The Green Gap

In the Cold War, we feared a Missile Gap was a strategic weakness. Nowadays, we must awaken to the fact that the Green Gap is true strategic weakness: the nations whose economies will thrive in the coming years will not be those with the biggest factories, but those with the most sustainable, efficient, and ecological markets. What we require is a Strategic "Green Reserve" of ecological design to weather the coming changes that both climate and resource scarcity will force on the international economy.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Phase Two: Food Waste

Taking the focus back down to the subdivision level, what might be possible to achieve once an algae biodiesel plant has been set up. The central location in the subdivision where the plant and gas station can be set up would also be the site of several other pocket industries. In most of the next developmental phases, these industries are waste management related. This development can happen either within or outside of the waste management concept I've already talked about. The reason for this is simple: throwing away garbage creates no revenue. Processing it creates revenue. We are simply foolish to let the opportunity to generate revenue get buried in a landfill instead of exploiting it. It also happens to be more environmentally friendly. Funny that, eh? Both making money and saving the environment! I love it.

Right, the first waste stream to begin work on is the one it seems most people don't have any time for: organics. Food waste. A two-tier system would be highly useful in this phase. Black Soldier Fly (BSF) could compost the organics received first, and vermiculture could be used in the second tier. I've already talked a lot about BSF and vermicomposting is a reasonably well-worn technique. One thing to note: the two systems are complimentary. BSF digest food very rapidly, on the order of kilograms a day. Worms are slower to digest whole foods. When the worms process BSF waste, however, they process it much faster. What's more, items high in cellulose, which BSF find hard to digest, are easily digested by worms. BSF reduce the total volume of waste by 10 or 20 times each day so long as there is adequate surface area. Worms can then take those castings and turn them into superb humus. In the process, the byproduct of loads of BSF larvae and worms are produced, along with compost tea and vermicompost. These things are eminently marketable.

In the case of the worms and BSF larvae, the nutritional profile of the little beasties just happens to be rather good for fish feed. This, with a little algae residue left over from the biodiesel, would combine into a protein-and -fat rich fish pellet if properly processed. BSF and worms also produce chitin, which is oddly enough a useful flocculant in helping algae settle out of solutions. If the BSF and vermiculture operation was paired with a fish feed company that also harvested chitin, it could feed back into the algae biodiesel processor to increase efficiency in algae recovery! The system would then feed back into upsteam products as well as take leftover algal biomass (typically equal to the weight of oil extracted) and put it into a nutritious dry fish feed.

The nice thing about this arrangement is that all the byproducts of the biodiesel process are now spoken for (except the trace glycol, but I have heard of systems that feed the glycol back into the process). We are now handling food waste - which could be collected on a daily basis, feeding in from restaurants as well as homes - and producing a nutritious dry fish feed for profit. We also have leftover vermicompost and compost tea to sell into the next phase of the program.

Vermiculture in Philippines

I should go talk to this guy.

"About two years ago, Rico experimented on raising the African nightcrawler to produce vermicompost. At first the purpose was to solve the problem of disposing goat manure. He soon discovered that vermicompost is a potent fertilizer for their forage grasses. He then decided to make vermiculture an honest-to-goodness business venture.

Today, they are producing 8 to 10 tons of vermicompost every month. The goat manure is an ideal substrate for vermiculture together with the left over grasses of the animals. The combination of goat raising and vermiculture is a winning strategy. Why? Well, the big sales come from the sale of the goats for breeding and fattening. But that comes just a few times a year. On the other hand, the vermicompost provides cash flow regularly throughout the year. The vermicompost is bought by hobbyists as well as commercial organic farmers and gardeners."

