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, 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.

1 comment:

  1. The Factor E Farm guys and their Global Village Construction Set have been developing tools and templates so people can build small scale and somewhat self sufficient farms. It hasn't been fully developed yet but they have some basic plans and architectural renderings of something they call the Hab Lab, which is a shared living building, with private quarters and shared major facilities like laundry and kitchen.

    Check it out at

    Search for Hab Lab.

    They also have developed some equipment for building the building.