I spent a big chunk of yesterday working on the Counterclaim page for EMF (ElectroMagnetic Fields) and starting a new page on biochar. These are both areas where a number of well-meaning people (including yours truly), who have been promoting technology they see as socially or environmentally progressive, have come under fire from activists who see them as benefiting only the industrial players involved, and the arguments defending their as misleading PR (Public Relations).

EMF are forms of “non-ionizing radiation” that people have been exposed to for decades. An EMF surrounds everything that has as electrical current flowing through it, from high-tension electric transmission lines to household wiring and appliances. EMF are produced intentionally by modern technologies in the form of the radiofrequency radiation (RF) used in radio and television broadcasts, cell phone networks, wi-fi networks, and most recently wireless “smart meters” that use RF to send electricity usage data from the point of use back to the power company. There have been groups raising public health concerns about EMF pollution for decades, but concerns about the increasing “electrosmog” created by the interaction of all the different forms of EMF people are now being exposed to, and ironically, the ability to access information about them and organise campaigns over the internet, have produced a plethora of new EMF-related watchdog groups.

Public health authorities are under huge pressure from industry not to cry wolf in ways that might be bad for business, and can only make public statements and set regulations based on conclusive scientific data, and if that data supports public health policy that could reduce the profits of powerful companies, it has to be bulletproof to survive the lobbying war that inevitably follows. The WHO has classified cell phone RF as a “possible carcinogen“, which means there is weak evidence that it might cause cancer, which is more than *no* evidence, but not strong enough evidence to come to a firm conclusion either way. The strongest indication that there may be a case to answer is the group of 190 scientists, from 39 nations, who signed the International EMF Scientist Appeal, all of whom have published peer-reviewed studies relating to health effects of EMF.

This is a subject I feel very conflicted about. I have been a vocal proponent of using wi-fi (wireless networking technology) to extend access to the internet to more people more quickly and cheaply than laying cables. Since my time with Indymedia, along with many other media activist, I’ve been excited by the possibilities wi-fi potentially opens up, of an internet infrastructure that doesn’t depend on corporate-owned cables and datacentres. The radically democratic values behind this vision were articulated in the Free Network Definition, by the now seemingly defunct Free Network Foundation. The possibility that all of us who’ve been advocating for this vision have been serving as “useful idiots”, covering for a wi-fi equipment industry profiting from health damaging EMF pollution, is a deeply disturbing one.

I feel similarly conflicted about biochar, which I first came across at gatherings of the permaculture movement. Proponents argued that it could be made from fast-growing noxious weeds, like gorse and blackberry, using community-scale, DIY equipment. They made strong claims about its potential as a technology for harvesting energy from biomass waste, improving soil, increasing food production, and sequestering carbon. I’ve read comments by university academics researching it which seem to back this up, like the late Dr Peter Read who researched biochar at Massey University, in in Aotearoa/ NZ. Yet there are also climate campaigners like George Monbiot of the Guardian and Steven Horn of DeSmogBlog, who dismiss it as unworkable, and worse, claim that it could actually cause more harm to the environment. Are they misinformed, or am I, and other permaculturists who support biochar technology, serving as a useful idiot to investors trying to talk up a potential biochar industry? As usual, creating a CounterClaim page on biochar illustrates that there are more than two sides to this story. From my reading so far, it seems that while the benefits of biochar for large-scale carbon sequestration may have been over-hyped, its potential as a way to produce energy from plant waste and add carbon to depleted soils to improve fertility are still very exciting.

Filed March 30th, 2017 under Uncategorized