FIVE

CARBON
POOLS

Wes Jackson

a bou t t h e au t hor
Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist and one of the foremost thinkers in sustainable agriculture. In 1976 he founded
The Land Institute to develop “natural systems agriculture.” Jackson’s many honors include being named a Pew
Conservation Scholar and a MacArthur Fellow. He received the Right Livelihood Award in 2000, and he is a Fellow
of Post Carbon Institute. His books include New Roots for Agriculture, Becoming Native to This Place, and Consulting
the Genius of the Place, from which this essay is adapted.
“Five Carbon Pools” is adapted from Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture;
© 2011 by Wes Jackson, used by permission of the author and Counterpoint.

This publication is an excerpted chapter from The Energy Reader: Overdevelopment and
the Delusion of Endless Growth, Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner, eds.
(Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2012). The Energy Reader is copyright © 2012
by the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and published in collaboration with Watershed
Media and Post Carbon Institute.
For other excerpts, permission to reprint, and purchasing visit energy-reality.org or
contact Post Carbon Institute.
Photo: George Wuerthner

Post Ca r bon I nst i tu t e | 613 4t h St r e et, Su i t e 208 | Sa n ta Rosa, Ca li for n i a 95404 USA

The invention of agriculture ten millennia ago was
the first step toward the current problem of climate change.
Humans then began a way of life that would exploit
the first of five relatively nonrenewable pools of energy-rich
Pull quote here lorem ipsum
carbon—soil. Trees, coal, oil, and natural gas would
dolor sit amet
follow as additional pools to rob from. We are the first
species in this multibillion-year journey of life on
Earth that will have to practice restraint after years
of reckless use of the five carbon pools.

T h e F i rst Pool

O

ur very being, the physical and cognitive attributes of Homo sapiens, was shaped by a seamless
series of changing ecosystems embedded within an
ever-changing ecosphere over hundreds of millions
of years. The planet’s ability to support humans into
a distant future was not on the line. The context of
our livelihood kept our numbers more or less in check.
Diseases killed us. Predators ate us. Sometimes we
starved. The context that had shaped us was the context within which we lived. Apparently we had been
eating grains but not improving them for centuries.
But something happened some ten millennia ago called
the Agricultural Revolution. It also became a treadmill. It happened first in one of these ecosystems, most
likely in the land to the east of the Mediterranean, but
soon spread. Hunter-gatherers initiated what would be
recognized later as a break with nature, a split. This
new way of being began our escape from gathering
and hunting as a way of life. To set the record straight,
Eden was no garden and our escape only partial. Where
we planted our crops, we reduced the diversity of the
biota. The landscape simplified by agriculture locked
our ancestors into a life of “thistles, thorns, and sweat
of brow.” We became a species out of context. It has
been said that if we were meant to be agricul­t urists, we
would have had longer arms.
No matter how unpleasant this agricultural work may

have been, the food calories increased. Our numbers
rose; more mouths needed to be fed. No matter that
they disliked thistles and thorns and sweat of brow,
our ances­tors loved their children and their own lives,
and so they kept doing it. They had to eat. Some gave
up agriculture when they had the chance. The intro­
duction of the horse by the Spanish allowed some of the
Native Americans to return to hunting and gathering,
for a short while. Eventually the draft animals, especially the ox and the horse, were domesticated. These
creatures used the stored sunlight of a grass, shrub, or
tree leaf and transferred it to the muscle used to pull a
plow or bear a load. They became “beasts of burden.”
This step onto the agriculture treadmill was the first
toward the current and looming problem of climate
change. It was in that time that humans began a way
of life that would exploit the first of five relatively
nonrenew­able pools of energy-rich carbon—soil.
Trees, coal, oil, and natural gas would follow as additional pools to rob from. Our crops and we—both of
us—were beneficiaries of the energy released as nutrients stored in the carbon compounds in the soil now
became available. It was agriculture that featured annuals in monoculture instead of perennials in mixtures
where the split with nature began. And so it was at
this moment that the carbon compounds of the soil
were exposed to more rapid oxida­tion. Carbon dioxide
headed for the atmosphere, and the nutrients formerly
1

