From the Archives: Toward a Green Economy (1991)

“To save the world that gives us life, we must begin immediately to grow our own energy.”

The nationwide popularity of the Earth Week 1990 festivities showed the concern that Americans feel about the continuing degradation of the global environment. The twentieth anniversary celebration of the original Earth Day focused on ways that individual citizens can reduce waste and retard pollution. From coast to coast, a plethora of multimedia displays demonstrated the need for recycling used materials and lowering power consumption. They showed the changes in lifestyle necessary to halt the poisoning of the Earth.

An environmentally-conscious populace would prove to be a frugal one if those Earth Week programs were adopted. Assuming that the American people would be willing to cut back on energy consumption and muster the effort to recycle their trash, would industrial corporations and energy producers be willing to do the same? Would corporate America drop the aggressive sales pitches, stop spending billions to encourage people to buy impulsively? Would people be able to kick the mass consumption habit that’s been generations in the making? Would corporate America ever entertain the idea of abstaining from its short-term profit fix, and consider the consequences of quick-return capitalism for future generations of life on Earth?

President Bush’s speech—given just days after Earth Week 1990 at the 17-nation conference dealing with global pollution held in Washington, DC—drew criticism from European participants. Bush’s emphasis on scientific and economic uncertainties was seen as White House foot dragging on the environmental issue.

A memo prepared by administration staffers for members of the US delegation, under the heading “Debates To Avoid,” instructed delegates to avoid discussion of “whether there is or is not [global] warming, or how much or how little warming. In the eyes of the public we will lose this debate. A better approach is to raise the many uncertainties that need to be better understood on this issue.”

Bush repeatedly stressed the need to find policies that do not limit economic growth: “Environmental policies that ignore the economic factor, are destined to fail” [Science News, April 28,1990].

President Bush publicly prides himself on his career in the oil industry. He is, to say the least, an energy-industry celebrity. But he has also gone to great lengths to represent himself as the “environmental president.” If the Bush administration believes that “in the eyes of the public” they will lose any debate questioning the scientific validity of the greenhouse effect, is it possible they don’t believe that excessive accumulation of greenhouse gasses generated by fossil fuel-burning is unbalancing the global carbon-dioxide cycle? Or is it possible that the corporate/industrial-energy complex, which controls the trillion-dollar-per-year energy industry, fears profit losses and—unlike the American people—is in no way willing to make a sacrifice in corporate “lifestyle” to help heal the Earth?

President Bush is right about one thing. “Policies that ignore the economic factor, the human factor, are destined to fail.” In this case, the economic factor and the human factor converge into dire straits: If we do not convert from a fossil-fueled economy to a biomass-fueled economy, the human factor will become part of the fossil history on Planet Earth.

The corporate/industrial-energy complex is collectively holding its breath on the topic of biomass resource-conversion to replace fossil fuels. The industrial energy giants spend millions in public relations explaining how they are environmentally responsible, yet the fossil-fuel resources they peddle are endangering our fragile ecosphere. The majority of scientists throughout the world agree: The single most effective way to halt the greenhouse effect is to stop burning fossil fuels.

It was proven in the 1970s that biomass, specifically plant mass, can be converted to fuels that could replace every type of fossil fuel currently produced by industry—and these biomass fuels are essentially non-polluting.

Fossil-fuel materials—coal, oil and natural gas—were made by nature from Earth biomass that lived over 160 million years ago. Crude fossil fuels contain hydrocarbon compounds that were made by plant life during the process of photosynthesis.

Carbon dioxide and water were converted into hydrocarbon-rich cellulose. Plants manufacture many other biochemicals in the complex and mysterious act of living—but cellulose and lignin are the compounds that give plants structure, body, and strength. They are the main components of plant mass.

Nature took millions of years to concentrate the ancient plant mass into what we call fossil fuels. The eons-long process that converted the once-living biomass into hydrocarbon-rich fossils also compressed sulfur into the fossil biomass. It is this sulfur that causes acid rain when belched out of power-plant smokestacks. According to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, 50,000 Americans and 10,000 Canadians die each year from exposure to acid rain. Humankind, through the science of chemical engineering, can transform modern biomass into hydrocarbon-rich fuels that contain no sulfur because fresh plant mass contains no sulfur. And the scientific method of biomass conversion into hydrocarbon fuels requires mere hours instead of eons to accomplish.

