Towards Subtraction

Transcending Net-Zero to Net-Green

Observe the way the Earth subtracts more of its carbon into cycling and sequestration than it adds back to the biosphere. — Earthen ethic №4

This is the ninth essay in the Earthen Ethic series. Here we take a look at the fourth principle of ecological contribution. Art by Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel, German artist and philosopher who coined the term ‘ecology’ — Kunstformen der Natur (1904)

58 MILLION YEARS AGO the Earth entered the Carboniferous period with an atmosphere full of CO2. At the outset of the age, plants had just evolved leaves and stalks. 50 million years later, not only did vast leafy forests cover the planet, the Earth’s atmospheric carbon had been reduced 10 fold.

Early in the period, plants had just figured out how to make lingin cells; the sturdy cellulose required to build bark and trunks. Meanwhile, fungi had yet to devise a means for its quick decomposition. When a tree fell, before it could be decomposed and its carbon released, other fallen trees and vegetation would cover it up. Entombed with no oxygen or sunlight reaching it, bacteria and fungi, could not break it down. Compacted by more and more fallen forest, the tree’s carbon was effectively secured into geological storage — along with countless others like it. As unprecedented amounts of biomass were sequestered from the atmosphere, the climate stabilized, oxygen levels soared and life flourished in epic abundance and diversity. Recorded in the fossils of the time are ancestral dragonflies with wingspans of 70cm. They flew between 40m tall trees (distantly related to our current club-mosses) while ancestral forms of horsetails grew to heights of 15m. Fossil centipedes and scorpions from the period have been discovered 70–150cm in length! Although the abundance of the Carboniferous eventually came to its end, it lasted for millions of years. In fact, it is the carbon of this age that is the coal of ours.

The Carboniferous age, its trees and forests, embody in dramatic fashion the fourth phenomenon that has characterized the Earth’s greening of the biosphere — the tendency of subtraction over addition. Like our previous principles, it is a phenomenon manifested from the micro to the macro. As organisms manage their carbon, they tend to subtract more into concentration than they return to the atmosphere. Likewise, an ecosystem tends to subtract more of its carbon into geology than it adds back into its ecology. Despite volcanoes and asteroids kicking carbon back up into the atmosphere, with life tending inexorably over the eons towards sequestration, sure and steady, atmospheric CO2 levels lowered and geological carbon storage increased (see figure 5). Overall, this lead to the planet’s climate stabilizing — enabling life to flourish as it never had before. Indeed, net-subtraction is the hallmark of the most abundant, diverse and green biomes — from the Carboniferous forests of old to the rain forests and reefs of today.i

As we strive to ensure our human enterprises are green, the Earth shows us the way forward. Just as the Earth tended it’s processes towards carbon net-subtraction, so too must we intend and achieve the same with our own. Only when the intention and the result of our processes is the concentration and sequestration of carbon, is the principle of net-subtraction met. And only when this ethic is fulfilled, along with the other five, can our acts and enterprises be considered ecological contributions — and green.

Dance of the plastic bag — Scene from American Beauty

Around the world, an emblem of the issue of green is our manufacture and disposal of plastic bags.

Often, used plastic bags are tossed into a trash bin. Once out of our hands and into a landfill, the bag photo-degrades into smaller and smaller pieces which scatter with the wind. In so far as the plastic (and its carbon) is added loose into the biosphere without any balancing sequestration, the process is not net-subtractive. Nor is it green.

However, for the same reasons, tossing a plastic bag into a recycling bin also risks violating the principle of net-subtraction. Once on its way through industry, significant CO2 emissions result from the transportation and reprocessing of the plastic.

But just how much?

When evaluating our acts and enterprises we must first inquire if an accounting of the net grey and green impacts has been conducted. If not, then the process fails to meet the principle of net-subtraction out of hand. After all, how can a process involve the intention of a green contribution if no accounting of its actual impact has been done? Whether a bag is paper, plastic or cotton, it occurs within the fundamentally net-additive petro-capital economy. The onus is on the application of our intentions to achieve otherwise.

