The book is 170 pages long, clearly written, with alot of interesting artwork depicting various permaculture concepts and techniques (artwork by Martin Drucker).
It is filled with many good ideas for living sustainably and provides a useful orientation to the larger field of body of work on permaculture.
One chapter that I want to touch on is Chapter 13 on "Communities". What struck me about this chapter was the idea that we can live more sustainably if we find more ways to live cooperatively. Ross Mars distinguishes between sizes of settlements - families, hamlet, village, town, city - and then focuses on trying to flesh out the concept of an ecovillage. For example, an ecovillage takes care of providing basic infrastructure like food, water, energy, and waste treatment. Cooperative approaches to providing such infrastructure can result in large sustainability improvements relative to more individualistic approaches.
The concept of an ecovillage is a useful mindtool for developing a systems-level understanding of how sustainability might work under various low-carbon cooperative arrangements.
Posted on May 26, 2009 @ 06:41:00 AM by Paul Meagher
What shade of green are you?
The Wikipedia entry on the color Green contains lots of interesting tidbits.
One tidbit I found interesting was the etymology of the word green:
The word green comes from the Old English word grene, or, in its older form, groeni. This adjective is closely related to the Old English verb growan (“to grow”) and goes back into Western Germanic and Scandinavian languages.
1. One issue that green builders worry about is how their concrete is made. A green builder would prefer that fly ash be used to create the concrete that is used for a green building. Here is Wikipedia's more detailed take on the issue of using fly ash to make concrete:
Owing to its pozzolanic properties, fly ash is used as a replacement for some of the Portland cement content of concrete.
The use of fly ash as a pozzolanic ingredient was recognized as early as 1914, although the earliest noteworthy study of its use was in 1937. Before its use was lost to the Dark Ages, Roman structures such as aqueducts or the Pantheon in Rome used volcanic ash (which possesses similar properties to fly ash) as pozzolan in their concrete. As pozzolan greatly improves the strength and durability of concrete, the use of ash is a key factor in their preservation.
Use of fly ash as a partial replacement for Portland cement is generally limited to Class F fly ashes. It can replace up to 30% by mass of Portland cement, and can add to the concrete’s final strength and increase its chemical resistance and durability. Recently concrete mix design for partial cement replacement with High Volume Fly Ash (50 % cement replacement) has been developed. For Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC)[used in dam construction] replacement values of 70% have been achieved with POZZOCRETE (processed fly ash) at the Ghatghar Dam project in Maharashtra, India. Due to the spherical shape of fly ash particles, it can also increase workability of cement while reducing water demand. The replacement of Portland cement with fly ash is considered by its promoters to reduce the greenhouse gas "footprint" of concrete, as the production of one ton of Portland cement produces approximately one ton of CO2 as compared to zero CO2 being produced using existing fly ash. New fly ash production, i.e., the burning of coal, produces approximately twenty to thirty tons of CO2 per ton of fly ash. Since the worldwide production of Portland cement is expected to reach nearly 2 billion tons by 2010, replacement of any large portion of this cement by fly ash could significantly reduce carbon emissions associated with construction, as long as the comparison takes the production of fly ash as a given.
Note that there is nothing revolutionary about using fly ash to make concrete as power companies are selling lots of it to concrete companies already; the point is that a green builder needs to know the arguments as to why certain materials should be preferred over others in constructing a green building.
2. The second illustrative example of how green building might differ from conventional building techniques is in how the basement foundations are constructed. One technique that green builders recommend is insulating the inside and outside wall of a concrete foundation. One popular material/technique for building such walls are Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF's). The forms are made from foam or recycled woodchips mixed with cement. You just pour the concrete into these stackable ICF's and you have a wall with a higher R value that is easier to heat, better resistence to the development of moisture, mold and mildew in the basement, and a better sound protection factor (SPF) so noise from inside or outside the house is not transmitted as easily.
If I were a home building contractor these days I would be looking to get educated in what green building is all about. I don't think we are ready yet to write the ISO manual on what is involved in green home building; nevertheless, it would pay dividends for a home building contractor to purposefully educate him or herself on an ongoing basis about what new materials and techniques are being put forward as part of the cannon of green building. In this slumping economy, there is demand for green homes built by knowledgeable green home contractors and I expect this sector of the economy has the potential to be a key driver in a resuscitation of the U.S. economy.
The meme of "Green Home Building" is like the "Organic Food" meme in the depth of its potential influence on our material culture. The meme of "Green Home Building" is more immature than "Organic Food" but I think soon it will be a rival in our collective meme space.
The first blog post includes commentary on whether the tires would somehow leech bad stuff into the potatoes. The chemistry of tires is such that they break down slowly even when exposed to the full force of the sun. Because they break down slowly, the amount of leeching you would expect would be very little. Chemists like to use the term "stable" for the chemistry of a tire.
Due to heavy metals and other pollutants in tires there is a potential risk for the leaching (leachate) of toxins into the groundwater when placed in wet soils. This impact on the environment varies according to the pH level and conditions of local water and soil. Research has shown that very little leaching occurs when shredded tires are used as light fill material, however limitations have been put on use of this material; each site should be individually assessed determining if this product is appropriate for given conditions.
Ecotoxicity may be a bigger problem than first thought. Studies show that zinc, heavy metals, a host of vulcanization and rubber chemicals leach into water from tires. Shredded tire pieces leach much more, creating a bigger concern, due to the increased surface area on the shredded pieces. Many organisms are sensitive, and without dilution, contaminated tire water has been shown to kill some organisms.
Not to dwell on the negative side, it appears that tires work as well or better for growing tomatoes. This 1976 Mother Earth article discusses a more advanced system for using tires to grow tomatoes where water is retained in the sidewalls and plastic wrapped around the tire to create a low cost green house environment that tomatoes apparently thrive in (except in really hot climates where the setup can cook the developing tomatoes unless you alter the solar energy absorption levels by covering the tire with a partially reflective coating).
Once you start to appreciate the potential of tires as solar collectors you can see that old tires have many potential uses around the home. Perhaps the biggest issue many home owners would have with using tires in their yards is the aesthetics of it - Martha Stewart and Oprah aren't doing it yet. Maybe they should?
Posted on May 19, 2009 @ 07:06:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Late last week I finished No-nonsense Guide to World Food (2008) by Wayne Roberts. One superficial aspect of the book that attracted me was that it was a small book about an interesting topic that could be read quickly. Within its compact space of 184 pages, it offers a selective overview of some of the trends happening in food systems around the world. For example, you can find out about urban farming in Cuba where it is practiced widely. You can learn about the politics of food aid, fair trade cities in the U.K., the difference between "peasant" versus "farmer" motivations for working the land, and more.
One distinguishing aspect of this book is that it attempts to provide a theoretical framework to organize trends occurring in world food systems from "modern times" to the present. It does this by linking the movement towards globalized and industrialized food systems to corresponding movements in art and architecture called "modernism". "Modernism" transported to our food systems often manifests itself as a distain for old ways of doing things and a faith in new technologies to provide ever increased levels food production and distribution.
The main theoretical alternative to modernism that Roberts offers is "Food Fusion". It is difficult to pin down exactly what Roberts' means by this phrase, so I'll be giving you my take on the phrase. If you google "Food Fusion" the main way it is being used today is to refer to cases where different ethic food traditions intentionally combine elements from each other. One example is applying sushi wrap around a hot dog. From this, I would suggest that "Food Fusion" refers to a major trend across food systems whereby we mix elements of different ethic traditions to produce food. The food fusion approach fetishizes diversity and local traditions, where Modernism fetishizes technology and globalism.
One interesting theoretical problem that "Food Fusion" wrestles with is the desire to source food locally rather than from a globalized industrial food system, while at the same time recognizing that one way we can help countries less well off than we are is to buy their agricultural products. The idea of "Fair Trade" is discussed as one approach to sourcing food beyond our borders. This is contrasted with the dominant "Cheap Food" approach. Currently, many cities in the U.K. are becoming "Fair Trade" at the city-level meaning that the city governments are willing to pay an extra price for any non-local food they source to ensure that farming can survive and prosper in these less well off countries. Roberts suggests that we regard these non-local food producers as akin to local food producers and apply a similar level of concern to the sustainability of their food systems.