Found him! RLD Farms, Cabuyao

Sunday, 27 February 2011

No Such Thing as Garbage

Calgary's budget (2009-2011 business plan) is divided into the following parts (each of these numbers is net budget taking into account both revenue streams and overall expenditures):

Asset Management & Capital Works  (public works, fleet management)

Community Services & Protective Services (EMS, Fire, Parks, Community services)

Corporate Services (the personnel who keep IT, customer service, and the books straight)

Planning, Development & Assessment (land use planning and development)

Transportation (Calgary Transit and Road infrastructure)

Utilities & Environmental Protection  (garbage, recycling, and water)

Calgary Police Service  (you get the idea)
$243,175,000 - 2009 budget

Corporate Administration (the people who run the city and bylaws)

Right now the main budget line I'm interested in is the Utilities and Environmental Protection. In effect, I'm proposing it ceases to exist entirely. Well, perhaps not water, seeing as it generates $60M overall revenue per year, but garbage and recycling services. These services do generate some revenue, through landfill fees and recycling and the like, to the tune of $82,238,000 in 2009. This acts to offset (along with some $11 million in recoveries) the total of $128,640,000 in gross expenditures on waste disposal and recycling services.

All this to say that garbage collection is not a total loss. $82 million is hardly chump change and those revenues and more are still available to the Calgary city economy if the ideas I'm going to talk about are adopted. I simply believe that the disposal of waste is idiotic when every ounce of "stuff" that normally ends up in a landfill can be returned to the economy. The more we start thinking of garbage as an input rather than waste, the more money everyone stands to make. The idea of making effluents and byproducts into "industrial nutrients" are of course core to McDonough and Braungart's Cradle to Cradle, and dealt with in Natural Capitalism. I'd like to make a slightly more concrete recommendation that could be initiated on a five-year window to increase jobs and save $42 million from the city budget. Let's not forget that the money also implies FTEs, that's government-speak for "full-time equivalents" - people. The waste management stream of the city government employs 574 FTEs, going to 610 FTEs this year. Those people have to be taken care of, or the elimination of this budget line would have to be considered a failure.

First priority, then, is to inform the people working for Calgary's waste management that their entire section is to be spun off over the course of 5 years. Each employee should be given a five-year guide explaining exactly what changes are going to take place and what opportunities they will have in the course of these changes. During the course of the change, the population of Calgary will have to be kept informed of the new methods for garbage and recyclable collection. In effect, the effort of garbage and recyclable collection is going to be decentralised and handed over to numerous independent operators. They (and their competitors) will negotiate to the population in their area to determine the best means to effect garbage collection.

The process would have to be people-oriented, and strive to meet the highest standards of transparency in order to work. Business thrives in environments where there are controlled risks. There has to be risk to make a margin, but not so much risk that the margin is constantly in doubt. Transparency regarding the process of transition must be complete and unburdened with the rarified language of bureaucracy. The plan would move through the following phases:

1) Research
The City government will engage business planners, designers, and policymakers in formulating some basic business plans that may then be verified by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). The basic need in this phase is to formulate the regulatory framework that the new waste management system will evolve in (bylaws and instructions to the Calgary population regarding how and where to sort and set out their household garbage). It will also be good to identify several basic business plans that might survive and thrive in the new regulatory environment so that early buy-in by participants is easy and relatively painless.

2) Engagement
The City will then go to its waste management professionals and offer them a view of how the system will evolve over the next five years. With the assistance of the BDC, the City will assist early adopters in receiving financing. Calgary will purchase or provide insurance on the loans in order to make the option more attractive and less risky. The largest loans should be reserved for the group of waste managment professionals who opt in in the first year. The number of opt-ins in the first year should be artificially capped at 100 so as to avoid strong competition, and to avoid flooding the market with too many services. When a city employee opts to take a loan, and either adopt a pre-existing business plan or make his own, he will be granted an area of the city in which to start his operation that is a reasonable distance from competitors. He will not have exclusive rights to the area, but City of Calgary will agree to withdraw their competing services from that area. In the subsequent years after the first roll-out of new services, new services will be able to piggyback on the infrastructure and best practices of old and established ones. For instance, if Bob opts-in first year to collect cans in a region of town for resale to a foundry, Jane may be able to hitch a ride in his truck when she establishes her bottle-collection business in the same area. Horizontal integration of these collection services will, over time, reduce costs all around and necessitate lower and lower opportunity cost to buy in.

3) Market development
From day one, the City will be engaged in developing markets - preferably local ones - for these business activities. In participation with the BDC, composting and vermiculture units could be established, black soldier fly processing companies started, or glassworks constructed. By creating a market for lawn clippings in the form of biochar, perhaps mixed with worm castings, the City will encourage the establishment of the gasification plants that can produce that biochar. The city itself - for instance, in parks and recreation - can create a market for compost tea and worm castings for its gardening work. An office in the city could be established in order to subsidise the purchase of these products through creating easier access to carbon sequestration credits.