The inherent problem with burning fossil fuels to power industrial energy systems and economies is the mega-ton release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. However, biomass-derived fuels are part of the present-day global CO2 cycle. The quantity of CO2 released into the air from burning biomass fuels equals the amount of CO2 that the biomass energy crop absorbed while it grew. If the energy crop is an annual plant, then one year’s biomass fuel (when burned) will supply the CO2 needed for the next year’s fuel biomass growth. There will be no net increase in atmospheric CO2.

For over 100 years industrialized nations have burned hydrocarbon fuels that are not part of the current ecosystem. The delicate balance between life and climatic cycles is being unbalanced by injecting ancestral CO2 into the atmosphere.

The only way to reduce the ever-thickening blanket of carbon dioxide warming the earth is to grow more plants to absorb it. Yet the Bush administration’s plan to plant one billion trees a year will only reduce by 15 percent the amount of CO2 predicted for the end of the century. However, American CO2 production (from burning fossil fuels) will rise by 35 percent during the same time period [Science News, April 28,1990]. The Bush administration’s plan is futile as long as fossil fuels remain America’s major energy resource. And at the rate forests are being cut down to make the paper our society is wrapped up in, a billion saplings a year will barely compensate for that loss in CO2 absorption. In addition, wood happens to be the government’s chief biomass candidate to replace the dwindling fossil-fuel supply. Officials claim US yearly energy consumption can be met by harvesting one-third of the trees in the National Forests on a rotating basis coupled with more intensive silvaculture (tree farming) techniques. Estimated yearly biomass production in the National Forests is one ton per acre [Progress in Biomass Conversion, Vol. 1; Kyosti V. Sarkenen and David Tillman, editors]. However, private industry has been, without conscience, clear-cutting unprotected timber stands in National Forest and Parks, and none of that wood is going into biomass fuel conversion. The US Forestry Service is the government bureaucracy promoting this ludicrous forests-for-fuel idea.

The trees of the world are the biosphere’s C02-cycle safety valve. Since a tree will live for centuries, forests can gradually pull the excess CO2 out of the air. Trees are not only aesthetically pleasing—they can cure our ailing atmosphere.

Is it realistic to halt construction to save trees, or to ask people to stop using paper?

If wood resources cannot hope to meet the demand for lumber, paper and biomass fuels, can any plant be cultivated to meet those needs? This problem is not new. Civilizations have been exhausting vital resources and dooming themselves for centuries. Versatility, cleverness and common sense are the hallmarks of the ones that survive.

About 75 years ago, two dedicated USDA scientists projected that at the rate the US was using paper, we would deplete the forests in our lifetime. Those government scientists were endowed with common sense—something government officials are hopelessly lacking nowadays. So USDA scientists Dewey and Merrill looked for an alternate agricultural resource for paper products to prevent the disaster we now face.

They found the ideal candidate to be the waste material left in the fields after the hemp harvest. The leftover pulp, called hemp hurds, was traditionally burned in the fields when the hemp fiber had been removed after completion of the time-consuming retting process (partially rotting the hemp stalk to separate the fiber from the hurds).

Since hemp hurds are richer in cellulose and contain less lignin than wood pulp, Dewey and Merrill found that the harsh sulfur acids used to break down the lignin in wood pulp were not necessary when making paper from hemp hurds. Sulfur-acid wastes from paper mills are known to be a major source of waterway pollution. The coarse paper they made from hemp hurds was stronger and had greater folding durability than coarse wood-pulp paper. Hemp hurd paper would make better cardboard and paper-bag products than wood paper. They found the fine print quality of hemp hurd paper to be equal to writing-quality wood pulp paper [USDA Bulletin, no. 404].

The only problem in implementing the change from wood to hemp hurds was that machinery to separate hemp fiber from the hurds needed to be developed. Separation was still done by hand after the machine breaks had softened the hemp stalks. The “decorticating” machine that separated the fiber and hurds wasn’t developed until the early 1930s. Popular Mechanics declared in 1937 that hemp would be a billion-dollar-a-year crop because of this new machinery and their predictions did not take into consideration hemp’s potential as a biomass-fuel resource. But they did not predict that hemp would be maligned. Its flower tops and leaves condemned as marijuana, hemp was outlawed-just when the fiber/hurd separating machinery had been perfected.