Posted on April 24, 2009 @ 06:15:00 AM by Paul Meagher
We have been so focused on cleaning up our energy supply that we haven't given our distribution system the attention it deserves. Our current electric grid is stupid. To move in a serious way towards a greener energy system we will need to make the grid smarter in various ways. Tom Raftery gives us a glimpse of what this smart grid might look and why we need it.
One of Joel's major beefs is with policies that demand large upfront startup costs for sanitized equipment, facilities, inspections and certifications before a person can even begin selling an agricultural product:
How do I know if I have a cheese that people will want unless I can experiment with a few pounds and try to sell some to folks? How do I know I have a decent ice cream until I make some and sell it to taste testers? Innovation demands embryonic births. The problem is that complying with all these codes requires than even the prototype must be too big to be birthed. In reality, then, what we have are still-birth dreams because the mandated accoutrements are too big. pp. 17-18.
In other words, our food security policies have created a huge barrier-to-entry for agripreneurs. It virtually guarantees that the only "innovation" in the food industry we will get will come from the big players who have pockets deep enough to comply with our overly-regulated food security and inspection regime. The root of the problem is that the policies often do have a role to play in regulating larger industrial operations, but when applied to small-scale farmers that are grossly inappropriate. One size does not fit all. The book documents many instances of how food security and inspection regimes can quickly put a small agripreneur out of business for no good reason.
Make food-safety regulations sensitive to scale and marketplace, so that small producers selling direct off the farm or at a farmers' market are not regulated as onerously as a multinational food manufacturer.
Urge The U.S.D.A. to establish a Local Meat-Inspectors Corps to serve and support the local food processors that remain.
I think these would be good first steps in the fight to re-establish local food networks; however, I think that in the interim we are probably going to see increased civil disobedience as consumers and producers increasingly come to the realization that our current food policies are not in the people's best interests but are rather in the interests of large multinationals. Civil disobedience will be manifested in a huge and growing market for "illegal" local food that is not taxed or recorded. It will untimately be the potential for huge losses of government revenue that will make government realize that it needs to change the way it regulates locally produced and distributed food.
Posted on April 22, 2009 @ 10:59:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The coal lobby wants us to believe that coal can be a "clean" source of energy. By "clean" the coal lobby means they are optimistic that they will be able to effectively sequester co2 and other harmful emissions from coal-powered plants. Given that the U.S. has the largest reserves of coal in the world, it would seem that CCS technology offers the best hope for a cheap, secure, and clean energy future for the U.S.
The cost of capturing carbon is prohibitively high; between $25 and $115 a ton. Most CCS pilot projects have failed for lack of money. Two billion dollars was sunk into one U.S. project before the plug was pulled.
Capture and storage of carbon can eat up nearly 30 percent of energy provided which drives the need to mine and burn more coal to compensate.
A CCS-enabled power plant will raise the cost of electricity production by 37-91 percent. So much for cheap energy.
Renewable energy infrastructure could be developed faster and at less expense than a CCS-enabled energy infrastructure.
CCS is largely untested technology. Promoters are just being overly optimistic about its potential given the lack of real data on its feasability. Consider that to really test the viability of CCS would require actually sequestering carbon in some geologic formation and waiting a few thousand years to find out the fate of the stored carbon. An article in the most recent issue of Nature suggests that most of the stored carbon ends up dissolving in water in underground storage formations. No one knows whether this water will, in the fullness of time, carry the dissolved co2 out of these formations. Many geological formations are unique so generalizing from one project to the next is also frought with uncertainty.
To compress, transport, and store just 15 percent of the world's carbon would be a geo-enginnering feat of such magnitude that even a projected date of achiving this by 2050 is optimistic. Just to transport it would likely require as much pipeline as already exists for transporting crude oil.
There are safey concerns. In the tar sands, many of the places where they want to bury it are on a landscape perforated by around 350,000 oil and gas wells. These drill holes provide a potential escape route for stored carbon. Heavy co2 leaks can be extremely dangerous and difficult to deal with. Anyone nearby heavy co2 leak will die for lack of oxygen in the air and motorized equipment won't operate in such an environment unless fed with an artificial supply of oxygen.
A slow leak of 0.1 percent a year over time would empty the storage site in less than 6 thousand years.
CCS extends the pretense that coal is not dirty and that we can proceed with business as usual.
Posted on April 20, 2009 @ 06:51:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Lately, I've been thinking about three aspects of the peak oil phenomenon:
Currently we are being asked to voluntarily limit our use of fossil fuels. We are also looking at ways to cap or tax fossil fuel usage. I wonder, however, if in the next 10 years these will be non-issues because of peak oil? As crude reserves continue to dwindle and crude prices go through the roof, won't the cold-hard-facts of supply limitation do a better job of controlling usage than any voluntary scheme we will come up with?
If we start to see dramatic effects of the peak oil phenomenon in the next 10 years, should we start thinking now about whether a car is a good investment? Will car ownership go the way of the dodo bird when the effects of peak oil starts to hit (e.g., high fuel costs, limitations in supply, rationing, etc...). If so, are the car companies facing an even tougher future than we are even imagining now? Recession may be the least of their worries going forward.
As environmentalists should we regard peak oil as a good thing or a bad thing? Certainly if we had unlimited supplies of oil we would burn it in increasing quantities and threaten our own survival so in that respect I think we have to be thankful that our supply of oil is limited. We simply lack the political institutions now to curb our national self-interests. Peak oil is probably the only reality check that will work to help curb our fossil fuel usage; however, there is the worry that coal will fill this void in the near term (via the Fischer-Tropsch process for auto feuls) and hasten our demise (although the "clean coal" propogandists would like us to believe otherwise).
Posted on April 16, 2009 @ 05:52:00 AM by Paul Meagher
According to Wikipedia, "Black Liquor is a byproduct of the kraft process, (also known as kraft pulping or sulfate process) during the production of paper pulp. Wood is decomposed into cellulose fibers (from which paper is made), hemicellulose and lignin fragments. Black liquor is an aqueous solution of lignin residues, hemicellulose, and the inorganic chemicals used in the process. The black liquor contains more than half of the energy content of the wood fed into the digester".
The controversy arises because U.S. companies are just starting to receive an alternative energy tax rebates for using black liquor to produce energy and heat in their production process. The rebate is huge. According to Embassy magazine:
On March 24, Memphis-based International Paper announced it was the first firm to collect the tax credit. In a press release, International Paper said it had received its first cheque from the Internal Revenue Service. The company received $71.6 million (US) for the one-month period of Nov. 14 to Dec. 14, 2008. Deutsche Bank estimates International Paper will receive some $860 million (US) annually as a result of the tax credit.
The size of these rebates has the potential to make the relative cost of production for U.S. companies considerably lower and allow them to flood the market with lower-priced product. Canadian companies call this a "game changing subsidy" and are looking for the federal government to respond either by invoking trade law or offering a similiar subsidy.
My own opinion is still not fully formed yet. It appears that paper mills using the kraft process can potentially become self-sufficient by using black liquor to generate heat and energy. Also, the recovery process involved in using black liquor allows the mills to re-use the chemicals used to separate the lignin from cellulose fibres thereby reducing pollution levels and increasing production efficiency even more. Given these benefits, it could be argued that developing processes that fully utilize black liquor represents a significant advance in paper making technology and that the U.S. tax rebate is stimulating a significant move towards more environmentally friendly paper making production processes. It could be argued that Canadian companies are worried because they not receiving similiar levels of government help to modernize their production processes.
I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable about black liquor and how it is being used in the paper production process to know how critically important it is to the future of the paper making industry. This controversy has piqued my interest to learn a bit more about the potential of this mysterious substance called "black liquor" and the role it is actually playing in the production processes of companies receiving these tax rebates.
