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.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Not Only Is Chemical Farming Bad, It's Worse

Two lovely stories today that I will quote liberally for you. First, the results of a 30-year exhaustive study comparing chemical and organic farm yields are in: organic farming isn't just healthier, it's higher-yielding, and earns the farmer more dollars per acre.

This story is a follow-up on the rather despairing piece I wrote about the state of "conventional" (or as I have taken to calling it, chemical) farming. Here are some hilights.

  1. after a three-year transition period, organic yields equalled conventional yields
  2. Organic corn yields were 31 per cent higher than conventional in years of drought
  3. organic systems were almost three times as profitable as the conventional systems
  4. no-till conventional corn was the least profitable
  5. farmers who cultivated GM varieties earned less money over a 14-year period than those who continued to grow non-GM crops
  6. Organic systems used 45 per cent less energy than conventional
  7. Production efficiency was 28 per cent higher in the organic systems
  8. Soil health in the organic systems has increased over time
You can read the whole article, but this kinda sums up the wisdom:
With results like these, why does conventional wisdom favour chemical farming? Vested interests. Organic farming keeps more money on the farm and in rural communities and out of the pockets of chemical companies. As the major funders of research centres and universities, and major advertisers in the farm media, they effectively buy a pro-chemical bias.
The other article is a brief news release from the UN HiCom for Human Rights. The lead line sums it up:
Small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods, a new UN report* shows. Based on an extensive review of the recent scientific literature, the study calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest.
So, what's to be done? Clearly something to do with weaning ourselves off chemicals and back on to taking care of the soil.

You can see the whole UN report here. To my Chinese friends, check here.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Eurozone vs. the Hedge Funds

A trader gets to the meat of the matter about the market. I don't necessarily believe him when he says Goldman Sachs (and its ilk, I imagine he is implying) rules the world. Governments do have more tools at their disposal than Goldman Sachs. I don't necessarily think that there will be a huge global crash... maybe there will, maybe there won't. What I do want to pick up on is a comment that may have been lost in the hyperbole: "I'm a trader."

That one line is important. He, and the other traders, do not care about bailouts or stimulus packages. He's there to make money from the market. If the market goes south, he and his colleagues will find a way to derive money from it, which will magnify the crash. It's his job. It's the market as force of nature: the traders are simply filling their part of the ecosystem. This is what the market does. All he can say is "be prepared".

So, be prepared!

Monday, 26 September 2011

What's the Big Idea??

A big problem of mine is assuming that people can read my mind. I realise, yet again, that a lot of the things I have been thinking about for a sustainable living project have simply never left my tiny little brain. To the end of airing these ideas, I thought I’d write down what I have been thinking about for the past few weeks. It centres on a kind of thought experiment: a row-house complex with four units on a plot of land. Four families, all living and perhaps working in the complex, and attempting to make a go of living functionally (if not actually) off grid. The reason for building a rowhouse complex is pretty clear: when building to a passive house standard, the money is all in the envelope of the house. That means that building a row unit saves on insulation of at least one quarter (and at most more than one half) of the total outer wall area, allowing for more square footage at a lower per square foot cost. Heating (which would likely amount to no more than $400/yr for the whole complex based on the passive house standard) would then be shared through the condo association.

First off, I imagine a lot between 25-100 acres, 50-75% treed, mainly with hardwoods would be preferable. In my most specific preferences, those hardwoods would be ash and birch, but I realise I can’t necessarily be choosy in this regard. The project I am imagining is a mixed-revenue and rather holistic economic enterprise that does not focus on any one product, instead it’s meant to produce a number of “crops” while taking into account the general laziness of the occupants, so the forested portion of the project is geared toward a kind of slow silviculture. Birch and ash, you see, have a couple advantages. Both are good saleable woods, but they can also both be coppiced, which is perhaps one of the most sustainable modes of forestry around. Coppicing produces the same kind of succession that the typical forest cycle naturally produces through the occasional fire or catastrophe, allowing for the meadow-dwelling ecosystem to remain more or less undisturbed on the land for as long as it is coppiced in a proper cycle. Ash and birch work well on a 12-15 year cycle, so the forested region would be divided into 15 and coppiced regularly in sequence. Ashwood makes good poles, axe (and other tool) handles, longbows, you name it. Both ash and birch can be tapped.  It would allow me to regularly make the joke to people that “I’d tap that ash”. Just that is worth the lulz.

