Monday, January 1, 2018

Moving Towards a Sustainable Culture

In the South, they say eating greens on New Year's Day
will bring you wealth in the new year. I say do it every day.
Happy New Year, everyone! 2017 was an interesting year for me. In June, I left my job to pursue intellectual property, but I will talk more about that in the coming months. I still need to finish and file the patent. But I also did a lot of reading, research, and ruminations on the subject of sustainability. Through that process, several things became very clear to me. One of those is that, despite the fact that there are more people passionate about sustainability than ever, the availability of information on what they can do to make a difference is pretty slim. It is even harder to find ways to make a difference while making your life better, not worse. The dominant narrative is that of what we all need to give up.

We have reached a point where mere sustainability isn't enough. We don't want to sustain what we have. We need to be regenerative. They tell us things to do, but most of them are either not regenerative or make such a tiny impact that they are all but inconsequential. Recycling your trash? That's sustainable, but not regenerative. Reducing carbon emissions? Sustainable, but we need to sequester them if we want to be regenerative. Turning off the water while brushing your teeth? Well, that's a good idea, but just about inconsequential in the bigger picture.

I also noticed that there are some really great books out there on sustainability, but all the ones I have found so far fall into one or both of two traps. The first is that they are written by academics for academics. I am an engineer by profession and an avowed autodidact. I had trouble slogging through a couple of the books. The second is that they have a wonderful vision for what a sustainable society would look like, but offer no real plan on how to get there. They often offer some vague governmental policy changes as the impetus to move us in the right direction. Personally, I think this is the wrong way to go. All change starts at the bottom, with the people. The status quo is maintained by the people who made vast sums of money on the status quo and have no interest in changing it. The people in charge have an economic base that is sustained by keeping things as they are and will always be resistant to changing it. So the real question is how do we get average, middle class people to truly adopt a sustainable lifestyle?

The important thing to remember is that a person who is prospering on the current system will resist changing it. What about the people who aren't prospering? What about the millions of Millennials who are in their 30s and still can't afford to buy a home? What about all the people who have seen their wages stagnate while prices rise, watching as their standard of living slowly erodes? What about the estimated 60% of people who will see their jobs evaporate to automation in the next 20 years? One of the constants of the human condition is that we are always looking for a way to improve our lot. We need to find a way to use the regenerative and productive aspects of nature to improve the lives of people who are struggling. If you bring prosperity to those who have found it elusive, others will want a part of that.

The thing is, nature is regenerative. Every single natural system knows how to regenerate itself from damage to return to health and prosperity. If they didn't they'd have never survived all of the natural disasters that every single environment is subjected to somewhat frequently. These environments do this while providing bounty for all who live in them and they do it because every organism has a role to play. If you haven't already seen it, I strongly recommend checking out the video on how wolves change rivers for a beautiful example on how all of the organisms interact in an ecosystem. And this video only shows the interactions among animals and some plants. When diversity is increased and the full contribution of plants, fungi, and microorganisms in the soil is understood, the results can be mind-blowing.

How, then, are ecosystems degrading across the entire world simultaneously? It's quite simple, really. They are being managed incorrectly by people. It doesn't have to be this way, though. There are numerous examples from tropical areas of food forests that have been managed by the people who live in them for thousands of years. The problem is, to the uneducated, the food forest and the forest are indistinguishable and we tend to label people living in these food forests as "savages" and the areas they live in as "third world countries."

So here we are, living largely in urban and suburban sprawl. A friend once told me that suburbia is the most unsustainable thing ever and asked me how we'd change it. That's easy. Let me offer an analogy. When white people came to North America the bison herds were massive. Some estimates put them at 60 million strong. Most people think that it was over hunting, with millions of animals killed every year, that decimated their population. I read recently that this likely had little effect on the population. In a herd of 60 million, a couple of million lost every year aren't going to even offset the birth rate. It was habitat loss that did it. They depended on the grasses of the prairies for their food source. By fencing and burning that food source, then tilling it up to grow our own grains, we deprived them of their livelihoods and the great herds dwindled and disappeared.

That is exactly how we are going to get rid of suburbia. It is only through the loss of the habitat that supports the suburban sprawl that we are going to get rid of it. The problem is, nobody wants that. Well, nobody with a heart anyway. Do we really want hundreds of millions of people to lose everything and die or move on? I don't. I really think there is a better way, and suburbia may be just the place to start it.