Once an impact accounting has been done, we must ask whether the total subtractive impacts are higher than the total additive impacts. In other words, is the net-result the subtraction of carbon from the biosphere? When it comes to plastic recycling, dumping and incineration, the accounting shows that in-and-of-themselves all three are significantly net-additive .1

Currently, cloth bags are being marketed as ‘green’ replacements for plastic bags. Indeed, the use of biodegradable cloth fulfills the principles cycling and the original cotton crop results in the sequestration of atmospheric carbon into biomass. Of course, the manufacture, distribution and sale of the bag also results in CO2 emissions. If these additive impacts are larger than its subtractive impacts, then the bag cannot be considered green.

In order to advocate their greeness, often cloth bags claim the credit of preventing their plastic counterpart’s grey impacts. Capital concepts such as ‘circular economy’, ‘net-zero, and ‘zero-waste’ make similar claims in how they reduce ecological harm. While it may be true that the use of cloth avoids the industrial impacts of a plastic bag’s process, it is essential to distinguish between reducing harm and ecological contribution. While it is legitimate to say that the cloth bag is less grey than a plastic bag, saying it is more green is a different matter entirely.

After all, less of one thing, doesn’t necessarily mean more of another.

Lessening the amount of toxic mercury in a fish dish doesn’t make it more healthy. Nor does having less debts make one more rich! Likewise, by lessening the defectiveness of an old parachute we don’t make it more safe. Whether there or ten holes or two, one’s fate will still be the same! Without, first fulfilling the chute’s essential purpose it cannot be considered safer.

In the same way, without first achieving greeness itself, a process cannot be greener.

Chart by the author.

No matter how much harm it prevents, a process cannot be green unless it first embodies the Earth’s principle of net-subtraction. In other words, only if a cloth bag can clearly show that it has gone beyond the net-additive tendency of our age and achieved net-subtraction in-and-of-itself, can it be green. And only then, can it be greener.

However, hope is not lost for even the most grey plastic bag!

As we saw in our last chapter, there is a special category of enterprise that fulfills all earthen principles and that directly sequesters carbon. Deep green enterprises focus specifically on providing direct ecological contribution — i.e fostering analogue forests or biodiverse oyster reefs. These for-Earth processes are fundamentally net-subtractive. They account for and disclose their contributions — with green impacts that far exceed their grey. With their work quantified in specific units (i.e. no. of species, m2 of reef, km2 of forest, Kg of CO2, etc.) the contributions of these Earth enterprises can be directly purchased by others striving towards green. Through a commitment to correlation, acts and enterprises that are outset-grey (i.e in m2 of factory space, km2 of mono-crops, kg of CO2e, etc.) can attain green by connecting to and supporting deep green enterprises.

Everything from a rocket to a car, an ebook to a plastic bag, can correlate it’s outset grey impact with an equivalent deep green impact. With every rocket launch fostering a forest, every car a stand of trees, likewise each bag can be correlated with an appropriate offset.

Only then does green begin.

And the real work!

Once we have stepped out of the paradigm of minimizing harm, the sky is the limit to our green impact. In following the Earth’s greening example, “Net-zero” and “zero-waste” are not the end of our efforts — they are just the beginning.

First, a green process can authentically claim the preventive impacts of replacing its petro-capital counterparts. Second, as the demand and passion for green grows, its ratio of correlation can be ever increased. And finally, as biodiversity flourishes (our next Earth principle), more species will come online towards sequestration, quickly multiplying the impact of a household or an enterprise.

In this way, even the greyest petro-capital enterprises of today can become potent green catalysts.

Indeed, there is no other way.

Already compelled by their enlightened leaders, their ever more aware staff, consumers, grey industries are moving to balance off their impacts through correlation. In so doing, deep green enterprises shall be supported to heights of ecological contribution hitherto unimagined.

Belipoloa Arboretum — An anologue forestry project in Sri Lanka that has restored an exhausted tea plantation to a thriving biodiverse and net-subtractive ecology. — photo by the author.

Meanwhile, the toll on our grey households and industries shall grow ever greater towards transition.

With the cost of correlation a firm financial incentive and the parameters of green a guide, their road towards petro-capital transition shall be clear. With honor and grace our grey enterprises can bow out — not just to make way for their green counterparts but to accelerate them.

