Archive for the 'Global warming' Category

Sustainable Resources from a Permaculture Perspective

January 23rd, 2010 by shrimppop


Recent discussions on The Oil Drum and elsewhere have thrown the question of sustainability into stark relief. What is sustainability? What makes one thing or system sustainable and another not so? Is there a framework or model for comparing relative sustainability? How do we measure and account for all aspects of sustainable systems?

Permaculture offers a set of specific approaches to these questions, although in some cases more detail is needed. For example, the need to perform “careful energy accounting” is recommended (if not required) without any real guidance as to how one would actually go about this. Holmgren and Mollison seem to agree that Howard Odum’s emergy approach to this issue is the best available tool, but even Holmgren admits to never having learned it.

My goal in this article is to sketch out some of the issues that play into a more comprehensive and detailed approach to sustainability, starting from Permaculture approaches with which I’m familiar.


CSM Has a Piece on NG Fracking and Water

September 18th, 2008 by shrimppop

Finally, a major news outlet (sort of) is covering the environmental damage from hydraulic fracturing (”fracking”) for natural gas in shale deposits. The Christian Science Monitor covers the story at a relatively high level (hat tip TOD). Interesting how the API always says “there’s a concrete casing so the water is fine.” NYC seems to finally be waking up and have put a 1 mile buffer around the reservoirs they own in the Catskills. The rivers in the area of the Marcellus shale drain into Hudson, Delaware, and Ohio river systems and Chesapeake Bay watersheds.
I previously posted about what this means for New York here.

Escape from Suburbia

July 22nd, 2008 by shrimppop

I watched Escape from Suburbia the other night. Phil and Tom are featured in the film, and I wanted learn more about what they are doing in NYC. The movie covers a number of efforts across North America to deal with and find solutions to Peak Oil, and secondarily Climate Change and poverty, mainly through local food production. At least local food production was a theme.

What was most moving to me was the segment on LA’s South Central Community farm, a 14 acre community project at ground zero of urban gardening. This farm had private plots for 350 local families who grew food, medicinals and ornamentals. They started a market because people there were growing things not available anywhere else in LA. Horrifyingly, the city took back the land and sold it to a “logistics” company to build a warehouse there, because “people in South Central need jobs.” Despite community action and protest, the site was bulldozed on camera while the urban farmers could only look on in despair.

Carolyn Baker points out in her review what this means. Relocalization is not currently threatening to the powers that be, but will be soon, and we can expect a very nasty backlash. This example is just a taste of that. I’m relating this to the Archdruid’s post a couple of days ago about the misconception that collapse will somehow mystically be okay, and not too violent. I doubt that. The image I have of collapse is not a bunch of spontaneously emerging ecovillages, but something like New Orleans, post-Katrina, times every major metropolitan area in the world. I see pain in our future.

The conclusion I’m coming to, inescapably, is that food, relocalization and gardening are political. The good news is that gardening also seems to be a great way of organizing people in a way that doesn’t overtly seem political. In other words, like me, it’s only after gardening for some years that one comes to understand that gardening is political.

There seem to be two approaches to fighting the Beast. One is to go head to head, like Gandhi, Mandela or MLK. Another is to go underground like the mycelium network and stay off the radar until there is enough strength or pain to stand and fight. The danger is that being underground can become comfortable and the standing up never happens, or it gets co-opted before the groundswell.

Meat Causes Hunger

April 15th, 2008 by shrimppop

George Monbiot finallly makes the point today in the Guardian, that I have been wanting to make about the emerging global food crisis. While some stories on the subject in recent days have mentioned the epic drought in Australia, likely due to global warming, most blame the situation on biofuel use of corn. The fact is that most corn, and indeed most food grain is fed to livestock. Livestock can eat a lot of things beside grain, but grain feed allows for factory production, where massive numbers of animals can be housed on small areas rather than free ranging on pasture. Corn-fed beef and pork are also more “marketable” than pasture-fed.

Monbiot says this:

But there is a bigger reason for global hunger, which is attracting less attention only because it has been there for longer. While 100m tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760m tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals - which could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.

He proposes eating farmed tilapia which is very protein-productive and efficient. I’m looking into raising a few in my new mini-pond, when it gets dug later this year. This is the first I’ve heard anyone mention tilapia outside Permaculture circles, although a commenter mentions problems with Chinese and Taiwanese farmed tilapia.

