## Five Books About Our Future

16 May, 2012

Jordan Peacock has suggested interviewing me for Five Books, a website where people talk about five books they’ve read.

It’s probably going against the point of this site to read books especially for the purpose of getting interviewed about them. But I like the idea of talking about books that paint different visions of our future, and the issues we face. And I may need to read some more to carry out this plan.

So: what are you favorite books on this subject?

I’d like to pick books with different visions, preferably focused on the relatively near-term future, and preferably somewhat plausible—though I don’t expect every book to seem convincing to all reasonable people.

Here are some options that leap to mind.

### Whole Earth Discipline

• Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, Viking Penguin, 2009.

I’ve been meaning to write about this one for a long time! Brand argues that changes in this century will be dominated by global warming, urbanization and biotechnology. He advocates new thinking on topics that traditional environmentalists have rather set negative opinions about, like nuclear power, genetic engineering, and the advantages of urban life. This is on my list for sure.

### Limits to Growth

• Donnella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004.

Sad to say, I’ve never read the original 1972 book The Limits to Growth—or the 1974 edition which among other things presented a simple computer model of world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. Both the book and the model (called World3) have been much criticized over the years. But recently some have argued its projections—which were intended to illustrate ideas, not predict the future—are not doing so badly:

• Graham Turner, A comparison of The Limits to Growth with thirty years of reality, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

It would be interesting to delve into this highly controversial topic. By the way, the model is now available online:

• Brian Hayes, Limits to Growth.

with an engaging explanation here:

• Brian Hayes, World3, the public beta, Bit-Player: An Amateur’s Look at Computation and Mathematics, 15 April 2012.

It runs on your web-browser, and it’s easy to take a copy for yourself and play around with it.

### The Ecotechnic Future

John Michael Greer believes that ‘peak oil’—or more precisely, the slow decline of fossil fuel production—will spell the end to our modern technological civilization. He spells this out here:

• John Michael Greer, The Long Descent, New Society Publishers, 2008.

I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read the sequel, which begins to imagine what comes afterwards:

• John Michael Greer, The Ecotechnic Future, New Society Publishers, 2009.

Here he argues that in the next century or three we will go through a transition through ‘scarcity economies’ to ‘salvage economies’ to sustainable economies that use much less energy than we do now.

Both these books seem to outrage everyone who envisages our future as a story of technological progress continuing more or less along the lines we’ve already staked out.

### The Singularity is Near

In the opposite direction, we have:

• Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, Penguin Books, 2005.

I’ve only read bits of this. According to Wikipedia, the main premises of the book are:

• A technological-evolutionary point known as “the singularity” exists as an achievable goal for humanity. (What exactly does Kurzeil mean by the “the singularity”? I think I know what other people, like Vernor Vinge and Eliezer Yudkowsky, mean by it. But what does he mean?)

• Through a law of accelerating returns, technology is progressing toward the singularity at an exponential rate. (What does in the world does it mean to progress toward a singularity at an exponential rate? I know that Kurzweil provides evidence that lots of things are growing exponentially… but if they keep doing that, that’s not what I’d call a singularity.)

• The functionality of the human brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future.

• Medical advances make it possible for a significant number of Kurzweil’s generation (Baby Boomers) to live long enough for the exponential growth of technology to intersect and surpass the processing of the human brain.

If you think you know a better book that advocates a roughly similar thesis, let me know.

### A Prosperous Way Down

• Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum, A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies, Columbia University Press, 2001.

Howard T. Odum is the father of ‘systems ecology’, and developed an interesting graphical language for describing energy flows in ecosystems. According to George Mobus:

In this book he and Elisabeth take on the situation regarding social ecology under the conditions of diminishing energy flows. Taking principles from systems ecology involving systems suffering from the decline of energy (e.g. deciduous forests in fall), showing how such systems have adapted or respond to those conditions, they have applied these to the human social system. The Odums argued that if we humans were wise enough to apply these principles through policy decisions to ourselves, we might find similar ways to adapt with much less suffering than is potentially implied by sudden and drastic social collapse.

This seems to be a more scholarly approach to some of the same issues:

• Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy, Columbia U. Press, 2007.

### More?

There are plenty of other candidates I know less about. These two seem to be free online:

• Lester Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

• Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, New Society Publishers, 2009.

I would really like even more choices—especially books by thoughtful people who do think we can solve the problems confronting us… but do not think all problems will automatically be solved by human ingenuity and leave it to the rest of us to work out the, umm, details.

## Personal Rapid Transportation

21 April, 2012

guest post by Todd McKissick

We all can’t wait for High Speed Rail to come to our town. Whether we’re referring to fast traditional trains on wheels (HSR) or those that float down the track on magnetic fields (maglev), this is the 21st Century, so what most people desire is the full featured deal. Anything less is just another compromise. They have been touted now for 40 years that I know of.

But, as usual, it begs the question: is this really the best solution? I’ve found a lot of different solutions and reviewed everyone of them, but only two stand head and shoulders above the rest.

First, let’s look at some of the specifics of what we’re asking for. It runs really fast so there’s lots of possibility of crossing the country in a couple hours. It gets its efficiency mostly from packing lots of cargo into a very efficient vehicle as most trains do. It’s clearly better than getting 25, 60 or 85 passenger-kilometers per liter in a fully loaded airplane, Suburban or Prius. (That’s 65, 140 or 200 passenger-miles per gallon.) As long as it’s comfortable, this is all good stuff.

Unfortunately, to accomplish this, maglev takes a fairly standard sized train and hovers it over a massive rail with thousands of high-powered electromagnets to float this 80+ tonne piece of machinery from one town to another. It accelerates slowly and brakes slowly, unless you want to double the incredible amount of power it uses already. Its rail system consists of hundreds of tons of concrete per 30 meter segment to make the rail and the support beams, and we all know that concrete is horrible for the environment. And lastly, it costs a billion dollars to build each couple miles of the system.

I’m thinking there’s a better way.

To truly combat the automobile, the airplane and other forms of transportation that use lots of fossil fuels, let’s first look at the last mile segment. This is from your door to the store, work or school lobby or even to your friend’s door. Check out this picture from a company called SkyTran.

