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Industrial hemp is an ancient crop that’s making its way into modern construction. 

People have grown hemp for millennia to make products like clothes, rope, fuel, medicine, and paper. But since the 1930s, it’s been prohibitively expensive or illegal to produce hemp in the U.S. and many other nations, mainly because the plant is closely related to marijuana. Unlike marijuana, however, hemp doesn’t get you high because it contains very low levels of the psychoactive chemical THC.

“Industrial hemp is a member of the family Cannabis sativa,” Matthew Mead, founder and CEO of the natural building materials company Hempitecture, told Freethink. “It’s kind of like the sober cousin of THC-producing varieties of hemp. Today, the definition of industrial hemp is that it has 0.3% THC or less.”

Industrial hemp is an ancient crop that’s making its way into modern construction. 

Hempitecture is one of a growing number of companies using hemp for its durability, versatility, and sustainability as a building material. The Idaho-based startup is focusing on insulation. Hemp-based insulation products are as effective at insulating buildings as common insulators like fiberglass, and they’re significantly better for the environment. 

Hemp is a natural product that doesn’t contain toxic chemicals as some synthetic insulation does. What’s more, growing the crop removes carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, hemp is about twice as effective at sequestering carbon as trees. 

Despite its sustainability and wide array of uses, the federal government had long chosen not to differentiate hemp from marijuana. The 2018 Farm Bill changed that by legalizing hemp production on the federal level. Although hemp remains illegal in many states, the industry has seen sudden and chaotic growth in recent years, and is projected to grow from roughly $5 billion in 2019 to $36 billion by 2026.

“I think we’re actually coming back full circle to our ancient roots of building with the Earth,” Mead told Freethink.

The ancient roots of hemp 

Hemp was likely one of the first agricultural crops. Its history in human culture stretches back at least 10,000 years to modern-day China and Taiwan, where archaeologists discovered pottery that had cords made from hemp. Historical texts and other archaeological discoveries suggest the Chinese grew hemp for a wide variety of purposes, like making clothes, medicine, and paper. In fact, the world’s oldest known book — a Buddhist text called the Diamond Sūtra — was printed on hemp. 

Evidence of ancient hemp use has been found across many parts of the planet.

In India, legend holds that the Buddha ate a single hemp seed every day during his ascetic period. In Japan, brides used to wear hemp strands for symbolic purposes during weddings. And in Rome, engineers added hemp fibers to mortar to make stronger bridge abutments. 

In 1606, hemp made its way to North America. The European colonists at Jamestown grew the crop for sails, clothes, and rope, while later settlers heading west used hempen canvas to cover their wagons. Hemp became such a valuable crop during the Colonial Era that the British government even mandated farmers to grow it. Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew hemp on their estates; records indicate that Washington grew it on all five of his Mount Vernon farms. But despite hemp’s agricultural importance in early America, cotton eventually became the fiber crop of choice, mainly because it’s easier to harvest than hemp. 

American hemp production slowed dramatically in the 20th century when the U.S. government passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which taxed the sale of any form of cannabis. Some have argued that powerful actors like William Randolph Hearst and the Du Pont family, both of whom had economic interests in alternative fibers, aimed to kill off the hemp industry by having the legislation passed, but there’s no hard evidence of a conspiracy. 

During World War II, the U.S. government lifted the cannabis ban and encouraged farmers to grow the crop so the military could produce things like parachute webbing, rope, and thread for shoes. A 1942 government film called “Hemp for Victory” extolled the crop’s history and utility: “For the sailor, no less than the hangman, hemp was indispensable […] American hemp must meet the needs of our Army and Navy, as well as our industries.” Yet after the Allied Victory, the government reinstated the ban on hemp production.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was overturned by the Supreme Court in the 1969 case Timothy Leary v. United States  yes, that Timothy Leary  and repealed by Congress shortly afterward as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which designated Hemp a Schedule I substance alongside its intoxicating relatives. 

It was only with the 2018 Farm Bill that hemp was taken off the list of prohibited substances and legalized at the federal level, though several states had taken steps to make industrial hemp production viable in the years leading up to that. 

As Freethink reported with marijuana, legalization has helped to renew interest in the use of hemp in a number of areas, including as a building material. Today, a number of industrial hemp companies, including  Hempitecture, are looking to the stuff as an alternative to currently used materials. 

