Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Challenge Begins

Since I started this blog last April, I have been living in the Chicago area describing some of the challenges our society is facing and offering some solutions. But until this point, I have not been able to put into practice very many of my own suggestions. I now have the opportunity to move to a rural environment where I will begin the long journey to self-sufficiency and living a completely sustainable life. I have selected a fertile and watered mountain valley in southern New Mexico as the location of my new homestead. As any journey is easier and more fun with a companion than alone, my mother and I have decided to go into this adventure together. Being a partner in crime who shares my philosophy of life and concerns about the "modern" world, I look forward to sharing this exciting journey with her.

We have yet to even purchase a property, although there is one in particular that we have our eye on. So I have decided to dedicate this blog post towards the decision process we went through in finding an appropriate property for us, what we considered necessary and what are bonus criteria.

Reliable access to clean water is the most important criteria for land selection. In order to lessen the impact if a source of water runs dry, a prospective property should have at least two independent water supplies (as independent as possible, since most water sources are tied to rainfall). And in the terms of both sustainability and self-reliance, do not count any municipal water supply (i.e. piped in water). If it exists, this may be a nice backup while it operates, but should be used sparingly. If it is the only water supply on the land, keep looking. This is important not only because you don't want to rely upon failing infrastructure that is out of your control, but because you also have no control over the energy intensive and possibly environmentally damaging practices in use to pump and deliver that water to your prospective property.

Most sites have one water source that you can count on: rain. Either the current weather patterns of the area provide enough rain for seasonal crops or you can build rain collection devices to store rainwater through the dry periods of the year. If your prospective property lies in an area which receives less than 16" of rain a year, you will need both a shallow water table (less than 100 ft. for a low energy use well) and at least a seasonal source of surface water (spring, stream or river). In addition, you will have to research local water rights laws and determine what water rights are associated with the property deed. The last thing you want is to purchase a property on a river or stream and find out you can't draw even a drop of water from it.

Unfortunately, the world we live in is changing due to the increasing levels of CO2 released into the atmosphere primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. As such any consideration of precipitation as a source of water (or precipitation fed sources such as streams and rivers) would be remiss without at least considering the projections for changing precipitation patterns in the area of your property. The EPA has a good description of regional projections for both temperature and precipitation by the end of the century.

It may seem obvious that plants need sunshine to grow. However, some sites can have less than obvious disadvantages regarding how the sun illuminates the landscape. Look for major obstructions like large trees, existing buildings (especially on adjacent property), hills or mountains or other aspects of topology. Also remember, the sun moves not only on the daily cycle from east to west but also on the yearly cycle of the seasons. For North America the angle of the sun varies from a low of 18 degrees from the horizon at noon at the winter solstice in the north (Grand Forks, ND) to a high of 84 degrees at the summer solstice in the south (Miami, FL). Your property location will greatly affect the seasonal amount of sunlight available to you.

A useful website to help you visualize the movement of the sun for your prospective property is Sun Earth Tools. It will superimpose over a Google maps satellite image of the property the daily path of the sun at any date and indicate the furthest extent at the two solstices. Also keep in mind this evaluation does not reflect the local weather which is obviously correlated to the amount of sunshine available at different times of the year (it is colder in Grand Forks, ND than Miami, FL most times of the year due to the amount of sunlight both areas receive).

It is also important to notice and take into account the regional and local geography and how it affects weather patterns, rainfall and local heating and cooling cycles. For example, in the northern hemisphere a south facing slope, even in a shallow valley, will have more direct sunlight than the north facing slope opposite and will therefore warm up earlier in the morning, suffer less frost damage in the winter and support more sun loving plants.

Also notice how the local geography affects wind direction which in turn can imply heating and cooling characteristics of surrounding buildings, trees and topography such as a stony hillside. Low lying areas, even of only a few feet, can become cold air traps in winter and are likely places for frost to develop first. Walk the property with a notebook and camera and notice and document all of these details.

