Thursday, September 18, 2008

Big Ideas

Texas is big! It took me two days to drive through it. I traveled through the back roads from Santa Fe, down to the Austin area, and then from Austin to Louisiana. I took my time, but still. Two days! I stayed in a little town called Sweetwater the first night. (Yes, go ahead, say that out loud, with a southern drawl, Sweetwater, Texas). As I was waiting to check into Motel 6 (ok, I know, not sustainable but I saw nary a campground anywhere, and not any other place I’d want to camp out), I was leafing through the catalog on the counter and came across a local news article quoting T. Boone Pickens saying: Oil is passé – all the smart oil men, like him, were getting into wind power. I had been driving for what seemed like at least an hour through the biggest windmill field I’ve ever seen. Per the article, West Texas is “the fourth largest wind producing country” in the world. Hmm.

Pickens has a plan. Replace the 22% of electricity that is powered by natural gas right now, with wind power. Then use the natural gas in cars instead of gasoline. That could eliminate the need for $300 billion (out of $750 billion) in foreign oil for gas. Well, the math seems sort of right, but the idea is awful complicated. Let's take a closer look at its merits.

Pickens doesn’t take into consideration we might run out of natural gas

or that there might be better fuel sources for transportation, like algae, or biofuel from sources like, say, the prairie grasses that used to cover hundreds of miles of West Texas before the cattle ate it and the oil companies came and then the windmills and…..

I had some trouble seeing the relevance of much of his logic, but it was refreshing to hear a guy like T. Boone Pickens say we need to get off the teat of foreign oil, and we need leadership that will facilitate that.

So are windmills really the best sustainable fuel choice, or are we just substituting one bad solution for another, less bad?

Apparently the vibration from windmills can cause health problems in some people. Maybe wildlife too – one can imagine what vibrations might be caused in the ground around the windmill. And some would argue they are not very aesthetic.

Hundreds or thousands of miles of high voltage transmission lines are needed in order to get the power on line - most windmills are located in remote locations. These lines also pose environmental and health problems.

Other countries have chosen less "grid-locked" solutions, such as solar roof panels or some of the new hi-tech small sized wind turbines that can provide power to individual homes. There are many advantages to creating local renewable power sources instead of huge remote fields of solar arrays and windmills hundreds of miles away from the cities they are powering, but those with vested interests in retaining controlling interest in energy production are of course opposed to such local solutions.

The land under the windmills did not look particularly happy. They are huge, and fairly far apart. Roads led to and fro between the windmills and they broke up the brush - no intact ecosystems there! I’m sure that most people would look at the West Texas landscape and say, “Waal, there’s nothin there but brush, Pete! Why not put windmills there? ” Most people would agree that West Texas is not the source of the most important or diverse ecosystems in the country. Yet, this is what the land used to look like, before unsustainable cattle ranching and other activities decimated the ecosystems:

“In May of 1854, J. Pope's report on the exploration of the region for a route for the Pacific Railroad stated "….but by far the richest and most beautiful district of country I have ever seen, in Texas or elsewhere, is that watered by the Trinity and its tributaries. Occupying east and west a belt of one hundred miles in width, with about equal quantities of prairie and timber, intersected by numerous clear, fresh streams and countless springs, with a gently undulating surface of prairie and oak openings, it presents the most charming views, as of a country in the highest state of cultivation, and you are startled at the summit of each swell of the prairie with a prospect of groves, parks and forests, with intervening plains of luxuriant grass, over which the eye in vain wanders in search of the white village or the stately house, which seem alone wanting to be seen".

“Considerable information about historical Trans-Pecos landscapes (prior to Anglo settlement) has been accumulated from survey records, journals, photographs, and various other records from early explorers of the region. All early accounts provide evidence that the Trans-Pecos grasslands were quite expansive and that grasslands were lightly interspersed with shrubs and desert succulents. Waste-high grass was reported along Terlingua Creek and in Tornillo Flats, where eroded desert exists today. Extensive grass cover was described in the Big Bend area about 1900 when high numbers of livestock were being grazed in the region. In 1885 Terlingua Creek was described as a running creek full of beaver and lined with cottonwood trees. Evidently, mesquite was not nearly as abundant or widespread as today, existing only as scattered shrubs among the grasslands and occurring in small isolated stands. “

It brings one to the philosophical question, are giant wind farms the best possible solution to our energy problems? There is no argument that wind power is far better for the environment than coal or oil. Is it the best and highest use of the land, however?