Clearing would be required for a house, and I have it in mind to get subdivisible land. One of the things about having a real estate family is that they are quick to point out the market facts that theory doesn’t take into account. One of those things is that owning a house that is part of a housing cooperative instantly makes it both difficult to resell and therefore drops its market value. I understand that, in theory, housing cooperatives SHOULDN’T have this saleability problem, and in theory, they are just another form of house ownership that can be transferred like any other… but in practice, it don’t work that way. Cooperative housing enthusiasts would be quick to give me an earful of counterarguments, but my reality is the market. I would like a multi-family project, but I want it to be a project that is based on ownership of a whole house and not of a share in a cooperative. Luckily, condominium ownership is more mainstream and provides the capacity to 1) own a unit in the rowhouse complex, and 2) have a cooperative vehicle by which the collective can share access to common areas. This division between personal and public is key. A member of the project owns a house and through the condo association owns access to the common land and greenhouse attached to the complex.

My idea calls for a greenhouse to be located on a south-exposed slope and attached directly to the house. This is because it would allow for some of the greywater filtration and urine processing concepts that I’ve already talked about before. Each greywater system would be separate for each house, so there can be no recriminations about who threw the candy wrappers in the loo. While I still believe it is possible to edify adults to the point that they can transcend the tragedy of the commons, it is hard to do this for unsupervised children. Realism should prevail when it comes to this kind of systems design. The greenhouse would contain aquaponics systems that should also run separately, if only for the purposes of sustainability: one linked system that fails leaves everyone hungry; one of four individual systems is just a temporary stress on production. Vegetables can be produced year round in such a system, and fish can be harvested on a routine basis after a year. I am planning on experimenting with a “bioponics” system here in the Philippines that requires no fish food inputs to be purchased. If it works, that would be a substantial savings on traditional aquaponics methods and would integrate food waste processing into the whole house system. Any organics that cannot be processed easily in the black soldier fly and vermiculture bins can be pyrolised for biochar in a biochar gasifier. There are commercial units available that are virtually fuel-neutral, since running the system from a hopper requires only propane to start the gasfication process, and continuous processing would not only not require further fuel but it would heat the greenhouse too. This is another reason to keep woods other than hardwoods on the lot: fuel for the biochar gasifier that produces heat for the greenhouse and biochar for the garden.

Some people have become convinced that what I am interested in is “farming”. No. It isn’t. Farming is not something I really want to do. That said, a limited amount of farming would be good to offset food costs and perhaps create some value-added assets for the project. Farming is simply a small part of a greater project I am interested in.  I am actually more interested in small-scale manufacture or value-added production. To me, the perfect industry would be a brewery or cider operation, since it produces so much organic by-product.  Mixing this with an oyster and shiitake mushroom operation would be advantageous, and both are reasonable profit for work input. Such an operation already exists elsewhere and is tried and tested. Raising grain would be great if quantities could be adequate for very small scale brewing. Still, there should be a minimal dependence on any one product, and the production should move to where the resource is most abundant in any given year.

I’m painting a lot of blue sky. This is because the end result is more important than how the project gets there. The end result that this project aims for is not some kind of anachronistic pastoral dream or a retreat from society. The aim is sustainability – for sustainability’s sake. The aim is to have a place where basic needs are fulfilled - food, water, clothing, and shelter – and the occupants can take several different tacks to create value for their products and make money enough to cover the stuff they can’t make themselves. I’m not attempting to re-create an old way of life but – even if it never gets past the thought experiment phase – moving toward creating a lifestyle that’s more focussed on satisfying human needs without requiring recourse to working in an office. Consider this: if you own a car, you’re paying about $150 per month in gas, $200 per month in car payments and $50 in insurance. That’s $400 of your after-tax salary, which is about $500 real dollars. What if you took a $400 pay cut and walked to work? You’d be saving money, you wouldn’t have the sudden outlays that are occasionally necessary for cars (and the thousand natural shocks that tyres are heir to). What if we then thought that way about food?

What if we decided that, instead of enslaving ourselves so another person can become wealthy from our toil, we just unhitched ourselves from that treadmill and went happily away to a place where we provided for ourselves? That’s the idea. Not farming, not some form of country lordship… just taking care of your needs without getting beguiled by the dollar signs.

American Spring?

Here we have a few links to keep the Spring movement going.