In energy descent, rather than centralized grocery shopping, fed by centralized distribution centers and trucking, fed by monoculture stockyards, fed by monoculture grain production, we need a system where most of the food is much closer to the point of consumption.

In other words, grow a garden. Farm some tilapia. Raise some chickens for eggs and perhaps meat, and maybe a goat for milk. Grain production may still be more efficient on medium to large scales, from an energy standpoint, but most industrial vegetables and fruits are clearly energy losers, even before they get shipped from Chile or California.

One point raised in the comments to Monbiot’s article indicates that the financial crisis does in fact play into the food crisis. Speculative excess capital has flowed into commodities of all kinds over the last two years and this is having a huge cumulative effect on grain prices, including energy and fertilizer input costs and a new midwestern land price bubble. Without being able to systematically untangle the skein of interrelated forcings, we can’t say for certain how much any of these factors —ethanol, oil, climate change, meat habits and speculation —directly contribute to hunger; we only know that they do.

Complexifying the Terms

March 14th, 2008 by shrimppop

With this post I want to complexify some of the terms that are commonly used in discussions around Peak Oil, climate change, economic viability and sustainability.


H. T. Odum shows that not all BTUs, kilocalories and quads are created equal. Since these measure heat, into which all forms of energy can be converted, they are convenience measures. However, dilute energy forms, such as solar radiation, are less able to do work than highly concentrated forms such as gasoline, TNT and high voltage electricity. Collected wood has about 0.5 Fossil Fuel Equivalents (FFE) in terms of quality. Collected sunlight calories need to be concentrated at a rate of 2000:1 FFEs through plant photosynthesis. The ability to do work determines economic as well as ecological growth.

Furthermore, he shows that there is a typical pattern in successful ecological energy systems, where a portion of high quality energy is fed back to improve the quality of a low quality energy source of greater volume. This pattern can be chained to move energy up the chain. When calculating net energy, we should consider the quality of the energy, not just raw heat equivalents.


Mollison shows that resources are not all created equal. They can be categorized based on the effects of their use on themselves and other resources. Some resources when used degrade or destroy themselves. Some, like a skill or knowledge, improve with use. Others degrade if they are not used. Some resources improve other resources with their use. An example is the one cited above, where a high quality energy source improves a lower quality source. Some resources are neutral with respect to themselves and / or others.

The worst resources degrade themselves and others with use. The extent and reversibility of this degradation, destruction or improvement indicates another dimension in grading resources. So when we talk about resource yields from use we can be more specific by identifying the downstream as well as upstream costs of resource usage. This is a largely ignored aspect of energy accounting, and is almost nowhere captured in micro-economics (though sometimes captured in macro-economic analyses).


From the foregoing we can see that waste, too, is a matter of perspective. One man’s trash, and so on. Waste is in fact simply a resource that degrades itself or other resources when used or not used.

Concentrated livestock manure is a “waste problem” under the current industrial divisions and geographical separations of livestock operation inputs and outputs.Manure is rich in nitrogen, fosters soil organisms, generates heat, and acts as water conserving mulch when spread on fields at lower concentrations.

For this reason, Permaculture says “the problem is the solution.” Also we can see that any gross accumulation of a resource, not used by the system, is a form of pollution to the next larger scale system. By this definition, even money, when highly concentrated and not reinvested in the system becomes a form of pollution.

Relocalization and System Scale

March 8th, 2008 by shrimppop

I want to weigh in on the relocalization debate that has been going on for the last several weeks on The Oil Drum. The debate continued with the ArchDruid’s mixed-metaphor weigh-in on Friday. I’ve finally got some coherent thoughts about this. My argument follows.

Mollison defines yield in terms of a system, which creates both product and energy yield. Since energy is not created, according to the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, energy yield is not truly a “net” but rather the surplus energy after the system’s needs are met. This is the key measure of sustainability in a general sense.

System yield is the sum total of surplus energy produced by, stored, conserved, reused, or converted by the design. Energy is in surplus once the system itself has available all its needs for growth, reproduction and maintenance.