This is a time in our history where it can be especially advantageous to get outside the box and start thinking in ways we're not used to. Creative thinkers agree that the way to get better at that is to practice (that does work magically, by the way). It is an exciting time to be alive, a time of great opportunity in the midst of great change. It is not enough, though, for ideas to be big. They must be based on observation and thoughtfulness, and the willingness to choose a simple solution if it really is the best solution - like letting the grass grow.

That might be way better, from a number of angles, than complex, expensive, major structural changes, like covering hundreds of miles of prime prairie land with giant metal windmills and high voltage power lines, and changing our entire transport fuel infrastructure over so we can provide yet another nonrenewable resource (natural gas) that will sooner or later run out. Pickens is from an old school era that thinks big, but not sustainably. His "solution" gives a problem to the people that use the energy (with raised costs for infrastructure), and to future generations (because we are still using nonrenewable fuels).

There are finer considerations as well. A horizon filled with fields of gently swaying mixed grasses and wildflowers, filled with birds and other wildlife, is certainly a more naturally aesthetic solution than monolithic windmills covering denuded plateaus swathed with not much more than tire track patterns.

Can we do that, America? Can we come up with solutions that are aesthetic, affordable, sustainable, simple, easy to implement, good for the environment, and good for us too?

Keep in mind that mixed prairie grasses not only provide a highly renewable and efficient source of biofuels, but if harvested properly, can also aid in water retention and raised water tables, soil retention and remediation, and increased ecosystem diversity. Prairie grass makes a great carbon sink, meaning fields of “fuel” could be reducing carbon emissions that contribute to global climate change. And prairie grasses grow just about anywhere, even on depleted soils where corn can’t grow.

….it's not monoculture crops like corn, soybeans or even switchgrass, but rather the "sea of grass" that fell to the plow in the 19th century that harbors a bright hope for the 21st. Mixtures of native perennial grasses and other flowering plants require little energy or fertilizer to turn into fuel, yield up to 238 percent more usable energy per acre than any single species and can even lower atmospheric carbon dioxide by storing it in their roots or in soil.

"Biofuels made from high-diversity mixtures of prairie plants can reduce global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," says Tilman. "Even when grown on infertile soils, they can provide a substantial portion of global energy needs, and leave fertile land for food production."

According to the research, biofuels from mixed prairie grasses could replace about 13 percent of global petroleum consumption for transportation and 19 percent of global electricity consumption. This could eliminate 15 percent of current global carbon dioxide emissions.

The beauty of mixed prairie grasses, say the researchers, is that, unlike corn, they can grow in old farmland or in marginal, degraded lands with little or no application of water or fertilizers. The challenge is finding enough such land.

Well, gee, let me think. Where might there be enough land?

It took two days to drive through Texas…..


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Creating Community

The driving force in nature, on this kind of planet with this sort of biosphere, is cooperation...The most inventive and novel of all schemes in nature, and perhaps the most significant in determining the great landmark events in evolution, is symbiosis, which is simply cooperative behavior carried to its extreme.

~ Lewis Thomas

Continuing cross country, I stopped in a small town near Austin to visit a dear friend who moved there a couple of years ago. The first thing I said when I saw her, is “Why Texas?” She is an alternative educator and a free thinker, not someone I would expect to move to the heartland of conservatism, where Bible verses are as common as advertisements on billboards on the backroads. She just didn’t seem to fit in.

This is how she responded:

“When I moved here, men showed up from nowhere and started unloading our moving van without any questions asked. The women brought food. They welcomed us with open arms. Moving in, which can be exhausting, was a pleasure – it became a cheerful party.

“I decided to move here after I gave a seminar on parenting, and the people were so friendly, caring, open and willing to do something about it right away, I was vastly impressed. I spontaneously told them I wanted to move here, I liked them so much. They responded by passing around a hat that collected a meaningful chunk of money to help me do so. I have never felt so welcomed and appreciated anywhere in my life.

“When a house burnt down in this neighborhood, the whole neighborhood got together and rebuilt it – better than it was before. Today, my students are all going over to the camp next door, with the rest of the neighborhood, because the counselors are exhausted after a long summer, and the camp needs cleaning. We’ll get it done all together in a couple of hours – it would take them a couple of days.