Globalrevolution Live Cam

Facebook Group: Occupy Wall Street

Note: if you type "Occupy" followed by a space in the search bar in Facebook, you'l be presented a list of "Occupy [cityname]" pages where these little movements are springing up. I think the last number I heard was 5000+ for the NYC group and rising. This is being unreported in current mainstream media. Please repost wherever you can.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Farming in Nature's Image

I finally finished Farming in Nature’s Image, an academic and dry bit of writing that describes, in intimate detail, the studies of the Land Institute to 1992. As an added bonus, it includes some fundamental ecological basics that I had read before, but the concepts were so well-explained that I had several epiphanies of understanding while reading. Perhaps my favourite was the nitrogen cycle, but there were several wonderfully-stated truisms that really brought home the understanding of ecology from a whole-systems perspective.  It is also yet another book that brings me back to a solitary idea that never seems to be far from any of my reading:

Farmers are getting economically gang raped, and they have been for decades. This is true because of five vicious cycles in the economy of farming: the Trade cycle, the Bank cycle, the Chemical cycle, the Seed cycle, and the Land cycle.

The Trade Cycle
Farmers compete globally for markets for their products, and therefore the concept of supply and demand is global. Even if there is a drought here, there may be a bumper crop there. The commoditization of crops means that crops will always be sold for the lowest possible price based on global supply. The fact that the farmer may have had a terrible crop this year doesn’t matter: when your market is the world, your competition is the world. The only way to secure a living is to make sure you have enough crop to sell (even if it’s at a low price). That requires industrial farming, which requires a heavy financial outlay.

The Bank Cycle
Most farmers therefore begin their productive lives hideously deep in debt. Combines, trucks, land, outbuildings, seed drills, silos… all these things cost money. So much money, in fact, that huge corporate megafarms are starting to be more the rule than the exception. Individual farmers are becoming incapable of buying into industrial farming. Those who do are deep in debt. That means that they must use every trick imaginable to secure a steady yield from their fields.

The Chemical Cycle
Pesticides, herbicides, and Fertilisers are able to push yields up – temporarily. Problematically, pesticides and herbicides kill (and fertilisers chase off) beneficial soil bacteria which would assist in the fixation of nitrogen, tilling and chemicals destroy mycorrhizae which would help in the uptake of minerals. Pesticides create pest resistance, and must be rotated or used in combination – or even replaced entirely. Greater applications of chemicals are required to control pest populations growing in chemical resistance, and in order to protect desired plants from being affected by chemical application, they mus be bred with a degree of chemical resistance themselves. The ongoing chemical warfare against pests and weeds is a self-perpetuating arms race that only the agro-chemical industry wins… but not by defeating pests. Big ag wins by keeping farmers in hock for newer, better chemicals.

The Seed Cycle
It also keeps them buying new seeds to make certain their crops have resistance to the chemicals being sprayed on them. These are the same companies introducing terminator genes, along with contracts that force farmers to buy seed year after year and not keep any of their own for replanting. New chemicals mean new crops with new genetically-engineered chemical resistances, and the seed cycle is pushed ever onward by the chemical cycle.

The Land Cycle
After paying the loan interest, the chemical bill, the seed bill, and selling this year’s crop for a pittance, the farmer has adequate take-home money to live a reasonable existence. He doesn’t have much money (if any) to invest, but for retirement, he has his land to fall back on. Many people have only their land to fall back on. Sadly, that means the land will be valuated after thirty or so productive years of soil erosion, chemical application, and the resultant salinization. There is no such thing as an industrial farmer’s field that does not lose fertility year on year due to intensive industrial farming methods. The only way to recover fertility in the industrial model is to lay a field fallow, which means it is taken out of production in order to rebuild its natural fertility, and this fertility is once again mined when cropping begins anew. There is a catch-22 here: the value of the agricultural land is based on its soil properties, its fertility. The farmer’s entire retirement therefore rests on the sale of something that he has, year on year, forcibly depreciated in value. What’s more, he will then propagate the cycle by selling his land to a new farmer who then begins his productive life in debt…

There’s a solution.

Sadly, famers are so trapped by the industrial farming cycle that they simply can’t break out of it. Once you’re paying off debt monthly, cashflow becomes more important than your future. Then again, I guess that’s the vicious circle we all seem to get caught up in. It’s about time to cash out.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Corrugated HDPE Pipe

I've been contacting the folks at algasolar for information on their bioponic project, and they are moving forward with building plans for both barrels and pipes and hybrid systems. I've sourced some Philippine HDPE pipes here and hopefully they will sell small quantities. I've sourced yabbies and tilapia through, and here's hoping the building permit with the wife goes through. My selling point: mosquito-eating fish.