Sunday, March 29, 2009

Technosanity #24: Is it required for society to collapse to build the society we desire?

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In the C-Realm Podcast episode #124 is an interview with Toby Hemenway which has several interesting thoughts in it. The interview was drawn heavily from his article Apocalypse, NOT. They were discussing "the end of the world as we know it" (TEOTWAWKI) and the likelihood of the collapse of our society due to the various crises facing us.

While listening a question came clearly to mind ... If we are to have the world we want, is it necessary to have our society collapse? Do we need to erase our existing society and start over with a new one? Alternatively is it possible to build the society we want to have, while in the context of the society we're living in?

I think most of us want to live in a better place. There are many versions of what would be a "better" society, right? Different people have their own ideas of "better" society, "better" living conditions, "better" political structures, etc.

Toby Hemenway is a Biologist turned Permaculturist. He discussed the danger of the "growth economy" and how the "growth economy" needs to die, in his view. The "growth economy" is the requirement that companies and population is always growing, enforced by the stock market which gives high value to growing companies and death sentences to those who aren't. He also discussed the "solar budget" and the need for our society to live within the solar budget, meaning that the resources our society consumes ought to be constrained by the energy which can be converted from sunlight.

In any case he has a clear preference for "better" which he described as a horticultural based society rather than agricultural.

There are many people who are predicting doom and gloom and a collapse of our society. I am a student of peak oil and am familiar with the peak oil thinking, that pretty darn soon the oil supply is due to enter into a decline which will cause a crisis to our society over how to make up the difference between demand and supply for the fuel to drive our machines.

Maybe the collapse will be as bloody as depicted in some of the movies such as the Mad Max trilogy. Or maybe it will be smoother.

The desire for "better" stems from unhappiness with the status quo, fear of where the status quo is leading our society, and a vision we have for the better society of our dreams.

It seems to me we can choose for ourselves to live in alignment with our vision of a better society. Depending on our individual vision it may be simple to accomplish or hard.

History is full of clusters of people who set up communal living situations in which they could experiment with developing a vision of a "better" way to live. Today these are called "Intentional Communities" and they vary in size from the big ones like Damanhur or Findhorn down to small groups. These communities have existed all through human history with varying success.

These people have been able to experiment but it still leaves people like me concerned about the direction the status quo is leading our society. These experiments have perhaps been good for the people involved, but they've had little effect on the status quo, and the status quo appears to be leading us all to disaster.

At some points our experiments in better lifestyles ought to become mainstream to make the lessons learned from these experiments to have a broad effect.

Technosanity #24: Is it required for society to collapse to build the society we desire?

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

A simple method of water purification - the Watercone

In many parts of the world access to clean water is a key problem. Water purification is the process of removing undesirable chemical and biological contaminants from raw water. The goal is to produce water fit for human consumption or other specific purposes. In general the methods used include physical process such as filtration and sedimentation, biological processes such as slow sand filters or activated sludge, chemical process such as flocculation and chlorination and the use of electromagnetic radiation such as ultraviolet light. The purification process of water may reduce the concentration of particulate matter including suspended particles, parasites, bacteria, algae, viruses, fungi; and a range of dissolved and particulate material derived from the minerals that water may have made contacted after falling as rain.

Water purification can be an energy intensive process and there has been a long quest for effective purification methods. For example boiling water, capturing and condensing the steam, requires an energy input required to boil water. If the energy comes from a fuel like oil or coal there is the addition of carbon emissions from burning the fuel. It also would tie the need for water to consumption of a nonrenewable resource like fossil oil or coal. The Watercone is a very simple way to purify water that uses sunlight as the energy to boil the water.

The cone is placed over a pan containing water. The pan should be black for best heat absorption. The cone has a trough along the inside rim to catch water. Water evaporates from the pan, moves upward, is caught on the inside of the cone, then drips down to the trough. So simple.

The WATERCONE(r) system can be referred to as a one step water condensation process with a 40% effectiveness degree (GTZ Germany). Based on evaporation levels of 8.8 Liters per square meter (average solar irradiation in Casablanca, Morocco), the WATERCONE(r) (with a base diameter of 60 - 80 cm) yields between 1.0 to 1.7 Liters of condensed water per day (24 hours). The salty / brackish Water evaporates by way of solar irradiation and the condensation from that Water appears in the form of droplets on the inner wall of the cone. These droplets trickle down the inner wall into a circular trough at the inner base of the cone.