It’s called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT for short), and it’s courting numerous locations around the world right now. Basically, it’s a small carbon fiber pod that holds two seats and an iPad. This pod hangs from a small rail which then hangs from arms on regular telephone-style poles. At certain locations, a set of steps to a platform is placed to allow people to call for one and hop in. These terminals are cheap enough that they can be placed so that you’re never more than about 2 blocks from one in town or a couple miles in the country. In fact, they can be incorporated into lobbies, shopping malls, schools, sports arenas and even the higher floors of high rises because they are really just a landing to stand on (or ramp for those using wheels). Up to 350 kilogram pallets can be shipped autonomously. The one-way rails pass each other at different elevations so collisions are avoided while off-ramps to terminals simply drop down to a separate rail to stop on. This allows following traffic to continue at full speed while you merge on or off.

Now for the fun stuff. Once you get in and select your destination, it takes you straight to your end destination. Initial speeds are advertised at 70 kilometers per hour (45 mph) for town and 240 km/h (150 mph) for country but the top speed is well over 320 km/h (200 mph). It’s really only limited by wind resistance. This means you can board one at your sidewalk and step directly onto the upper level of a sports stadium 80 miles away in 25 minutes. Need a 2 hour nap before reaching the kids’ house? You’ll have to be farther than 450 kilometers away. When you figure in all the time needed for the various legs required to travel, this is the fastest way to travel any distance between 6 and 600 kilometers. Ya just gotta love avoiding parking at the airport to switch to a plane, because you can get there faster by avoiding the plane altogether—not to mention airport security!

The ride is perfectly smooth and quiet and offers iPad access with wifi support for your own devices. The pods can even be ‘ganged’ for when you have more than two riders (or kids) so that you load your kids in one car, connect it to your car virtually and then follow them to the destination. Along the way, it can switch the order so you can get out first for safety. Each rail has the capacity of a 3-lane freeway. Since the rail is upside down, balancing suspension is not needed because there’s no chance of the pod falling off. In other words, the curves are all banked for the set speed so the passengers feel no side force.

The energy required to operate it is equivalent to getting 85 kilometers per liter (200 mpg) in a loaded car because it is lifting small enough loads to take advantage of ‘passive levitation’. This is a type of maglev that uses drag to levitate the car. This kicks in at about 1 kilometer per hour, raises the car off the wheels, and diminishes to negligible drag once you pass 22 kilometers per hour (14 mph). Coupling this with regenerative braking means that you really only need to provide the energy to push against the wind. In fact a canopy of solar cells over it could power the entire system during rush hour for free. The rail is designed to also incorporate transmission and/or distribution power lines, 3G / WiFi internet connectivity (including backbone and user distribution) and possibly other utility services. A nationwide network installation could reduce US oil imports from 12 mbbl/day to around 3 mbbl, cutting the cost we pay to OPEC from $700B/yr to$175B/yr.

The cost of building such a system is still fairly high at €4.7/km ($10M/mile), but even that’s 1/19th of the cost of most HSR, and it’s and expected to come way down. The cost to the riders for a privately funded system (before profit, of course) is about €0.02/km, or 4 US cents per mile. Compare this to the cost of a personal vehicle which comes in at 14 times more. When you envision the scope this could be implemented, you can see that many targeted communities could do away with roads altogether, and opt for wider bike paths (to accommodate the occasional moving truck) and more nature. Parking lots could be located in cheap real estate areas or eliminated altogether. Delivery trucks could be replaced with individual pallet deliveries directly inside the factory. In short, all deliveries would eliminate the return trip. Cargo sharing could be implemented along with interstate passenger ‘opportunity’ trips for low cost travel for those who can’t afford travel. If there were a public outcry for this system and we decided to install it nationwide, each community could fund a significant chunk of it from existing road funds with no change in taxes. Or private individuals could invest to install it on a for profit basis. I mapped out my small 12,000 person town, hit all the major points directly and put a terminal within 2 1/2 blocks of every house, for a total price of$160 million. The annual cost to pay it off completely in 10 years would be around $5-6,000 per family before considering the added savings like providing transportation to those in our population that can’t legally drive now. That’s 60% of what people spend on cars today. What better way to help young adults get their lives started without debt? All infrastructure additions can work in parallel with existing roads and utilities and installation time is roughly 2-3 miles of rail per week per crew. You do the math. If there were a global push behind PRT, we could cut our energy dependence, our environmental impact (not to mention the impact on people’s lives) and bring nature back into our communities. That covers the short range travel but we still have long distance air, rail and international travel to address. Enter Evacuated Tube Transport. This system suspends a long vacuum tube overhead or under water to guide mini-trains of 6 passengers on extremely high speed, long range trips. By evacuating the entire length of tube, most of the wind drag is removed, allowing it to travel at speeds up to 6,500 kilometers per hour (4,000 mph) with a maximum of 1 g of acceleration in any direction. The ET3 website suggests that intra-state travel will run at around 550 kilometers per hour (allowing for 2.5 kilometer radius u-turns) while the higher speed legs across the country or under the ocean surface can do a loop in a 320 kilometer radius. A sample trip from L.A. to N.Y. would take 3 minutes to accelerate over the first 160 kilometers, 42 minutes to cruise the middle and 3 more minutes to slow down while capturing the remaining momentum as electrical regeneration. Of course, riding in a vacuum requires a pod capable of safely withstanding dangerous pressures, but even transoceanic underwater travel poses no problems we don’t already deal with for other causes. It would be worth the ride for just the scenery if there were transparent sides on the tube, but one has to wonder what you could actually see at that speed below sea level. And since a 6 hour trip across the Pacific would not include any stops, there are some obvious human considerations which would need to be dealt with. Even considering these issues, the economics are sound in dollars, resources and energy. As you can see on their page comparing to standard trains, the ET3 system far surpasses even the Skytran for efficient long distance transport. One could only hope for the merger of the two, where you hop in a Skytran car on your corner, zoom straight into a ET3 loading system, jet up to high speed, cross half the globe, reverse the process at some foreign destination and charge$100 on your card, all in a couple hours.

If you think this is is all hype and fairy land, you might want to search around for some of the projects around the world that are reviewing these two little gems. It’s only a lack of popular opinion that’s holding these two back. Let’s make this happen with a little viral support!