As the plan progresses, the initially risk-averse should slowly be able to rationalise a start in a new business. Those who would prefer to leave the industry can be given a simple golden handshake. In five years, this budget line will have been removed, but by saving $42 million, the city will be creating milions more dollars worth of jobs fuelled by waste. The economic knock-on effects are staggering to consider: all of this stuff that previously had no value and left the market will be given value again. Ingenuity and entrepreneurialism can create new industries within this market that will fuel a new period of export creation and import replacement. By turning this industry over to the private sector in a humane manner, everybody benefits.

Friday, 25 February 2011

More Jane Jacobs

I was just finishing off my latest Jane Jacobs book, and it led me to consider the utility of local currencies for major cities as being a good way to regulate price signals within a national economy.

The concept is that currency is supposed to regulate national economies through its very design: good in theory. Economies that expand will have higher demand for their currency, thus valuing the currency higher, thus tempering demand for their relatively expensive products. Economies that contract will have lower demand for their currency hence the value of the currency will fall, creating a greater demand for their relatively cheap products. It works, in theory.

But as a great man once said "in theory Communism works... in theory".

The rub is that nations are not perfectly measured economic regions. With regard to economy, nations are entirely arbitrary constructions of economic regions. Detroit is more economically integrated with Windsor than Butte. The fact that Windsor is across a national border and Butte is not is entirely inconsequential to money - especially in the era of free trade. Can the economy of Switzerland compare to the economy of Sri Lanka? I would rather have 100 Swiss Francs than 500 Swiss Francs worth of Sri Lankan Rupees. Nobody except the Sri Lankan government will buy Sri Lankan Rupees, they are utterly nonexistent outside of their country. The entire currency rests on the fact that Sri Lankan foreign workers send home Sri Lanka's foreign currency reserves in the form of Emirati Dinars and American Dollars. The same goes for the Philippine Peso. The demand for the currency is almost artificial because the produce of these nations is of vitually no utility to the international market. At least not of enough utility to justify buying a float of Philippine Pesos.

If the Philippines or Sri Lanka could produce the range of products that Switzerland does, and have banks as secure, and civil society as advanced, and an income disparity as low... then the use of currencies to even out economic differences might be somewhat justified. As it stands, if I want a good watch, I will buy one from Switzerland at any price, simply because Switzerland will make it better. No matter how cheap a Sri Lankan watch is, it is simply not comparable to a Swiss one. If the products of the markets are not comparable, then the currency value is almost totally irrelevant.

Perhaps, however, Makati (a high-income Manila suburb) can produce a good watch. Perhaps Sri Lanka can cut diamonds just as expertly as Belgium (as they do, in fact - I've toured the factory). When merchandise is of comparable value - or as rigidly fixed as that of cut diamonds - then currency fluctuations can work to the benefit of economies. Rough diamonds are a relatively inexpensive industrial nutrient when compared to their cut and polished end product. With inexpensive Sri Lankan labour, and a curency that floated within the greater economy of Sri Lanka, a diamond cutting factory could make a real go of it. If Sri Lanka maintained the Rupee throughout the country and set up a different bank, mint, and currency (let's call it the Dippee) for the diamond-cutting city region, they could make a real go of it.

Initially, the Dippee would be at par with the Rupee, buying relatively costly raw diamonds but producing far more costly polished diamonds. The price advantages of the inexpensive Sri Lankan labour (earning perhaps $300 USD per month) would make the diamonds internationally competitive. Given the fact that the value of diamonds is more or less set - as it were - in stone, this margin would produce demand not simply for Sri Lankan cut diamonds but the Dippee with which those diamonds are bought. The relative strength of the Dippee would increase the workers' relative salaries above those of the neighbouring regions, and increase their purchasing power commensurately. This would create a knock-on demand for Rupees to purchase everyday necessities such as rice-and-curry and coconuts. The demand for the products that only Rupees can buy would make the Dippee an engine for economic development, giving the diamond-cutters a margin of disposable income with which to purchase imports. With imports comes import replacement, and with it, the development of an economic engine in the form of a city and city region.