Posted on April 8, 2009 @ 06:34:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Previously I suggested that microbiology is a great career choice. What microbiology will consist of by the time someone graduates in 4 to 6 yrs is difficult to envision because the field is moving so fast. One aspect of microbiology that is now coming into its own is a field called "synthetic biology". To learn more about synthetic biology you can watch this conversation between science journalist Carl Zimmer and Rob Carlson who has a book due out in the fall on this topic:
It is interesting to note that Jay Quesling, who identifies himself as a synthetic biologist, was chosen by Discover Magazine as it's first ever Scientist of the Year. It is also interesting to note that synthetic biology is attracting considerable venture capital these days.
Posted on April 3, 2009 @ 08:38:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The topic of climate change is scary for kids as it throws a veil of uncertainty into their futures. It is, in my opinion, necessary to educate kids about climate change so that they might help effect the changes that will be necessary to curb and adapt to climate change. How should we educate kids about climate change?
In the past, I have taken a direct approach by reading a children's book on climate change to my kids so that they could grasp the basic issues. I think they now grasp what climate change is about but that is about as far as they want to go on the topic. If they never had to read or hear about climate change again they would probably be ok with that - again because of the uncertainty it creates about their futures.
One important term that I learned from this book was "Phenology" which is the study of the timing of things that happen over and over again in nature. In a nutshell, the book advocates getting kids involved in phenology projects. Phenology is one of the principal ways we can learn about the concrete effects of climate change because climate change is affecting the timing of many events in our environment - when flowers bloom, when birds arrive, when frogs mate, etc.... Involving kids in phenology is not just a nice way for kids to learn about nature and climate change, it is also arguably necessary to involve kids because 1) value of phenology data is proportional to the number of nature observers there are gathering timing data, and 2) kids doing phenology are performing "citizen science" and not simply doing school work to make a grade. One way kids can "give back" to society is through such citizen science. Many scientists around the world are recognizing the important contribution kids can make to our local and global understanding of climate change and have developed phenology projects that kids can become involved in.
Spring time is a good time to start thinking about involving your kids in a phenology project as nature is starting to come out of dormancy - plants are coming into bloom again; animals are migrating into our areas again; mating rituals are beginning again. We need a thousand eyes watching and recording the timing of these events in our local communities.
Posted on March 31, 2009 @ 08:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher
One of the famous exchanges in the 1967 movie, The Graduate, is this one:
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you - just one word.
Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McGuire: 'Plastics.'
Ben: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That's a deal.
If Ben had taken Mr. McGuire's advice, he would have done well for himself. Can we offer a similiar one-word prescription to high-school graduates about a career path they might want to pursue that would offer a high probability of success? The one-word prescription for future success that I would throw out would probably be "microbiology". A few of my reasons are:
It is an interesting, rapidly growing, and increasingly fundamental area for understanding the world around us.
Many of the solutions to the green problems we face will come from those versed in microbiology. These green problems will create a huge market for microbiologists capable of offering and delivering solutions.
The growing importance and sophistication of microbiology will have increased considerably by the time you graduate making your skillset even more valuable.
An education in microbiology involves a much larger investment on the part of a university than an education in the arts and many other areas of study. To educate a person in this area requires giving students access to expensive equipment and technical expertise. It is similiar to medical training in this respect and pay levels might, as a result, be well above average.
There are lots of opportunities to create entrepreneurial enterprises based upon microbiological knowledge and techniques. Your degree would confer upon you the authority to offer microbiological solutions and give you a competitive advantage over other players lacking such a degree.
I doubt that I will switch professions to become a microbiologist, but as a reader in "green studies" it is an topic area that I feel the need to get more up to speed on because of its fundamental importance in addressing many green problems in an intelligent way.
Posted on March 30, 2009 @ 07:45:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Listened to an interesting radio program on soil fertility this morning. One interesting tidbit from this show was mention of research showing that antibiotics are showing up in agricultural soil and in common food items like lettuce and corn. The antiboitics are showing up because they are used extensively in livestock production and we are spreading the manure from these animals onto fields where we grow our crops. Turns out that plants will absorb these antibiotics into their tissue which we in turn are consuming.
This practice of spreading antibiotic-laden manure can lead to antibiotic resistence and loss of soil fertility.
Antibiotic resistence arises because the only organisms that can survive in the soil are microbes that can resist the effects of antibiotics. The loss of soil fertility arises because natural soil fertility is in large part due to the activity of microbes that break down organic and inorganic matter into the major and minor macronutrients needed by plants to grow and to provide nutritive value to our food. The antibiotics are killing some of the beneficial bacteria that contribute to soil fertility.
Bacteria involved in the nitrogen cycle, which replenishes nutrients in the soil, seem to be particularly affected. The effects persisted over several weeks and were still seen even when the antibiotics had broken down significantly. In addition the microbial population of the soil changed as fungi replaced the bacteria suppressed by the antibiotics.
As a final note, it is interesting to consider that the word "antibiotic" means "against life".
Posted on March 27, 2009 @ 09:27:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Planting trees is one of the few things we can do that will have an effect far into the future. The act of planting a tree gives us the opportunity to reflect on what the spot we want to plant it in will be like in 50 to 400 years from now. One thing we can be sure of is that the trees we plant today will be existing in a climate warmer than the present one. Some local species of tree that currently thrive will not in our future climate. According to Girvan Harrison in Roddie's New Woodlot (2007), common local species of trees like Jack Pine, Black Spruce and Balsum Fir are not good bets in the future because they are likely to be stressed and won't do so well.
On the topic of the book "Roddie's New Woodlot", which I just finished, I would recommend it to anyone who wanted a light and amusing approach to learning about forestry. There is plenty of ribald humor in this book mixed with lessons about forest ecology and forest management.
I found two chapters in this book particularly useful: The Past, Present, & Future (pp. 101-116) and The Water, Wildlife, & Wood Walkabout (pp. 149-169). While embedding forestry lessons in the context of narrative fiction is arguably not the best way to learn many aspects of forest ecology and management (i.e., low signal-to-noise ratio), it does have it's particular strenghts in these chapters where Girvan Harrison dawns his professional forester hat and gives you some insight into how they analyze a forest both as an ecosystem and as an economic resource. In these chapters, Harrison is charged with coming up with a management plan to help Roddie figure out what to do with his various forest land plots.
In one of these plots, Roddie would like to encourage wildlife to flourish, in particular, partridge (he hates it when they are referred to as "Ruffed Grouse"). From the chapter on "Water, Wildlife, & Wood" we learn how to encourage partridge to flourish. Girvan recommends he use one of this plots, a 7 acre old burn, for this purpose. He suggest that he manage the stand by:
... gradually dividing it into three growth stages of about two and a quarter acres each. Your objective will be to develop a two and a quarter acre area aged 2 to 9 years to act as brood cover; another area aged 10 to 24 years old to be an overwintering and breeding place; and the last area being over 25 years old and to be used as nesting and feeding habitat".(p.163).
The recommended technique for achiving this age-class distribution of growth is clever:
The stand is now 10 years old, so after the leaves are off this fall you could begin to establish your next age class by clearcutting two and a quarter acres. Being cut in the autumn will ensure that there will be an abundant number of aspen suckers next year.
This leaves you wilth an uncut area of about four and three quarters acres. In 15-years time you'll clearcut half this area. This means you'll have one area in the 25-year age class, one in the 15-year age class and the regenerating area that you cut that year.
So while I often prefer to get my forest ecology from textbook-like presentations, there is something to be said for a narrative-fiction approach especially when it gives you some insights into how a professional forester applies informed judgement to managing different types of forest environments for different uses.