## How to Cut Carbon Emissions and Save Money

27 January, 2012

McKinsey & Company is a management consulting firm. In 2010 they released this ‘carbon abatement cost curve’ for the whole world:

Click it to see a nice big version. So, they’re claiming:

By 2030 we can cut CO2 emissions about 15 gigatonnes per year while saving lots of money.

By 2030 can cut CO2 emissions by up to 37 gigatonnes per year before the total cost—that is, cost minus savings—becomes positive.

The graph is cute. The vertical axis of the graph says how many euros per tonne it would cost to cut CO2 emissions by 2030 using various measures. The horizontal axis says how many gigatonnes per year we could reduce CO2 emissions using these measures.

So, we get lots of blue rectangles. If a rectangle is below the horizontal axis, its area says how many euros per year we’d save by implementing that measure. If it’s above the axis, its area says how much that measure would cost.

I believe the total blue area below the axis equals the total blue area above the axis. So if we do all these things, the total cost is zero.

37 gigatonnes of CO2 is roughly 10 gigatonnes of carbon: remember, there’s a crucial factor of $3\frac{2}{3}$ here. In 2004, Pacala and Socolow argued that the world needs to find ways to cut carbon emissions by about 7 gigatonnes/year by 2054 to keep emissions flat until this time. By now we’d need 9 gigatonnes/year.

If so, it seems the measures shown here could keep carbon emissions flat worldwide at no net cost!

But as usual, there are at least a few problems.

### Problem 1

Is McKinsey’s analysis correct? I don’t know. Here’s their report, along with some others:

For more details it’s good to read version 2.0:

• McKinsey & Company, Pathways to a low carbon economy: Version 2 of the global greenhouse gas abatement cost curve, 2009.

They’re free if you fill out some forms. But it’s not easy to check these things. Does anyone know papers that try to check McKinsey’s work? I find it’s more fun to study a problem like this after you see two sides of the same story.

### Problem 2

I said ‘no net cost’. But if you need to spend a lot of money, the fact that I’m saving a lot doesn’t compensate you. So there’s the nontrivial problem of taking money that’s saved on some measures and making sure it gets spent on others. Here’s where ‘big government’ might be required—which makes some people decide global warming is just a political conspiracy, nyeh-heh-heh.

Is there another way to make the money transfer happen, without top-down authority?

We could still get the job about half-done at a huge savings, of course. McKinsey says we could cut CO2 emissions by 15 gigatonnes per year doing things that only save money. That’s about 4 gigatonnes of carbon per year! We could at least do that.

### Problem 3

Keeping carbon emissions flat is not enough. Carbon dioxide, once put in the atmosphere, stays there a long time—though individual molecules come and go. As the saying goes, carbon is forever. (Click that link for more precise information.)

So, even Pacala and Socolow say keeping carbon emissions flat is a mere stopgap before we actually reduce carbon emissions, starting in 2054. But some more recent papers seem to suggest Pacala and Socolow were being overly optimistic.

Of course it depends on how much global warming you’re willing to tolerate! It also depends on lots of other things.

Anyway, this paper claims that if we cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050 (as compared to what they were in 1990), there’s a 12–45% probability that the world will get at least 2 °C warmer than its temperature before the industrial revolution:

• Malte Meinshausen et al, Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C, Nature 458 (2009), 1158–1163.

Abstract: More than 100 countries have adopted a global warming limit of 2 °C or below (relative to pre-industrial levels) as a guiding principle for mitigation efforts to reduce climate change risks, impacts and damages. However, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions corresponding to a specified maximum warming are poorly known owing to uncertainties in the carbon cycle and the climate response. Here we provide a comprehensive probabilistic analysis aimed at quantifying GHG emission budgets for the 2000–50 period that would limit warming throughout the twenty-first century to below 2 °C, based on a combination of published distributions of climate system properties and observational constraints. We show that, for the chosen class of emission scenarios, both cumulative emissions up to 2050 and emission levels in 2050 are robust indicators of the probability that twenty-first century warming will not exceed 2 °C relative to pre-industrial temperatures.

Limiting cumulative CO2 emissions over 2000–50 to 1,000 Gt CO2 yields a 25% probability of warming exceeding 2 °C—and a limit of 1,440 Gt CO2 yields a 50% probability—given a representative estimate of the distribution of climate system properties. As known 2000–06 CO2 emissions were 234 Gt CO2, less than half the proven economically recoverable oil, gas and coal reserves can still be emitted up to 2050 to achieve such a goal. Recent G8 Communiques envisage halved global GHG emissions by 2050, for which we estimate a 12–45% probability of exceeding 2 °C—assuming 1990 as emission base year and a range of published climate sensitivity distributions. Emissions levels in 2020 are a less robust indicator, but for the scenarios considered, the probability of exceeding 2 °C rises to 53–87% if global GHG emissions are still more than 25% above 2000 levels in 2020.

This paper says we’re basically doomed to suffer unless we revamp society:

• Ted Trainer, Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case, Energy Policy 38 (2010), 4107–4114.

Abstract: Virtually all current discussion of climate change and energy problems proceeds on the assumption that technical solutions are possible within basically affluent-consumer societies. There is however a substantial case that this assumption is mistaken. This case derives from a consideration of the scale of the tasks and of the limits of non-carbon energy sources, focusing especially on the need for redundant capacity in winter. The first line of argument is to do with the extremely high capital cost of the supply system that would be required, and the second is to do with the problems set by the intermittency of renewable sources. It is concluded that the general climate change and energy problem cannot be solved without large scale reductions in rates of economic production and consumption, and therefore without transition to fundamentally different social structures and systems.

It’s worth reading because it uses actual numbers, not just hand-waving. But it seeks much more than keeping carbon emissions flat until 2050; that’s one reason for the dire conclusions.

It’s worth noting this rebuttal, which says that everything about Trainer’s paper is fine except a premature dismissal of nuclear power:

• Barry Brook, Could nuclear fission energy, etc., solve the greenhouse problem? The affirmative case, Energy Policy, available online 16 December 2011.

To get your hands on Brook’s paper you either need a subscription or you need to email him. You can do that starting from his blog article about the paper… which is definitely worth reading:

• Barry Brook, Could nuclear fission energy, etc., solve the greenhouse problem? The affirmative case, BraveNewClimate, 14 January 2012.