The non-organic components of soil are sand, silt and clay. The definitions of each is based on the particle size not their composition, that of silt being somewhere between sand (the coarsest or largest particles) and clay (the smallest and finest). The current (in situ) relative proportions of these components will determine how much or little work will be required to successfully grow crops on your prospective land. In addition to the amount of organic matter present, the most important aspect of soil composition is the relative quantities of these components. Too much clay and you will have poor soil drainage leading to root rot and other problems. Too much sand and the soil will not hold enough water to prevent the roots from drying out between waterings.

A simple way to determine soil composition is to dig a spadeful of soil from a representative spot (on the surface, don't dig deeper than a foot) and half fill a mason jar with the soil. Fill the rest of the way with water and seal tightly. Shake the jar until the soil is completely dispersed in the water. Set the jar on a level surface for a day or two to allow the soil to settle back to the bottom. The sand will settle out first, then the silt and finally the clay particles (the finest ones). Use a ruler to measure the clear bands of each layer to determine the relative quantities. Easy to manage soil should consist of approximately 20% sand, 20% clay and 60% silt, although up to equal quantities of each is manageable. More sand or clay than silt is an indication that this soil will need much remediation to be useful and you should probably consider other properties.

In addition to these components also look for number and size of stones in the soil (many stones makes it harder to till and weed), how compacted the soil is (did you have to jump on the spade to get a shovelful?) and how many worms or worm holes you noticed in that one spadeful. An absence of worms is always a warning sign and can indicate any number of problems that might be difficult to remediate.

How easy was it to drive to your prospective property? Is it remote? Close to the nearest town? Did you have to cross any dry stream beds (which may flood some times of the year), steep hillsides (may ice up during the winter) or other terrain features which may make access difficult during the various seasons? It may be worth while to visit at night to notice how easy it is to find the driveway or negotiate the nearby roads. How easy will it be for someone else to find the property? You most likely will take a delivery of a package or possibly large shipment at some point. Will this be an issue or inconvenience? This is particularly important if you plan on any large construction projects like building a new home, barn or other structures on the property.

Can you see yourself living there? This sometimes can get lost in the shuffle with viewing multiple properties and checking off the list everything mentioned above. But don't forget why you are buying this property. Notice the neighborhood and surrounding properties. Are they well kept or run down? Are there others in the area homesteading or growing kitchen gardens? Is there a local community of like-minded individuals or will you be forging a new path in this area?

Try visiting just before sunset, setting up a lawn chair and simply sitting to watch the sun set. Notice the noises, traffic, people or whatever else goes on around the property. Is this a view you can live with? What don't you like about it? How does that balance out with all the positive qualities of the property?

Good Enough
Finally, no property is going to meet all of your needs. The real challenge is to decide what is truly important to you and make sure you are selecting the property that is good enough to meet those needs without waiting for that perfect property that may never materialize.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Problem with Fusion

Although there are many technical challenges that still remain in order to make fusion energy a viable source of electrical power generation, the main reason humans will never harness fusion energy is one of economics. By the very nature of a fusion reaction, pressures and temperatures only experienced within stars, fusion reactors are necessarily the most complex and technologically sophisticated machines built by man (the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is another candidate). As such, fusion reactors are also among the most expensive. No amount of technologic breakthrough will make fusion generation a cheap enterprise. In order to recoup that expense, massive economies of scale have to be achieved in order to make fusion energy a viable source of electrical power generation. But massive economies of scale can only be achieved with massive installations which bring about a whole host of other problems like local environmental impact, vulnerability to local weather and geologic phenomenon (earthquakes, tsunami, etc.) not to mention human caused events such as accidents, sabotage and military action. Finally, massive installations have huge price tags.

First let’s look at the order of magnitude kind of cost we can expect. Nuclear fission technology is about 80 years old and by all standards a fairly mature technology, even considering the latest reactor designs like advanced boiling water reactors (ABWR). The largest nuclear power plant in the world is Japan’s Kashiwazaki–Kariwa NPP which as seven reactors for a total generating capacity of 8 GW (8,000 MW). From ground breaking to first power generation took more than four years. The last reactor did not come online until 12 years after the first one requiring huge capital outlays before revenue could be collected by selling the generated power. The average cost per kW of electricity generated is about $5,000 or a total of $40 billion to build the entire complex.