Posted on March 26, 2009 @ 07:01:00 AM by Paul Meagher
I find the book, Tar Sands (2008), by Andrew Nikiforuk a fascinating but troubling book. Many people in the East Coast of Canada (where I hail from) have gone to work in the Alberta Tar Sands and part of the reason for reading the book was to know more about this massive project. The book is mostly focused on discussing the many environmental issues associated with the Tar Sands - huge toxic tailing ponds, air quality worse than China's in some areas, huge draw-downs of water threatening water levels, large amounts of industrial waste seeping into the Athabasca river and threatening the third largest fresh water basin in the world, cancers among natives living downstream from these projects, permanent destruction of land and biodiversity, etc.... Andrew does not have much positive to say about the Tar Sands.
The U.S. is also hugely affected by the tar sands. The number 1 supplier of oil to the U.S. is Canada with most of this oil coming from the Tar Sands. Actually, it is mostly raw butimen that is being exported to the U.S. Bitumen is a very dirty form of oil that has to be upgraded in the U.S. refineries where it is being exported to. While many Canadians are upset at the prospect of not "adding value" to bitumen by upgrading it in Canada, they should arguably be happy to leave that job to which ever country wants to do it because it comes at a huge environmental cost in the form of toxic waste, huge water draw-downs of fresh water that can affect water levels, extreme air pollution in the vicinity of the upgraders, increased regional incidences of cancer and asthma, destruction of water sheds and agricultural lands, etc... Few of these environmental costs will actually be paid by the oil companies making the money.
The amount of raw bitumen flowing into the U.S. is projected to increase significantly as pipelines are built to more upgraders in the U.S. and existing refineries are retrofitted to upgrade raw bitumen. In 2015, the U.S. will be upgrading the equivalent of all the tar sands bitumen that is currently being produced. The scenarios for 2030 suggest that this amount might even be doubled because of the huge investments being made to increase production in the tar sands. The tar sands are actually the largest capital investment project on the planet right now.
As I've indicated before, a green entrepreneur can't just focus on the negatives but should be looking at potential green opportunities in this environmental catastrophe. Because the list of negative impacts is long, the list of corresponding opportunities to green the Tar Sands is also long. A couple of obvious opportunities are:
The tailing ponds are not settling out as quickly as engineers had hoped they would. Unless they can figure out a process to decontaminate these toxic tailings ponds, they will remain a long term liability to the companies or, more likely, tax payers. This is a good area to apply some green chemistry or find some biological process that might help solve the problem. The tailing ponds themselves offer plenty of room to be engineered better.
Oil companies are mandated to reclaim the land after they are done with it. When the book was done, only a laughable 247 acres had been officially declared as being reclaimed. After devastating the land to harvest the bitumen, the oil companies are finding that it is not so easy to kickstart a sustainable ecosystem again. For example, seeds that are planted are not germinating because of the acidic salty chemistry left over after the harvest. Some hybrid poplars and barley appear to be able to grow in this environment but a landscape of stunted poplars and barley is hardly a "reclaimed" landscape. There are huge opportunities for extreme landscapers who know how to make things grow again on decimated landscapes.
One of the maddening aspects of Tar Sands is how terrible the environmental monitoring is. The mentality appears to be that what the governement and oil companies don't know, they are not responsible for. I'm not sure that you will get much money from the government or the oil companies to conduct such environmental monitoring but it is clearly needed. This is another area where there is opportunity but you will need to be creative in where you obtain the money for such monitoring and how you insinuate yourself into the system so that you can obtain accurate samples of what is going on.
Posted on March 23, 2009 @ 10:15:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Over the march break holiday I had the opportunity to spend some time in a remote forested area where my family has a small cabin. Because of the spring thaw, getting to the cabin involved frequently falling up to your knees in snow and less frequently falling up to your waist in snow. The trek out of the forest was a more enjoyable as we had our incoming tracks to follow. On the way out, me, my brother and my sister started trying to identify some trees. My brother is knowledgeable about the trees through his log-cutting work as well as facts and knowledge he has accumulated through his long acquaintance with forests. My sister also has considerable experience with the forest as a result of growing up and living in a forested area.
I was able to differentiate some tree species based on visual keys in a tree identification book I had. Even with such a book it is difficult to distinguish between the different tree species that might be found in an Acadian forest. My bother told me to feel the needles of a spruce tree in the palm of my hand to feel the differences between the different types of conifers. Also, he pointed out the "gum bubbles" on the bark of a spruce tree as a clear distinguishing mark. You can taste and feel the difference between trees.
Trees also have many alternative names. The names used can depend upon the sense most affected. A "skunk spruce" is so named because of its smell which my sister likens to cat urine. The term "cat spruce" is sometimes used to name a species of spruce because, when limbing the tree, you need to be careful because the limbs from it can fly at you like a cat.
So the next time you are in a forest with your visually-oriented tree identification book, you might want to put it down and see if you can get to know trees using more than just your sense of vision.
Posted on March 20, 2009 @ 07:05:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Recently I've become more interested in the idea of planting "Tree Crops" in addition to a vegetable garden. Bill Mollison, founder of Permaculture, advocates planting about 10 trees for the food they produce in addition to a 4 square meter garden. He calls this the nucleus of a garden and advocates that beginners only plant more plants after establishing this nucleus.
On the issue of crop trees, however, I am finding it difficult to come up with 10 potentially different types of crop trees that might grow in my zone (5a). Apple, cherry, and plum trees do well around here; beyond that people don't appear to experiment too much. Walnut trees also appear to do ok, but they would be too massive for our suburban lawn.
Like everything else about gardening this is a learning curve for me. One type of crop tree that I though might be useful and interesting to grow is a pomegranate tree. There is alot of good press out about this tree; however, it appears that my climate is way to wet and cold for it to do well here.
Rather than find this process of finding crop trees frustrating, I'm realizing yet another hole in my ecological knowledge that needs to be rectified. Personally, I enjoy the challenge and know of a couple of books I can use to help educate myself. One book is the classic Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russell Smith. Another book by a pioneer in the field is Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape by Robert Hart.
Posted on March 17, 2009 @ 06:52:00 AM by Paul Meagher
I'm aware that a couple of my blogs last week tended towards rants against the pesticide industry. I don't make any apologies for this. I do, however, think that as an entrepreneur it is not enough to rant against ecological problems. Green entrepreneurs also need to examine these problems more deeply to see where the opportunity lies.
So we are harming our environment and health with pesticides; where is the opportunity in that situation? There are, in fact, many opportunities here for the green entrepreneur. I'll list one that I think is a large emerging opportunity - organic lawns.
Consider that we dump more pesticides per acre on our lawns than is dumped on agricultural land. Consider that many towns and cities are increasingly passing bylaws to ban pesticide use. Consider that we willing to invest an enormous time, energy, and money trying to create the perfect lawn. All of these trends point towards the an increasing movement towards organic lawns.
One of the harbingers of such trends are books coming out on the topic. I recently came accross such a book called The Organic Lawn Care Manual (2007) by Paul Tukey. This book discusses the reasons why we want to go organic with our lawns (mostly to make them safe for humans and animals) and the techniques we can use to develop a nice organic lawn.
I see a large emerging market for organic lawn service providers - everything from organic lawn educators, to people contracted to maintain lawns in an organic manner, to suppliers of products needed for organic lawns. As organic lawns become more important to us, so to will organic golf and there will be a similiar need for service providers in this area as well.
Posted on March 12, 2009 @ 07:05:00 AM by Paul Meagher
When companies test the safety of a new pesticide, they study the lethal dosage level of that pesticide for various animals. If they don't want to kill that animal then they will establish a lethal dosage level for that animal and instruct applicators to apply the chemical at a dosage level well below the lethal dosage level. A problem with relying only upon lethal dosage levels to guide application amounts is that sub-lethal dosage levels can also have effects which can be very profound but which do not result in the immediate death of the animal. This is the case with honey bees and the sub-lethal dosages they are getting from neonicotinoid-based pesticides (which are the most used pesticides in the U.S.). French scientists have noticed reliable behavioral effects like intoxication and disruption of foraging behavior when exposed to neonicotinoid-based pesticides at sub-lethal dosage levels between 3 and 6 parts per billion. Under the Bush regime, the allowed levels of pesticide residues on a large range of foods was increased. Blueberry residue levels of neonicitinoids was increased from 1 to 3.5 parts per million (not billion). It is therefore not unexpected that we are seeing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) among honey bees - at this exposure level we would expect intoxication and disruption of foraging behavior. The bees are not dying in the hives; rather, they are simply not returning to the hive because neonicotinoids are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing - screwing with the nervous system of insects.