According to Brook, we can keep global warming from getting too bad if we get really serious about nuclear power.

Of course, these three papers are just a few of many. I’m still trying to sift through the information and figure out what’s really going on. It’s hard. It may be impossible. But McKinsey’s list of ways to cut carbon emissions and save money points to some things we start doing right now.

## I, Robot

24 January, 2012

On 13 February 2012, I will give a talk at Google in the form of a robot. I will look like this:

My talk will be about “Energy, the Environment and What We Can Do.” Since I think we should cut unnecessary travel, I decided to stay here in Singapore and use a telepresence robot instead of flying to California.

I thank Mike Stay for arranging this at Google, and I especially thank Trevor Blackwell and everyone else at Anybots for letting me use one of their robots!

I believe Google will film this event and make a video available. But I hope reporters attend, because it should be fun, and I plan to describe some ways we can slash carbon emissions.

More detail: I will give this talk at 4 pm Monday, February 13, 2012 in the Paramaribo Room on the Google campus (Building 42, Floor 2). Visitors and reporters are invited, but they need to check in at the main visitor’s lounge in Building 43, and they’ll need to be escorted to and from the talk, so someone will pick them up 10 or 15 minutes before the talk starts.

Energy, the Environment and What We Can Do

Abstract: Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is causing two serious problems: global warming, and the decline of cheaply available oil reserves. Unfortunately the second problem will not cancel out the first. Each one individually seems extremely hard to solve, and taken
together they demand a major worldwide effort starting now. After an overview of these problems, we turn to the question: what can we do about them?

I also need help from all of you reading this! I want to talk about solutions, not just problems—and given my audience, and the political deadlock in the US, I especially want to talk about innovative solutions that come from individuals and companies, not governments.

Can changing whole systems produce massive cuts in carbon emissions, in a way that spreads virally rather than being imposed through top-down directives? It’s possible. Curtis Faith has some inspiring thoughts on this:

I’ve been looking on various transportation and energy and environment issues for more than 5 years, and almost no one gets the idea that we can radically reduce consumption if we look at the complete systems. In economic terms, we currently have a suboptimal Nash Equilibrium with a diminishing pie when an optimal expanding pie equilibrium is possible. Just tossing around ideas a a very high level with back of the envelope estimates we can get orders of magnitude improvements with systemic changes that will make people’s lives better if we can loosen up the grip of the big corporations and government.

To borrow a physics analogy, the Nash Equilibrium is a bit like a multi-dimensional metastable state where the system is locked into a high energy configuration and any local attempts to make the change revert to the higher energy configuration locally, so it would require sufficient energy or energy in exactly the right form to move all the different metastable states off their equilibrium either simultaneously or in a cascade.

Ideally, we find the right set of systemic economic changes that can have a cascade effect, so that they are locally systemically optimal and can compete more effectively within the larger system where the Nash Equilibrium dominates. I hope I haven’t mixed up too many terms from too many fields and confused things. These terms all have overlapping and sometimes very different meaning in the different contexts as I’m sure is true even within math and science.

One great example is transportation. We assume we need electric cars or biofuel or some such thing. But the very assumption that a car is necessary is flawed. Why do people want cars? Give them a better alternative and they’ll stop wanting cars. Now, what that might be? Public transportation? No. All the money spent building a 2,000 kg vehicle to accelerate and decelerate a few hundred kg and then to replace that vehicle on a regular basis can be saved if we eliminate the need for cars.

The best alternative to cars is walking, or walking on inclined pathways up and down so we get exercise. Why don’t people walk? Not because they don’t want to but because our cities and towns have optimized for cars. Create walkable neighborhoods and give people jobs near their home and you eliminate the need for cars. I live in Savannah, GA in a very tiny place. I never use the car. Perhaps 5 miles a week. And even that wouldn’t be necessary with the right supplemental business structures to provide services more efficiently.

Or electricity for A/C. Everyone lives isolated in structures that are very inefficient to heat. Large community structures could be air conditioned naturally using various techniques and that could cut electricity demand by 50% for neighborhoods. Shade trees are better than insulation.

Or how about moving virtually entire cities to cooler climates during the hot months? That is what people used to do. Take a train North for the summer. If the destinations are low-resource destinations, this can be a huge reduction for the city. Again, getting to this state is hard without changing a lot of parts together.

These problems are not technical, or political, they are economic. We need the economic systems that support these alternatives. People want them. We’ll all be happier and use far less resources (and money). The economic system needs to be changed, and that isn’t going to happen with politics, it will happen with economic innovation. We tend to think of our current models as the way things are, but they aren’t. Most of the status quo is comprised of human inventions, money, fractional reserve banking, corporations, etc. They all brought specific improvements that made them more effective at the time they were introduce because of the conditions during those times. Our times too are different. Some new models will work much better for solving our current problems.

Your idea really starts to address the reason why people fly unnecessarily. This change in perspective is important. What if we went back to sailing ships? And instead of flying we took long leisurely educational seminar cruises on modern versions of sail yachts? What if we improved our trains? But we need to start from scratch and design new systems so they work together effectively. Why are we stuck with models of cities based on the 19th-century norms?

We aren’t, but too many people think we are because the scope of their job or academic career is just the piece of a system, not the system itself.

System level design thinking is the key to making the difference we need. Changes to the complete systems can have order of magnitude improvements. Changes to the parts will have us fighting for tens of percentages.

Do you know good references on ideas like this—preferably with actual numbers? I’ve done some research, but I feel I must be missing a lot of things.

This book, for example, is interesting:

• Michael Peters, Shane Fudge and Tim Jackson, editors, Low Carbon Communities: Imaginative Approaches to Combating Climate Change Locally, Edward Elgar Publishing Group, Cheltenham, UK, 2010.

but I wish it had more numbers on how much carbon emissions were cut by some of the projects they describe: Energy Conscious Households in Action, the HadLOW CARBON Community, the Transition Network, and so on.