Cheap oil has allowed us to create really big systems, so that current agricultural grain system yields need to be measured against a system that includes oil inputs from Canada, refining in Texas, potash from Canada, nitrogen from Venezuela, processing and shipping to markets all over the world. For all practical purposes this includes the entire global ecosystem. Whether this system is in surplus is a question for another post. The point is that the scale of the system has been driven by cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Therefore, the end of cheap energy will necessitate a reduction in scale of all operations, including agriculture, if it is to be sustainable.

To Staniford’s point that BigAg can continue under improved economic conditions due to Peak Corn, at some point this cannot be argued to be sustainable. There’s a price point that will be reached if it has not done so already. Mollison’s items about all the needs for growth, reproduction and maintenance seem to indicate, in a world where 1/6 of the population live in extreme poverty, that this point has already been reached.

Relocalization can be defined as an attempt to create sustainable systems at a much smaller, more human scale. This would apply to food, money, transportation, media and other “extensions of man.” It follows then that the scale and progress of relocalization is a function of energy supply. This is not to imply that this is a linear relation; the function is necessarily complex.

This realization leads to a further question about the mechanisms and strategies for achieving relocalization. “Planning” is clearly a term with a lot of baggage, so I prefer Mollison’s term “Design.” This will still make Market Fundamentalists twitch, but the fact is the current system has been historically designed in very specific ways. Again this is subject for a future post. The IMF is a case in point, if you need one.

Donald Norman, the usability expert says there is no such thing as “no design”: there is good design or bad design. So we should start designing for a future with a much smaller scale, and the relocalization movement is attempting to do this. To the extent that we employ conscious systems design, for example using Permaculture strategies, relocalization is not a “reversalist” approach.

An important follow-on question is the pace at which re-scaling and relocalizing must take place. I would argue that this depends on whether we are in a Code Red situation or whether there is yet time to design a controlled energy descent, especially in light of Global Warming.

Jim Mott on the Today Show

January 4th, 2008 by shrimppop

I heard the other day that my friend Jim Mott was on the Today Show, so I tracked it down and you can see the clip here. Jim is one of the few people I know who actually makes his living solely as an artist, and has done so for the last 20 some-odd years.

Aside from being a great painter, he’s also the person that turned me onto global warming as having a real effect (swans in upstate New York) and Diet for a New America.

One Sunday morning I was in the studio working. I was about to have an opening and wanted to get in touch with Jim, but didn’t have an e-mail address and I hadn’t seen him for a while, and didn’t even know if he was in town. Just then there was a knock on the door and there he stood! He’d been teaching using the space next door.

I’m glad to see him get some recognition after many years of hard work- huzzah!

10 Stupid Things

September 3rd, 2007 by shrimppop

I’m often annoyed by projections that start out “given current rates of …” I’ve noticed there are a lot of stupid things we do as a society, which when changed on a large enough scale will start to bring us into alignment with reality once more. I rarely see anyone analyze what the effect of eliminating stupidity would have.

Here’s a quick list I came up with in five minutes.

1. Flushing toilets with drinking water

This clearly makes no sense in a world starving for fresh water. A simple fix is to use gray water for flushing. Run a drainpipe from a hand sink to the toilet reservoir. Here we run up against government bureaucracy and zoning regulations. Even a place as advanced as Berkeley, CA is attacking “gray water guerrillas” for re-plumbing their houses for gray water reuse.

2. Feeding food-grade grain to livestock

Energy calories are lost at every link along the chain from crude oil production to grain production, especially corn, and on to feed for cattle. Every calorie of beef requires many multiples of grain calories, which in turn use many multiples more of high-quality petroleum-based energy. The ROI on this energy is so far negative that no one in their right mind would even consider it. In fact, it is criminal insanity.

3. Feeding food-grade grain to machinery (ethanol)

At best, ethanol produces about 64% of the BTUs produced by gasoline. So does it make sense to grow corn, which is highly petroleum-intensive (as grown today) to lose at least 36%? Again the ROI is ridiculous here. In real estate, this is called an alligator. This doesn’t even start to get into the ethics of growing corn for energy or cattle feed when people are starving everywhere.

BTW, Sugar Beets yields double per acre what corn yields as an ethanol stock.