I've previously blogged about the huge effects on our food system that Colony Collapse Disorder can have owing to the free pollination services honey bees provide and the large number of fruits, vegetables, and nuts which require such pollination. There are predictions that the U.S. will see increased prices for fruits, vegetables, and nuts this year and next for this reason. Consider that California is one of the heaviest users of pesticides and you can see the problem. Those providing pollination services are becoming wary about taking their bees to these insecticide-infested areas.
The dangers here are not just to the honey bees. Our levels of pesticide use has increased dramatically since Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring" to warn us of the dangers. Big Chemical companies are making lots of money, have powerful lobbies in government (i.e., the EPA has been their lapdog on many policies around pesticide use), and buy-off scientists to introduce confusion into debates about causes of disturbing ecological issues like Colony Collapse Disorder which might be pinned on them (just like Big Oil has done for CO2 and Climate Change).
Micheal Schacker's book "A Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply" (2008) offers excellent scientific and journalistic reporting not just on CCD but more generally upon how the pesticide industry is threatening our survival and the survival of many other animals on this planet. The issue of sub-lethal doses is one of the most important issues about pesticides to understand. Most of the pesticides in use in the U.S. have very detrimental effects on a range of animals we want around at sub-lethal dosages which aren't indicated by the immediate death of the animal. As Rachel Carson suggested, we should stop calling these chemicals "pesticides" and properly refer to them as "biocides" because they are not just killing "pests".
Posted on March 10, 2009 @ 07:52:00 AM by Paul Meagher
It is difficult to stay on top of solar technology without making a dedicated effort to follow developments in the field. I can't claim to be doing so, however, I did learn a couple of new things about solar as a result of reading the "Physics for Future Presidents" book which I mentioned in a previous blog.
One improvement concerns the increasing efficiency of photovoltaics. One of the primary technical improvements is to use different layers to convert light of different "colors". This allows photovoltaics to efficiently convert light into energy for the full spectrum of wavelengths associated with light energy. The efficiency for this technology is at around 40-41% with companies duking it out for the record with incremental improvements to this basic advance.
This technology is not cheap so there is a question as to whether it would ever be economically viable to produce in large quantities. This brings us to our second idea, which is to concentrate light onto these highly efficient light energy converters. While the cost-per-square-foot of these improved photovoltaics might be high, if we can concentrate light from a broad area onto these photovoltaics, and these concentrators are cheap and effective, then the cost-per-watt of power comes down significantly.
The research area combining highly efficient photo-voltaics and concentrator technology is called Solar Concentrator Technology and is a technology that I hope to learn more about in the future now that I am aware of it.
Posted on March 9, 2009 @ 07:58:00 AM by Arie Seidler
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) received quite a bit of press the last couple of years when people began to learn the tremendous importance of bees to our food system and that bee colonies around the world were collapsing in huge numbers. A book by Micheal Schacker called "A Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply" (2008) investigates the possible causes behind CCD. There is a long list of possible causes but the most likely cause is the use of neonicitinoids in pesticides which temporally coincides with the phenomenon and whose effects best explain the bee behaviors that are associated with CCD. We need to be careful in saying that that cause has been definitively identified; however, the evidence is so strong that we really need to consider banning the pesticides that use neonicitinoids NOW based on the precautionary principle. Nothing will be done, however, unless there is citizen support to ban the the use of this chemical because the distributors of this chemical are some of the biggest players around - Bayer Crop Science and Monsanto - who are doing everything within their power to prevent governments from banning their lucrative cash cow that they have spend large amounts of R&D money developing.
The video below discusses the problem and the likely cause. For more in-depth analysis, however, you should read the book.
Posted on March 6, 2009 @ 09:31:00 AM by Paul Meagher
I'm hoping to finish off a book this weekend called "Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines" (2008) by Richard A. Muller. I had some initial reservations about this book because I thought it was just a trendy way to sell a book, however, I now believe that it is a book that presidents should read not only because it offers useful scientific background on topics ranging from terrorism, energy, nukes, space and global warming; but also because it offers a fairly objective and balanced perspective on these topics which a president should arguably be aware of so that s/he can rationally defend policies in these areas.
I've only read the sections on terrorism, energy, and nukes so far (not space and global warming yet) and even though I considered myself somewhat educated on these topics, the book has revealed large holes in my knowlege base on these topics. Not just errors of fact and knowledge, but also errors of perspective. Again, the book is not simply useful because of the science it provides, but also because of the perspective on the science it discusses.
The physics that a president should know is also the physics a citizen should know. I heartily recommend this book because I think it will help make us better citizens and also because it is well written, packed with interesting easy-to-read science on major issues of the day, and a perspective on that science that is worth considering.
On a final note, I am classifying this blog under the "Energy" category because the book is particularly useful in understanding the physics of different energy sources (oil, coal, solar, wind, etc...) and the energy/power aspects of terrorism, nukes, space, and global warming.
Posted on March 5, 2009 @ 07:59:00 AM by Paul Meagher
In an earlier blog, I praised the concept of
Green Demolition. This form of Green Demolition, which might be called Large-scale Green Demolition, involves recycling as much of the demolished building on site as possible, thereby diverting waste from landfills, eliminating fossil fuel emissions associated with transport to landfills, helping to keep traffic moving during the demolition process, and lessening the impact upon inner city highway infrastructure.
Recently I came across another form of Green Demolition that is being done on a smaller scale and which does not involve recycling materials on site, but rather involves the careful disassembly of a building so that the materials can be re-sold to customers. Boards, windows, bricks and other parts of the building are sorted, cleaned up if necessary, and resold to other people looking for such building materials. This form of green demolition also diverts waste from landfills not by recycling materials on site, but rather by preparing the disassembled materials for resale.
The business model for small-scale green demolition involves keeping a close eye on local buildings that are going to be demolished and offering bids that look better than simply bringing in the wrecking ball and trucks to haul it away to landfills. The business model also involves having enough storage area to house your demolished materials and it was this part of the business plan that the young entrepreneur, Stan Atwell from Kentville, Nova Scotia, needed financing for in order to grow his business.
I was particularly struck by a comment that Stan made about his business:
Posted on March 4, 2009 @ 09:07:00 AM by Paul Meagher
According to Howard Kunstler, the agriculture industry might be the next industry to start showing signs of failure. We are now at the point in the growing cycle where farmers need to get financing for the upcoming planting season and that financing might be hard to come by. In addition to capital shortages, some of the world's most productive agricultural lands are facing severe drought conditions. Appears the seed industry is thriving these days as people, in record numbers(?), prepare to plant gardens this year. There are many factors conspiring to make the decision to plant a garden a wise move this year. Get your seeds early!
Bill Mollison, in the book PERMACULTURE: A Designers' Manual, recommends that beginning gardener's consider planting a 4 meter square garden along with up to 10 fruit bearing trees. He calls this the "nucleus" of your garden which should be planted a convenient distance from your house. He recommends that you not try to maintain more that this amount of garden starting out because it is likely that the more you plant the more failures you will have both because there is a greater chance for failure with more plantings and because you will probably not devote the amount of attention required to keep plants beyond this nucleus alive. Starting out you are likely to fail so you want to reduce the amount of failure to keep your enthusiam at an appropriate level for the next year. After you get your nucleus in order, you can then consider increasing your plantings.
Those of us living in suburbia are well positioned to do our part to help the environment by gradually converting our lawns to productive gardens.
"Technology progresses more or less independently of the stock market. So for any given idea, the payoff for acting fast in a bad economy will be higher than for waiting".
