Portrait: Christer Söderberg
Social entrepreneur and climate change activist – by necessity he says, not by choice…
This is no longer the time to try and convince other people of the need to save this civilization. This is the time to act. We have not one moment to waste.
Name Christer Söderberg
Nationality (Born in) Sweden
Lives in Palma
Works in Bunyola
Profession Social Entrepreneur
Signature phrase "Stop, reflect, and listen!"
Upcoming event: Free Biochar workshop in Bunyola
"Circle Carbon Labs" - C'an Carbò - in Bunyola
Don't you sometimes feel the world needs more of the likes of James Bond - more 007 agents (not necessarily with a license to kill) whose brains kick into rocket mode when face to face with disaster and who, with clockworklike precision, pull the world back from the abyss of destruction with just a split second to spare?
This is what I think when taking the Sóller exit on Palma's Via Cintura to go the lovely village of Bunyola to meet … well, just him. His name is Söderberg. Christer Söderberg. I don't know how he likes his martinis (or whether he drinks at all), and granted - he doesn't drive an Aston Martin. But one thing is sure: He is on a mission to “save humanity from itself”. Mother Earth is the majesty he serves.
I'm about to meet Christer at his headquarters, "Circle Carbon Labs" in Bunyola, a property he took over only a few months ago and that seems to symbolize the challenge this man is willing to face: The former garden center with its industrial-sized greenhouses and roughly 30,000 m² (about 330,000 sqft) of land was left in an utterly derelict state by a series of former tenants and years of disuse – truly a piece of earth to be saved.
May I introduce … #
Swedish by birth, world citizen by destiny, Christer has lived in nine different countries, in six of which he has founded businesses - on four different continents. He converses fluently, among others, in Spanish, English and German which, after a 27-year marriage to a wife born in Salzburg, he does with a charming Austrian accent.
Christer definitely has a loving touch, I think, when walking past the carefully arranged driftwood adorning the yet un-renovated entrance. And apparently, he knows how to set priorities: The vast greenhouse space (7,500 m²) opening up in front of me once I walk through the door still mostly lying idle, the first section has already been neatly set up with raised planting beds filled with rich earth, sprouting rows and rows of seedlings. This is the heart of Circle Carbon Labs.
Tell me, Christer, I ask coming back to the thoughts I had driving up to Bunyola: Are you a James Bond type of person? Will you save our planet?
Christer laughs. "You know", he says after a moment of hesitation. "I have this thing about heroes. People might be wishing for a super hero to appear on the scene to save us all, thinking, 'Great! He or she'll solve the problem for me, so I don’t have to do anything.' But I don’t think life works that way. Everybody has to contribute in any way they can. Depending on their individual means and possibilities some might do more and some might do less, but what we definitely need is a joint effort. We all have to be in this together.
And your contribution to healing the world is, among many other things, the founding of Circle Carbon Labs where you test a material called "Biochar"? What exactly is Biochar, Christer?
Basically, it's organic matter transformed into carbon through a process called pyrolysis – combustion with little or no oxygen. Simply put (although it's not as simple as that), it's a type of ground-up charcoal. When added to the soil, Biochar has a powerful moisture-retaining and soil enrichment effect. You might say it turbocharges the soil. And it is also what we call a "carbon sink", i.e. it takes carbon out of the atmosphere and puts it back into the ground where it belongs. As a carbon sink it is also a carbon capture and storage (CCS) mechanism recognized by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
You say Biochar heals the earth …
I would rather say Biochar helps the soil to heal itself. Our modern intensive agriculture leaches out the soil. Without humus – i.e. the rich organic matter from decaying plant matter – it becomes increasingly more difficult to grow crops, and more expensive, petroleum based fertilizers are being needed – which in turn degrade the soil, turning into a vicious cycle that removes 10,000,000 hectares of fertile land every year (*).This means, moisture cannot be properly retained and erosion washes away what nutrients are left. Now, Biochar works like a sponge in the soil thanks to its intricate molecular structure and cavities with between 100 and 500 m² of surface area per gram. Depending on the type of production process used, a cherry seed has been pyrolysed to reach a surface of up to 10,000 m²/gram (approx. 108,000 sqft). We are talking in the nano particle range here. This means it can absorb a lot of water, and also give home to a vast number of microorganisms! When these die off, it is believed in theory that they themselves become biomass or "soil carbon", as it is called. That's when it starts getting really interesting, although this phenomenon of “living carbon” is still being studied.
Can you give us some figures about how well this works?