Here is a list for cost comparison to other relevantly complex machines:

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the only commercial fusion reactor program currently funded has an estimated price of $18 billion. (The US National Ignition Facility, the only fusion project in the US, is changing priorities after failing to meet the goal of "ignition" when the latest round of funding ended this last September.) It’s designed net power generation is 450 MW. This is only 5% of the power generated by Kashiwazaki–Kariwa NPP for almost half the cost. So even assuming ITER is a complete success, which is doubtful considering the immature state of the technology, it will not be economically viable. But it is a demonstration of the technology, so economics are not the primary objective.
However, the outlook for fusion gets worse. The economies of scale required for a large fusion reactor demand generation on the order of 5 – 10 GW. This falls out of a complex analysis of cost for power generation that ranges from $2000 / kW for state-of-the art pulverized coal plants to $10,000 / kW for the latest ABWR nuclear fission power plants. In order to be economically viable, a fusion power plant has to deliver power within this price band. For maximum economies of scale, at $10,000 / kW for a total of 10 GW power generation, this equates to a total lifetime cost (capital, operating, fuel and financing) of less than $100 billion. For a 20 year lifetime, this would approximate to $80 billion to build and $1 billion annual costs. And this would make the electricity one of the most expensive sources. To come down to the $2000 / kW of coal fired plants, the build cost would have to come down to about $16 billion. That’s already less than the projected ITER cost for only 450 MW of generation.

There are few aspects of the technology required to fuse hydrogen atoms that indicate orders of magnitude cost reduction over time. Compare the costs of the largest partical colliders as they have grown in size over the last 20 years. The closest parallel technology on the electric power generation front is the evolution of nuclear fission power plants. Even at the enormous economies of scale afforded by Kashiwazaki–Kariwa NPP its cost per kW is still in the middle of the cost band for electrical generation sources. Most of the worlds nuclear power plants fall in the upper reaches of this price band. So even under the very best of technological circumstances, fusion power will never be a viable source of electrical power generation purely for economic reasons.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

In the name of Progress?

I live in a suburb of Chicago far enough away from the city that there are still a few farms that have yet to be paved over, an abundance of green spaces, stretches of forest and a fairly unspoiled, picturesque river valley. Recently, in the name of progress, the city purchased several developed pieces of land, one containing an abandoned warehouse which was burned to the ground by vandals, in order to build a road bypass to improve traffic on a congested major artery. The only problem is about ten acres of land smack in the middle of the developed parcels that is covered in forest, is bordered by a popular bike path on one side, one of the oldest parks in the city on the other and split by a winding stream that feeds the nearby river.

This is a problem because in order to complete the bypass, every last tree, bush and blade of grass on the ten acres will have to be "removed" and several small hills up to twenty feet high will have to be leveled. I think most commuters stuck in the daily traffic jams on this major artery are willing to sacrifice a few trees to improve their commute time. For them and the city planners who approved this project I would like to offer a perspective on what we are giving up for our commuting convenience.

I ride my bike on the bike path passed this piece of land on a regular basis. During the hot summer months I appreciate the shade from the trees that provide a soft canopy dappled in sunlight, the cool breezes that filter down the hillside and the sight of any number of animals from deer to raccoons to hawks to squirrels and opossums, not to mention the dozens of song birds who make their home in this little patch of forest.

The bike path is built on an old railway line and there is a 100 year old stone bridge crossing the little creek in the woods. I stop occasionally to marvel at the large limestone blocks chipped out of a nearby quarry by men who have been dead longer than I have been alive. There is a dirt path that leads down from the height of the bridge to the stream bank and follows it through the wood until it emerges out into the park. I walked this path once and was amazed how after only a few twists and turns I felt like I was deep in a forest far from modern life. Although only a few hundred yards from the bike path, I could sit on a log by the stream bank, listen to the bird calls, the water gurgling over the round stones and at least pretend I was deep in the wilderness.