"You may even be able to benefit from a bad economy, by making things that save money. Startups often make things cheaper, so in that respect they're better positioned to prosper in a recession than big companies".
"The way to make a startup recession-proof is to do exactly what you should do anyway: run it as cheaply as possible".
"Another advantage of bad times is that there's less competition. Technology trains leave the station at regular intervals. If everyone else is cowering in a corner, you may have a whole car to yourself".
I think that those of us working in the green economy have more reason to be optimistic about starting a business that those in other sectors of the economy. The state of the ecomony does not diminish the need to implement sustainability solutions. Populations are still growing, we are still increasing the co2 levels in our atmosphere, we are still running into drinking water shortages, waste has to be dealt with, etc... The green ecomony also includes alot of smart people who know how to save people money by using recycled materials, conserving energy, and running businesses in a more co-operative manner (e.g., community supported agriculture, car pooling, etc...). Finally, the remaining luxuries that many are willing to spend on are things like organic products, hybrid cars, and other higher-end green products.
I concur with Paul Graham that now is not the time for Green Businesses to put their heads in the sand to wait for better times. Now is the time for Green Business to lead the ecomony out of the recession by delivering the solutions that are required to address the problems we are currently facing. Green solutions are needed now.
Posted on February 26, 2009 @ 09:53:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Jessica Fox at the WattzOn blog reminds us that the three R's are not equally important. Many of us, myself included, give ourselves a pat on the back when we make the extra effort to recycle some consumer item. We should realize, however, that recycling is the least important of the R's and should only be done after we have determined that reduction and reuse can't be used to deal with our waste. Jessica has a useful graphic to illustrate the idea:
Perhaps it is time to change our stance towards recycling and examine whether we can address waste issues better by reducing our consumption of a waste item or incorporating re-using into the equation somehow. Recyling is not a positive fate for our waste if reduction and reuse are viable alternatives.
Posted on February 25, 2009 @ 07:57:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Had to buy some registered retirement savings plan funds yesterday in order to bring down my net income and put me in a different tax bracket for this tax season. During the process, I talked to an investment advisor over the phone about my options and inquired as to whether there were any funds dedicated to renewal energy. He indicated that they were just coming out with a fund but they were probably too late in their offering. He said that with the price of oil so low now, that these funds are struggling. I didn't really have the time to pursue this line of questioning much further as my wife only had lunch time to finalize the purchase and was waiting with me in the bank to sign papers to purchase our mutual funds for the year.
In retrospect, it would have been nice to have had more time to look into their "renewal energy funds". Those of you reading this blog might want to inquire with your local bank what renewal energy investment funds they do offer before you purchase any investments for your retirement savings plan.
It could be argued that investment in renewal energy is only a bad investment when governments don't properly regulate the market for renewal energy. To make renewable energy investments attractive, one proven method is to apply a feed-in tariff like Gainsville is now doing. Feed-in tariffs are used extensively in Germany and helped Germany to create a leadership position in renewable energy. Feed-in tariffs involve offerring a long-term guaranteed rate of return for electricity generate from renewable energy that is significantly above the rate offerred for electricity generated from non-renewable energy sources. The cost of this tariff is born by all energy users in the legislated region and helps to stimulate the market for renewables. Another thing feed-in tariffs do is encourage investment in renewable energy funds in those regions that offer such tariffs because of the long-term guaranteed premium on renewal energy sold in those regions. Many investors load up their portfolio with renewable energy investments because they offer the promise of long-term solid performance. In my opinion, this is as it should be - the value of a renewable energy fund shouldn't be as tied to the price of oil as it currently is. The main policy tool to effect this decoupling is the feed-in tariff.
Posted on February 19, 2009 @ 07:43:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Below is a Jan 2009 talk by Saul Griffith called "Climate Change Recalculated". Saul is essentially trying to address the issue of where our future energy will come from in light of the fact of climate change. Offers some sobering numbers on the speed and scale of work required to replace existing fossil fuels sources of energy with renewables. He adds his voice to a growing list of voices who would like to see the auto industry bailout money used to help them retool to manufacture and assemble the components needed for renewable energy infrastructure. Modern areodynamic windmills, for example, requires about 8000 machined parts and we need to start cranking these out at a very fast rate over a long period of time if we hope to avoid some climate change doomsday scenarios. We currently lack the industrial capacity to develop the required number of windmills fast enough. Detroit's industrial capacity should be applied to addressing this capacity issue. Micheal Moore has made the same point.
Posted on February 12, 2009 @ 10:55:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Yesterday I listened to a radio interview with Jim Kunstler who is known for, among other things, his provokative blog Clusterfuck Nation. Jim sees many examples where we are attempting to "sustain the unsustainable" and parodies most of urban planning as a culture of "happy motoring". I agree with Jim in many of his criticisms and agree that we need to exercise our imagination as to what the future might be like after peak oil has seriously kicked in (his novel "The Long Emergency" deals with life after peak oil).
One common theme in Jim's criticisms is the idea that suburbia is an unsustainable dead end because it is built on a foundational belief in "happy motoring" - the idea that we can use an automobile to make up for the fact that many necessities and conveniences aren't located in close enough proximity to make active transport (e.g., walking, biking, etc...) a workable solution. Suburbia also uses valuable agricultural land that we will need because of an impending crisis in food production when petrochemical agriculture goes south due to peak oil. Jim has a hard time seeing any redeeming features in suburban living. This is where I begin to part company with Jim.
David Holgren, co-founder of Permaculture, offered a more optimistic view of suburbia's potential. His main point was that suburbia is well designed from the point of view of delivering water for irrigation to a population with the land base to grow things. He sees the potential for lawns to be relatively easily converted to gardens because it is often built on fertile land or can be made fertile by building up the soil. Water can be delivered through municipal infrastructure. He contrasts this with the greater difficulties that would be involved in retrofitting large apartment buildings to growing plants.
I am of the view that there is still potential to make suburbia a workable solution, however, we need to accept some of Jim's critisms regarding making it less automobile dependent. We also need to begin turning our lawns into gardens for growing food for our families. Where I come from, lawns are slavishly pruned to perfection for no functional purpose. This year we intend to break from this tradition and plan to start converting our front lawn to a vegetable garden. We've tried growing a garden in our back yard, but the problem is that our front yard gets the best sun. We also want to send the message that we don't buy into the perfect lawn concept anymore.
Posted on February 11, 2009 @ 09:28:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Yesterday I picked up State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World by the WorldWatch Institute. Last year's edition was fodder for quite a few blogs and I expect this year's report to be no different. One of the things I like about this annual publication is that it no longer wastes much time trying to make the case for sustainability or climate change, rather, it gets on with reporting on sophisticated new approaches to these problems. As such it is a must read for the "Green Professional" looking for discussions of these issues that are a level above what you get in newspapers, tv, or other popular media outlets. There are many other things I like about this publication but I'll address these in future blogs.
Today I want to report on a chapter called "Employment in a Low-Carbon World" by Micheal Renner, Sean Sweeney, and Jill Kubit. I am of the belief that there are structural problems in the North American ecomomy that are due in part to the non-sustainability of the industries that are being most affected by this ecomomic downturn. There is a pattern to which industries are being affected by this downturn and that pattern is that most of these industries have deep structural sustainability issues - manufacturing, automotive, mining, and forestry are all unsustainable as they are currently configured. Conversely, I would suggest that most low-carbon jobs are holding their own in this downturn and will continue to do so. But what are these low-carbon jobs? That is the question which this chapter helped me to answer.
Here is where we might expect job growth as we move towards a low-carbon ecomomy:
Renewable energy infrastructure and maintenance.
Energy performance services (e.g., home weatherization, LEED certification, energy efficient devices, etc...).
Carbon-free propulsion systems.
Public transport infrastructure and maintenance.
Recycling and reuse. Energy intensive industries such as aluminum, pulp and paper, and cement will need to become better at recycling and reuse. One estimate is that 10 million people in China work in the recycling and reuse industry.
Move towards organic and smaller-scale farming systems. Organic farming employs, on average, 1/3 more people.