I like many things about this design. It is simple and easy to understand. However the implementation is made from PVC plastic, and it contributes to more plastic existing in the world. Pondering a different way to implement this design in my mind I see a glass cone rather than a plastic cone and perhaps it can be a little bigger.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Technosanity #23: Defining green technology and sustainable technology

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There's a lot of talk about how Green Jobs are going to save the U.S. economy. I have high hopes for this, but at the same time I have worries. The word "Green" is being bandied with imprecise meanings. What does "Green" mean? Who defined this term and what is their goal? And is it what we think it is. It seems to have an underlying meaning about technology or practices that have beneficial environmental effect. But what is that beneficial effect, what is really meant, and do they mean to make a significant environmental improvement or do they mean to spin it so that greenwashing is enough?

If we don't know where we're going then how do we know when we get there?

If the leadership of the country says we're going in a given direction, how can we judge if the results match the goal we're being given?

I'm happier with the word 'Sustainable' than 'Green'. Sustainable has some clear meaning even though it also seems to suffer from imprecision. Still I want to know more about the meaning of Sustainability, Sustainable Technology, Green Technology, and where we are headed.

For this episode I browsed through a chapter in Peak Everything by Richard Heinberg. The book takes the peak oil model and extrapolates it out to other resources. One chapter is an exploration of Sustainability and what it means for our society.

He first gives a series of definitions...

The word itself means "that which can be maintained over time". Very nice.

Gayanashagowa or the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) Six Nations is the oral constitution that created the Iroquois Confederacy. The law was developed by a man known as The Great Peacemaker and his spokesman Hiawatha. Member Nations ratified this constitution near present day Victor, New York. There is an essential concept of sustainability said to be within this law, a concept familiar to someone who has seen the front page of this site or to someone who has bought household products from a particular company. Richard gives this concept as: that chiefs consider the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation to come. I've always loved that principle which is why this site bears the name it has. It is key to sustainability in terms of a society which can be maintained over time.

Sustainable Development: is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (wikipedia) In other words the official definition of Sustainable Development is a restatement of the Seven Generations principle.

The Natural Step is a foundation developed in the 1990's which formulated four conditions for sustainability. These are:-

The Four System Conditions... . . . Reworded as The Four Principles of Sustainability
In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing: To become a sustainable society we must...
1. concentrations of substances extracted from the earth's crust 1. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth's crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)
2. concentrations of substances produced by society 2. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society (for example, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT )
3. degradation by physical means 3. eliminate our contribution to the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting forests and paving over critical wildlife habitat); and
4. and, in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs 4. eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on).

Richard next gives five Axioms of Sustainability:-

  1. Any society that continues to use its resources unsustainably will collapse
  2. Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption cannot be sustained
  3. To be sustainable the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment
  4. To be sustainable the use of non-renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is declining, and the rate of decline must be greater than or equal to the rate of depletion
  5. Sustainability requires that substances introduced into the environment from human activities must be minimized and rendered harmless to biosphere functions.

A point which surfaces over and over through this chapter in Peak Everything is to equate Sustainability with a requirement for the Natural World to stay as it is. Sustainability is being defined in terms of reducing or eliminating harmful impacts on the natural world. While it is my belief our society dreams of living in a garden paradise, I wonder if preserving the natural world as it is today is the only way to attain sustainability in terms of maintaining human society over the long term.

His Axioms require use of renewable resources and a cessation of use of non-renewable resources.

A key axiom is the first, unsustainable use of critical resources means the collapse of society. Consider water such as the several aquifers being mined by societies faster than the rate of replenishment. Aquifers receive water when it rains and the rain is absorbed underground and flows through rock formations. The average rainfall contributes a certain quantity of water every year, and if the humans living above the aquifer never use more than the amount added every year the aquifer will provide water forever. But current practice is to pump water out of the aquifers as fast as it will flow, in many cases leading to sucking them dry within a generation or so. This is not a sustainable practice because for example the city of Phoenix Arizona is in a desert, and there are over a million people living there, and how will they get water when their aquifer runs out and there's never more than an inch or two of rain a year?

It seems he is only looking to the natural world to provide the resources we require to live. The natural world does provide the basics of life, the water, the air, food, materials with which to build shelter and clothing, etc. It makes sense then to make use of the natural world at a rate the natural world is able to sustain. Extracting resources from the natural world at a rate faster than it can sustain, leads to collapse of the natural world's ability to provide the resources which give us our lives.

