"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Posts tagged “environment

Getting Stuck into a Project with Imogen Heap

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that Imogen Heap was partnering with Clear Village to restore a walled garden in conjunction with Heapsong3. All of these announcements happened online, and here’s a blurb from Imogen’s site that tells you what we were expecting to happen.

In order to make the experience really rewarding and useful, Clear Village have thought it best to run an immersive program in which volunteers / participants / local residents can be involved in a learning and doing journey and become part of a team.

So in collaboration with the Borough’s Park managers, Clear-Village will be holding an open air lab for a maximum of 20 people over 6 days (22nd – 27th Sept inclusive) that will include presentations, exercises and creative get togethers. If you’re not a local, we have a hotel nearby that is pre-booked with 15 rooms at £55 per night (£65 if 2 in a room), including breakfast and transport to and from the garden (10 minute drive).

You can either come for the short period (22nd – 25th inclusive) or long period (up until 28th) when there’ll be art workshops also. We will feed and water you during the day and you’ll be forever welcome into the garden! You would have your evenings free from 5pm to enjoy nearby London (30 minute train from Gidea Park Station, Essex) or the local countryside.

You are then invited to ‘The Garden Party’ on the 8th Oct at The Round House (where we live), doubling up as the release of Heapsong3. It’s also Thomas’ birthday which he is ‘giving’ to the garden (friends and family bring cash not pressies!). If you’d like to come to the party but can’t be one of the 20 garden angels, you are welcome to come for £99 (all proceeds go toward further Walled Garden projects – places limited to 50 people).

For the 20 garden angels, your jobs could range from:

• Clearing the decks via bricklaying, carpentry, masonry, irrigation expertise, catering, revealing original footpaths, tilling the soil.

• Creating artwork from the debris of the clearing to be positioned around the park to raise local awareness to the ongoing project. (for those staying for the full 6 days)

We would be very happy also to have people with some knowledge of biodynamic agriculture, permaculture, architecture, community project management, drawing/live sketching etc.

I arrived on Saturday and worked through Tuesday. I found a team of folks preparing a large plot for planting because weeds had overrun the area. With spades, forks and hoes, we tried to bring this garden back to life. I chose to jump right in as other plots were roped off for safety reasons. The old greenhouses and poly-tunnels need a lot of skilled demolition. Our team focused principally on one overgrown plot.

Weeding fit my gardening skills nicely. Everything in the field needed to go. We also had a bit of a treasure hunt. The Friends of Bedfords Park had planted potatoes a few months back that were ready for harvesting. In particular, the raised beds were good places to find potatoes. Some stones tried to masquerade as potatoes, making the game that much more fun. Everyone on the team was really friendly, and conversations sprang up around a range of topics.

Because potatoes get planted in raised beds, we had to level the field. People worked with the forks and shovels to get the field roughly level. Other team members took to what we called “the penguin walk.” Treading the field requires you to take small steps using your heels to push down the soil. The ever-colourful Martin (also the parks director) showed us how to tread and recruited a team of people to “look really daft while doing it.” The three people closest to him got on the task right away while the rest of the team worked to prepare the far side of the field. Imogen came down to help and joined the penguin walkers while also joining right in with the team’s chatter.

At some point in the morning, a camera and mic boom showed up. [Weeding requires a lot of time looking down at the ground.] It was a bit strange to garden on camera but Clear Village and Imogen Heap commissioned a documentary about the Walled Garden project and the making of Heapsong3. Personally, I’m not really a taking pictures type of person, but many other folks on the team had really nice still cameras. After a point, I just got used to people taking action shots.

After the team had been working for a while, Lois brought in the winter vegetables and the salad crops we were planting. Martin facilitated a discussion about the difference between horticultural and permaculture techniques. Horticulture uses a rotational system of monocropping while permaculture inter-crops with symbiotic intentions. Certain plants do well when planted next to other plants as the various combinations offer natural protections from pests. The team knew that we’d be having to think carefully about how we wanted to plant the various plants.

By the end of the morning, we had the field nearly all turned over and ready for planting. I was quite impressed.

In the next post, I’ll discuss Saturday afternoon.