To that end, Hempitecture has created a new form of insulation, called hemp wool, made of processed industrial hemp, a binder, and a fire retardant.

It works just as well as synthetic insulation in terms of heat regulation, fire resistance, and preventing the growth of mold. Beyond that, it doesn’t require petrochemicals or other toxic substances to produce and instead works as a carbon sink.

Mead further explained the practical benefits of hemp wool to Freethink:

“What we’ve found is that hemp wool is just better for everybody that comes in contact with it, whether it’s the general contractor who’s on site everyday, the laborers or the installation technicians that are installing it, to the homeowner,” Mead said. “Everybody is happier when they’re around hemp wool because they’re not itchy, they’re not worried about toxic off-gassing or abrasiveness on their skin.”

The insulation works and is currently being used in many building projects. The next challenge is getting it adopted by more people who are currently buying materials that require a great deal of carbon to produce. To do that, Hempitecture is going to have to scale up production. 

Hemp in every home?

Though it’s ramping up, American hemp production is still limited. Because of the cost of importing it, hemp wool is still more expensive than other insulation materials in the U.S. 

Mead hopes to begin domestic production of hemp wool by the middle of 2022, at which point the product may become cost competitive with its alternatives. The price may then continue to fall if industrial hemp production continues to increase.

Growing more hemp for use in building materials and manufacturing fewer petrochemical-derived synthetic insulators could go a long way toward cleaning up the environment. Perhaps one day, the widespread use of hemp-based building materials will make construction cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly.

By Stephen Johnson October 19, 2021

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From Globalization To A Planetary Mindset

It’s time for new cooperative platforms that address irreducible interdependence.


Globalization as we have known it is over. Kaput. As John Gray summarily puts it in his contribution to Noema, “forget it.” For the British philosopher, we are returning to the pluralism that existed before the post-Cold War neoliberal expansion and even the recent centuries of Western hegemony. This is the fragmentation that Chinese thinker Yuk Hui also talks about in Noema. For him, that means any new order will arise at multiple starting points, or bifurcations, that depart from the course we were on.


There will be many possible permutations, from Cold War and economic decoupling between the two great powers, protectionist trade policies and immigration curbs. We will see a patchwork of industrial policies aimed at strengthening national resilience instead of global integration. So-called “robust” supply chains that are partly global and partly domestic to build in redundancy as a hedge against political or natural disruptions are already appearing. While the populist revolt dealt the death blow to globalization, alternative political dispositions waiting in the wings have also so far shown little interest in resuscitating it.


What remains, and is irreducible, is the planetary. Obviously, the global ecosystem, including climate and pandemics that cross borders, qualify as planetary. The challenges here are recognized as common and convergent for all.


Thus, reconciling the centrifugal pull of ingathering with the centripetal imperative of planetary cooperation is the so-called “primary contradiction” going forward.


This contradiction will play out across a global communications web that has spun a synchronized planetary consciousness in which all are aware of what everyone else is doing, or not doing, in more or less real time. Inexorably, a kind of global mind, or “noosphere” as Teilhard de Chardin envisioned it, is emerging. But it is today as much a terrain of contestation rooted in divergent political and cultural tempers, including an ever more differentiating splinternet, as a space of common ground.  


The “noopolitik” of the coming era could not be more different than the realpolitik of the last century. Rather than solid nation-states in which elites calculate balances of power, noopolitik is a transparent endeavor open to all manner of connected players in a now gaseous global realm in which nations are attempting to reclaim sovereignty even as the solidity they once assumed diminishes with every passing day.


The ultimate project of a planetary approach, therefore, is to forge a shared narrative for the noosphere. This doesn’t imply some one-size-fits-all Leviathan-like order that sets solutions to whatever ails the world, but a prevalent normative awareness that a cooperative approach is the only way to make irreducible interdependence work for each of us instead of against all of us.


That shared consciousness, or “noorative,” will only take hold in the first instance if its foundation rests not on wooly abstractions but on the existential imperative of cooperation in such clear and present realities as climate and pandemics. In effect, this noorative would combine the Chinese strategist Zheng Bijian’s idea of “building on a convergence of interests to establish a community of interests” with the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of “planetary co-immunism,” as he explains in an interview with Noema.