## Azimuth on Google Plus (Part 5)

1 January, 2012

Happy New Year! I’m back from Laos. Here are seven items, mostly from the Azimuth Circle on Google Plus:

1) Phil Libin is the boss of a Silicon Valley startup. When he’s off travelling, he uses a telepresence robot to keep an eye on things. It looks like a stick figure on wheels. Its bulbous head has two eyes, which are actually a camera and a laser. On its forehead is a screen, where you can see Libin’s face. It’s made by a company called Anybots, and it costs just $15,000. I predict that within my life we’ll be using things like this to radically cut travel costs and carbon emissions for business and for conferences. It seems weird now, but so did telephones. Future models will be better to look at. But let’s try it soon! • Laura Sydell No excuses: robots put you in two places at once, Weekend Edition Saturday, 31 December 2011. Bruce Bartlett and I are already planning for me to use telepresence to give a lecture on mathematics and the environment at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. But we’d been planning to use old-fashioned videoconferencing technology. Anybots is located in Mountain View, California. That’s near Google’s main campus. Can anyone help me set up a talk on energy and the environment at Google, where I use an Anybot? (Or, for that matter, anywhere else around there?) 2) A study claims to have found a correlation between weather and the day of the week! The claim is that there are more tornados and hailstorms in the eastern USA during weekdays. One possible mechanism could be that aerosols from car exhaust help seed clouds. I make no claims that this study is correct. But at the very least, it would be interesting to examine their use of statistics and see if it’s convincing or flawed: • Thomas Bell and Daniel Rosenfeld, Why do tornados and hailstorms rest on weekends?, Journal of Geophysical Research 116 (2011), D20211. Abstract. This study shows for the first time statistical evidence that when anthropogenic aerosols over the eastern United States during summertime are at their weekly mid-week peak, tornado and hailstorm activity there is also near its weekly maximum. The weekly cycle in summertime storm activity for 1995–2009 was found to be statistically significant and unlikely to be due to natural variability. It correlates well with previously observed weekly cycles of other measures of storm activity. The pattern of variability supports the hypothesis that air pollution aerosols invigorate deep convective clouds in a moist, unstable atmosphere, to the extent of inducing production of large hailstones and tornados. This is caused by the effect of aerosols on cloud drop nucleation, making cloud drops smaller and hydrometeors larger. According to simulations, the larger ice hydrometeors contribute to more hail. The reduced evaporation from the larger hydrometeors produces weaker cold pools. Simulations have shown that too cold and fast-expanding pools inhibit the formation of tornados. The statistical observations suggest that this might be the mechanism by which the weekly modulation in pollution aerosols is causing the weekly cycle in severe convective storms during summer over the eastern United States. Although we focus here on the role of aerosols, they are not a primary atmospheric driver of tornados and hailstorms but rather modulate them in certain conditions. Here’s a discussion of it: • Bob Yirka, New research may explain why serious thunderstorms and tornados are less prevalent on the weekends, PhysOrg, 22 December 2011. 3) And if you like to check how people use statistics, here’s a paper that would be incredibly important if its findings were correct: • Joseph J. Mangano and Janette D. Sherman, An unexpected mortality increase in the United States follows arrival of the radioactive plume from Fukushima: is there a correlation?, International Journal of Health Services 42 (2012), 47–64. The title has a question mark in it, but it’s been cited in very dramatic terms in many places, for example this video entitled “Peer reviewed study shows 14,000 U.S. deaths from Fukushima”: Starting at 1:31 you’ll see an interview with one of the paper’s authors, Janette Sherman. 14,000 deaths in the US due to Fukushima? Wow! How did they get that figure? This quote from the paper explains how: During weeks 12 to 25 [after the Fukushima disaster began], total deaths in 119 U.S. cities increased from 148,395 (2010) to 155,015 (2011), or 4.46 percent. This was nearly double the 2.34 percent rise in total deaths (142,006 to 145,324) in 104 cities for the prior 14 weeks, significant at p < 0.000001 (Table 2). This difference between actual and expected changes of +2.12 percentage points (+4.46% – 2.34%) translates to 3,286 “excess” deaths (155,015 × 0.0212) nationwide. Assuming a total of 2,450,000 U.S. deaths will occur in 2011 (47,115 per week), then 23.5 percent of deaths are reported (155,015/14 = 11,073, or 23.5% of 47,115). Dividing 3,286 by 23.5 percent yields a projected 13,983 excess U.S. deaths in weeks 12 to 25 of 2011. Hmm. Can you think of some potential problems with this analysis? In the interview, Janette Sherman also mentions increased death rates of children in British Columbia. Here’s the evidence the paper presents for that: Shortly after the report [another paper by the authors] was issued, officials from British Columbia, Canada, proximate to the northwestern United States, announced that 21 residents had died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in the first half of 2011, compared with 16 SIDS deaths in all of the prior year. Moreover, the number of deaths from SIDS rose from 1 to 10 in the months of March, April, May, and June 2011, after Fukushima fallout arrived, compared with the same period in 2010. While officials could not offer any explanation for the abrupt increase, it coincides with our findings in the Pacific Northwest. 4) For the first time in 87 years, a wild gray wolf was spotted in California: • Stephen Messenger, First gray wolf in 80 years enters California, Treehugger, 29 December 2011. Researchers have been tracking this juvenile male using a GPS-enabled collar since it departed northern Oregon. In just a few weeks, it walked some 730 miles to California. It was last seen surfing off Malibu. Here is a photograph: 5) George Musser left the Centre for Quantum Technologies and returned to New Jersey, but not before writing a nice blog article explaining how the GRACE satellite uses the Earth’s gravitational field to measure the melting of glaciers: • George Musser, Melting glaciers muck up Earth’s gravitational field, Scientific American, 22 December 2011. 6) The American Physical Society has started a new group: a Topical Group on the Physics of Climate! If you’re a member of the APS, and care about climate issues, you should join this. 7) Finally, here’s a cool picture taken in the Gulf of Alaska by Kent Smith: He believes this was caused by fresher water meeting more salty water, but it doesn’t sounds like he’s sure. Can anyone figure out what’s going on? The foam where the waters meet is especially intriguing. ## What’s Up With Solar Power? 13 December, 2011 What’s going on with solar power? On the one hand, I read things like this: • Paul Krugman, Here comes the sun, New York Times, 6 November 2011. In fact, progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year. This has already led to rapid growth in solar installations, but even more change may be just around the corner. If the downward trend continues–and if anything it seems to be accelerating—we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal. This would be a big deal! As you may have noticed, attempted political remedies for global warming aren’t working too well yet. Cheap solar power won’t be enough to solve the problem: even if we can build a grid that deals with the intermittency of solar power, the problem is that electric power only accounts for some of the fossil fuel burnt. But it could help. On the other hand, I read things like this: • Jackie Chang, Half of China solar firms halt production, says report, Digitimes, 9 December 2011. About 50% of the firms in China’s solar industry have suspended production, according to the country’s Guangzhou Daily. The daily cited the solar energy division of CSG Holding as claiming that half of the solar firms have stopped production, 30% have halved their output and 20% are trying to maintain certain levels of production. Digitimes Research’s findings have indicated that only tier-one solar firms in China had capacity utilization rates over 80% in the first half of 2011 while tier-two and tier-three firms were already facing falling capacity utilization rates. Guangzhou Daily stated that oversupply and significant price drops are the reasons for the firms to shut down production. The report also indicated that China firms have been facing increasing production costs following news on September 2011 that one of the large-size solar players had a chemical leak at one of its plants that polluted a nearby river. This means the other solar firms now face increasing costs to prevent such pollution while suffering from sharp price drops and low demand. And this: • Yuliya Chernova, Chinese solar industry fueled by unsustainable debt, analysts say, Wall Street Journal, 8 December 2011. Even now, as the U.S. reevaluates its federal loan and other subsidy programs for renewable energy, some lawmakers invoke the strong support the Chinese government offers to its own renewable energy industry as a call for the U.S. to match up with its own support. Indeed, easy access to low-interest loans over the past three years helped Chinese solar makers build up capacity, and quickly take over market share from European and U.S. manufacturers. In 2010 alone, the China Development Bank made$35 billion in low-interest credit available to Chinese renewable energy companies, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a figure cited by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in his testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in mid-November.