E.F. Schumacher and Small is Beautiful

After reading Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher this week, I think the book gets roundly misunderstood and misappropriated by various concerns. I read the book for its discussion around intermediate technology as Schumacher’s book established rhetorically the “appropriate technology” movement.What I found in the book is a much broader discussion about human concerns around production. His book is a rather scathing critique to advance an unpopular thesis: we have not solved the problem of production. For the clearest articulation as to where we have failed relative to production, I quote Schumacher:

To use the language of the economist, [the modern industrial system] lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance.

Looking at Schumacher’s thesis positively, Small is Beautiful positions production within a broader metaphysical argument. Specifically, Schumacher longs to see an orientation towards technology that embodies both non-violence and permanence. He differentiates between mass production and production for the masses. The articulation of production for the masses is likely the predecessor to “Bottom of the Pyramid” style businesses.  When you connect all three of Schumacher’s exhortations about tools and methods, the Bottom of the Pyramid connection becomes clear:

Cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone; suitable for small-scale application; and compatible with man’s need for creativity

Schumacher’s articulation that technology needs to be of a human-size is an important realisation. His discussion around long-term feasibility studies offers some value over forecasting documents. “Does this strategy have long-term feasibility given a range of conflicting demands on the resource base?” differs considerably from the forecasting question of “What will happen in 10 years?”

The book runs into some challenges around scale. Schumacher understands and appreciates that population density is something to celebrate in as far as it enables cultures to flourish. However, he also suggests that city size should not exceed 500,000 persons. He argues for a vision that makes rural life sustainable, simultaneously acknowledging that some communities might be suffering from too much migration to justify revitalisation. He discusses at length the necessary tension around a human need for order and a human need for freedom. Both needs establish a space for structured flexible thinking. Schumacher owns and embraces the paradox, but I am not surprised to see how Schumacher’s adherents have really focused on small-scale technologies in rural areas after reading the book.

Given that Schumacher wrote in 1973, I’m impressed to see a discussion of the human substance. Current frameworks about human well-being have some interesting things to learn. Arguably, Schumacher concludes that meaningful work represents a core component of the human substance.

The book is dated in a few places, but I think that many people citing from this particular volume do so at the expense of the overarching argument. Schumacher acknowledges that accepting the triad nature of his argument is not necessary. While each place of his argument stands firm on its own, I would like to see an increased pick up on the tolerance margins of nature apart from raw ecological takeback

Preserving sovereignty

This post still brings another instalment of the role of government in society. I’ve contended as a central argument that a government needs to follow the money. When a government follows the money, the government can see where the money does not seem to be flowing and address poverty.

Living in an increasingly globalised world, money flows in rather challenging patterns. Money flows when individuals or groups of individuals make a choice to invest somewhere. In searching for stable investments, many people have turned to investing in tracks of land. Major US universities have entered into a relationship with developing African land with the explicit intention of improving agricultural productivity.

The main issue at hand is land rights. Many times these agricultural lands support livelihoods of subsistence farmers. Additionally, land gets tied to natural resource management and exploitation. The government negotiates a deal to assign value to the land and create a contract. Some of these “contracts” fall far below any reasonable person standard of land wealth. Vidal and Provost outline one such deal in Sudan where “the 49-year lease of 400,000 hectares of central Equatoria for around $25,000 (£15,000) allows the company to exploit all natural resources including oil and timber.” Clearly, land should be worth more than $0.06/hectare. When you follow the money, you discover absurdity.

And these absurdities matter because the government who leases the land loses sovereignty. In economics terms, they lose the ability to capture the rents of their resource endowment. On Monday, I’ll post an accessible review of Paul Collier’s “The Plundered Planet” which provides a more detailed discussion about following the money around concerns of natural resources.

Overcoming squeamishness

We live in a world where our big problems connect with other big problems.  Challenges of food security, water, sanitation, energy and education compound together, often expressed in the incredibly large problem of poverty.  Yet, when addressing these challenges, it seems common to consider them individually rather than collectively.  Investigating schemes for wastewater irrigation underscores the point and speaks to our need to think creatively about viable engineering solutions.

Our general anxiety regarding wastewater in the developed world blocks some of our ability to think holistically about these challenges.  Environmentally-aware areas of the world such as the European Union have embraced rigorous standards for wastewater reuse as measures to protect public health.  Yet, policymakers created these regulations against a backdrop of highly-developed infrastructure systems designed to distance our communities from the reality of sanitation.  Therefore, these regulations rely on state-of-the-art treatment modalities and speak to our overall fear of waste.