This new order of cooperation, and the evolved consciousness that arises out of its concrete actions, can only be built one brick at a time through new planetary platforms. A “partnership of rivals” among nation-states and the “civilization-states” that are in conflict in some realms, but nonetheless have cross interests in others, is one such way. It can also be built through “networks of the willing” among both civil society and states so disposed. In other words, alternative, parallel practices and institutions will have to be built on another foundation than a U.N.-style “trade union for nations-states” in order to ultimately go beyond the lessening but still weighty pull of their inertia.


One example of this approach was embodied in the Berggruen Institute’s 21stCentury Council presentation to former Mexican President Felipe Calderón when he hosted the G20 in 2012 — the first time that supranational body tackled climate change. We proposed that while G20 summitry could set broad goals, it lacked the legitimacy to implement them across different jurisdictions. To that end we recommended that “a web of national and subnational networks should be fostered to provide global public goods, such as low-carbon growth, from below through ‘coalitions of the willing’ working together to build up a threshold of global change.”


Only once the trust- and legitimacy-building experience of new platforms that address climate and pandemics gain traction can that cooperative spirit meaningfully address other imminent planetary challenges — bioengineering, AI and the creation of inorganic life.


The time has arrived to stop regretting the lost illusions of globalization and start thinking of how to construct a new order grounded in the undeniable realities of interdependence.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine BY NATHAN GARDELS AUGUST 7, 2020 

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How Russia used to be the world’s biggest cannabis exporter

How Russia used to be the world’s biggest cannabis exporter


Peter the Great knew how to use the plant for his material, not spiritual, needs.

Peter the Great knew how to use the plant for his material, not spiritual, needs.Getty Images, Russia Beyond

For centuries, the naval power of Great Britain was based on this key Russian export – all the rigging was made of hemp imported from Russia, where this plant was exceptionally widely used… but not for recreational purposes.

Russia before the 20th century was mostly an agricultural country, and the decisive majority of its exports were raw materials. Hemp, a plant of the genus cannabis sativa, was one of the biggest factors in Russia’s exports. The strains that were grown in Central Russia were low on tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component of the plant, so Russians didn’t get high on it (there are no records of a massive recreational use), but the state surely got rich with it. Moreover, Russia actually supplied its biggest naval enemy, Great Britain, with hemp that was used to make rigging for the British fleet…

Paper and armor, ropes and sails

Rope making: 'laying' or twisting three strands of hemp yarn to form a rope (L). A hemp rope (R).

Rope making: ‘laying’ or twisting three strands of hemp yarn to form a rope (L). A hemp rope (R).Getty Images 

Cannabis sativa is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet, and probably one of the first to be spun into fiber in human history. Its uses are widely varied. In ancient China, the first paper was made of this plant; Johann Gutenberg’s first Bible, first American constitution and the Declaration of Independence were all printed on hemp paper.

Hemp is the material produced of Cannabis sativa L. subsp. sativa, a genus of the plant used for industrial purposes. Hemp as a material is produced by soaking the stems of the plant in water. The resulting fiber has unique physical qualities: it’s too thick to be eaten by parasites like moths and so sturdy that the goods produced from it are exceptionally endurable. Canvas for clothing and bedsheets, ropes and harnesses for horses, even hemp armor – warriors of the ancient Rus’ sewed layers of hemp ropes onto their clothes, and these ropes protected them from arrows, swords, and spear hits. Also, hemp doesn’t rot, even in salty sea water, which makes it a perfect material for naval rigging and sails.Drying of hemp and flax, Russia, illustration from Teatro universale, Raccolta enciclopedica e scenografica, 1838.

Drying of hemp and flax, Russia, illustration from Teatro universale, Raccolta enciclopedica e scenografica, 1838.Getty Images 

In the Russian language, there’s an adjective poskonnyi (‘посконный’), used to describe something very old, traditional, related to peasant Rus’. But not many Russians know that this adjective comes from the word poskon’ (‘посконь’), which means a male cannabis plant. Males plants are used mainly for producing industrial hemp, because they’re taller, thicker, and have no seeds that make the production of hemp fiber more complicated. So, why was traditional Russia so strongly connected to hemp?