Another example is fishery collapses around the world. These happen when fishing happens at too great a rate and the fish populations are unable to provide enough fish. Over-fishing leads to fishery collapse.

The garden paradise of our dreams has a carrying capacity. The garden paradise can provide only so much stuff and remain a paradise. Extract too much stuff from the paradise and it collapses perhaps becoming a desert.

The rate of natural replenishment gives an upper bound on the rate of sustainable resource use.

There is a strong correlation between growth of population and growth of resource use. Hence his axiom to limit population growth and/or resource growth. However I believe it is technically possible to limit the growth of resource use while allowing population to grow. It means ensuring all technologies are made more and more efficient over time, and that we always strive to do more with less, to use the minimum of resources in our activities.

This idea runs counter to some cultural normalthink of the kind that drives people to owning hummers.

We all want this society to last forever. Technically it cannot last forever if only because in a couple billion years our Sun will burn out. In any case this expectation is real and is an unquestioned assumption that's all around us. I suppose the Romans during the era of the Roman Empire also thought their society would last forever. But given the above discussion it seems plainly obvious that this goal we have for our society to last forever, that it requires our society to adopt sustainability as a core principle. This is an absolute hard requirement, for our society to last forever we must adopt sustainability.

Technosanity #23: Defining green technology and sustainable technology

A proposed law that may mean the death of small farms and farmers markets and organic farming? (H.R. 875)

H.R. 875: Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 obviously is playing on the fears raised by recent food safety disasters, and there is a ruckus brewing in some blogs raising alarm over this proposed law. Such as: "Change We Can Believe In: How About the End of Farmers Markets? Say Hello to H.R. 875: Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009" ...What this will do is force anyone who produces food of any kind, and then transports it to a different location for sale, to register with a new federal agency called the “Food Safety Administration.” Even growers who sell just fruit and/or vegetables at farmers markets would not only have to register, but they would be subject inspections by federal agents of their property and all records related to food production.... with the result that providers at farmers markets will be priced out of existence. A commenter on that blog suggested: "I can’t help think this is a prelude (one of many, no doubt) to America’s “harmonizing” (I think that’s the term) with Codex Alimentarius.". If you don't know, Codex Alimentarius is a program some say is being pushed by big industry to control all food and health supplements for some nefarious purpose. While I found that blog post to be overly alarmist I do have concern over big industry pushing down our throats industrialized stuff that serves their needs and isn't necessarily healthy. So let's take a look at this.

The bill defines a proposed "Food Safety Administration" because for example: "the safety of the food supply of the United States is vital to the public health, to public confidence in the food supply, and to the success of the food sector of the Nation’s economy". Yes of course food safety is very important. The purposes include: "(A) regulate food safety and labeling to strengthen the protection of the public health; (B) ensure that food establishments fulfill their responsibility to process, store, hold, and transport food in a manner that protects the public health of all people in the United States; (C) lead an integrated, systemwide approach to food safety and to make more effective and efficient use of resources to prevent food-borne illness; (D) provide a single focal point within the Department of Health and Human Services for food safety leadership, both nationally and internationally; and (E) provide an integrated food safety research capability, including internally generated, scientifically and statistically valid studies, in cooperation with academic institutions and other scientific entities of the Federal and State governments;" Further the act specifies transferring "various components of the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration" into this new Food Safety Administration. In other words this is a reshaping of the FDA into a new and larger role.

The definitions include five categories of food establishments which are to be regulated and the various contaminants which will be regulated. Recall that this proposal comes in the wake of a few mass poisonings coming from unsafe food being distributed over the last few years. Contaminated food has been causing death and fear for several years now. Obviously the FDA as it exists has failed in some way to ensure our safety. But I wonder whether the remedies in this bill are the best solution?

SEC. 202. REGISTRATION OF FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS AND FOREIGN FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS: Requires the registration of "Any food establishment or foreign food establishment engaged in manufacturing, processing, packing, or holding food for consumption in the United States shall register annually with the Administrator." Registration seems to be mostly about recording contact addresses and phone numbers. The Administrator can suspend a registered food establishment, there are procedures for reestablishing registration, but it doesn't describe what effect comes from being suspended.

SEC. 203. PREVENTIVE PROCESS CONTROLS TO REDUCE ADULTERATION OF FOOD: Requires the Food Safety Administration to set up regulations that food establishments must meet. This includes sanitation plans, record keeping, labeling, sampling, etc.