Studies show Biochar can promote growth by up to 800 per cent. This might sound a lot and it certainly is, and the percentage depends, of course, on the degree of depletion of the soil. This value was found true for totally leached-out wasteland in areas formerly covered in rainforest. In "normal" soil as found e.g. in northern European wheat fields the percentages are somewhere between ten and fifteen per cent. At Circle Carbon Labs we can show increases in plant growth of between 50% and 200%. This translates into more, tastier, and more nutritious food on the plate, while at the same time reducing the air pollution from 160 years since the beginning of the industrial revolution the (1840). We are currently adding approx. 40 gigatons (Gt) of CO² to the atmosphere, being a total of 3,200 Gt of CO² (including equivalents on Methane and Nitrous Oxide) that have increased the CO² levels from 240 ppm (parts per million) in 1840 to 410 ppm today (2019). The recognized “safe” limit is 350 ppm (hence the environmental organization www.350.org). In other words, the vast scientific consensus is that we need to act, urgently!
Everything I read about you, Christer, is impressive: You founded and managed an NGO coordinating humanitarian aid during the war in Bosnia. You were head of a telecom product design company based in Hong Kong and established a major business branch for a Swedish multinational group in Brazil. And now you are a prominent figure in the world climate change movement. What brought you to tiny Mallorca, Christer?
I have family ties to the island. I could almost say I grew up here as my personal relationship with Spain reaches back as far as 1964. My mother has been living on Mallorca since 1973, and one of my daughters was born here. In 2013, I decided to return to the Island to make use of my professional experience and develop my own model of sustainability and resilience for small communities.
Sustainability and resilience – would you say that these two words define your mission?
Yes, definitely. In their book "Cradle to Cradle" by Michael Braungart and William McDonough write that as long as you do what you do without knowing what you do, that's kind of alright. But as soon as you know – and nobody can claim he or she doesn't since the Paris Agreement was signed at the at the COP 21 in 2015 – we have no excuses any more. We need to find sustainable solutions for all aspects of life and enhance climate resilience in our socio-economic systems. We cannot afford to be destructive any more. We can no longer be extractive. We have to become regenerative. And this is where Biochar and healing the soil comes into play, with emphasis on “play” because we are potentially talking about the most fun and meaningful period in human history, if we get to work, and get it right!
What drives you? Was there an eye-opening moment or epiphany that made you go on your mission?
I guess it was being a CEO in Brazil which is something of a hotbed of industrialism - my life there made me conscious of the challenges our society is confronted with and also of the pressures on the ecosystems of our planet. After five years, I wanted out. I needed to leave that system behind.
And could you afford to?
(He laughs.) Well, when I was fifteen, I was in Thailand for some time with my mother and stepfather, and we worked in a community youth centre for orphaned children, "Teen House", it was called. I loved what I did and decided to make a lot of money to then be able to make a difference and dedicate myself to social projects. This was kind of my childhood dream. There came a time when I had the privilege of experiencing an abundant life and financial freedom. My childhood dream of making a lot of money never materialized and I came to the conclusion that the more you have the more you feel you need. At the same time (he laughs) I have also been incredibly successful in failing! Which I am very grateful for because very much learning comes from failures. In any case, eventually I decided it's better not to wait and rather act. Now!
Let's get back to Bunyola and your "Circle Carbon Labs". What are your plans?
Our goal is to become a reference centre for research where we share our knowledge and help others learn by doing. This means we must produce results to show production farms, businesses, and individuals how well Biochar and other soil enhancement technologies work. Our next step is to open part of the greenhouses and lands to the community. We are presently in talks with three restaurants who are interested in growing “Carbon Negative – Planet Positive” produce. We are also in the process of creating a café and co-working space, and plan to add a farmers' market and an outdoor area with colony lots to rent for anybody interested in healthy and abundant “Carbon Negative” food to come and do their own gardening – with us available to help them with advice and growing-specific expertise.
What made you chose Bunyola?
Initially, we were looking at a property on the East side of the Island, but then happened upon this property which was very serendipitous. Bunyola is perfect! Just 9 kilometres from Palma and it's offering all the space we could wish for, in addition to the greenhouses!
So, you don't regret having returned to Mallorca?
Not at all! Its geographic location, the infrastructure, a generous culture, a language easy for us to understand, its lively capital, the mountains... Mallorca can become the perfect example for a sustainable and resilient society.
Train Through Bunyola
Is it your love for the Island that made you as an expat go into local politics and stand as a candidate for the Més per Mallorca party?
Yes, in a way that's true. But it is mostly the people I have met here, especially the Mayor Antoni Noguera and his team. They made me think, wow! They really mean business. They are doing something about it! It is thanks to people like Neus Truyol, the Director of the public water company EMAYA and spokeswoman for Palma City Hall and Counsel Woman for ecology, waste management and animal well-being. By supporting them, I think I can make a contribution towards a greener Mallorca!
Thank you for the interview, Christer! And good luck with your project
Christer's Further Projects and Initiatives on Mallorca
- Diálogos del Valle Sagrado (Sóller),
- “Downtown Dinner Dialogues”
- Asociación EnConciencia including the projects CineConciencia, RadioConciencia and ArteConciencia
Interview on January 28th, 2019, in Bunyola
circlecarbonlabs on Facebook
Website: Biochar Journal
(*) ARTICLE: 10 million hectares/year…:
By Ulla Rahn-Huber
12 February, 2019