In this lesson we will explore ways to take materials that our culture currently wastes and put them to use to increase biological productivity. Increasing biological productivity acts to heal nature, produce food for humans, pull carbon from the atmosphere and provide more places for people to fit. The streams of waste we produce are a result of the way we separate production processes into individual businesses. That separation is a symptom of the way we humans have separated ourselves from natural processes. Learning to make use of that waste is learning to embed ourselves in natural processes.
To start, think about one of our largest waste streams. The Mississippi River Drainage is perhaps the largest sewer in the world. Every city and town in the drainage, from the Appalachian to the Rocky Mountains and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, is dumping its sewage into the river. Every industrial farm within that area produces run off with a load of chemicals and eroding top soil. At the end of the drainage is a dead zone. The wasted resources flowing down the river grow a bloom of algae which consumes all the oxygen in the water as it dies and decomposes.
A principle of permaculture is to think of the problem as a solution. Given that the Mississippi sewer contains so much waste how can we make use of that waste?
I want to think about that in three phases. First, let’s think about what might we do in the dead zone? Second, how can we use wastes before they enter the drainage? And third, how can we rearrange the way we do things in order that these materials are not wasted in the first place?
TREATING THE DEAD ZONE AS A RESOURCE
How can we make use of the nutrient load that is currently causing the dead zone?
Suppose we set up a workshop in New Orleans to convert recycled plastic into pontoons. We could attach these pontoons together to create a raft floating in the dead zone. On the raft we could pump water from the ocean floor into clear plastic tubes and grow algae. The algae could then be processed into algae diesel (1). The byproduct of producing diesel fuel can be used to feed fish.
There is no limit to the amount of plastic available and there is no limit to the size of the raft we might build. The more the raft grows the more algae diesel we can produce. In addition, the larger the raft grows the more processes we can add. We can use the raft structure to suspend seaweed and shell fish growing medium such as those designed by The Green Wave (2) and Ocean Arks International (3). We can add pumps to push air into the growing zone.
Out on the ocean we have a number of power sources available. We can use solar power, wind power, and wave power and back the whole grid up with a diesel generator. We can convert any excess energy we produce into hydrogen and then use the hydrogen in fuel cells.
The seaweed and oxygenated water will attract fish which will also benefit from the byproduct of the algae diesel operation. Structures suspended in the water might grow sea grass and/or corals. Each additional species we can attract will attract other species. The flow of water from the bottom to the top will supply the nutrients. The addition of air to the water will allow those nutrients to be used by living organisms. We will be able to harvest some of those organisms as food.
As the raft gets bigger we will be able to add structures to house the workers who maintain the equipment and processes. We can transport product to and from the mainland on boats powered by algae diesel. We can install solar evaporators to produce drinking water and sea salt.
Eventually we can add rooms for tourists and run a hospitality business.
What I have described above is called an integrated closed loop production system, or stacking functions, or placing processes in proximity. A group of people investing in this type of project can plan to provide the food and shelter they need as a part of the production process. They can incorporate learning about all the different processes and running a business. They can improve their health through a life style that includes fresh air, healthy food, and plenty of exercise. They can all have a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. Those are the things humans need to thrive. If we produce them for ourselves we reduce our need to sell things. We only need to sell enough to buy those things we do not produce. The money the participants need for miscellaneous expenses and to fund expansion can be supplied by selling pontoons, diesel fuel, and sea food.
I have called such an organization a self-help corporation as described in Discretionary Time and Money. Perhaps a better term would be a self-help cooperation. The examples below can employ this same organizational principle.
REDUCING FLOW INTO THE SEWER
The Mississippi River drainage starts as every small flow of water within the area drained. It is the same pattern as the roots of a plant reaching out into the soil. It is more productive to intercept the waste and use it higher in the system. We will get a larger increase in biological productivity by using the waste all over the drainage than we will waiting to use the concentrated waste at the end of the stream. Where the water flows is also our best opportunity to create edge. Increasing edge is the key to increasing the diversity of organisms participating. It is a process of restoring habitat.
An excellent place to build small wet lands is where each tributary joins with a larger stream. Low areas that flood during heavy rains can be planted to grasses and trees. These plantings will slow the flow of water, capture sediment, and take up any nutrient run off in the growing plants.