Such a thing could be done in Canada for her cities. Consider this: a currency for Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. Each city would control its own currency, with the bank reserves based on floats of Canadian dollars. I would provisionally call these currencies Hogbucks, Habbucks, Starbucks, and Bullucks, respectively. Each city would be able to float its currency against the others on a Canadian bourse with the reserve currency being the Canadian Dollar. Canadian federal economic policy could therefore be directed at the smaller city centres and rural Canada. This policy would have the intent of protecting rural produce as well as producing other import-replacing cities that strike an economic critical mass and are able, in turn, to float their own currency and support their surrounding city region. Purchases of Canadian regional currencies would be forced to pass through the Canadian dollar if they came from international sources. The Bank of Canada would be able to regulate all transactions between regional and national currencies, charging a reasonable margin on all transactions and earning a hidden tax for additional government revenue. This margin could, in theory, replace provincial sales tax.

Allowing city regions to float their own currencies can have the effect of either a trade barrier or subsidy without either unsustainable government payment or violation of WTO rules. This workaround can save embattled city regions when the global economy has them on the ropes: cities would be able to manage their money supply to produce the economic effects required to combat the influences of global economic fluctuations. This natural regulation of the economies of large cities could therefore be done without any recourse to bailouts from the central government.

And the next time the city of Toronto calls out the army to shovel snow, they can be charged for the service in Hogbucks...

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Building from the Ground up

I'm going to try to lay out a kind of import replacement based on the kind of cities we have in Canada - specifically, Calgary. I like Calgary a lot, but it has something of a sprawl problem. This makes utilities stretch to the limit and makes stuff like garbage collection and snow removal really expensive. So, instead of starting at the city level, I thought it would be really useful to go right down to the very basic building block of Calgary: suburban subdivisions.

Developers in Calgary develop land in bite-sized chunks, each chunk designed from the ground up with a type of house layout in mind. The houses are mainly cookie-cutter mirror images of one another and very little imagination goes into their layout. What a subdivision does have in abundance is surface area. Lots and lots of surface area. Specifically, the place is covered in a wide spaghetti-mess of roads that are altogether too wide for their purposes. Also, people have pretty big houses. All of this is a disadvantage from the standpoint of cheap utility services. So I propose to handle all utilities from the subdivision level. In essence, you'd be replacing the import of utility services from the central processing centres that are currently in operation. This would make the subdivision a wholly independent entity (and, as you'll see, it will actually create exports from the subdivision). I was mentioning before that I wanted to create a business plan that would create development in phases, but would make money in each phase. Here is phase number one.

The number one import of every part of every city would have to be petrol. I propose the replacement of petrol entirely through the use of algae biodiesel. Every house in the subdivision would be able to maintain an algae bioreactor. It could be built just the same as a solar hot water heater, and each unit would take up only a percentage of total roof space. Since this kind of technology is possible for hobbyists to construct (see here and here) it's mature enough for the big time. Those worrying about freezing pipes in the -30 degree winters we know and love in Calgary need to read about Solaroof technology - an open source technology that uses low power photovoltaics to power soap bubble generators that produce insulation that is not only seethrough but provides R-40 insulation values for negligible cost. In other words, this technology is mature, cheap, and feasible.

Every house, devoting only four square meters of biorector surface could produce between 18.7 and 56 L of oil per year. In essence, one litre of algae oil is equal to one litre of biofuel (minus trace glycol). Home kits such as the patriotically-named Freedom Fueller indicate that biodiesel production is not only possible for small-scale purposes, it's already mature enough for the consumer market. I cannot imagine a high rate of conversion given the very long duration of the batch-based (more labour-intensive) production method; however, using modern ultrasonic cavitation techniques, not only is constant throughput possible, but the speed of conversion is reduced 90%.  Using ultrasonic cavitation and direct plumbing from the subdivision to a local processing plant, continuous production of algae biofuel would be possible.