Jack son

bound up in those organic compounds—nutrients such
as phosphorus and potassium—were now available for
uptake by our annual crop plants. So, this wasn’t really a
use of the energy-rich carbon in the sense that we were
after the energy stored in the carbon molecule. Rather,
the breaking of the carbon compound at work in the
soil was a consequence of agriculture. With agriculture, the soils that had once safely absorbed the footsteps
of the Paleolithic gatherers and hunters and their food
supply lay vulnerable. The hoe, along with the power
to domesticate plants into crops and wild animals into
livestock, turned these people into the most important revolutionar­ies our species has ever known. They
plunged ahead in this new way of life, repeatedly modifying their agrarian technique as they went.
How many were aware they were at the forefront of a
way of life dependent on deficit spending of the Earth’s
capital? Certainly long before the advent of writing,
humans must have understood that till agriculture not
only simplifies the landscape but also compromises soil
quality and plant fertility. Even so, the reality informed
by the immediate reigned. People needed food. Energyrich carbon molecules were the workhorses in the soil
accommodating a diversity of species. The seeds from
annual crop monocultures would feed the tribe. The
energy-rich carbon in the grains provided these tribes
with a more reliable and abundant food supply and,
therefore, made possible the beginning of civilization.
Eventually the descendants of these farmers had the
tools necessary to expand the scale of shrub and tree
harvest. Now the agriculturists could more aggres­sively
exploit the second nonrenewable pool—forests.

T h e Secon d Pool
Five thousand or so years passed. It is easy to imagine
that as the agricul­t urists wandered through the forests,
their curious minds saw that they could cut down the
forests to purify ores. This led to the creation some five
thousand years ago of first the Bronze Age and then the
Iron Age, and led to a further distancing of nature. But
soon this second pool of energy-rich carbon was on its
way to being used up beyond local replacement levels.
This second use of carbon—deforestation—became,

Five Car bon Pools

unambiguously, a mining operation. And it came on
fast. And so the forests went down as the soils were
eroding, first in the Middle East and later in Europe
and Asia. And so it went for millennia, relentlessly, until
recently.

T h e T h i r d Pool
Only one-quarter of one millennium ago, the third
pool—coal—was opened on a large scale with the
launching of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. But
already by 1700, England’s forests were mostly gone
to heat the pig iron. The Brits then took their ore to
Ireland, where forests were still abundant, to purify the
metal. The stock of the second pool of energy-rich carbon, the forests, had been so depleted that this third pool
must have gladdened the hearts of those who would
exploit it. Coal reduced the pressure on the forests only
slightly, for after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, it
cost England its forests to rule the waves for the next
three hundred years.
The availability of coal, this third pool, provided a
quantum leap in our ability to accomplish more work
in a shorter period of time. The density of energy stored
in a pound of coal is far greater than the density in a
pound of wood. The accessibility and breakability of
coal sponsored countless hopes, dreams, and aspirations
of the British Empire. However, the colonialism those
carbon pools made possible also destroyed local cultural
and ecological arrangements that will be, at best, slow
to replace in a Sun-powered world.
It seems inevitable now that Neolithic farmers would
move from a Stone Age and on to a Bronze Age, and
later, an Iron Age. Similarly, given the energy density
of coal, it also seems inevitable now that a steam engine
would be built to accelerate the Industrial Revolution.
Without soil carbon, forests, and coal, it seems doubtful that the Brit­ish Empire would have had the slack in
1831 to send a young Charles Darwin on his famous
voyage around the world. And once home, he was given
the leisure to investigate his collections, pore over his
journals, exchange letters with contemporaries, converse with his scientific peers, and finally, in 1859, have
2

Jack son

On the Origin of Species appear in London bookstores.

T h e F ou rt h Pool
The year 1859 was an auspicious one, beyond
Darwin’s publication. It was also the year of the first
oil well—Colonel Edwin Drake’s oil well in western
Pennsylvania—and the opening of the fourth pool of
energy-rich carbon, oil. Cut a tree and you have to
either chop or saw it into usable chunks. Coal you have
to break up. But oil is a portable liquid fuel transferable
in a pipe, a perfect product of the Iron Age.
The year 1859 was also when the ardent abolitionist
John Brown was hanged at Harpers Ferry, a reality
more than coincidental. In some respects, John Brown,
beyond believing in the absolute equality of blacks and
whites, stands alone in his time. His fervor would have
received little traction had not the numbers of abolitionists been growing in the indus­trial North. The South
had coal, of course, but not as much. It was a more
agrarian society. Northern supporters, who were more
profligate carbon-pool users, could afford to be more
self-righteous than the more agrarian, less coal-using,
slaveholding South. Leisure often makes virtue easier.

