Feedback: Peat, a Cheap and Renewable Fuel

Barry Devine offers feedback on peat as a cheap and renewable fuel, sharing concerns about peat as fuel being ecologically unsound and something that should be discouraged.

| September/October 1975

After reading Francis Jeffers' "Peat, a Cheap and Renewable Fuel" (MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 31), I must say that I find the author's ideas somewhat disturbing. No doubt, peat is less expensive than some other alternative source of energy . . . but I feel strongly that its use is ecologically unsound and should be discouraged. Some background information may help to clarify my reasons for this belief.

Feedback: Peat, a Cheap and Renewable Fuel

Peat bogs develop in humid regions, at locations where drainage is blocked so that the movement of water slows and its carrying capacity is reduced. Where this condition occurs — in a lake, pond, or old streambed — organic matter accumulates faster than it can be borne away. The result is that large volumes of such material sediment quickly, the area fills, and its bottom rises (a self-accelerating process). Aerobic decomposition is meanwhile replaced over time by a slower, anaerobic breakdown.

Eventually the buildup of organic matter reaches the surface and creates a condition in which rooted emergent plants may grow. Water-loving species then colonize the periphery . . . and from that time on, open water rapidly disappears as the site fills with a spongy substrate.

The inheritors of the filled-in area are plants that have adapted to drier conditions and evolved techniques to exploit them. These thrive, reproduce, and increase in density . . . and by go doing they alter the site enough to effectively eliminate themselves and provide more suitable growing conditions for later successional plants (and, in turn animals, along with other associated and dependent webs and chain life which join in the transfer of energy and cycling of nutrients). This is delicate and immensely complex phenomenon with no real stages . . . simply slow and continual changes over time within the context of overall unity.

A bog, then, is a fragile balance of water gain and loss and represents a seral or intermediate stage in a dynamic succession. If left undisturbed, such an area will fill and dry and be inhabited by more mesic plants. Grasses, shrubs, and finally trees will occupy the land, and eventually a climax forest will stand where a bog once lay.

This development, however, depends on the tremendous amounts of nutrients which are tied up in a bog . . . since these deposits become the initial soils of the future forest. If peat is removed from the site, the nutrient bed will be depleted and the succession pushed backward in time. Perhaps hundreds of years — depending on the extent of the damage — may be necessary to return the bog to its original condition.

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