This does not produce the full amount of gas required by one car for one family per year, but it does make a start at producing it. Plus, this is only on a single unit covering four square metres of bioreactor surface area. The design of bioreactors allows for a lot greater surface area of algae to sunlight, and four square metres of algae surface area would conceivably take up much less than four real square metres of roof. Finally, if the units were modular (as in the above-linked example of the biofence), they could be added over the usable area of the roof, which is an average of anywhere from 120-220 sqm. Using the rough estimate of 600 gallons (2270L) of fuel per car per year, between 40-121sqm of bioreactor would produce the gas for one car per household per year (depending on the yield of the algae strain). Since the bioreactor surface area is far greater than its footprint, this is doable on most average rooves. Heck, it would be doable at the lowest efficiency even if the footprint and bioreactor area were 1:1!

This is simply for a regular 2008-era car. If driving a hybrid, at the current levels of fuel efficiency (assuming 24,000km/year at the Toyota Prius 2010 model in-city fuel efficiency of 51mpg or 21.7km/L), and assuming the lowest yield for algae, only 59sqm of bioreactor area is required (which is equal to much less roof space). Through the use of a production coop, people who chose to save gas and take public transport would be given cash credits from shares in the local biodiesel cooperative. Persons who chose to drive would use their production credits to offset the cost of their own petrol. Persons who were not members of the cooperative would pay full price and profits would go to the fuel cooperative.

Since the design of the roof units could be modular, the cooperative members would only add capacity when they had the free capital to do so. Producers would be able to gain payback on their investment through selling their algae production, so the infrastructure has a real return on investment. Added capacity would not strain a continuous throughput system. The project could be implemented piecemeal without undoing the integrity of the investment: initial production of biodiesel could be mixed with regular petrol in order to have enough supply for the cooperative. The purchase of petrol for mixing, however, adds an overhead to the enterprise that would encourage early addition of production capacity in order to offset costs. In the end, it would likely be best for the cooperative to be established with seed capital, and extend generous buy-in terms and rebates to early adopters in order to avoid ongoing outlays for mixing petrol.

One import replaced, and on a local level. Not only would the product be carbon-neutral (it would not create more carbon dioxide than it removed from the atmosphere), but it would no longer necessitate the entire logistics chain required to get gas to the pump: exploration, drilling, refinement, transportation. Once initial costs were paid back, the system would continue to supply fixed-price fuel for the cooperative so long as there were cars to use it. If there were no cars, the fuel could equally be used in fuel cells for the generation of electricity... but that's a few phases down the road.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Jane Jacobs

I just started reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations right after finishing The Economy of Cities. I have to say, the one led very well into the other and I am enjoying it immensely. Her arguments are plainly laid out, and it almost sounds like she's your professorial aunt telling you the fundamentals of economic life over tea and biscuits. The tone is personal, direct, and easy to read.

I was talking to someone today about one of the concepts that Jane rails against as being a false kind of economic growth: transplants. Jane basically says that the only real kind of economic growth is import replacement. Import replacement happens in a city when it has enough money from exporting to be able to import stuff. It then develops a capacity to build the import locally. One of her more favourite examples is Tokyo - originally they imported foreign bicycles. Since they were expensive, a lively bunch of repair shops opened up to service the clientele who couldn't afford to buy more than one bicycle. These repairmen started fabricating spare parts. Some genius decided that with enough spare parts, he had a whole bicycle, and poof! Import replacement.

Transplantation is what happens when a branch plant moves into another city. Boom, all of a sudden people have jobs, there's more money, it looks like the economy is picking up... until the branch plant closes down. The branch plant brings all its "stuff" with it for support - it comes pre-made and self-contained. In Tokyo, the infrastructure to buid bicycles appeared naturally, and evolved into bicycle manufacturing that was appropriate to the time and place it appeared. A transplanted factory is just that: something that comes out of nowhere with no natural evolution involved.

It appeared to me that this could be illustrated really easily by a zoo analogy. What Jacobs is arguing is that a healthy economy is a healthy ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems naturally allow for the gradual support of higher and higher order creatures until the food chain is immensely deep. Tokyo was like a healthy economic ecology: the natural support systems for the higher-order organisation of "bike manufacturing" grew natually out of an existing market need (repair), which grew out of an existing market need (transportation), which grew out of an existing market need (city expansion)... and so on. In the case of a transplant, it's more like "hey, Clem, check out my corn- HAWT DANG, A FACTORY!"