The realities in the developing world are rather stark.  Open-pit defecation, carrying water gathered from questionable sources, and subsistence farming reflect normative practices.  Sources of disease transmission elude many persons trying to make community improvements because nearly every known pathway is wide-open.  Nearly everywhere you look, you can find evidence of fecal contamination, whether from humans or livestock.  The standardized systems of the developed world simply do not exist.  Moreover, the landscape littered with abandoned central infrastructure suggests the near-universal water and sanitation coverage continues as being wholly out of touch with many communities.

It strikes me as odd to assert that to change the paradigm, we must embrace reality.  Regardless of what we happen to think about the issues, regardless of how our stomach may churn with disgust when we consider what actually happens, and regardless of our extant pipe dreams, we must consider that for a large population of the world “wastewater” is a concept that simply does not exist.  The question remains: how can water scarce communities continue to use their limited resources productively in a way that improves their water, sanitation, and food security?

Within the context of development, developers tend to work on single projects with limited scope and quantifiable objectives.  Therefore, a development project might be something like place 10 tap stands in a community or construct a demonstration plot using irrigation.  Yet, agriculture projects enable developers to consider the community more holistically without losing the concrete objectives needed to complete the project.

Irrigation uses water for productive purposes.  Hierarchically, productive purposes rank below consumptive and hygienic uses for water; although some researchers indicate that pressing for irrigation-related development projects often carries a gendered dynamic of inverting the relationship between hygienic uses and productive uses of water.  Therefore, a systems-minded design of an irrigation project likely includes considerations of food security, water, sanitation, maternal and child health, and education.

Establishing appropriate procedures for water access and treatment forms a critical component of irrigation systems.  In many situations, these procedures involve questions of water rights.  However, water-scarce situations invite considerations of innovative water use, if we can consider the challenges in context.  Working with a community to design an environment mindful of locally-useful agricultural productivity changes the nature of the development project.  Inherently, developers have the options to say “What can be done to leverage this community’s resources towards agricultural productivity?” recognizing that water scarcity places many demands on the available water.

Best practices of modern farming in the developed world include regular irrigation and fertilization to maximize crop yields.  Yet farmers have also moved away from manure-based fertilizer in favor of chemical-based fertilizer.  Therefore, innovations that incorporate both human and animal manures in farming contexts meet with suspicion as these practices provide a means for feces to come into contact with food.  Additionally, insistence of artificially high standards of wastewater used in irrigation blocks irrigation all together or diverts water from more pressing human health needs.

The challenges facing developers working on irrigation projects in the developed world center upon the need to mobilize resources in the community.  Moreover, considerable efforts must be made to ensure project relevance.  Viewing the projects more broadly as an agricultural project may encourage more holistic solutions, particularly as sanitation improvements may make the community’s agriculture more productive.

Building an Environmental Awareness

It is August, so we have entered the month where I experience summer camp nostalgia.  There is something about sitting beside an outdoor fire in the summer time that is simply sublime.  Growing up in northern states, I learned much of what I know regarding the environment from simply being within the environment.  We can find an amazing treasure of environmental principles embedded in the wisdom we share with the up-and-coming generation about how to build a fire safely.

The material absolutely required to build a good fire where I lived was birch bark.  And it worked best if you managed to secure a healthy handful of the white stuff, finely broken down into slivers.  The trees often helped with the process as they would tend to flake off fine pieces of bark that you could peel off of the trees.  But, birch bark collecting came with many rules; the most important rule was to never peel past the white portion of the tree to turn the bark tan or (in the worst case scenario) pink.  If you saw pink, you exposed the inner bark of the tree that could cause the tree to be subject to illness.  But, year after year, the birch stands remained.  Fire after fire, we could always find enough bark to get the fire going.

Additionally, to build a fire, you needed a range of wood types.  Small, dry kindling was a must; the dry, tiny sticks on the paths all of a sudden had value.  You size up the wood in the fire from the kindling to get to your main logs that will become the majority of the fire for the majority length of time.  After all, once you get a fire going, it’s relatively straight-forward to “throw another log on the fire.”

Yet, in the process of building a campfire, we find a plethora of environmental lessons, particularly in environments where people do not need to build fires to survive.  Campfires serve as a luxury that can scale itself down to conform to its situation.  Smart strategies of gathering wood allow people to leave no trace on their environments.  Even in places where people build fire after fire, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we can still practice appropriate gathering procedures that do no harm to the surrounding ecosystem.  We generally do not want to make wood gathering a more onerous task than it needs to be, so we pick up on the readily available resources.  Simple rules make for continued enjoyment.