Or… with a creativity born from courageous self-imposed tolls they can rapidly innovate their core systems to circular, net-zero, and zero waste. And then, they can blaze the way beyond into ever greater green impacts with the rest of us.

Indeed, it is to grand levels of green that the Earth’s example calls us all.

After all, the Earth did not achieve the galactic jewel of the biosphere by simply balancing the books.

During the Carboniferous, enterprising ecosystems subsumed hundreds and thousands of times their CO2 emissions into sequestration and storage. It is this carbon savings that enabled life’s continuation through the sudden planetary challenges of asteroids and super-volcanoes.

We are in the midst of our own challenge. With courage and creativity we are called to follow the Earth’s example out of it. While net-subtraction points the direction, towards biodiversity is our way forward — our next Earthen ethic.

Next Week: Towards Biodiversity

An Earthen Ethic will be available for sale on the platform in June 2021. Each ebook purchased will correlated to 2Kg of plastic and 6.3 Kg of CO2 secured from the biosphere — see the full impact report.

Russell Maier is based in Banjar Sumampan, Bali, Indonesia, where he and his partner tend a food forest that provides their fruit and greens. Together they track their household plastic, CO2 and biodiversity impacts. Their monthly household plastic consumption of is 10.3% of the Indonesian per capita average and their CO2 emissions, 46% while subtracting x and y so far over 2021. The writing of an Earthen Ethic is estimated to result in You can see a full accounting for the enterprise of writing an Earthen Ethic here.

1Giant winged insects were only one part of the story; the fossilized remains of Carboniferous floras and faunas demonstrated that gigantism was genuinely the order of the day. Some giant forms of plant life that today are characteristically small, club mosses and horsetails colonized the ancient tropical coal swamps.” The Emerald Planet, David Beerling, Oxford University Press, 2007. Chapter 3. Oxygen and the lost world of giants.

2In this chapter, we focus on the net-subraction of carbon. However, it is my tentative hypothesis that this principle applies not just to the Earth, its ecosystem and its organism’s carbon but to all their active elements. In other words that life tends towards the net concentration of the nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, iron and other elements that are principal in its biological processes. However, this is a large claim and further consultation is needed before using it.

3According to the research of CIEL, when 1000kg of plastic is landfilled, incinerated or recycled it results in 60kg, 2967Kg and 695Kg of CO2e released in-and-of-itself. While CIEL and other offset these amounts by the amount of new plastic and natural gas that is offset, the contention of this chapter is that such offsetting is immaterial to the processes greeness, and should only be eligible if the process is first intrinsically net-subtractive. Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, Center for International Environmental Law, see page 58, chapter Plastic Waste Management.

3Anthony L. Andrady,’Microplastics in the marine environment’, (, Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol 62, issue 8, August 2011), 1596–1605.

4 Sarah-Jeanne Royer, Sara Ferrón, Samuel T. Wilson, David M. Karl, ‘Production of methane and ethylene from plastic in the environment, (Published: August 1, 2018)

5According to the researh of CIEL, when 1000kg of plastic is landfilled, incinerated or recycled it results in 60kg, 2967Kg and 695Kg of CO2e released in-and-of-itself. While CIEL and other offset these amounts by the amount of new plastic and natural gas that is offset, the contention of this chapter is that such offsetting is immaterial to the processes greeness, and should only be eligible if the process is first intrinsically net-subtractive. Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, Center for International Environmental Law, see page 58, chapter Plastic Waste Management.

6I use the term “Earth enterprise” to refer to companies, businesses or organizations that are structured towards for-Earth contribution and which embody all six of the Earth’s principles. Such enterprises need not be deep green, although by definition, deep green enterprises are Earth enterprises.

iAlthough there is certainly a point were too much CO2 can be removed, it seems that it provides a balance for geological and astronomical events that release large amounts of CO2. And, although there are certainly organisms and ecologies that add more Co2 than then they subtract to the atmosphere (for example the fungi that can now decompose lingin), net-subtraction is an overall phenomenon of the the Earth’s process of cultivating the biosphere, and the tendency of its biomes and ecologies.

Green ethics. Regenerativative Philosophy. Forest Gardener.

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