But, perhaps an unintended consequence of this easy access to capital was that the cheap, plentiful production of solar panels resulted in a cutthroat pricing competition, which, in turn is now starting to suffocate the very same large, leading Chinese manufacturers.

“We remain concerned about debt levels across the solar manufacturing complex given the compression of profit margins,” wrote Think Equity analysts in a recent report. “With increasing net debt and reduced module prices, it is hard to imagine absolute gross margin dollars growing enough to offset existing OpEx and interest payments.”

It’s hard to know who to trust. Of course all three of these news reports could be true! Or none.

Do you know what’s really going on with solar power?

## Apocalypse, Retreat or Revolution?

3 November, 2011

I’ve been enjoying this book:

• Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson, Revolutions That Made the Earth, Oxford U. Press, Oxford, 2011.

It’s mainly about the history of life on Earth, and how life has affected the climate and atmosphere. For example: when photosynthesis first started pumping a deadly toxic gas into the atmosphere—oxygen—how did life evolve to avoid disaster?

Or: why did most of the Earth freeze, about 650 million years ago, and what did life do then?

Or: what made 96% of all marine species and 70% of vertebrates on land die out, around 250 million years ago?

This is the book’s strength: a detailed but readable version of the greatest story we know, complete with mysteries yet to be solved. But at the end they briefly ponder the future. They consider various scenarios, lumped into three categories: apocalypse, retreat or revolution.

#### Apocalypse

They begin by reviewing the familiar story: how soaring population and fossil fuel usage is making our climate ever hotter, making our oceans ever more acidic, and sucking phosphorus and other nutrients out of ground and into the sea.

They consider different ways these trends could push the Earth into a new, inhospitable state. They use the term ‘apocalypse’. I think ‘disaster’ is better, but anyway, they write:

Even the normally cheerful and creative Jim Lovelock argues that we are already doomed, and nothing we can do now will stop the Earth system being carried by its own internal dynamics into a different and inhospitable state for us. If so, all we can do is try to adapt. We disagree—in our view the game is not yet up. As far as we can see no one has yet made a convincing scientific case that we are close to a global tipping point for ‘runaway’ climate change.

[...]

Yet even without truly ‘runaway’ change, the combination of unmitigated fossil fuel burning and positive feedbacks from within the Earth system could still produce an apocalyptic climate for humanity. We could raise global temperature by up to 6 °C this century, with more to come next century. On the way there, many parts of the Earth system could pas their own thresholds and undergo profound changes in state. These are what Tim [Lenton] and colleagues have called ‘tipping elements’ in the climate system.

They warrant a book by themselves, so we will just touch on them briefly here. The tipping elements include the great ice sheets covering Greenland and West Antarctica that are already losing mass and adding to sea level rise. In the tropics, there are already changes in atmospheric circulation, and in the pattern of El Niño events. The Amazon rainforest suffered severe drought in 2005 and might in the future face a climate drying-triggered dieback, destroying biodiversity and adding carbon to the atmosphere. Over India, an atmospheric brown cloud of pollution is already disrupting the summer monsoon, threatening food security. The monsoon in West Africa could be seriously disrupted as the neighboring ocean warms up. The boreal forests that cloak the northern high latitudes are threatened by warming, forest fires and insect infestation. The list goes on. The key point is that the Earth’s climate, being a complex feedback system, is unlikely to respond in an entirely smooth and proportional way to significant changes in energy balance caused by human activities.

Here is a map of some tipping elements. Click for more details:

#### Retreat

They write:

A popular answer to apocalyptic visions of the future is retreat, into a lower energy, lower material consumption, and ultimately lower population world. In this future world the objective is to minimize human effects on the Earth system and allow Gaia to reassert herself, with more room for natural ecosystems and minimal intervention in global cycles. The noble aim is long-term sustainability for for people as well as the planet.

There are some good and useful things we can take from such visions of the future, especially in helping to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, achieve greater energy efficiency, promote recycling and redefine what we mean by quality of life. However, we think that visions of retreat are hopelessly at odds with current trends, and with the very nature of what drives revolutionary changes of the Earth. They lack pragmatism and ultimately they lack ambition. Moreover, a retreat sufficient to forestall the problems outlined above might be just as bad as the problems it sought to avoid.

#### Revolution

They write:

Our alternative vision of the future is of revolution, into a high energy, high recycling world that can support billions of people as part of a thriving and sustainable biosphere. The key to reaching this vision of the future is to learn from past revolutions: future civilizations must be fuelled from sustainable energy sources, and they must undertake a greatly enhanced recycling of resources.