Yesterday I walked down the bike path knowing that my forest was gone. The bulldozers and road graders were parked on the black earth like giant, yellow insects waiting to devour their next meal. The bile rose in my throat as I walked closer. I was having a hard time recognizing where I was since all my familiar landmarks had been obliterated. The landscape reminded me of battlefield films and pictures. The trees had all been cut inches from the soil, their limbs and trunks gone, already hauled away. The churned up soil was littered with shredded plant debris, tree limbs broken into fibers as if separated by a bomb blast. I couldn't help but think of all the animals. I picture a moment like in the movie Avatar when the giant machines tear through the forest devastating everything in their path and the animals all running in the opposite direction to avoid annihilation.

But I want to get beyond the Bambi moment of denouncing the hunters who shoot his mother. The perspective I want all of us to consider is with what are we replacing these natural habits that we destroy in the name of progress? Steel and concrete? A sterile sheet of sod laid on top of a bulldozer sculpted landscape? The incredibly diverse forest ecosystem with all its plants and animals is lost. In this case it is only ten acres, but it is a microcosm of what we are doing all over the country, all over the world. We need to remember that we live in the natural systems around us, not outside of them. The more harm we continue to inflict on these systems, the more harm we ultimately are inflicting upon ourselves.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

We are all stewards of the Earth

By this I refer to the meaning of stewardship as "the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care". When we think of land ownership, I believe the main responsibility is the careful management of the resources of that land. Ideally, to do everything possible to make the land richer and more productive than when you acquired it.

Sadly, this is often not how land owners, especially corporate ones, view their roles as owners. The concentrated effort is usually more on exploiting those resources for the benefit of the stockholders through increased short-term profits than in any way being good stewards. If my land becomes unprofitable over time (usually due to mismanagement) then I will simply sell it and buy another parcel that is more productive.

Not only does this view of land as an exploitable resource cause a destructive cycle of resource consumption (and unnecessary waste), but it encourages the exploitation of wilderness lands that are quickly disappearing as a consequence.

Beyond the question of private land owners being good stewards, I am continually appalled at how the rest of us treat the lands which we do not own. People still throw fast food wrappers or whole bags of half eaten food out their car windows (didn't we address this back in the 60's & 70's?). I've seen creeks and rivers around the Chicago area despoiled with all manner of discarded items from tires to cinder blocks, from mattresses and lawn chairs to old Weber grills, not to mention the ubiquitous beer bottles and cans.

Why is it so hard to realize that we are all poisoning ourselves through these careless actions? The chemicals in our garbage thrown into our water ways are leaching into our groundwater and the river ecosystems. Not only does this make our environment less beautiful (who wants to live in a garbage dump) but it ultimately affects our health and well being.

One of my favorite quotes, originally attributed to Chief Seattle but actually more recent, "The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth". As stewards of the earth, a role into which we have thrust ourselves, we have to start doing a better job. The quote continues, "All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself".

Regardless of the source of this wisdom, isn't it time we started seeing the web of life that we live in and stopped exploiting its resources, polluting it with our garbage and poisoning it with our chemicals?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Wasting the Abundance

How much food have you thrown away today? Didn't quite finish that second or third bowl of cereal and dumped it down the garbage disposal? Tossed the last two bites of that sandwich? Scraped the remains of dinner into the kitchen garbage? Did you go shopping today and clean out your refrigerator by throwing away all that food from last week that had gone bad? How about those leftovers from the restaurant three nights ago that you never ate? We all do it. I did all these things in the last week. We usually don't even think about it.

So let's stop for a second and do a little bit of that thinking. My cereal was mostly corn, wheat and sugar. All are grown, harvested and processed many miles from the store in which I purchased the cereal. Taking into account the production of the packaging of all the ingredients before they arrive at the cereal plant and all the packaging to get the cereal to my kitchen, not to mention the production of the cereal itself and we can quickly see that there are many very complicated processes involved. Each of them consumes energy which usually comes from some fossil fuel like diesel for the trucks and coal to generate the electricity.

When I pour that last bowl, eat only half of it and dump the rest, I'm also wasting some of that energy that went into getting that cereal into my bowl. It doesn't seem like much when considering a bowl of cereal. However, recent studies have indicated that in industrialized nations like the US 30 - 50% of all food produced is thrown away before it can be eaten. This means that up to 50% of the carbon emissions related to food production and transportation are causing global climate change for no benefit. I don't know how you feel, but that sounds really stupid to me.