Leading into streams we can plant fast growing, water loving trees into a pasture on a spacing that allows grass to grow under them. The trees can then be coppiced (4) on a rotational basis. When the trees are cut there will be more grass to be grazed or cut for hay. The trees will grow back rapidly from the stumps tying up carbon as they grow. The continuous supply of wood and hay can be used as firewood, animal feed and animal bedding. In this way we maximize the carbon pulled from the atmosphere and maximize the use of waste nutrients before they enter the drainage.
What I have described in the previous paragraph is a continuous succession. When we cut the trees the pasture species will have the advantage and will store carbon in the soil. The growing trees will then pull additional carbon out of the atmosphere. The rapid growth of young trees absorbs more carbon than a stand of mature trees. This system will provide a continuous supply of hay and wood without the need for fertilizers or pesticides. It will also provide habitat for many other species.
Property prices in flood plains may become more reasonable as weather events become more extreme. Our self-help cooperation might consider using its excess revenue generated in the Gulf to buy up property for this purpose. What else could we do to reduce the wastes entering the drainage?
USING RESOURCES AT THE PLACE THEY ARE GENERATED
In Embedded in Nature we described “cells of sustainability”.
“A Cell of Sustainability can begin as a small gathering of participants engaging in processes that cycle resources back into the cell. Our little baby COS will be floating in the sea of interactions of the whole system in which we find ourselves. There is no clear boundary between the COS and the larger system. The COS is defined by the flows that cohere the individual participants into the system.”
I imagine a three story structure. On the ground floor we will raise animals. Maybe a pig, chickens and rabbits or goats. We can put in a rocket mass (5) heater that efficiently burns wood produced in our coppice.
In temperate regions the core of the building will be highly insulated to reduce the need for heating. Ideally we will only need the mass heater. The second floor will contain a kitchen, living area and bathroom. The third floor will be bed rooms. The roof will be a garden and the garden can be covered with a hoop house. The south, west and east sides of the second and third floors will be wrapped in glass and contain an aquaponics (6) system. In that way we can capture solar energy in thermal mass and create Conditions Conducive to Life as discussed in lesson 8.
All food wastes from the kitchen will drop through the floor to the animals below. In the bathroom human excrement will drop through the floor and into a container filled with wood chips made from the trees we grow. So long as sufficient carbon and air is maintained for aerobic decomposition there will be no smell. The wood chips will be pulled out the bottom on a regular basis and mixed with the animal bedding.
The hay we cut from our drainage areas will be used to feed the animals and provide bedding. The small branches pruned from the trees can feed rabbits and goats. The combined material produced on the ground floor will be regularly raked into piles and moistened with gray water to aid the composting process. The material can also be used to grow worms and/or crickets. The chickens will process the composting materials and feed themselves on the organisms growing there.
We can use the composting material on the roof to grow vegetables. All the trimmings from those vegetables, plus the food left on plates and everything that goes bad in the refrigerator can be fed to the animals. Water from washing and showers will be used in the composting operation and in the landscape before it drains into our tree and hay fields.
The amount of waste our culture produces is a measure of sustainability. Less sustainable processes produce more waste. As we integrate processes we begin to reduce waste. As we approach no waste, our processes will move beyond sustainable and begin increasing the resources we have to work with. Unfortunately, this does not automatically translate into profitability.
In our culture we think in terms investing in the production of something to sell. We then take the proceeds from those sales and buy all the things we need to live. That is the unsustainable culture we have created.
We can also engage in integrated processes. We can invest in producing the things we need to live for ourselves. When we employ nature’s processes nature does much of the work for us and our cost of production is reduced. If we are producing things for ourselves we also reduce the amount of money we need to obtain from sales. We can and will do both.
The owners of a raft floating in the Gulf of Mexico may not be able to pay for all the labor necessary to run the processes and still make a profit. However, if the owners of the raft are feeding and housing themselves as a byproduct of the labor necessary to run the processes they reduce the things they need to buy and only need to sell enough to pay for those things. That is how a self-help cooperation works.
We do not have to give up the opportunity to make a profit in the market. However, the market is a competition. In a competition there are winners and losers. The talents of the people who do not currently have a job that pays a living wage are being wasted by our unsustainable culture. We can tap into that waste stream at the same time that we tap other waste streams. That is how we will go about healing nature, producing abundance, pulling excess carbon from the atmosphere and reducing the violence.