So what we have is, in fact, a difference between nature and a zoo. The bicycles were built in an economic "nature", a place that naturally fosters a continuous lifecycle of business. It grows and evolves over time, as a system, to diversify and deepen its economic interrelationships and strengthen its overall ecology. Like a herd of elephants on the savannah, there is an entire network of interrelationships keeping the food in their bellies. Elephants die, elephants have sex and have babies, and so there are always elephants. In the case of the transplant, it's a zoo. You put the elephant in the zoo. You have to feed the elephant. You have to clean up the elephant's poo. The elephant dies or runs away. Either you get yourself a new elephant, or you close the zoo. That zoo-like mentality is easy to see in modern cities that have seemingly no economic future. Offer tax cuts to lure the branch plant. Get the people jobs.  Look the other way when they make a mess, or use tax dollars to clean it up. Give them anything they need in order to stay. What's a branch plant's best way of getting concessions?

Simply tell the municipal government "we're thinking of offshoring some of our more costly support services"...

Say no to transplants.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Supply and Demand

In a mature ecological system, adequate buffers exist to absorb temporary surplusses back into the system. Shocking a system in this way can increase its strength and diversity. An oversupply that cannot be absorbed, however, can unbalance the entire system. An ecological system often contains a great deal of excess demand for all forms of nutrient. Increasing supply to meet demand can make the entire ecology more productive. Surpassing demand by a wide margin, as with most ecological systems, is unhealthy. Too much of a nutrient is a poison. Economy, as a subset of ecology, is full of examples of this problem.

In the north of Sri Lanka during the final phases of the war with the LTTE, the land route to the Jaffna peninsula was cut off completely at just north of the city of Vavuniya. No supplies entered by lorry. All communication and transportation was by air through the base at Point Pedro or via sea route to Trincomalee. The fishermen, banned from having motors on their boats, were circumscribed a limited area to fish by the Sri Lankan Navy. Fishermen who ventured too far out of their area were to be shot on sight. The other main product of the area was mangoes. Called (under the circumstances rather ironically) Karta Kolomba, which means "by cart to Colombo", they are of comparable quality to Philippine mangoes if they can be had fresh. These two main foodstuffs punctuated periods of general demand for food. Sri Lanka is not destitute and the people of Jaffna do not lack personal industry, but the land was often difficult to work due to the prevailing situation of Civil War in the country.

The situation does provide for kind of an economic petri dish to illustrate the problems with supply and oversupply. Mango season was regular and all mango harvests tended to be close to one another. The problem with this is that the mangoes were produced in adequate amounts to export (being Karta Kolomba and all), and the mango situation was one of feast or famine. If there were no mangoes on the market, they were of course in demand as was any foodstuff. But when the mangoes were brought to market, they were brought in such numbers that the market could not support the huge amount of nutrient. Prices dropped through the floor. Huge piles of mangoes were abandoned, like overmortgaged houses in a housing market crash, on the side of the road to rot. Why noone thought to dry them I am unsure, but there you have it. Industrious, but not innovative.

Given the regular southern and northern monsoon, rains fall in a reasonably predictable pattern on the island of Sri Lanka. When the rains fall, the fish bite closer to shore. Thus, the motorless fishermen who were under threat of being shot if they ventured too far out to sea were able to catch a surplus of fish. It is easy to determine what happened to the fish market after that. A surplus of fish was poured into a market that could not consume it, the price dropped through the floor, and fishermen were not only working their fingers to the bone but getting no reward for their efforts. Again, it appears no real effort was made to dry or preserve the fish.

These two examples illustrate some cruel lessons of supply and demand. The mangoes were problematic because they were a naturally occurring export supply that was cut off from its source of demand. The issue of the fish was that the source of this nutrient had been artificially cut off from fishermen. When the resource was occasionally abundant, it was overexploited and also created an oversurplus. The market, in both cases, was rapidly satisfied, no effort was made to preserve the catch or harvest, and the producers suffered the most: getting nothing for an ample outlay of effort.

Oddly enough, the principle seems to apply to more than just simply economic subsets of ecological systems. In the case of governance, the Cold War is a brilliant laboratory for discussing the export (and oversupply) of governance of one kind or another that was exported without the demand to support it. Certainly, it can be said that a certain amount of supply can, over time, create its own demand (after all, the "loss leader" concept still has its adherence in advertising and marketing circles). The supply of a thing creating its own demand can, occasionally, exhibit the same problems as oversupply.