The irony, or perhaps the underlying cause, of all this waste is that we do it because our food supply is so abundant. We grow and produce so much food in the US that we can throw away half of it and still suffer an epidemic of obesity caused mainly by eating too much (or at least too much of the wrong kinds of food). The true tragedy is not the cost of the waste or even the distasteful moral issue of so much waste in the face of so many struggling with food security or even starvation in other parts of the world. No, the tragedy is that while we are wasting this colossal abundance we are lulled into believing it will continue forever.

The belief in never ending abundance causes us as a society to be wasteful of all the limited resources that are consumed daily to produce this amazing bounty which we discard without a second thought. Our modern farming practices are heavily reliant on the consumption of water for irrigation, diesel for production and transportation, petroleum for pesticides, other fossil fuels like natural gas to produce fertilizer and the land on which to grow it all. Supply of all of these resources are beginning to be challenged and will be more so in the near future as world-wide demand for food continues to increase partly due to population increase and partly to the rest of the world wanting to eat what we do.

Before a crisis looms caused by a shortage of any of these resources upon which our farming practices rely, we need to supplement our food supply with crops grown in ways that are not reliant on these limited resources. Many organic farming practices can produce the same yield per acre with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides and a fraction of the petroleum. The problem is that all of these practices are only successful on a small scale so that more people have to practice them to support the same sized population.

We won't get there overnight, but we can each make a small contribution by being more mindful of how much food we buy, eat and throw out. We can also support local farmers who practice organic techniques which have a lower impact on the environment, our bodies and our limited resources. If we don't we may be staring into the first of many crises regarding our food production sooner than we want to admit.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Nature From Within

Humans are part of nature. Whether you live in a densely populated city or on a rural farm, you live in an ecosystem that consumes natural resources and supports many organisms, both plant and animal. We cannot escape this fact, whether we acknowledge it or not. In fact humans create many unnecessary problems when we do not recognize the consequences of our actions to the environment around us.

The blinding and isolating effects of "modern" society allow humans to pretend to live outside of nature in our artificial environments. We go to great lengths quite often to isolate ourselves from the world in which we live. Just look at our sealed and air conditioned homes and cars. Cellophane wrapped, boxed, frozen, freeze dried, vacuum packed food. Earbuds, "smart" phones, iPads, wall-sized TVs and other stimulation prosthetics.

We cause the most harm to the natural environment in which we all live through our own ignorance of the debilitating consequences of our activities. What was the complete effect on the environment caused by the purchase of that chicken sandwich you had for lunch? From building and operating the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) that houses 100,000+ chickens under one roof from where your chicken breast was raised. To the effect of growing the grain the chicken was feed and the water that was pumped for it to drink to the waste it excreted during its short life. How about the processing plant where it was slaughtered, butchered and packaged? How about all the diesel fuel that was burned to ship and distribute the fertilizer, pesticide and seed to grow the grain and the grain itself? How about to ship the packaged chicken to the fast food distribution center and finally to the chain restaurant where you bought it? What are the effects on the environment for all the packaging both of the chicken feed, the antibiotics it was feed, the boxes in which the packaged chicken was shipped and finally all the packaging for everything else in your sandwich like the bun, the condiments, lettuce, tomatoes, etc.

And that is just for one chicken sandwich. Every single activity in which we participate every single day of our lives has direct, yet sometimes very hidden impacts on the environment from which we cannot escape no matter how hard we try. The more we pretend that we live outside of nature, instead of within it, the more harm we do to it and ultimately to ourselves.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Cost of Mordern Farming

Current farming practices allow humans to produce more food per acre than was even imaginable 50 years ago. However, this huge gain in food production has a tremendous cost. Not only are these practices incredibly energy intensive but they rely on many toxic herbicides and pesticides which find their way into both our food chain as well as the environment at large.