T h e F i f t h Pool
Natural gas has been available in some form of use
back to the times of the ancient Greeks. But it did not
become a manageable pool as a major power source
until after coal began to be used. We count it as the fifth
pool and likely the last major pool. Other minor pools
may follow, such as the lower-quality tar sands and shale
oil—both energy- and water-intensive for their extraction—which are in the early stages of being exploited.
Over the last half century, we have used natural gas as
a feedstock to make nitrogen fertilizer, which we apply
to our fields to provide us a bountiful food supply while
creating dead zones in our oceans. This technology,
called the Haber-Bosch process, was developed in the
first decade of the twentieth century by two Germans,
Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. Vaclav Smil, a resource
scholar at the University of Manitoba, has called it “the
most important invention of the twentieth century.”

Five Car bon Pools

Without it, Smil says, 40 percent of humanity would
not be here. This is certainly a true enough statement
given the reality of our cattle, pig, and chicken welfare
programs.
When we were gatherers and hunt­ers, the ecosystem
kept us in check. But since the advent of agriculture,
we have forced the landscape to meet our expectations,
and we have been cen­tered on this way of life. We
plow. We cut forests. We mine coal. We drill for oil
and natural gas. We want the stored sunlight the oxygen helps release. The oxygen that enters our lungs to
oxidize energy-rich carbon molecules in our cells is
internal combustion—not too dissimilar to the oxygen
that enters the air intake of an automobile and, with the
aid of a spark, releases the energy to power a bulldozer
or to run a car idling in a traffic jam.
We relentlessly rearrange the five carbon pools to get
more energy or more useful materials. Internal combustion is the name of the game. We reorder our landscapes
and industrial machinery to keep our economic enterprises (and ourselves) going, all the while depleting the
stocks of nonrenewable energy-rich carbon. We are like
bacteria on a Petri dish with sugar.
So here we are, the first species in this multibillionyear journey of life on Earth that will have to practice
restraint after years of reckless use of the five carbon
pools. None of our ancestors had to face this reality.
We are living in the most important and challenging
moment in the history of Homo sapi­ens, more important
than any of our wars, more important than our walk out
of Africa. More important than any of our conceptual
revolutions. We have to consciously practice restraint
to end our “use it till it’s gone” way of life. We have to
stop deficit spending of the ecosphere and reduce our
numbers if we hope to prevent widespread sociopolitical upheaval.

3

ENERGY

Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth
Edited by Tom Butler and George Wuerthner
We have reached a point of crisis with regard to energy...
The essential problem is not just that we are tapping the
wrong energy sources (though we are), or that we are wasteful
and inefficient (though we are), but that we are overpowered,
and we are overpowering nature.
— from the Introduction, by Richard Heinberg

In a large-format, image-driven narrative featuring over 150
breathtaking color photographs, ENERGY explores the
impacts of the global energy economy: from oil spills and
mountaintop-removal coal mining to oversized wind farms
and desert-destroying solar power plants. ENERGY lifts the
veil on the harsh realities of our pursuit of energy at any
price, revealing the true costs, benefits, and limitations of
all our energy options.
Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in collaboration with Watershed Media and
Post Carbon Institute. 336 pages, 11.75” x 13.4”, 152 color photographs, 5 line illustrations.
$50.00 hardcover, ISBN 978-0970950086, Fall 2012.

The ENERGY Reader
Edited by Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner

What magic, or monster, lurks behind the light switch and
the gas pump? Where does the seemingly limitless
energy that fuels modern society come from? From oil
spills, nuclear accidents, mountaintop removal coal
mining, and natural gas “fracking” to wind power projects
and solar power plants, every source of energy has costs.
Featuring the essays found in ENERGY plus additional
material, The ENERGY Reader takes an unflinching look
at the systems that support our insatiable thirst for more
power along with their unintended side effects.
Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in collaboration with Watershed Media and
Post Carbon Institute. 384 pages, 6” x 9”, 7 b/w photographs, 5 line illustrations.
$19.95 paperback, ISBN 978-0970950093, Fall 2012.

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