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On Campfires, Hemp and Cooling the Globe


Hemp Business

On Campfires, Hemp and Cooling the Globe

By Ron Alcalay, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Vital Hemp

I went camping with my nine-year-old daughter about a month ago, up the California coast to Big Sur.  We enjoyed hiking up my favorite river gorge to a large swimming hole, and in the evening ate s’mores around the campfire. For a few days, we almost forgot the worries of the world, that would intrude, like the asthma attacks I suffered inexplicably every night.

By the third night, I figured out the cause: it was not only the smoke from our little campfire, but the smoke from the eighty or so other fires in the campgrounds along that little stretch of river, that fouled the evening air so thoroughly, it became hazy and dense—harmful air to breathe. In my head, I multiplied our campsite by the two-hundred or so that dotted the coast near us, recognizing the problem–especially for an older, asthma-prone guy like me–even if I hadn’t suffered an attack for months in the thick of Los Angeles.  I thought: how can something so elemental and pleasurable, like a campfire, cause such great harm to the environment in which we live?  I wondered about other options, but arrived at none.  Roasting marshmallows over a camp stove just wouldn’t feel the same….

This month, with our state and several others suffering from some of the worst fires in our histories, we don’t have the leisure to pretend we’ve escaped.  Residents of cities and regions that I associate with clean air and healthy lifestyles—San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Davis, Denver—are now living with such unhealthy air quality that many are cloistering inside, no longer free to take the evening walks, or surfs, or bike rides that keep them sane in the midst of the pandemic.  Outdoor dining, that had kept some restaurants alive, also shut down in some areas, and smoke from our fires carries as far East as Kansas.

Years ago, I learned that the air pollution from factories in China drifted over the oceans to our shores, that we were breathing the same smog as those citizens wearing masks in Beijing.  We also all know that the Earth’s waterways are connected; yet we seem to persist in the seemingly willful belief that if it’s not happening in our cove, it’s not affecting us. With the increasingly frequent and more intense catastrophes brought on by global warming—fires, hurricanes, floods, pestilence, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, desertification, water wars, refugee crises, etc (you know, biblical stuff)…it appears we are living through a kind of rapidly-unfolding apocalypse for life on Earth.  And yet, there is nothing pre-destined.  We have the capacity to heal this land, these oceans, and this air that sustains us.

For decades we’ve known about the causes.  For decades, we’ve known many of the solutions.  Recently, innovative thinkers and researchers, such as Paul Hawken and those who wrote Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming are leading us toward ways to reverse the damage and heal the life-supporting ecosystems we are harming every day with our current ways of living and transacting business.  I recommend this book to everyone who cares to consider one-hundred ranked and measurable ways to cool the globe.

In 2007, I saw The 11th Hour, a smart but depressing documentary, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, one of those truly good artists who cares enough about other humans and other species to spend a good deal of his life doing his best to protect them.  In it, a scientist says something like this: “We’ve been living as though all systems are subsets of the economic system.  We are quickly learning that all systems—including the economic system—are subsets of healthy ecological systems.”  When one hurricane, or flood, or fire can in a matter of days devastate an economy or local industry that took decades to build and develop, why are we pretending we can continue to live this way, willfully ignoring our responsibility?   And why are we giving any air time at all to those paid by cynical corporations and sectors, such as Coal or Big Oil, who decades ago studied and knew of the human causes of global warming (atmospheric CO2 among the chief causes), but continue to muddy our waters with “alternative facts?”  

Eighteen years ago, I left academia where I was teaching film history to build a hemp clothing business.  The more I learned about the polluting nature of the garment industry—second only to fossil fuels—the more I understood hemp, that doesn’t require pesticides to grow–was a vital part of the solution.  Now, with developments in hemp building materials and hemp bioplastics, we are seeing that hemp is a valuable, future-insuring resource, not only for our health in the form of balanced protein foods and CBD products, but also for replacing so many of the toxic materials and practices that contribute to global warming.  Several years ago, when Patagonia moved more of its production to hemp, they published a stunning fact: for every ton of hemp we harvest, it sequesters 1.62 tons of atmospheric carbon.  That means hemp is a carbon-negative crop, a crop that cools the globe, making durable products such as hemp t-shirts, hemp hoodies and hemp masks, that cool the globe.  

And yet, we in the hemp industry need to be mindful that hemp agriculture doesn’t fall into the same soil-destroying trap as other pesticide-intensive, agricultural monocrops.  The new documentary, Kiss the Ground, co-produced by John Roulac, long-time hemp activist and founder of Nutiva, helps us understand how the most simple, effective and long-term solutions to global warming are right under our feet, in healthy soil that produces healthy plants, and in regenerative agricultural practices that support healthy ecosystems and healthy human beings.  As we return to the hemp crop, a bio-dense, soil-based, carbon capture remedy, we would do well to promote the best growing practices, eschewing chemical pest solutions for regenerative ones that build soil health and reverse global warming.

At the Dr. Bronner’s-sponsored Hemp Village at the Earth Day festival in San Diego a few years ago, Dion Margraff, another long-time cannabis/hemp activist, stood next to his small hempcrete-built demonstration house, face shield and gloves on, a welding blowtorch in hand.  He held the intense flame to the surface of the structure for a minute or more.  It did not burn through, or even catch fire.  He removed the mask, smiled wide and said, “Imagine if we could build all the homes in fire areas out of hempcrete.”  It’s a scenario more of us would do well to imagine.

With BMW and Mercedes Benz using hemp-based bioplastics for the body panels of their high-end vehicles—because it’s lighter, stronger, more durable, more heat and mold-resistant than petroleum-based plastics (and doesn’t off-gas)–we can see that large corporations are open to the better solutions offered by hemp.  Companies large and small are learning the lessons of the triple bottom line—planet, people and profit.  As we evolve, we understand that when we externalize costs onto the environment in the form of pollution, or onto workers as poor wages or working conditions, we ultimately hurt ourselves, even if the products we manufacture or consume “cost us less.”  What good are my new, mass-produced trail running shoes, that I got on sale, if I cannot go outside to play tag with my daughter?  These things are related, even if the relationships are obscured by slick marketing campaigns.   

I often wonder about the mismatch between company values, their products that often reflect those values, and their other practices that sometimes do not. If we care enough to use fair trade or organic ingredients in our product, why would we want to put our company logo on cheap, conventional cotton t-shirts that pollute the earth, exploit workers, and that people will likely donate after a year, further filling landfills?  Wouldn’t a sustainable hemp option that people love and wear for years be worth the extra money up front?  We need to make and buy less, and better, for the long-term health of people, and the already-taxed ecosystems that support all life. 

Hemp campfire logs may not replace tree-based wood anytime soon; but when it does, I bet it will smell wonderful!  Nevertheless, hemp fiberboard is tree-free.  Combining these kinds of new materials with developments in factory-made, modular housing has the potential to radically change the way we manufacture structures, reducing landfill waste by more than forty percent.  In the meantime, it occurs to me that the next time I go camping, maybe we’ll share our neighbor’s fire one night, and invite them over to share ours the next.  In this way, we can cut the carbon emissions in half.  As we’re now again aware, there’s plenty of fire to go around, and not enough clean air.

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About Ron Alcalay
“Hemperdasher,” writer and educator Ron Alcalay, Ph.D., is the Founder and CEO of Vital Hemp, a leading, family owned hemp clothing company based in Los Angeles, CA. Alcalay is a former literature and history instructor at UC Berkeley, American Film Institute and Loyola Marymount University. Visit

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