Thursday, November 17, 2016

May You Live in Interesting Times

There is an old Chinese curse that goes "May you live in interesting times." And yes, it is a curse. As humans, we crave stability. Interesting times are uncomfortable. But they also present opportunities. Real change is difficult for people when they have to step out of their comfort zone. But when their comfort zone has disappeared out from under them, they start looking for a new one. That is when you can introduce them to a better way. But before we get into better ways, let's take a step back. As I have mentioned before, this blog looks at the world through an engineer's eyes. Engineers solve problems. The first step in solving the problem is always to define the problem. So let's start by doing that.

So, what is causing these interesting times we live in? Personally, I think it is several things converging at once. The one thing that has most people worried these days, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and the violence that accompany those, is perhaps not a cause, but rather a symptom. When people are thrust out of their comfort and stability, they tend to lash out and look for someone to blame. It is just human nature. The less savory aspect of our nature, sure, but part of our nature. So let me list the things that I think are at cause. To be clear, this is just my opinion, and I am sure there are many other opinions.

Extraction of Wealth
Capitalism is a system where corporations are set up specifically to extract wealth. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting yet another article talking about how the stockholders of X Corporation are pushing the leaders to cut salaries and benefits to increase shareholder value. And that practice has been going on for decades. While wealth is continually increasing, it isn't infinite. Those at the top now hold obscene amounts of wealth, but it isn't enough. They are always grabbing for more. They use their wealth to change laws and mold minds. They tell people that they are job creators and shouldn't be taxed. They create laws to reduce their tax burden. They create laws that make the public pay for their expenses while they keep the profits. All that money has come at the expense of the majority of people. We have seen costs increase and wages stagnate. We have seen our quality of life decline.

Environmental Degradation
As the population of the world pushes towards 8 billion, we are increasingly trying to find a way to feed all the people. Just as the wealth was extracted from the middle class, the nutrients have been extracted from the most productive farmland in the world. The soil, our most valuable resource, was destroyed. As the soil was depleted, the crops stopped growing so well, so we sprayed synthetic fertilizers on them. Those further damaged the soil while running off and damaging our rivers and our oceans in the process. We bunched our livestock up so they could be treated like anything else in a factory and their waste piled up and fouled the land and rivers. That carbon that was once stored in our soils was lost to the air and no more carbon was added to the soil. Combined with carbon from fossil fuels and other sources, it built up in the atmosphere, warming our planet.

Lack of Connection
I read an article recently that suggests that the root cause of addiction is a lack of connection. Ideally, this is a connection to other people, but I would argue that there should also be a connection to nature as well. Why else would so many people feel so good by heading out for a hike or camping or other versions of communing with nature? When the connection isn't there, it creates a hole. People try dumping all sorts of things into that hole to fill it, most of them unhealthy. We live in a society that has grouped us all into big cities but broken our connection with our fellow man. We paved the ground, crammed the houses together, and drove out all the vibrant natural world. It isn't healthy for us, and it creates anxiety.

I am sure the list goes on, but this is, in my opinion, the crux of the matter. So how do we solve these issues? Obviously, some structural changes are needed in the way we do things, but there are plenty of people working on that. I will let those fine people do what they do best. I am going to work on what I do best, which is technical solutions. So, you ask, what technical solution will solve all of that?

A better way to garden.

Yes, you read that right. I really think that gardening needs an upgrade. And yes, I truly believe that it can make that big of a difference. Let me break it down for you to demonstrate how this one solution addresses each of these concerns.

Extraction of Wealth
As we look at our rising monthly expenses and our dwindling paychecks, we do a simple bit of mathematics. How can I either increase income or decrease expenses? Food is a major expense for most families. On top of that, somehow the garbage foods have gotten really inexpensive and the healthy, organic vegetables have gotten really expensive. Gardening hits the expense side of that equation really hard. For a little land and a lot of work, you can grow most of your food. But what if modern technology could come into play. What if a better way to garden was introduced? What if you could grow more food with a little land and not so much work? What if you could be so productive that not only do you not have to quit your job, but you could even sell produce back. What if we created a network on this new fangled internet thingy and sold that excess zucchini and tomatoes that you previously couldn't give away. I mean, it is local and organic, right? Now it hits both the income and the expenses side of the equation while completely cutting out Big Agriculture and the other corporate interests.

Environmental Degradation
Plants pull carbon out of the air. It is as simple as that. Plants turn carbon dioxide from the air into sugar. It is their most basic of process. They then turn that sugar into all kinds of good things. Edible things. Tasty things. If more people gardened, we could accelerate that process. And we could compost the parts we don't eat and turn it into more soil. What if we gardened in 95% organic matter, adding just enough inorganic matter to satisfy some of the mineral needs of our plants. What would that look like? Healthy farmland has soil that is 5-10% organic matter and only in the top 3 or 4 inches, usually. What if you gardened in a foot or two of pure organic matter? And you make that organic matter on your own property. It comes right out of the air your children breathe. And plants don't only get rid of carbon dioxide in the air. They also scrub the air of just about every other kind of pollutant there is. Better yet, what if this new kind of gardening produced organic soil as an output? Every couple of years, you scoop out amazing, black soil and spread it elsewhere, starting over fresh in your garden.

What better connection to the earth and to nature is there than a garden? You work the soil with your own hands. You breathe of its goodness (getting lots of Mycobacterium vaccae in the process, I might add) and it brings you health. You eat the plants you grow and further that connection to the earth. It is a wonderful cycle. Beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife are drawn to the garden. It creates something wonderful. But what about the connection to other people, you might ask? I have been gardening for almost two decades now, and I can tell you that gardeners are some of the most connected people there are. It is a great thing to have in common with people. You never lack for things to talk about. You share seeds and success stories and failures and heartache. It is a bonding experience.

But these aren't the only things that more gardening will create. As more and more people garden, especially with a network in place to sell the excess produce, it takes from the industrial agriculture machine. We know where our food is coming from. We take back control. A community space could be created to aggregate and sell the produce. People could learn what is in demand and grow to demand. A whole new market would develop with locally grown produce. Side markets could develop, like mushroom growing and local cafes. With a good enough garden technology, the labor could be reduced to the point where a service could be hired to maintain the garden, leading to more employment. The list goes on.

So what would this new garden technology look like? Well, first of all, it would use modern technologies. There are some great innovations out there now. But most people who grow food seem to be running in one of two directions right now. The first is to go all the way back to nature. It is the homesteading way. Cut out most of the technology and restore the land back to a highly productive ideal. The other way is the technological way. Cut nature out entirely and use the technology available to provide the plants with exactly what they need. Personally, I think that the answer lies in a combination of the two methods. Combine a thriving, living ecosystem at all levels with the labor saving of modern technology.

Yes, I am working on something like this. My prototype has been running for 3 years now and has performed fabulously. I am currently working on building a larger system and testing it on a grander scale. So bear with me for a little while. I need a little more time. But there are good things on the horizon. Let's make the world a better place through gardening.