In the case of the Afghan revolt against Najibullah, the oversupply of communist governance had created more adversaries than friends. Certainly, there are a number of Afghans (principal among them those who served in the public service under Najibullah, who were rationed cereals and oils and generally lived a comfortable life) who responded to the increased supply of governance with an increased demand, but the demand was well outstripped by supply. At the same time, another source of governance was supplying the means to topple the communists through illicit arms sales and training. The problem of oversupply of one form of governance compounded the problem of the demand for another type of governance, itself fostered in part by its ample supply - in this case, of stinger missiles and their ilk.

The discovery of Najibullah's corpse effectively ended the supply of communist governance and openhandedness. Those who still demanded the old supply of governance soon were removed from the population or learned to attenuate their preferences. The demand for the other kind of governance - that of the United States - was at its peak. But the support of the United States disappeared more or less overnight. A nation had emerged from an oversupply of communism to demand a supply of American aid... that never materialised. The discontent from the demand not met is still being felt to this day.

In sum, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Supplying food, governance, oil, or stinger missiles to consumers over and above their demand for the same simply lowers the value of the good supplied. While supply can create its own demand, I contend that the creation of this demand is not as cost-effective as people think. Furthermore, creation of a demand and then conspicuously not fulfilling it tends to lead to failed ecologies just as much as oversupply does.

Now, a situation in the Maghreb begs us to consider the concept of supply and demand. An entire political ecosystem has expressed a demand for democracy and transparent governance. The local ecosystems may not be robust enough to supply this demand adequately in the immediate future, but not to supply them would surely lead to ecosystem collapse. To give them too much would also be detrimental to the long-term survival of the ecosystem. Response to the extant demand would be not only cost-effective, but in the long-term interests of all democracies. The question is whether they will fill the demand until the local ecosystems can support themselves, whether they will let the demand go unmet, or whether they will provide more than is asked for, and undermine and devalue the very stuff they provide. The correct answer, in ecology as well as economy, is to meet but not exceed demand such that the value of the good maximises returns to the producer. I cannot guess as to whether the producers will grasp this simple economic principle in time.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Drumstick Trees

I started looking at trees that would make good sustainable food/oil/biomass sources for a tropical environment and found three. The first was the Chinese Tallow Tree, discovered on the biopod website. Interesting, I thought, but invasive and hardly edible. It turns the soil somewhat inhospitable and is considered a weed in the southern states. The next I saw was Oil Palm, which seems to be a bit labour intensive for not all that much production... to be honest, the section on cultivation seemed a little over the top. With the Tallow Tree, you just kind of step out of the way and it takes over. With the Oil Palm, it seems you look at it funny and it dies.
Finally, I looked back at an old friend of mine from Sri Lanka, the Drumstick Tree. To be perfectly honest, I ate the green bean-like things in curries and I think I had the leaves, too... and I found neither of them terribly palatable. The thing is that it has a great nutritional and medicinal profile, and isn't toxic, and doesn't seem to be tough to cultivate. There are loads of sites dedicated to it (just check the links from the wiki page).

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Biogas Purification with Algae

Ho ho ho! I knew this was possible!

Algae-Purified Biogas

A great cellular element in a bioremediation machine! Just bubble the raw biogas through algae tanks to purify it, and you've got beautifully clean methane!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Compost Tea

While compost tea seems to be generally regarded terra incognita, some people are hard at work thinking of ways to make it better. One of them, I'm proud to say, is my dear government of Alberta.

Compost Tea

There are commercial brewers available:

Earth Tea Brewer

Entire websites set up about the stuff:

And even the Pennsylvania government is in on the action:

Pennsylvanian Compost Tea.

I'm new to the whole compost tea thing, but I suppose if it's produced as a biproduct of vermiculture systems and black soldier fly digestion, it's something that any system incorporating those technologies would have to take into account.