Let me ask you a question, for those of you who grew up in suburbia. You remember that crazy lady down the street with the big garden? Remember how she kept knocking on your door to try to give you zucchini? Why was she giving it away? Simple, she had more than she could eat. Let that sink in a minute. She. Had. More. Than. She. Could. Eat. And she grew it in her yard, in suburbia. She was likely using some version of conventional or organic agriculture, with crops in the ground grown with loving care and fertile soil. That, there, is our new model. You want to reduce your footprint? Make it as big as your yard.

Now, granted, she spent an ungodly number of hours a week out in that garden, and she did it because there was no place she'd rather be. The problem is, not everyone wants to be like her. We have this amazing technological life. We have culture and theater and reality TV that we'd so much rather be participating in than mucking around in the dirt. So how do you transition from that one person in every neighborhood to nearly everyone? Technology.

Yeah, I know. Technology is bad. We all know that's what ruined the environment in the first place. I learned an important lesson from Allan Savory on this point. A resource and the management of that resource are two very different things. To be fair, he'd probably bristle at the thought of my applying his maxim to technology, as he does tend to view technology as bad. But I really think that technology applies as another resource that can be part of the solution if managed properly.

Over the last several decades, there have been many new innovations in the realm of growing food and repairing ecosystems that have a huge amount of potential. These include the understanding of tropical food forests and the development of temperate food forests, mushroom growing, biochar, and garden/mechanical hybrids (like hydroponics and aquaponics). We have developed effective frameworks for managing natural systems like Holistic Management and Permaculture. These are all really great innovations, but I really think that we are just scratching the surface. There is another leap in understanding that we need to take before we can really make the magic happen.

Most technology is used as a replacement. I don't want to water my garden, so I install an irrigation system. I don't like paying workers on my assembly line, so I install robots to assemble the cars I sell. Often the thing being replaced is human labor or natural systems. Industrial agriculture has taken this replacement model to new heights and the destruction has been vast, with the UN estimating that we have a mere 60 years of agriculture left. I don't think we should get rid of the technology any more than I think we should get rid of the cows. Instead, we should manage it differently.

Before I jump into what that would look like, let me throw another concept in the mix: systems thinking. Put simply, systems thinking is the process of understanding a whole system by examining all of the connections between functional parts of the whole. Ecology is, by necessity heavy in systems thinking. The problem is that science is typically not strong in systems thinking. The scientific method is typically a reductionist process where variables are removed as much as possible so specific tests can be performed. Any more than 2-3 variables and the results are questionable. So while the data and understanding gathered by science is incredibly valuable, it is important to use science as a starting place, not as the whole process. Science tends to be reductionist. If we are going to build something, we need a constructionist method. Engineering, which uses the information gathered by science, is constructionist. Holistic Management and Permaculture are both also constructionist methods.

The thing I have found in learning about all of the advanced techniques of growing things is that very few people are combining them. Those that are are typically combining only one or two of the items. I think that widespread use of these techniques, combined with technology would be a way to really create something truly regenerative. The important step, though, is that the technology needs to be viewed differently. The natural systems are complex and interrelated in ways that we don't fully understand, so these processes get first priority. If nature CAN do it, something natural SHOULD do it.

What role, then, should technology serve? Technology should be used to pick up the tasks that humans would normally do. This is obvious. After all, this is what technology normally does. But more importantly, technology should be used to support, intensify, and accelerate those natural processes. After all, technology cannot ever be truly regenerative. Only nature can do that.

I believe that if we use technology to support and accelerate natural processes, in turn using the result to build urban ecosystems, we can turn suburbia into a ridiculously productive wonderland. And I believe that those who pioneer this process will bring themselves enough prosperity that others will take notice and want to participate. The benefits of this are multi-fold and include things like carbon sequestration, restoring healthy water cycles, reductions in air pollution, increase in habitat for urban wildlife, a booming local food community, and so much more. I will talk more about what this might look like and how we get there over the next several blog posts. And yes, the intellectual property I am working will be a big part of that. Just be patient with me. I'll tell you all about it as soon as I can.

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