Why is this a problem? In addition to the obvious issues with ingesting toxic substances, some of these chemicals are indicated as hormone mimics which can contribute to a whole host of issues from infertility to obesity to some forms of cancer. Moreover, the amount of fossil fuels required to grow a pound of food accounts for almost half of all costs considering the production, transportation and distribution of everything from the pesticides, to fertilizer to seed applied to an acre of a crop. Add in the tilling, plowing, seeding, watering, harvesting, processing, packaging and transporting of the crop itself and you can see that humans pay a very heavy price in energy consumption to achieve the fantastic levels of food production we currently enjoy.

But that is not the only cost incurred by our factory farming and mass food production practices. Most agriculture in the U.S. is now irrigated, and a significant amount by non-renewable aquifers like the Ogallala in the central plains. This one aquifer irrigates 30% of all irrigated land in the U.S. By the latest estimates, the deepest wells will start running dry in 25 - 30 years at current pumping rates. This is in an area that is already semi-arid and supported only a fraction of the amount of current agriculture before the massive pumping and irrigation from the aquifer.

Another hidden cost is the effect of both fertilizer and livestock excrement runoff into our nation's waterways. The excess nitrogen and other nutrients in this runoff causes excessive algae and bacterial blooms in rivers, streams and eventually the ocean. These blooms deprive the waterways of oxygen resulting in the die-off of whole ecosystems, from the micro-organisms all the way up the food chain to the fish and the mammal and bird predators who eat the fish.

Finally, in return for this incredible production of food, we have given up the two most important aspects of the food itself; its taste and nutritional value. Almost all fruits and vegetable hybrids sold in grocery stores today are bred for neither their taste nor their nutrient value but for their shelf life, color and hardiness for shipping and transport from the field to the store aisle. Unfortunately, taste and nutritional value are usually sacrificed for these other attributes. Like the large, beautiful rose hybird that has not even a hint of fragrance left, our fresh fruit and vegetables pale in taste and nutritional value compared to that which our grandparent's generation were accustomed.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with all of these practices is that they are not sustainable. Not just because we are using up all the water in the aquifers or all the oil to power the farm machinery and trucks, but the arable land whose topsoil is eroding away due to the very practices that squeeze so much food out of each and every acre. We have to try something different before we are forced to do so by the constraint of our limited resources.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The No Garbage Life

What would a life without garbage look like? What if you could wake up in the morning and go out into your yard to pick an apple, orange or plum to start your day? Walking back to the house you check and see some of your strawberries are ripe so you pick a few and take them inside too. No packaging or plastic bags, just a quick rinse in the sink.

How about some freshly baked granola with milk? Good thing you cooked up a batch last night with those fresh oats you bought at the farmer's market last weekend. You filled up your canvas bag with a whole pound of them and purchased some canola oil in a glass bottle that you can resuse when it is empty. The milk is fresh from the dairy down the road which also sells in glass reusable bottles.

As you are cleaning up the dishes, you remember to throw that ball of dough into the oven to bake a loaf for lunch. You bought the flour in bulk also and topped off your five pound flour jar right at the store, paying for the difference in weight. That fresh bread sure will make a nice sandwich for lunch. After you scrape your scraps into the compost bucket under the sink, you wash your dishes and think about how the dish water contributes to watering your garden vegetables since you rerouted the drains for all grey water.

A few hours later for lunch you slice up some of that fresh bread you baked earlier and cut a few pieces of the goat cheese you made last month. Topped off with some fresh lettuce from your garden and mustard seed you ground yourself, it tastes better than anything you have ever bought in a store.

Your friends from down the road are coming by for dinner and bringing a whole chicken raised on their farm that they killed and cleaned that day. You roast the chicken in your outdoor wood burning oven while you serve some of that fresh bread, butter from your own goat's milk and roasted garlic you dug out of your garden the day before. Potatoes, asparagus and fresh dill all from your garden round out your dinner.

You go to bed that night without having created even one scrap of garbage that couldn't be recycled, composted or resused in some way.

Now this vision might seem utopic to some, but why not make it the goal for which we are striving? Why do we accept the energy intensive, garbage producing, wasteful lifestyles that define 'modern' living? This is the vision of a self-sufficient lifestyle, one that can be sustained indefinitely. The lifestyle of our modern society cannot. Which one would you rather live?

Why Live Without Garbage?