“I have always wanted to live in a real community, and I have found it.”
Well, how could I argue with that? I’ve always wanted to live in a real community too. I’m impressed with this little town outside of Austin, where people live their spiritual values and have created quite a pleasant place to live. I’ve tried to create community, for years, in Los Angeles, and have gotten somewhere with it, but it has felt not unlike swimming through sand, to do it in a big city.

Los Angeles is anti-order – a system that sucks so many resources that people, even if they are making pretty good money, often still struggle to survive. Corruption and waste are everywhere and we all pay for it. You spend hours on the freeway, and there are so many errands, so many obligations, so many distractions, that there is little time left to help your neighbor. Most of my neighbors in the two houses I lived in, didn’t even know my name after years of living there, and I didn’t know theirs.

I did a little experiment – I started a community food forest in my front yard. I invited people to come on over and help out, plant some of their own crops in our garden, which was too big for us to care for by ourselves, with our busy urban lives, and help us in exchange for fruit, camaraderie, and some instruction on food forestry and permaculture. Lots of people came, and some of them even came back. Not one person took me up on my offer to come over to their house and help them clean their garage, though. Or paint their bathroom or weed their garden with them. It was sort of strange - jeez, if someone offered to clean my garage with me, you can bet I would take them up on it and serve them a nice dinner for their troubles. Not one person took me up on planting their own crop in our garden, either. One person offered to “rent a space” to grow stuff. I told her, no, we would not take money, she could just plant some stuff there. Having her energy there, tending her part of the soil, was all the pay we needed. She never came back. Maybe it was because we also told her this was a community garden, and she could have her own plot, but should think of being a part of the community nonetheless. I’ve had quite a few strange reactions to that concept on a broader level as well, in trying to create an intentional community.

“Does that mean communism? Does that mean I have to share my crops? Does that mean someone is going to tell me what to do, how to live? Does that mean there will be rules?”

Well, no. It means you actually get a say in things, unlike what happens in a megopolis like Los Angeles where your local “representative” also represents 450,000 other people, at least, along with the deep pocket businesses that funded his campaign, some of which don’t even have an office in LA. It means you get to think about what rules are meaningful and which are not, and define your boundaries. It means that you might end up helping others, but they will also help you. It means you share what you want to share, and others share with you what they want to share.

It seems silly that I would have to spell these obvious points out to people but almost every person I’ve spoken to about community (except those already living in a real community or having experienced one) are worried about these issues.
I’m sure there are plenty of people in LA who would love to have me clean their garage, and I was just attracting those who were not comfortable with that, for whatever reason. But what I observed from that was that people were just not used to having a real community around them, and were more comfortable “doing it all themselves ” no matter how much harder it was. Creatures of habit, they couldn’t break the mold and call me when they had a chore I could help with. Enough of us have been trained to “do it ourselves” and live on our own little island, that when a different paradigm is offered, we don’t trust it, or we can’t think with it, or we just forget about it and do things the way we’re used to.

As time went on, and we kept having our gardening weekends, people started to believe. They came with cuttings and left with samples of our chocolate mint. They collected soil and pots from our generous pile for guerilla gardening exploits. They came to share their knowledge and to glean from ours. And they came just to chat and hang out. It took time, but it was happening.

And then others started having community events of their own, in their own backyards – the seed was spreading. I believe that at people’s core, we all need community on a deep level. It is a primal drive that we have had drilled out of us by sitting in straight rows in public school, not able to talk or share with anybody else, and then moving to isolated cubicles at work, and coming home to houses built in neat, straight rows, with board fences isolating them, and no central gathering places for miles around. And few genuine community activities that encourage sharing and getting to know one another. Mark Lakeman, a founder of the community project City Repair in Portland, calls it “muted society, where the guts of community have been removed.”

Our tightly controlled system looks so incredibly orderly, and yet it is wildly disordered. There is so much potential energy being wasted, if one could see a picture of it, it would look like a flooded river pouring out of our communities. The individuated lifestyles we live are perhaps the most inefficient way that anybody has lived in the history of humanity. Yet, our “standard of living” is higher. Or is it? That subject will be covered in depth in another blog article, but suffice it to say, there is an illusory element to that.

It is just so much easier to survive when you live in a real community. Raising kids, fixing up your house, growing a garden, improving the community at large, are all easier when you can tap resources in the community readily. We have allowed formal governments to take the place of what ordinary people routinely did for each other a century ago. It isn’t more efficient, it isn’t easier, and it takes far more resources out of the system (incredibly wasteful and anti-order) than if the people of the community just handled it themselves.