Friday Forum: On Smart Development

Over the past week, I’ve haphazardly opened a discussion about intelligent ideas for working within a range of engineering design scenarios.  I guess it is clear what I have been thinking about as I have been working all summer.

I think engineering design is a process that has to diversify its portfolio relative to how things get done.  In some instances, the current protocols work pretty well.  In other instances, the current protocols totally fail.  The problems remain in the eye of the beholder.  However, a bigger problem is an attempt to force a one-size-fits-all solution where it is likely such a solution will not work.  Particularly as we discuss development in today’s world, we are generally having conversations about food, water and energy.  Now, it is intriguing to note that these three questions do not exist exclusively in the developing world, but we face these questions as well in the developed world.

Yet I think it is better to treat the developing world from a “ground-up” paradigm rather than a “top-down” paradigm.  Knowing what we know about the limitations of existing solutions, can we do better to fit within the developing context?  Can we look at the present practices in the area and try to think outside of the box?  Some interesting things have been accomplished through so-called “frugal engineering,” and I think it’s notable that these interesting things have come about as engineers begin their designs by looking at the context in which the engineers are working.

However, as we consider context, it is equally important to consider trade-offs.  For instance, I generally support eating local, particularly out of one’s own backyard garden as I think it is a good thing to have a lived connection with your food.  [The sense of a lived connection with food is also part of the reason why I generally support cooking at home.]  However, I do think that in areas of particularly high population density (such as the Eastern seaboard of the United States) it may be much harder to eat locally than it is to eat locally in the Midwest.  Additionally, people who eat locally may find unexpected trade-offs, particularly if their desire to eat locally comes from a desire to reduce one’s so-called environmental footprint.

All too easy in design it is easy to become blinded by the criteria that matter in the moment.  Moreover, when speaking about development, we often refer to choices that effect how people live their lives, in which case we should be careful about embracing an assumed position from the outset.

Book Review: Cradle to Cradle

When it comes to relevant professional books, I have a stack of titles I would absolutely love to read.  Unfortunately, this stack tends to become taller than I am quite quickly so certain titles wait longer than they should to be read.  Yet, occasionally, I find enough time and space to read a full book-level volume.  This summer, I had a chance to read (finally!) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  Good gosh, this book came out in 2002 but it has been a bit of a touchstone for the sustainability movement (although I didn’t hear about it until 2007 when I started thinking a little bit differently about how things are made).

The book seeks to be a paradigm shifting agent, leading by example.  The preface is all about how the book’s paratext (new word I learned this summer which refers to everything about a book that is not the text on the page) lends itself to a new way of thinking about books, and really to a new way of thinking about stuff.  In particular, I was encouraged to see an emphasis on local, quality design articulated concurrently with a vision where wastes from one process can be fuel for another process that still acknowledges that “wearing out” may not be such a bad thing after all.  The authors go to great lengths to discuss how things from the manufactured world can return to the natural world.  The book contains many ideas that strike me as slogans to guide sustainable design choices in the future.

The “monstrous hybrid” serves as one illustration.  The authors consider a conventional running shoe where the soles are totally synthetic and rather nasty to the environment when they break down and the uppers tend to be manufactured from natural materials such as leather that can be (arguably) safely returned to the earth.  The authors contend that smart design would reverse the choice of types of materials to use for the sole and for the upper so that a biologically-safe sole would safely and responsibly degrade with use and the upper could be made of more robust synthetics that would enable the material’s recovery as still a shoe-upper, effectively rendering the shoe with the ability to be resoled.

The book differs from most key works in the sustainability discourse in that the authors go to great lengths to suggest that ecologically-intelligent design makes ecologically-intelligent consumerism.  If designers can be smart enough, then Americans can continue with whatever sort of consumer choices they want.  While I understand the argument (especially when you consider that consumer choices at best constitute less than 20% of the dynamic control of the industrialized system), I think that maintaining a systems approach is vital to continued understanding of sustainability.  This observation holds especially true when placed in the triplicate of economic-environmental-social sustainability (or as McDonough and Braungart prefer economy-equity-ecology).

Generally speaking, I applaud McDonough and Braungart for delivering a fairly rigorous critique of current industrial practices while showing how shifting our thinking during design stages represents an available (and obtainable) path forward.