How naval rigging made friends of enemies

Model of 'The Solen,' a typical Swedish vessel of the Northern War

Model of ‘The Solen,’ a typical Swedish vessel of the Northern WarJim Hansson/Swedish National Maritime Museums 

Industrial hemp has been cultivated in the Russian lands since pre-Christian times, for the production of clothing, fishing nets, and ropes, later for making horse harnesses and body armor. Peasants ate food cooked in hemp oil, as sunflower oil wasn’t widely available in the central and northern regions.

From the 16th century the Russian state started producing more hemp than it needed – because export markets opened up. Let’s see how it developed and how Russia became the world’s leading exporter of industrial hemp.

In the 16th century, Richard Chancellor established trade with the Tsardom of Russia. The British started importing Russian hemp from that time; but the heyday of this trade came under Peter the Great’s reign.Hemp stem showing fibers (L). The process of hemp production (R).

Hemp stem showing fibers (L). The process of hemp production (R).Public domain; МАММ/MDF

In the 1710s, the Great Northern War between Sweden and the coalition of Russia, Denmark-Norway and Saxony-Poland was in full swing. Britain didn’t interfere until 1717, but in fact, joined the Russian side much earlier – because of hemp.

Business and war sometimes go different ways. To fuel its naval power, Britain needed timber, iron, and hemp. Before the Northern War, Britain bought hemp and iron mostly from Sweden, but during the war, didn’t provide help for the Swedes against the Russians. Disgusted with this, Charles XII of Sweden pushed up the prices for hemp and iron.Flagship 'Goto Predestinatsia' (The Providence of God) built by Peter the Great at Voronezh, 1700, 1701. Found in the collection of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Artist : Schoonebeek (Schoonebeck), Adriaan (1661-1705).

Flagship ‘Goto Predestinatsia’ (The Providence of God) built by Peter the Great at Voronezh, 1700, 1701. Found in the collection of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Artist : Schoonebeek (Schoonebeck), Adriaan (1661-1705). Getty Images 

In 1715, Britain started importing iron from Russia, and Peter understood he should also export hemp. The same year, the Russian tsar issued an order to increase the production of hemp and at the same time, offered the British lower prices than Sweden: while the Swedes sold a ton of hemp for £22, Peter offered it for £6. And, as British naval officers confirmed, Russian hemp was much better than Swedish.

Along with logistics, for the English merchants, one ton of Russian hemp material was a little more than £10! And crucially, the Russian supply of hemp was endless, compared with Sweden’s relatively paltry stocks… By protecting its merchant ships that had to get to the Russian Baltic shores through Swedish-controlled waters, Britain, in fact, took the Russian side in the war. In 1715, 200 English merchant ships arrived at St. Petersburg and Riga, buying enormous amounts of hemp cloth and ropel and providing Russia with money needed to continue the war.

The hemp export of Russia

The getting in of the hemp in Russia.

The getting in of the hemp in Russia.Getty Images 

Eventually, as we know, Sweden was defeated in 1721, and Russia became an Empire. Until the beginning of the 19th century, Russia was the sole exporter of hemp to Great Britain (96 percent of the British rigging was made of Russian hemp), while politically, the two European superpowers were against each other in many wars during the 18th century.

Over 32,000 tons of hemp was exported from Russia annually in the 18th century. Peasants of the Oryol, Kaluga, Kursk, Chernigov, and other regions made profits by cultivating the plant and producing hemp material.The emblem of the town of Dmitrovsk, Oryol region, Russia. A cannabis plant can be seen in the middle of the lower part.

The emblem of the town of Dmitrovsk, Oryol region, Russia. A cannabis plant can be seen in the middle of the lower part.

But in the early 19th century, Britain started importing cotton from America, and jute fiber, which was cheaper in production, started being used for naval rigging; Russian hemp imports to Britain declined. Still, Russia continued to export hemp to more than 10 countries in Europe. In the second half of the 19th century, hemp accounted for between 50 to 74 percent of Russian exports, and by the end of the century, Russia produced 140,000 tons of hemp – 40 percent of all hemp produced in Europe. But by the beginning of the 20th century, jute rigging had replaced hemp rigging almost everywhere, and steam ships, used since the mid-19th century, replaced sailing ships. So the hemp power of the Russian Empire came to an end. To the present day, the town of Dmitrovsk in Oryol region bears the image of a cannabis plant on its emblem, reminding us that this region was the leading one in hemp production in olden times.

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