Afforestation (establishing a forest on land that is not a forest) and reforestation programs to combat climate change and improve ecosystems.
Climate change adaptation (e.g., building flood barriers) and dealing with climate-change related weather events.
For a low-carbon economy to happen will require a large-scale shift in employment patterns and skill profiles. All stimulus packages should be addressing this requirement rather than financing industries that will be seen as remnants of a high-carbon ecomony.
Posted on February 6, 2009 @ 07:22:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The ruling conservative government in Canada has a poor environmental track record. Any money dedicated to green initiatives is now a hard-won battle. It is therefore disheartening to find out in a recent Auditor General's report that what money we are investing in green initiatives cannot be demonstrated to be making a difference. This is because the government is either not adequately monitoring whether their objectives are being achieved, or, if objectives are not being met, then the objectives are modified to allow for the poor performance (i.e., slippage is allowed).
The lesson here seems to be that we cannot be content with the warm fuzzy we get when a government announces spending on green initiatives. Equally important is the issue of how we will measure, enforce, and report upon performance with respect to the financed initiatives. The follow up problems are occuring in all these areas at the same time: poor monitoring systems, no enforcement mechanism (i.e., if objectives are not met than nothing happens), and no reporting systems that would allow concerned citizens to track performance with respect to objectives.
The only bright spot for Canadians is that we have an Auditor General, Shiela Fraser, who is very competent, widely respected, and not afraid to criticize the ruling government. She had done her job and given us an audit report, 2008 December Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, that specifically addresses concerns about green spending. Perhaps this report will be of interest to others as a template for the type of auditing that needs to done to ensure that stimulus money spent on green initiatives achieve their stated objectives.
Posted on February 5, 2009 @ 09:04:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Software programmers are familiar with the concept of "design patterns" and, if you are into this topic, you can familiarize yourself with a library of solution approaches to recurring types of problems in programming. In a similiar vein, one might wonder whether there are similiar types of "design patterns" for sustainable living? Perhaps if we had such "design patterns" they might help us develop innovative and practical approaches to a more sustainable society.
One such design pattern involves the idea that the best use of a resource is often achieved by arranging space and time according to a schedule. In the case of a sports field, we achieve maximal utility by allowing multiple teams to use the field at particular points in time. Contrast this will dedicating the field to a sports team that only uses the sports field to practice or play. Many of our practices involve the dedicated assignment of a person or group to a resource to the exclusion of other persons, groups, or animals. Conversly, whenever we schedule a resource to be used by multiple persons, groups, or animals at particular times, we generally achieve a net increase in sustainability. Public transit, and the increasingly popular phenomonon of car sharing, are prime examples of the application of a scheduling design pattern.
What intrigues me is the idea that there might be a range of heuristics, like the scheduling design pattern, that can be used to find new opportunities for green entrepreurship. Bill Mollison's book "Permaculture: A Design Manual" is probably one of the best resources I've come accross that speaks specifically to design patterns for sustainability. Even though I've only begun reading it, I can see that it is an impressive collection of design ideas for sustainable living.
Posted on February 3, 2009 @ 06:58:00 AM by Paul Meagher
In many North American aboriginal cultures, there are morality tales about the consequences of dishonoring the spirits. Many of the tales can be viewed as helping to enforce a land or conservation ethic. It could be argued that it is North American's lack of such a mythology that is a big factor in our unsustainable ways.
I've lately started to question whether in fact we lack a mythology that speaks to a land or conservation ethic. It could be argued that implicit in much of the green movement is a mythology consisting of two main parts:
The world started out perfect, with each generating degrading what went before. The prime directive for humans is to try to maintain the state of the world in the same shape as it was given to us. David Holmgren talks about the Ancient Greeks believing this but I think that it is implicit in most environmental thinking and literature.
There is a sacred balance to the world which we must respect. If we destroy this balance mother nature will reveal her displeasure.
Many would view these claims as not being "mythical"; rather, if they were reworded a bit differently, are simply common sense or well supported by empirical evidence. Does calling a set of beliefs "mythic" also mean it can't be common sense or well-supported by empirical evidence? I don't think so. It means that our appreciation of what is happening around us is based upon more than just commonsense or empirical evidence. When Al Gore persuades people of the dangers of climate change is it because of his convincing powerpoint graphs, or is it because he is successfully appealing to a mythic understanding of how the world works? If so, why do only some people get it or want to get it? Are they not convinced by the evidence, or are they not open to a mythic understanding of the world (perhaps because it would be against their interests)? Are we like modern aboriginals who have lost their mythologies and are only now realizing the power and purpose of those myths?
I tend towards a scientific viewpoint of the world so talking about a "mythic" understanding of the world is not in my comfort area. David Suzuki is a hard-nosed scientist, but that has not prevented him from appreciating and using the cultural resources of aboriginal cultures to undergird his environmentalism. I think we need to use all the cultural tools at our disposal to address environmental issues, including the sophisticated appreciation of what role mythology might play in promoting or hindering environmental understanding and activism.
I do think that children are more attuned to the above mythic beliefs, but over time become less attuned. Like modern aboriginals, we may need to find ways to ensure that this attunement is not lost via the competing mythologies of consumerism and endless growth.
Posted on February 2, 2009 @ 08:56:00 AM by Paul Meagher
When tearing down a building to put up a new building, the traditional practice involves tearing town the building and then trucking the demolished structure to a landfill. The practice fills landfills, requires
large amounts of fossil fuels to truck the materials, disrupts traffic, and adds wear and tear to inner city highway infrastructure. Green Demolition is a welcome change and involves recyling much of the demolished building on site. This diverts waste from landfills, eliminates fossil fuel emissions associate with transport to landfills, keeps traffic moving during the demolition process, and doesn't wreck inner city highway infrastructure.
More munipalities are requiring contractors to use green demolition practices and LEED certification is starting to require it. If your municipality is not moving in this direction, you should help it to do so either by advocating for it, or, better yet, become a green demolition entrepreneur so that your municipality knows the choice is available. Not only will your municipality be doing the "green" thing, it will also be saving alot of "green" due to the greater efficiency and smaller toll upon its infrastructure.
Posted on January 30, 2009 @ 08:00:00 AM by Paul Meagher
One often hears people fantasize about generating power and selling some back to the grid. The idea that the power company should be paying them a fee seems very attractive. I don't dispute the idea that this is a valid business model in some cases, but selling power back to the grid can also be a signal that you lack the entrepreneurial skills to use that energy more productively than the power company can.
Companies that can generate the power required to run a business have the potential to to create businesses with long-term cost structures that are more competitive than business dependent on ourside sources of energy to power their business. Self-powered businesses, especially if the power is green, will arguably become more attractive to do business with because they demonstrate leadership, self-reliance, and an eye on the future.
The typical way businesses are setup today involves first thinking about building or leasing a place of business, running that business for awhile, and, if it becomes profitable, make investments in green energy to power the business. What if we instead developed policies to help business finance green energy for their business at startup to help lay the groundwork for the long term?
In some ways, what I am suggesting is the mentality of permaculture applied to business:
The characteristic that typifies all permanent agriculture is that the needs of the system for energy are provided by the system.
~ Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers Manual, p. 6
Are we really building permanent businesses if they are totally dependent on a reasonable price for oil, gas, and electricity to make them viable? This probably depends upon whether you think new technology will be able to provide future businesses with the same amount or more energy to consume even when fossil fuels begin to deplete. There are some who believe that when our reserves of high quality energy in the form of gas and oil begins to deplete, that we will have to simply adapt to existence with less available energy per person to utilize - unless you locally supply the energy for your business operations.
Posted on January 28, 2009 @ 08:57:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The micro-organisms that live on your skin and in your gut provide the first line of defense against pathogenic micro-organisms by creating a competitive environment in which they must attempt to gain a foothold. By applying anti-microbial agents to our skin we weaken this defense mechanism. By pasteurizing everything we consume, we similarly leave our digestive systems more susceptable to invasion by pathogenic micro-organisms.