And here is where the lessons of previous ‘revolutions’ are especially useful. As I said last time, they list four:

1. The origin of life, before 3.8 billion years ago.

2. The Great Oxidation, when photosynthesis put oxygen into the atmosphere between 3.4 and 2.5 billion years ago.

3. The rise of complex life (eukaryotes), roughly 2 billion years ago.

4. The rise of humanity, roughly 0 billion years ago.

Their book argues that all three of the earlier revolutions disrupted the Earth’s climate, pushing it out of stability. It only restabilized after reaching a fundamentally new state. This new stable state could only be born after some new feedback mechanisms had developed.

For example, in every revolution, it has been important to find ways to recycle ‘wastes’ and make them into useful ‘resources’. This was true with oxygen during the Great Oxidation… and it must be true with our waste products now!

In any sort of approximate equilibrium state, there can’t be much ‘waste’: almost everything needs to be recycled. Serious amounts of ‘waste’ can only occur for fairly short periods of time, in the grand scheme of things. For example, we are now burning fossil fuels and creating a lot of waste CO2, but this can’t go on forever: it’s only a transitional phase.

#### Apocalypse and Revolution?

I should talk about all this in more detail someday. But not today.

For now, I would just like to suggest that ‘apocalypse’ and ‘revolution’ are not really diametrically opposed alternatives. All three previous revolutions destroyed the world as it had been!

For example, when the Great Oxidation occurred, this was an ‘apocalypse’ for anaerobic life forms, who now struggle to survive in specialized niches here and there. It only seems like a triumphant ‘revolution’ in retrospect, to the new life forms that comfortably survive in the new world.

So, I think we’re headed for a combination of apocalypse and revolution: the death of many old things, and the birth of new ones. At best we have a bit of influence in nudging things in a direction we like. I don’t think ‘retreat’ is a real option: nostalgic though I am about many old things, time always pushes us relentlessly into new and strange worlds.

## Environmental News From China

13 August, 2011

I was unable to access this blog last week while I was in Changchun—sorry!

But I’m back in Singapore now, so here’s some news, mostly from the 2 August 2011 edition of China Daily, the government’s official English newspaper. As you’ll see, they’re pretty concerned about environmental problems. But to balance the picture, here’s a picture from Changbai Mountain, illustrating the awesome beauty of the parts of China that remain wild:

The Chinese have fallen in love with cars. Though less than 6% of Chinese own cars so far, that’s already 75 million cars, a market exceeded only by the US.

The price of real estate in China is shooting up—but as car ownership soars, you’ll have to pay a lot more if you want to buy a parking lot for your apartment. The old apartments don’t have them. In Beijing the average price of a parking lot is 140,000 yuan, which is about $22,000. In Shanghai it’s 150,000 yuan. But in fancy neighborhoods the price can be much higher: for example, up to 800,000 yuan in Beijing! For comparison, the average salary in Beijing was 36,000 yuan in 2007—and the median is probably much lower, since there are lots of poor people and just a few rich ones. On top of that, I bet this figure doesn’t include the many undocumented people who have come from the countryside to work in Beijing. The big cities in China are much richer than the rest of the country: the average salary throughout the country was 11,000 yuan, and the average rural wage was just 3,600 yuan. This disparity is causing young people to flood into the cities, leaving behind villages mostly full of old folks. Thanks to intensive use of coal, increasing car ownership and often-ignored regulations, air quality is bad in most Chinese cities. In Changchun, a typical summer day resembles the very worst days in Los Angeles, where the air is yellowish-grey except for a small blue region directly overhead. In a campaign to improve the air quality in Beijing, drivers are getting subsidized to turn in cars made in 1995 or earlier. As usual, it’s the old clunkers that stink the worst: 27% of the cars in Beijing are over 8 years old, but they make 60% of the air pollution. The government is hoping to eliminate 400,000 old cars and cut the emission of nitrogen oxide by more than 10,000 tonnes per year by 2015. But this policy is also supposed to stoke the market for new automobiles. That’s a bit strange, since Beijing is a huge city with massive traffic jams—some say the worst in the world! As a result, the government has taken strong steps to limit car sales in Beijing. In Beijing, if you want to buy a car, you have to enter a lottery to get a license plate! Car sales have been capped at 240,000 this year, and for the first lottery people’s chances of winning were just one in ten: • Louisa Lim, License plate lottery meant to curb Beijing traffic, Morning Edition, 26 January 2011. Why is the government trying to stoke new car sales in Beijing while simultaneously trying to limit them? Maybe it’s just a rhetorical move to placate the car dealers, who hate the lottery system. Or maybe it’s because the government makes money from selling cars: it’s a state-controlled industry. On another front, since July there has been a drought in the provinces of Gansu, Guizhou and Hunan, the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, which is home to many non-Han ethnic groups including the Hui. It’s caused water shortages for 4.3 million people. In some villages all the crops have died. Drought relief agencies are sending out more water pumps and delivering drinking water. In Gansu province, at least, the current drought is part of a bigger desertification process. Once they grew rice in Gansu, but then they moved to wheat: • Tu Xin-Yi, Drought in Gansu, Tzu Chi, 5 January 2011. China is among the nations that are experiencing severe desertification. One of the hardest hit areas is Gansu Province, deep in the nation’s heartland. The province, which includes parts of the Gobi, Badain Jaran, and Tengger Deserts, is suffering moisture drawdown year after year. As water goes up into the air, so does irrigation and agriculture. People can hardly make a living from the arid land. But the land was once quite rich and hospitable to agriculture, a far cry from what greets the eye today. Ruoli, in central Gansu, epitomizes the big dry-up. The area used to be verdant farmland where, with abundant rainfall, all kinds of plants grew lush and dense; but now the land is dry and yields next to nothing. All this dramatic change has come about in just 50 years—lightning-fast, a mere blink of an eye in geological terms. Rapid desertification is forcing many parties, including the government, to take action. Some residents have moved away to seek better livelihoods elsewhere, and the government offers incentives for people to relocate to the lowlands Tzu Chi built a new village to accommodate some of these migrants. Tzu Chi is a Buddhist organization with a strong interest in climate change. The dramatic change they speak of seems to be part of a longer-term drying trend in this region. Here is one of a series of watchtowers near Dunhuang, once a thriving city at the eastern end of the Silk Road. I don’t think this area was such a desert back then: Meanwhile, down in southern China, the Guanxi Zhuang autonomous region is seeing its worst electricity shortage in the last 2 decades, with 30% of the demand for electric power unmet, and rolling blackouts. They blame the situation on a shortage of coal and the fact that the local river isn’t deep enough to provide hydropower. On the bright side, China is investing a lot in wind power. Their response to the financial crisis of of 2009 included$220 billion investment in renewable energy. Baoding province is now one of the world’s centers for producing wind turbines, and by 2020 China plans to have 100 gigawatts of peak wind power online.