Business Plan

I may be moving soon to a developing country in the Pacific, so I have been thinking a little more about starting a green business of some sort there. The climate is tropical, so heat is not an issue. I would like to put together a business plan that fulfills the following criteria:
1) it can be implemented in a phased manner, where each phase makes money;
2) each phase should be easy to learn, allowing users to develop skills on the job;
3) each phase should build on the previously implemented phases;
4) the final product should be a complete bioremediation system that requires no input but labour.

There was a proposal floated by Dr. Paul Olivier at Biopod along these lines:

It does not, of course, promise a fully phased implementation of a bioremediation machine, but it does present a promising start with a highly democratic system. This, in my mind, is the way aid should be done. We all know the invisible hand only serves to hold most people face down in the mud. These are invisible wings, the purpose of which is to elevate the people by application of their own effort.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The theory, which is mine, about brontosauruses...

So I was thinking about an idea of how to organise living machines in an easy, straightforward manner. The basis of my concept was kind of like the periodic table: every organism should have a little box of its own with information about its inputs, outputs, and preferred environment. For example, a brine shrimp might have a box with a number in the top centre representing the total g/cu. m. of biomass in optimal conditions. It would have a list of necessary inputs with optimal ranges on the left hand side, and the list of outputs with corresponding ranges on the right hand side. On the bottom and around the edges would be both numerical and graphical representations of the preferred habitat of the brine shrimp.

Now, I don’t know anything about biology. I skipped out on biology in High School (where I come from, you only needed two of three sciences to graduate and I’m lazy). I didn’t do any biology in University, so I don’t know osmotic pressure from a twinkie. I ran over this idea to a friend of mine who DOES know osmotic pressure from twinkies. He pointed me to this link:

Ecosystem Model

So, OK, it’s been done. Well, at least I wasn’t smoking crack – it’s a valid system of notation. My idea was more along the lines of creating creatures as building blocks as opposed to expressing the relationships in existing systems. Certainly, the concept of expressing the interrelationships in a system is very interesting, but I was going for a system that you could build an ecosystem from, not a system of representing an ecosystem that already exists.

The concept would be simple: choose a feature organism for which you wish to optimise environmental conditions. Build the services you require into your ecosystem to optimise the environment for the feature organism. Add enough layers of interrelationships to buffer your support systems for the environment. Boom! You have a cell that does exactly what you want it to. If you wanted something to raise the pH in a larger bioremediation system, you find an organism that naturally does so, build an ecosystem that supports it optimally, buffer that system, and incorporate it into your larger system.

My basic concept was for top-down design of an aquaponics system that naturally incorporates cells for the optimization of environment for nutrient uptake in both the fish and the plant side of the machine. Plants like lower pH to maximise mineral uptake. Fish prefer a pH close to 7. Why not plan for a cell that takes low pH water from the plant cell and buffers it up to 7 naturally? Once the water cycles through the fish tank at neutral pH, introduce a cell that drops the pH to 6.2 before it gets cycled into the plant segment of the tank. To be even more functional, the pH-balancing cell could include algae that provided two extra services: they could feed tilapia (they have the capacity to filter-feed), and also introduce oxygen into the system. Any plant such as algae that removes CO2 from the water removes carbolic acid, raising the pH and oxygenating the water. See, even guys who never took biology can think this crap up.

So I want to try making a more constructive rather than analytical tool for the constructing of ecosystems. The problem is, I haven’t the first clue on how to start. I guess starting this is the same as with most things: a quick search on Wikipedia…

Friday, 4 February 2011

Agrichar videos

Found a couple videos on Biochar/agrichar.

Australian Biochar
GreenPowerScience Channel

Looks good... but unless there is a better carbon-trading regimen in place internationally, I can't see biochar taking off on an industrial scale.

Vermiculture and Vermicomposting Manual

I have to say, I love a lot of the stuff the Canadian government does, but I wish it was hyped a little better. This Vermiculture and Vermicomposting manual that Ijust found looks like a really quick and concise intro done with the assistance of Environment Canada. Gotta love me the hippies Ag and Enviro Can that keep coming up with these useful tidbits.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Sustainability Revolution

I just finished reading The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift, and it's a well laid-out survey of the goals of large parts of the sustainability movement, but I think it might have been a good idea to have read earlier rather than later. A lot of the stuff was already covered in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and Natural Capitalism. Still, a good survey of the literature and proposed policies for sustainability.