4. Deforestation, especially for ethanol crops or beef

Forests provide so many services, and are so productive, that there is not one good reason to cut them down. They create oxygen and soil, sequester carbon, filter and store water, maintain genetic diversity, prevent flooding, grow food, timber and medicine. Forests are a resource without a measurable opportunity cost, because the next best use is so far below and less than their use just as they are as to be wholly inaccurate. Therefore, all of our economic activity ought to be geared toward growing and harvesting forests. A friend of mine has just started an investment fund based on purchased forestland throughout the country. He suggested that the Southern Tier, rather than targeting switch grass for ethanol production, should be replanted to black cherry, which is in high demand for woodworking and grows in only a very small area in the world.

5. Depleting energy capital rather than energy income first

This is where I get annoyed with the current analyses, even at the Oil Drum, that show that solar, wind and biofuels will never replace the demand for petroleum-based energy. The point is we are outrageously and extravagantly liquidating the assets in our trust fund, when we could be living very comfortably off the interest.

6. Lawns

The American lawn represents one of the single largest agricultures in the world, the gross product of which is very nearly nothing. It uses more artificial fertilizer than the agriculture of India and requires endless hours of mowing, gasoline-powered equipment and chemical sprays. We could easily grow the bulk of our food by simply replacing our lawns and planting to vegetables, herbs and fruit trees. When we do this we see grass as it is: a weed.

7. Suburbs

Suburbs are clearly a result of car culture. I am not one to believe they need to go away, but need to be re-designed. There is a subdivision in Davis, CA called Village Homes that is built along sustainable lines. It includes a community garden, fruit trees everywhere, extensive swaling for water retention, and sidewalks in the back yards. All new subdivisions and housing developments can be designed and planned to avoid the suburban scourges, too much driving, water runoff from streets and parking lots, over-extended infrastructure and so on. Existing suburbs can be retrofitted to reduce need for driving and replanted to useful small-scale gardens and agriculture. Some reforestation can be started.

8. Seed Patents

I have nothing against intellectual property, but the idea of cornering parts of the food market is just plain wrong. The seed companies ought to be able to patent maybe the specific changes they’ve made to existing stock, but the original DNA belongs to no one.

9. Air Travel

George Monbiot has a lot to say about how destructive air travel is, so I won’t repeat that. High Speed Rail would be a much more efficient and cleaner way to travel long distances. This is practical today but would probably require infrastructure and subsidy on a national level. I’ve always found travel by train to be much more comfortable and enjoyable than air travel anyway. If you’ve flown recently, you might agree.

10. Market Fundamentalism

The Thatcher revolution, under whose cloud we’ve been forced to live for the last 30 years represented an extremist swing away from moderate liberal capitalism, where the excesses of capitalist redistribution of wealth from laborers to owners is moderated by democratic government. We have two hundred and fifty years of history to look at here. The laissez faire extremism of the last generation needs to move back toward the middle.

Utopia Experiment in Scotland

July 19th, 2007 by shrimppop

Just read an article in the Independent by a journalist who visits the Utopia Experiment in self-sufficiency for a month. The site is located just outside Inverness, Scotland. The good news is that people learn quickly, especially when the food is at stake. The less good news is that they haven’t gone a winter yet, with no water or electricity, or faced the “hungry gap” in March.

They must be aware that there’s a similar experiment just 20 miles east of there that’s been running successfully for nearly forty years. I had the good luck to visit Findhorn in my college years, if only for a month. My experience with the learning I can echo, as within a day or two I had adopted what I can only call the rhythm of the place. The pace there seemed much slower, and people rarely blinked. They kept their eyes open. And so did I, once I let go to this energy and let it carry me.

It was there on the Moray Firth that I, too, learned to cook: something for which I can never be sufficiently grateful. I learned about working in a bindery, about meditation, about demolition work, about pine trees and the connection between natural resources, sustainability and peace. George Galloway recently had a video piece with David Strahan (hat tip TOD)looking specifically at the recent wars and their connection to resources.

James Hansen and Ice Sheet Melt

July 3rd, 2007 by shrimppop

Here’s a YouTube of James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute:

Elsewhere he states that the recent IPCC Report does not factor in the possibility of the South Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets melting, which would raise sea levels as much as 15-35 meters over the course of several centuries. There is geologic data to back this projection which results in what Hansen calls “a different planet.”