How can we live our lives without creating any garbage? Or why should we want to? Because when we live the way we do, creating so much garbage, we are living unsustainably. The activities we pursue, the products we consume, the food that we eat, are all processes consuming resources faster than those resources are being replenished. This is true of the energy intensive agriculture required to fertilize, plant, harvest, process and tranport our food as well as the energy and resource intense processes to make and ship our consumer goods.

Garbage isn't the main problem (in itself it can be, and in some places is, a major issue) but garbage is a symptom. It is a symptom of the inefficiency of unsustainable processes. Whether we like it or not, the inescapable reality is that we all live on a world with limited resources. With 7 billion of us (and counting) we cannot continue to use resources as if they are unlimited. Besides possibly sunlight (see my post 'Sustainable Means What?') there are no unlimited resources. OK, maybe seawater is vast enough to be considered unlimited, but for what? Turning it into potable water takes enengy, and besides sunlight, we don't have an unlimited source of energy (a discussion of the problems with fusion energy has to wait for a future post).

More to the point, we need to improve the efficiency of all human activities to the point where they will all be sustainable. One way to do this is to minimize waste (i.e. garbage). Sometimes even this is not good enough because some other part of the process is consuming non-renewable resources such as petroleum. In this case we need to find alternative renewable resources.

But petroleum and other fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, etc.) have another strike against them. Not only will we soon (20 years for oil, 150 years for coal) have extracted and burned the easiest to reach reserves, but they contribute to global climate change. We simply cannot keep burning the same amount of fossil fuels for the next 150 years that we do today. The good news is we can't keep burning petroleum at that rate because we will run out of it soon. The bad news is humanity shows no signs of reducing the amount of coal we burn each year. In fact, we burn more coal each year than we did the previous one.

All the more reason to find alternatives. But since there is neither a simple alternative energy source nor an easy way to convert our energy infrastructure, one of the most effective interim solutions is to consume less fossil fuels. But as a whole humanity has been pretty bad at accomplishing this task. That is why I am not very hopeful that the human race will change its behavior enough to ward off environmental disaster.

So what does that mean for those of us who want to make a difference? The best answer I've come up with so far is learning how to live a sustainable, self-sufficient life. Live responsibly, live sustainably but most importantly, learn to live so that you are not dependant on any of the non-sustainable processes which will suffer crisis and ultimately break-down as the resources upon which they depend are consumed to an extent where those processes can no longer function.

My next post will be a preview of what life without garbage might look like and what that has to do with living a self-sufficent life.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why Do We Have Garbage?

How many garbage cans do you have in your house? By average American standards I live in a modest sized house and have four (one in the kitchen, one in each of two bathrooms and on in the laundry room, mostly to collect lint from the drier). Why do we accept without question that almost every room in a house should have a garbage can? If someone told you “I have no garbage cans in my house” you would question their cleaning habits before you might question their lack of need for any.

Why is it so ingrained in our culture, in our daily activities, that we are always producing garbage? It makes sense that if you accept that fact (and simple observation confirms it) that we either live with mounds of the stuff all around us or we place receptacles everywhere (work, home, restaurants, public places) to collect the stuff and get rid of it.

But why don’t we set a goal to not create it in the first place? If I buy a product from a manufacturer that is packaged in cardboard to protect it during shipping, I can recycle the box. But what about the shrink-wrap plastic around the outside? Or the packing materials inside? Or the instructions five minutes after I read them for the one and only time that I ever will? What can I do with those? Maybe a better question to ask is why do I have them in the first place? I don’t want or need those things (this may be an over-simplification, but I think most products these days either don’t really require instructions or the manufacturer can post them online). Hey, how about a product that is so easy to use or so automated that it just works when I turn it on? But that sounds like a topic for a future blog post.

Let’s examine our food. A typical day for me might start with cereal (cardboard box with a wax bag), milk (plastic jug) and blueberries (clear plastic pint container) with a tub of yogurt (plastic tub) for breakfast. For lunch, ham sandwich (ham from plastic deli bag, bread from plastic bag) with mustard (plastic bottle), lettuce (plastic bag) and tomato (usually plastic bag, but not required, one of the few such store bought items), potato chips (plastic-aluminized bag) and an apple (like the tomato, usually from a plastic bag). Finally, for dinner a baked chicken breast (Styrofoam tray with self-stick plastic wrap), steamed broccoli (plastic bag), rice (cardboard box with internal plastic bag) and ice cream (cardboard tub).