If America had not been infected with anti-marijuana hysteria, hemp would be solving our energy problems today. When marijuana was outlawed, most people did not know that “marijuana” was Mexican slang for cannabis hemp. The American people, including doctors who routinely prescribed cannabis extract medicines, thought hemp and marijuana were two different plants. Otherwise hemp prohibition might never have happened.

Eastern Europeans were not subjected to the hysterical anti-marijuana syndrome plaguing the West. Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, among others, continued to make clothing from hemp fibers and medicines from hemp flowers. They pressed the versatile and edible oil from the seeds and used the leftover high-protein seed mash to make breakfast cereal and livestock feed. And they used surplus hemp for building insulation.

Here in the US, a private firm called Mansion Industries is pioneering the use of agricultural fibers to make sturdy, light-weight construction paneling to replace plywood. Mansion uses straw to make their Envirocore (TM) panels. According to Dewey and Merrill’s test results, if hemp was an available resource, Envirocore (TM) construction paneling would be even stronger.

It’s not too late to save our environment, but it is absolutely essential that we start now. Restoring the balance to the biosphere’s ecosystem will require courage and determination, but not self-denial. We need not give up our comfort or quality of life.

America stands at the crossroads of greatness and decline. The might of our weaponry will not sustain us anymore. Our chance to again lead the world will require the same kind of determination we once used to turn our peacetime economy into war production during the 1940s. But the “war mentality” will no longer help us. This time we must be innovative and change the very way we produce our energy resources. Hemp prohibition must end at once in order to inaugurate a nationwide green economy. To save the world that gives us life, we must begin immediately to grow our own energy.

Hemp is the only plant capable of becoming the American biomass-energy standard. Hemp grows well everywhere on earth, except for the polar regions. Hemp will out-produce wood at a rate greater than four-to-one per acre in cellulose/pulp. And by analyzing pre-prohibition hemp-crop reports from various states, ten tons per acre becomes a reasonable biomass production figure. Hemp will make ten times more biomass per acre than forest wood.

Wood is not a viable fuel resource. The forests are essential to scrub the CO2 from the air. Soft-wood forests should not be harvested for paper products or biomass—their only economic value. Hemp can supply that need. Hardwood trees should be harvested, utilizing sustainable-yield ecology, for board and finishing lumber only. Hemp will make pressed-board lighter and more durable than plywood.

Hemp can be grown for crude biomass fuels on energy farms; fiber/hurds for textiles, pressed-board and hurd cellulose products; seed for oil and high-protein foods; flowers for pharmaceutical-grade extract medicines and recreational herbal products for adults.

The green economy based on a hemp multi-industry complex will provide income for farmers in every state. Regions for each hemp agricultural industry application will be established through open, free-market competition. The historically traditional hemp fiber growing areas in the eastern US will re-emerge, creating new jobs in an old industry. The economically devastated northern plains will see a boom as the nation’s energy-farming states. Medicinal and intoxicant-grade hemp will be grown on less-productive, higher-elevation lands. Mountainous areas have traditionally produced intoxicant-quality hemp.

Ironically, although the target of prohibitionist “reefer madness” propaganda, the hemp medicine and intoxicant industry will generate the least amount of capital.

The hemp-seed oil and food-resource industries, and the hemp-textile and cellulose industries will develop thousands of sustainable new jobs. Hemp-energy farming will become the backbone of a trillion-dollar-a-year non-polluting energy-production industry. And the petroleum industries need not fear this, for their expertise, hardware and manpower are vital to turn the farmers’ raw biomass into refined fuels.

These projections could represent a tremendous boon to our flagging economy, a by-product of the need to save our world from human-induced biocide. If we as a society have the courage and determination to set upon this bold path of planetary restoration, we can in our lifetimes leave a healthier world to our children as well as a lifestyle based on renewable resources in a balanced ecosystem that our children can leave to their children for generations to come.

High Times Magazine, March 1991

Read the rest of the issue here.

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