There are movements to change this and they are truly inspiring. City Repair in Portland is a shining example. This is a model that any community can emulate and use to improve their neighborhood. The people of Portland have taken back their neighborhoods and streets and made them into what they want them to be, not what some city planner who had barely even seen the place, less gotten to know the people there, decided was “best.” The truth is, any of us can do this, wherever we are, and eventually, even governments are happy with this. That is because they are trying to do a job that is our job, and they will never be able to do it as well as we can.

Don’t get me wrong. There are aspects of Los Angeles that I dearly love. I wouldn’t have lived there for 20 years if that wasn’t the case. There are amazing, wonderful people in Los Angeles, and amazing opportunities. Some people may say, there are tradeoffs for everything. But I’d like to think I could have my Los Angeles and my community, too.

Keep reading, for more examples of community and tips from those who have done it. How do you change the paradigm, the mind set and habits, of people who have been living in isolation, in the midst of millions of other people, for their whole life? It is possible, and it is being done in dozens of communities, all over the world.

Aesthetic solutions

I recently traveled across the southern US and had some interesting experiences from a sustainability viewpoint. Near Santa Fe, I stayed at the Permaculture Institute.

They have a community there, and offered me a stay in a beautiful adobe home for a very small fee. The founder of the Institute is Scott Pittman, well known permaculturist. His house, built of straw bale, had a couple of interesting elements to it. There was an indoor jungle/wetlands system that handled all the greywater and blackwater from the house (for those not familiar, greywater is all the used water from sinks, showers, washer and dryer, but not the toilets, which is blackwater). Big banana trees, a small pond with fish, a cherimoya fruit tree, lots of lushness. There were exotic birds flying through the trees, chirping. What a nice thing to have in the middle of the house! In winter it must be really pleasant to have that green there, at 7000 feet or so, it can get quite cold.

The terrarium gets light and heat from a panel of skylights which is diffused and limited in size so it doesn’t get too hot. They found out afterwards it did not provide enough light for the vegetation to produce much food, but it still provides lots of clean air and aesthetics. The skylights are angled so that in the summer the light hits the plants which absorb the heat, and in the winter, the light hits a thick adobe wall that absorbs the heat and radiates it to the back of the house, which has no heater and per the residents, never needs one. They also have a big masonry stove that takes a chunk of wood to get started, but if the fire is kept going in the winter, even at very low volume, it hardly needs any fuel to keep going. Per Scott’s wife, most residents in the area go through one to three cords of wood per year, but they take three years to go through one cord. The passive heating and cooling systems were well thought out throughout the house- using air flows, lighting, thermal mass, ceiling size, etc, to create heat where it was needed and prevent too much where it was not. It’s a large house with high ceilings, which would normally take more energy to heat and cool than the average home, but uses far less energy than most homes. Radiant heat from thermal mass is a superior heat by test, warming bodies more effectively and pleasantly than forced air heat, and without drying the air or stirring up dust.

Anna Edey ( has been successfully growing copious amounts of food inside her home for decades, and her greenhouse design is one of the best out there. She uses a different type of thermal mass – the living bodies of chickens help heat her home via an attached chicken coop which transmits their radiant body heat into the house via the common wall they share.

Adding a rain catchment system to the house could provide water for non-potable use (or even potable with a good filter) – see Choosing food, such as sprouts and other items that grow in small spaces, could increase the amount of nutrition that is provided. A combination of these techniques and the ones used at the Permaculture Institute, could create a structure that would provide much of the resident’s food, energy and water needs within the structure itself!

When trying to create systems that produce more than they use in resources, that live lightly on the earth and perhaps even contribute to her bounty, these techniques become key.

Designing a life with these elements does not involve austerity, but abundance - it is far from punishment!

Anna’s home designs are aesthetic, pleasurable masterpieces, full of light and life – imagine reaching for a delicious, organic, heirloom tomato while you are bathing with sunlight streaming through greenhouse glass above you, or as you are sitting at your kitchen table. Imagine watching birds flit from branch to branch in the nearby atrium as you relax in your living room. Imagine walking a few steps to pick a ripe banana in the middle of winter, surrounded by lush greenery. Imagine the coziness of curling up in bed in the middle of winter in a room heated with radiant heat, emanating from the walls and floor.