SEC. 204. PERFORMANCE STANDARDS FOR CONTAMINANTS IN FOOD: Requires the Food Safety Administration establish standards giving acceptable levels of contaminants. Note that there are existing FDA rules of this sort. It also includes inspections, the ability to seize nonconformant food, and I suppose goes back to the possibility of suspending registration mentioned above.

SEC. 205. INSPECTIONS OF FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS: Requires the Food Safety Administration set up an inspections program.

SEC. 206. FOOD PRODUCTION FACILITIES: Grants the Food Safety Administration authority to "(1) visit and inspect food production facilities in the United States and in foreign countries to determine if they are operating in compliance with the requirements of the food safety law; (2) review food safety records as required to be kept by the Administrator under section 210 and for other food safety purposes; (3) set good practice standards to protect the public and animal health and promote food safety; (4) conduct monitoring and surveillance of animals, plants, products, or the environment, as appropriate; and (5) collect and maintain information relevant to public health and farm practices."

SEC. 207. FEDERAL AND STATE COOPERATION: Calls for greater national and state level cooperation to "strengthen and expand food-borne illness surveillance systems to-- (A) inform and evaluate efforts to prevent food-borne illness; and (B) enhance the identification and investigation of, and response to, food-borne illness outbreaks." To "leverage and enhance the food safety capacity and roles of State and local agencies and integrate State and local agencies as fully as possible into national food safety efforts". In other words this section seems to be about federalizing local authorities, rather than maintaining a separation of national efforts from local efforts.

SEC. 208. IMPORTS: The act is to cover all imported food. A definition at the beginning of the bill defines "Foreign Food Establishment" as a "Food establishment" located outside the U.S. which sends food for sale inside the U.S. Clearly some of the food safety scares of recent years began in foreign countries.

SEC. 210. TRACEBACK REQUIREMENTS: Requires the the Food Safety Administration to "establish a national traceability system that enables the Administrator to retrieve the history, use, and location of an article of food through all stages of its production, processing, and distribution." This defines data formats for computerized records and a system for storing and retrieving records about items of food. Sounds like Big Brother being applied to food. At the same time an issue in the recent food safety scares has been the question over where the food actually came from. Take the spinach scare for example. It focused on the plastic bags of spinach, and it was unclear which field(s) the spinach came from because the food processors buy spinach from several fields, cut the leaves off the stems, mix them all together, then bag the spinach. It's like shuffling several identical decks of cards together, and then trying to put the cards back into their original decks.

SEC. 211. ACCREDITED LABORATORIES: Sets up a registration process and standards for laboratories to partake in the regulation being setup.

There's a lot more to this but the above gives the general tone of this proposed law.

The law sounds reasonable to me on the face of it. Establishment and enforcement of regulations are a good thing. Remember that the Food and Drug Administration was established 100 years ago in the wake of a food safety scare that came in the wake of Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle. That book chronicled the scary conditions in meat packing houses of that era, such as the use of rats in making sausage and generally lax enforcement procedures and rampant bribery.

I wonder if todays food scares has more to do with the last 8 years of Bush Administration gutting all forms of government regulation and oversight. Supposedly the FDA had to let go of many food inspectors. Perhaps the simpler solution is to rehire food inspectors. At the same time there are new threats from globalization of the food supply, and food being imported from foreign lands that have less regulation.

But let's get back to the alarming aspects of this bill. I'll turn to other bloggers and their analysis:

H.R. 875 Food Safety Modernization Act Of 2009 This is an excellent walk-through of the bill from the perspective of an individual gardener who grows food for his own consumption. Would this law apply to individual gardeners?

The problem here is in the definitions section which has overly broad or overly vague definitions that give a wide scope to the Food Safety Administration. A CATEGORY 4 FOOD ESTABLISHMENT is "a food establishment that processes all other categories of food products not described in paragraphs (5) through (7)." Uh, this means that every single last organization which processes and/or provides food is to be regulated by this new administration. "Food" is also overly broadly defined as "intended to be used for food or drink for a human or an animal and components thereof." And, finally, " (14) FOOD PRODUCTION FACILITY- The term ‘food production facility’ means any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation."

This means that the nice sounding regulations and requirements will apply to far more organizations than it applies to today.

Such as farmers markets. Maybe even individual gardeners.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Portable shelters with a shopping cart look, EDAR or Everyone Deserves a Roof

Maybe it's a sign of the times. Maybe it's a re-enactment of the homeless encampments that existed in the 1930's during the Great Depression. Maybe it's what it is, a guy with an idea to improve the world. The idea is to help the homeless have better sleeping quarters than cardboard boxes hidden in the bushes. Whatever it is, it also is an enabler to help homeless people stay homeless. It also gives homeless people a better quality of life.