There is increasing evidence for these claims, however, evidence appears not to be the driving force in the Canadian Milk Act where the consumption of raw milk is considered a dangerous substance. Health Canada warns that "milk bacteria, which include Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, could lead to very serious health conditions ranging from fever, vomiting and diarrhea to life-threatening kidney failure, miscarriage and death. Children, pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems were cited as being particularly at risk".
To think that our family of 9 drank such a dangerous substance. We must have been the lucky ones :-) Especially considering that none of us has experienced any serious medical conditions to date - no asthma, no diabetes, no digestive problems, no miscarriages, no kidney conditions, no liver conditions ...
The claim that raw milk is a dangerous substance is now being challenged in Canadian court by a farmer who operated a "cow share" in which he provided milk to those wishing to drink raw milk. Undercover agents cracked this villainous drug ring but the kingpin, Micheal Schmidt, is refusing to go down without a fight.
The court will try not to address the specific issue of milk's safety and charge Schmidt on other grounds so they can shut him down. Micheal Schmidt is trying to bring the issue of raw milk's safety to the fore and present binders full of evidence that raw milk is not dangerous, in fact, that it is arguable better for you than pasturized milk which can mask the unhealthy conditions under which milk is produced.
Commenters on the news story Milk given a raw deal? are right to point out that if raw milk is so dangerous show us the evidence of this danger by comparing jurisdictions that allow the sale or raw milk compared to those that don't and see if there is a greater incidence of these claimed dangers in markets that allow the sale of raw milk. I doubt that evidence will decide the issue as there are corporate forces at play that want to centralize milk distribution, put small farmers out of business, and take away choice from the consumer.
Anyone who has read Micheal Pollen's book "In defence of food" will see the irony here where whole foods are considered dangerous while processed food are considered good for you. Pollen has documented that the exact opposite is generally the case.
Posted on January 27, 2009 @ 09:53:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Bio-char has been on my radar lately. Last week Boing-Boing provided excerpts from a New Scientist interview with James Lovelock in which he claimed "There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal". This is an interesting development from a renowned maverick scientist. This interview incited me to finish reading a recent biochar review article by Mark P. McHenry in "Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment" called "Agricultural bio-char production, renewable energy generation and farm carbon sequestration in Western Australia: Certainty, uncertainty and risk". (vol 129, 2009, pp. 1-7). From this article I took three main things:
Biochar is an umbrella term for an integrated set of technologies whose end product is biochar among other desirable products.
Because biochar production has so many different types of co-benefits there are many different biochar systems that can be constructed depending on the co-benefits you want to emphasize.
Biochar technology is an excellent area to invest in if you know the technology and don't expect an immediate return on investment. Biochar production technology is starting to come on stream now and within the next five years we will likely start to see many profitable biochar companies because there are so many co-benefits associated with the technology.
The list of co-benefits were summarized in the "Conclusion" section of the article:
Producing bio-char from farm or forestry waste provides an impressive list of potential co-benefits, including the generation of renewable electricity, liquid biofuels, gas biofuels, activated carbon, eucalyptus oil, large amounts of heat or low-pressure steam, and the potential of a net withdrawal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. With the introduction of new policies and initiatives, the sum profitabliliy of these various production streams is likely to improve, especially if theare are integrated into existing agricultural production and energy systems. ~ p 6.
I think that one of the more important issues to consider when investing in bio-char technology is the scale of the technology you want to invest in. For example, some bio-char technology is focused at the farm level and utilizes dairy bedding and manure for feedstock. In contrast, the Narrogin Integrated Wood Processing Demonstration Plant is using a base of 50,000 hectares of mallee trees and can generate 7500 MWh of electricity, 690 tons of activated carbon, and and 210 tons of eucalyptus oil. I suspect that smaller scale technology would produce a smaller ecological footprint as there is less need to transport feedstock to the production side and resulting products to markets. At the farm level, transport costs are fewer because the feedstock is on-site and the resulting products are used on-site: biochar is an excellent soil additive and when it comes from dried cow manure and bedding the additional nutrients means that it is essentially an organic fertilizer.
Posted on January 26, 2009 @ 08:00:00 AM by Paul Meagher
In this interview, David Holmgren, co-founder of the permaculture movement, discusses the intersection of Peak Oil and Sustainability. David makes a number of interesting points in this interview, one of which is the idea that sustainability should not be conceptualized as a plateau that we might someday achieve. We need to go "beyond sustainability" by thinking about how we will adapt to a future with less available energy because we are quickly depleting our remaining reserves of high quality fossil fuels. This adaptation is not likely to be plateau-like, but it will be in constant flux because each generation will need to find their own sustainable solutions in the context of continually decreasing energy availability.
This is a very philosphical interview which challenges much current economic orthodoxy. It offers a positive outlook on our recessionary times; how it might foster more cooperative solutions, lead to a better food system, and result in less exploitation of the poor. Required viewing for anyone who considers themselves "green".
Posted on January 23, 2009 @ 12:56:00 PM by Paul Meagher
I went to see the band Matt Mays & El Torpedo last night. One of his songs that is getting quite a bit of local airplay is "Tall Trees". Matt Mays plays a stripped down acoustic version of the song in this interview with Jian Ghomeshi on the CBC radio show Q. This song resonates with me given my recent fixation with forest ecology. Enjoy.
Posted on January 22, 2009 @ 08:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Ecologist magazine has a story on a new magazine in the UK called Karen. The magazine is a measured reaction to the fantasy lifestyles, fantasy clothing, fantasy food, fantasy romances, and celebrity focus that is characteristic of much of the magazine tripe that is marketed towards women. It celebrates the ordinary - it's byline is "made out of the ordinary".
The magazine is financed by a higher than normal cost (6.50 pounds) and some money from the graphic design business she and her partner run. It contains no advertising and is meant to be a break from advertising.
What is the "green" connection here? By celebrating the ordinary perhaps we would be less impressed by the latest fashions, the latest gadgets, the other consumerist visions of a better life. Here is hoping that "Karen" is the vanguard to a new era of reality magazines; one that adjusts our aspiration levels in ways that make us happier without wanting the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Posted on January 20, 2009 @ 09:29:00 AM by Paul Meagher
If you accept the idea that the economy is a complex adaptive system of some sort then you might look to nature for some inspiration regarding how such a system might be regulated. One aspect of complex adaptive systems in nature that struck me today is that they are seldom regulated simply by stimulus factors alone; rather regulation is achieved by an artfully balanced interplay of stimulatory and inhibitory factors. The way the brain works, the way genes are expressed, the way a tree grows, are all determined by the interplay of stimulatory and inhibitory factors.
In my opinion, where economists and politicians are missing the boat is their focus simply on stimulus factors. They think they can regulate the economy by adding stimulus here and there. In light of the fact that inhibitory factors are just as important to consider in regulatory networks, I now strongly suspect that these stimulus packages are doomed to fail because they are only attending to one aspect of the regulatory mechanism that controls complex adaptive systems. Those developing economic policy also need to seriously address the issue of what inhibitory factors need to be introduced in order to regulate economic dynamics.
The folly of the "stimulus" mentality is no where more evident than in automotive industry bailouts. Do we really think that we are going to achieve sustainable growth by applying stimulus to the automotive industry at the same time as we apply stimulus to the development of renewable energy? One stimulus wipes out the effects of the other stimulus. To achieve sustainable growth, in my opinion, is a matter of applying stimulus factors to sustainable industries and inhibitory factors to non-sustainable industries. We can't simply apply stimulus to everything and expect sustainable growth. All we are going to achieve is a convulsive economy that will will appear excited for awhile before swinging into the doldrums again.
An important project for economists and politicians is to flesh out the concept of "inhibitory factors" and the role they should play in economic policy. Without attending to the importance of inhibitory factors I think we are relying on a dangerous folk-model of how the economy works - one that in the real world results in convulsive episodes and cancerous growth; not the sustainable growth which we are aiming for.