Imagine having an energy and water bill that are so low as to be almost nonexistent. And imagine experiencing the feeling that you are helping the planet by living like this.

Living “green” truly offers the potential of a higher quality of life, from every angle. Which only makes sense, doesn’t it? What is good for the earth and its living creatures should also be good for mankind, who is, after all, a part of the larger dynamic of all life forms.

An Orderly, Abundant World

When I first read Bill Mollison’s definition of “order”, from his Permaculture Manual, I had to put the book down and walk around the room for a while, and then go outside and walk some more. This one small paragraph changed my life and changed the way I view everything around me. It opened up horizons that I am still exploring, and will explore for the rest of my days. Here is my paraphrase of this devastating definition:

ORDER: An orderly system is a system that produces, or yields, more than it consumes.

Now, consider that there are gradients to this. One can outright steal something and give nothing in return, or one can produce less than what he was paid to do. One could use resources that he doesn’t pay for, or create waste or toxins that he doesn’t take responsibility for, leaving it up to someone else to pay the bill – these are examples of consuming more than one produces and all of them are criminal. These are more common than one may think in this country. A society made up of people who do this will soon fail. If one gives a fair exchange for what he is paid, that is honest, but the most ideal and desirable system of production allows one to give more than he receives. That is a system that produces in abundance.

Permaculture is the science of studying, designing and controlling energy flows and structure that facilitates “producing in abundance” whether in natural systems and other types of systems (including economic, business, production, and community systems).

This one definition unlocked for me how that could happen. All of a sudden, I started looking at neatly manicured grass lawns as inapplicable swaths of grossly disordered systems. They steal huge amounts of resources – water, fertilizer, sunlight, money and human labor, giving very little energy back to the system from which they derive their sustenance in the process.

Neat rows of corn are another example of anti-order – not only do they use far more resources than what they provide in return, but they leave the fields worse off than they were, with depleted soils and destroyed diversity. They even destroy other ecosystems, such as the nearly 8,000 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico - - created by fertilizer run off from corn and soybean fields that travels down the Mississippi River.

“How can that be?” you say. “How can corn fields use more resources than they provide and still be profitable? That makes no sense.” Well, you’re right, it does not make any sense. The entire supportive system would have to be massively skewed to create such an illusion, and it is. Massive government subsidies to agriculture and energy industries make wildly inefficient farming methods profitable. As well, if one measures only money as an exchange value, and does not measure the actual energy exchange, then one can miss the real picture of order versus disorder. One exercise given to students of sustainable design is to trace down the “life cycle” of a product – ie. Document all the energy and resources that are used in the creation of that product. For corn, that might include the GMO seeds, the petroleum products used to fertilize and kill weeds and bugs, the machinery, the processing of the corn product, the shipping costs, the packaging, and cost of selling the product. An examination of alternative systems, like a number of intensive, organic farming methods, will show reduced and less expensive energy and resource needs at every one of these production points. Without subsidies and a skewed system, these methods would be far more profitable. It is simple logic.

Farming methods in the Midwest are destroying the livelihood of shrimp fishermen in the Gulf by killing off the shrimp with pesticide and fertilizer run off. They do not have to pay the costs borne by those fishermen. And depleted soils and water supplies created by modern industrial farming are debts that will need to be confronted and paid by our children and grandchildren. Those are hidden costs that don’t show up on the bottom line of Archer Daniels Midland. Someone else is paying or will pay in the future, so that corn production can show a black bottom line now. This is not “free market” or “good business,” it is simply criminal.

So, why do we operate this way? Can our ivy league accountants and MBA’s really not add and subtract true costs? Do they know what the costs of doing business actually are, but they just really don’t believe they can pay real costs and still make a profit? If so, where did these ideas come from?

How can one avoid criminality and still make a profit? And how did we get in a position where we have to ask ourselves that question?

And if neat rows of corn and beautiful green lawns are anti-orderly, what is an example of order?

We will document a number of the best of the best practices and solutions in this blog. Stay tuned for some entertaining, outrageous and perhaps quite surprising viewpoints and information. If you are like me before I was exposed to these concepts, you may experience some life changing paradigm shifts while reading.

There is a lot of exciting, good news to be shared. It is not only possible to live ethically, but one can experience far more abundance and quality of life by doing so. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Come back and visit, for stories and tales of people who are doing it in marvelous ways.