacted (blacked-out) ALL of the information that we wanted in the document. The University cited certain exemptions in the FOIA law that allowed them to do this, claiming that the information we wanted constituted “trade secrets.” Seeing as environmental organizations get this information all the time and that the University’s rational seemed completely bogus, we asked the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to review the request.

At this point the story gets a bit boring and drawn out. Suffice it to say that Illinois Public Access Counselor did, in fact, review our request and that this process involved a lot of letters written by all parties, with the University basically just doing a lot of whining.

After several months of review, the Attorney General ruled in our favor for about half of the information we wanted (coal ash content and disposal method). This was a huge success! Unfortunately, however, the law is written in such a way that makes this ruling not much more than a “recommendation” to the University. So, after the ruling, we waited….and waited…and waited. This is where I almost sue my University. Unfortunately, if the University didn’t comply with the ruling, litigation (with the help of the Sierra Club) was the next step. Luckily, however, the University eventually came through, and we now have the information we sought!

Since the information came at the last second, reviewing the contents and determining what to do next is a task for next semester.

The learning experiences associated with this project were immense. This was my first intense involvement with the legal system and the (crazy) politics associated with it. Also, we received quite a bit of press during this project, which was another experience in itself.

Student Sustainability Committee (SSC)

Late last fall, I was chosen to serve on the SSC, a committee of ten students that manages the pool of money generated through the University’s sustainability fees ($13 per student per year, totaling just over $1 million per year). Due to the members’ dedication and our rather large pool of money, the SSC holds quite a bit of power on campus, especially during the current budget crunch. The committee solicits proposals for sustainable projects on campus as well as spearheads the creation of some larger-scale projects. I view my participation on the SSC as one of the most important things on do on campus because, regarding sustainability, we are the ones who get things done. My primary activities on the committee included the following:

  • Campus Wind Turbine: The campus wind turbine project has been 6 years in the making, but now, not even a month ago, the project was killed by the University. I am going to save myself the distress of retelling the story and point you towards this newspaper article which has a good summary of the project. We fought hard this semester to save a project on its last legs. While we may have lost the battle, the war is still certainly in our hands, and students will continue to push for campus innovation and investment in sustainability. I learned a lot through participating in this project, the most important being how to negotiate. Throughout the semester I had the privilege of representing students at several meeting with the University President, Chancellor, and other high-level administrators. So starts my political career…
  • Sustainable Student Farm: I’ve ben working with the farm since last fall, but the focus this semester was on creating a business plan and sound finances. This was quite a difficult task, and we are definitely still working on a sound plan (see iFAP below), but the experience was nonetheless very rewarding.
  • Large-Scale Food Composting Plan: This was a big one. Once again, I have been working on this project since last October, but everything really started coming together this spring. The SSC wants to fund a large-scale composting project on campus, and I was placed in charge of basically figuring out how to do this…and then, of course, getting it done. I have dealt with workers and administrators from almost every department on campus, and, in summary, it has been CRAZY. The logistics of this project have been insane…from making engineering calculations and massive Excel spreadsheets to navigating political games and financial negotiations. During the process, I have both made friends and also discovered who to avoid. I have been lied to, stabbed in the back, avoided, stonewalled, and more. University politics and red tape are simply ridiculous. Nevertheless, I had some advances late in the semester, and good things are hopefully happening this summer. A successful composting operation will certainly be a great asset to our campus, but more importantly, this project has done wonders to teach me the inner workings of my campus and how to GET THINGS DONE.

Illinois Cross Country & Track Club Reorganization

Mid-way through the semester, the running club I’m part of began the slow process of reorganizing our club (the grad students that so strongly lead our club will be graduating relatively soon, and we felt it necessary to restructure in order to ensure that the club could function without them, as it will need to in the future). This process started with many long conversations and one large “town hall meeting” in my apartment (aided by our large white boards of course). Eventually, I sat down and rewrote much of our nine-page constitution based on these conversations, and we’re now proceeding at full speed with a new structure, new goals, and even more energy. I absolutely cannot wait to see the awesome things we do next year. Suffice it to say that throughout this process I learned quite a bit about politics, organization structure, communication, and leadership in general.

Honors House Prairie Garden

This project wasn’t much until spring hit, but once the ground thawed I was all in. I won’t say anything about the project here since I already have a post dedicated to it, but I will say that biggest learning experience this project gave me was how to complete a project on a (very) low budget…a good skill to have in Illinois at this time.

Illinois Food Action Plan (iFAP)

This project was just ramping up at the end of the semester and is still in its infant stages. Nevertheless, I spent quite a bit of time throughout the semester brainstorming how to pull the project together. Several years ago, the President of our University has signed a long document called the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP). This document outlines the many things that our campus needs to do to reduce its carbon footprint and become more sustainable. One specific target of iCAP is that 30% of all campus food be purchased within 100 miles of campus by 2015…a goal that, in my opinion, we are currently not on track to achieve.

Consequently, I decided to take the necessary steps to organize a working group of all campus and community stakeholders in order to construct a plan that would lead us to success in this arena. I managed to get the group situated and conversation off the ground before I left, but now they are on their own to do some great things over the summer. Typically, I can facilitate meetings very well, but I’ve had some difficulty with this group…mainly because almost everyone sitting at the table with me has a PhD, and I don’t. This makes it very difficult and awkward for me to interrupt them or direct the meeting in a certain way. Nevertheless, the many relationships and large network that I have formed in my first two years at U of I are now proving strong enough to produce some real change. Of course, the knowledge that I gained during all my experiences last summer is now proving to be a major asset as I strive to push for change on my own campus.


Wow, that was a long post. But this is exactly what I’m talking about when I encourage people to take control of their education and their future. Classes are important, but not nearly as important as the lessons that can be learned working on real projects with real people creating real change.

Not to mention, it’s reassuring to reflect on this after you check your semester grades and see the first B you’ve ever gotten…

Posted in College, Community, Energy, Politics, Sustainable Ag | 2 Comments »