Whew, that’s exhausting. But look at all the garbage I throw away each day just to eat my food. And I’m not even getting into table scraps, leftovers that get thrown out or that tomato that went bad in the fridge before I got around to eating it. And the amount of garbage goes up exponentially if I eat out, especially at a fast food restaurant (not only the containers I see, but those used to package and prepare the food before I get it).

I have two issues with so much garbage. One is the obvious one of running out of room to put the stuff and the resources consumed to manage it all. This includes the cost of collecting it, shipping it and finally burying it somewhere. The less obvious problem is that I’m paying money for all that packaging simply to throw it away. Now I imagine you’re saying, “But you are getting use out of the packaging before it gets disposed.” This is true, but I think we could get much more value out of our packaging than we are. In other words, as a consumer I could receive the same benefit from less packaging, which would cost me less, if the manufacturer made it a priority to minimize their packaging. “But they have financial incentive to do so,” you counter. Yes, but this is sometimes out-weighed by other incentives such as prominence on shelf displays, theft-prevention and simply misleading the customer into thinking they are purchasing more of the product than they are (case in point, cereal boxes).

Here's another question. What product do you purchase (with your hard earned money) with the express purpose of throwing it away (and in true irony, its packaging also)? Garbage can liners/bags. Does this make any sense? I expend resources (time, energy, money) to drive to the store, purchase this product and bring it home only to throw it away. Then I pay someone to pick it up from my house and drive it to a big hole in the ground and bury it. There must be a better way.

And that topic will be my next blog post.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Sustainable Means What?

Sustainable, carbon-neutral, self-sufficient and similar terms get thrown around and used somewhat interchangeably in the press and on the internet. For the purposes of this blog, I will use the term sustainable to refer to a process that can be carried out indefinitely. This can only happen when that process consumes resources slower than those resources are replenished (or at the same rate).

A simple example is collecting dead fall from the forest floor to make a camp fire to roast marshmellows. As long as you collect the wood that falls from the trees to make your fire and don't cut any live trees, you can do this for a very long time (generations, centuries, etc.) The trees will continue to grow and produce wood for your camp fires indefintely. But as soon as you collect all the deadwood and decide to start cutting down trees to burn, you have started a non-sustainable process because you are consuming the wood faster than it is being replenished.

All human activity can be examined through the lens of sustainability similar to this method. The complexity arises in the many different inputs required for most of our activities and analyzing whether each one of its resources are being consumed slower than they are being replenished.

There is one extreme example that I want to get out of the way for any critics who find issue with my definition of sustainable processes. Sunlight is for all intents and purposes a sustainable energy source even though we all know that the sun is slowly consuming its vast store of hydrogen and fusing it into helium in a non-sustainable process. I think any resonable person will agree that 4-5 billion years is such a vast amount of time beore this resource runs out that it is effectively infinite.

On the other hand, fossil fuels are not infinite in supply. We are close (10-50 years depending on who you ask) to consuming 50% of all of the easily accessible petroleum on the planet. That is a timeframe that most of us alive today will live to see. After that point (called peak oil) the demand to consume oil each year will exceed the supply, likely resulting in wild price flucuations (remember the price of oil in the summer of 2008?). This is a common response in complex systems to restricted supply of resources.

So why is all this important? If a process is not sustainable, at some point it will stop (because there will be no more resources to keep it going). In our campfire example, no more trees (think Easter Island), no more roasted marshmellows.

For all of human history our resources have been effectively infinite (like the sun's supply of hydrogen). At the end of the 20th century I belive human beings entered a new era where on a global scale we are starting to exhaust the resources upon which we depend for everything from growing our food, to generating our electricity to building our cities. History is littered with the ruins of civilizations that collapsed because of the over-consumption of local resources. For the first time in history we are going to have to contend with the consequences of over-consumption of our resources on a global scale.