This tent is built on what's essentially a shopping cart frame. It has two compartments to store 'stuff', one in the front the other in the rear. It folds down to be small allowing it to be pushed around, uh, like a shopping cart. It unfolds easily and offers good quality shelter.

EDAR (Everyone Deserves a Home) is the brainchild of film-maker Peter Samuelson. He describes having become aware there an increase in homelessness and he had an inspired idea to create a solution. This portable tent thing. BTW I yahoogled "homeless statistics" and couldn't find a site that gives current rates or trends in homelessness. It seems likely that the current economic climate is making more people homeless. However this project had to have started a couple years ago during the time when the supposed economic recovery of the Bush Administration was in full swing. I believe that supposed economic recovery was only in the stock market and only gave an illusion of an economic recovery. In any case I wonder if this EDAR thing is the shape of things to come?

During the day, the EDAR unit is used to pursue the necessities of life. Personal belongings are secured by the use of locks. The front and back of the cart have storage baskets with removable canvas pouches. The unit is waterproof and provides protection for what it contains. EDAR's wheels are better than a supermarket cart's, being slightly larger and easier to steer in a consistent fashion. There are two brake and locking mechanisms which ensure the unit will not move on its own.

At night, the EDAR unit easily hinges out and down to Night Mode in less than 30 seconds, becoming a sleeping unit. Unfolding the unit allows it to lock in place as the flat metal base extends. The metal and wood base has a mattress and military-grade canvas cover, providing a robust tent-like shelter. The unit is flame-retardant, waterproof, windproof and helps protect from the elements. There are translucent windows that provides light and a view of the surrounding area. By re-folding the unit, the EDAR quickly returns to Day Mode.

He conceptualized EDAR as a mobile single-person device that would facilitate recycling, the principle source of income for many homeless.

Why is this better than a regular tent? Obviously tents have existed for thousands of years and humanity has millennia of experience using tents to camp. It seems to me the improvement here is to make it self contained and easy to push around and to provide security. A tent is bulky, doesn't set up quickly, and people tend to want to leave a tent in a given place once it's set up. I believe tents are frequently used by homeless people but that they hide them in the bushes etc. What about during the day? Tents provide no semblance of security, no locks, etc, and what would a homeless person do to protect their stuff during the day? If EDAR is as good as the claims, a homeless person can lock up their EDAR, securely containing their stuff, lock the EDAR to a bicycle rack or something, go into a building, etc, and have a relatively good assurance their stuff will be there when they return.

The EDAR units cost $500 apiece to build. They are constructed by a shopping cart manufacturer. I'm thinking "$500 apiece?? How can that be scalable to provide housing to a significant number of homeless??" That is, if it costs $500 for each unit and there are millions of homeless around the U.S. not to speak of the millions of homeless around the world, who can afford the money to buy one for each homeless?

While looking at EDAR postings I came across a different implementation of the idea: A Street Cart Named Survivor

This design may be a bit more practical and offer more income earning options for a homeless person than scavenging recyclables. The cart can be used as a vendor cart, and the bicycle wheels provide better mobility than a push cart, and it can be electrified to provide mobility and lighting.

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Embedded video from CNN Video

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Minds in Motion

Description: (MiM) is an international online community and learning network on sustainable mobility, supported by the Dutch Ministry of Transport and Platform Sustainable Mobility. Our mission is to speed up the adoption of sustainable mobility technologies and behaviour across Europe and beyond. We hope to do this by enabling people interested in sustainable mobility to connect to each other, discuss projects, form partnerships, exchange ideas, and generally contribute to the spread of knowledge, experience and best practice in sustainable mobility.


Greenhome (Huddler)


The GreenHome section of has a large set of resources for green living. However a lot of it appears to be stale. There is an active discussion area ...


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

GreenLinkz - Professional Green Network


The mission of GreenLinkz is to provide a professional business network that promotes sustainable business practices to an international audience of professionals and “green” workers. GreenLinkz is designed for those who are being impacted by the need and desire to embrace sustainable business practices, and who see opportunity in providing green business solutions.

Their site is still in beta and none of it is publicly visible at this time.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Green Tech Jobs - Technical Green


A resource site about green technology. There doesn't seem to be a lot here except for a listing of "Green Tech Jobs".