That’s pretty good! Remember our discussion of Pacala and Socolow’s stabilization wedges? The world needs to reduce carbon emissions by roughly 10 gigatonnes per year by about 2050 to stay out of trouble. Pacala and Socolow call each 1-gigatonne slice of this carbon pie a ‘wedge’. We could reduce carbon emissions by one ‘wedge’ by switching 700 gigawatts of coal power to 2000 gigawatts of peak wind power. Why 700 of coal for 2000 of wind? Because unfortunately most of the time wind power doesn’t work at peak efficiency!

So, the Chinese plan to do 1/20 of a wedge of wind power by 2020. Multiply that effort by a factor of 200 worldwide by 2050, and we’ll be in okay shape. That’s quite a challenge! Of course we won’t do it all with wind.

And while the US and Europe are worried about excessive government and private debt, China is struggling to figure out how to manage its vast savings. China has a $3.2 trillion foreign reserve, which is 30% of the world’s total. The fraction invested in the US dollars has dropped from 71% in 1999 to 61% in 2010, but that’s still a lot of money, so any talk of the US defaulting, or a drop in the dollar, makes the Chinese government very nervous. This article goes into a bit more detail: • Zhang Monan, Dollar depreciation dilemma, China Daily, 2 August 2011. In a move to keep the value of their foreign reserves and improve their ratio of return, an increasing number of countries have set up sovereign wealth funds in recent years, especially since the onset of the global financial crisis. So far, nearly 30 countries or regions have established sovereign wealth funds and the total assets at their disposal amounted to$3.98 trillion in early 2011.

Compared to its mammoth official foreign reserve, China has made much slower progress than many countries in the expansion of its sovereign wealth funds, especially in its stock investments. Currently, China has only three main sovereign wealth funds: One with assets of $347.1 billion is managed by the Hong Kong-based SAFE Investment Co Ltd; the second, with assets of$288.8 billion, is managed by the China Investment Corporation, a wholly State-owned enterprise engaging in foreign assets investment; the third fund of \$146.5 billion is managed by the National Social Security Fund.

From the perspective of its investment structure, China’s sovereign wealth funds have long attached excessive importance to mobility and security. For example, the China Investment Corporation has invested 87.4 percent of its funds in cash assets and only 3.2 percent in stocks, in sharp contrast to the global average of 45 percent in stock investments.

What’s interesting to me is that on the one hand we have these big problems, like global warming, and on the other hand these people with tons of money struggling to find good ways to invest it. Is there a way to make each of these problems the solution to the other?

## This Week’s Finds (Week 315)

27 June, 2011

This is the second and final part of my interview with Thomas Fischbacher. We’re talking about sustainable agriculture, and he was just about to discuss the role of paying attention to flows.

JB: So, tell us about flows.

TF: For natural systems, some of the most important flows are those of energy, water, mineral nutrients, and biomass. Now, while they are physically real, and keep natural systems going, we should remind ourselves that nature by and large does not make high level decisions to orchestrate them. So, flows arise due to processes in nature, but nature ‘works’ without being consciously aware of them. (Still, there are mechanisms such as evolutionary pressure that ensure that the flow networks of natural ecosystems work—those assemblies that were non-viable in the long term did not make it.)

Hence, flows are above everything else a useful conceptual framework—a mental tool devised by us for us—that helps us to make sense of an otherwise extremely complex and confusing natural world. The nice thing about flows is that they reduce complexity by abstracting away details when we do not want to focus on them—such as which particular species are involved in the calcium ion economy, say. Still, they retain a lot of important information, quite unlike some models used by economists that actually guide—or misguide—our present decision-making. They tell us a lot about key processes and longer term behaviour—in particular, if something needs to be corrected.

Sustainability is a complex subject that links to many different aspects of human experience—and of course the non-human world around us. When confronted with such a subject, my approach is to start by asking: ‘what I am most certain about’, and use these key insights as ‘anchors’ that set the scene. Everything else must respect these insights. Occasionally, some surprising new insight forces me to reevaluate some fundamental assumptions, and repaint part of the picture. But that’s life—that’s how we learn.

Very often, I find that those aspects which are both useful to obtain deeper insights and at the same time accessible to us are related to flows.

JB: Can you give an example?

TF: Okay, here’s another puzzle. What is the largest flow of solids induced by civilization?

JB: Umm… maybe the burning of fossil fuels, passing carbon into the atmosphere?

TF: I am by now fairly sure that the answer is: the unintentional export of topsoil from the land into the sea by wind and water erosion, due to agriculture. According to Brady & Weil, around the year 2000, the U.S. annually ‘exported’ about 4×1012 kilograms of topsoil to the sea. That’s roughly three cubic kilometers, taking a reasonable estimate for the density of humus.

JB: Okay. In 2007, the U.S. burnt 1.6 × 1012 kilograms of carbon. So, that’s comparable.

TF: Yes. When I cross check my number combining data from the NRCS on average erosion rates and from the CIA World Factbook on cultivated land area, I get a result that is within the same ballpark, so it seems to make sense. In comparison, total U.S. exports of economic goods in 2005 were 4.89×1011 kilograms: about an order of magnitude less, according to statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.

If we look at present soil degradation rates alone, it is patently clear that we see major changes ahead. In the long term, we just cannot hope to keep on feeding the population using methods that keep on rapidly destroying fertility. So, we pretty much know that something will happen there. (Sounds obvious, but alas, thinking of a number of discussions I had with some economists, I must say that, sadly, it is far from being so.)

What actually will happen mostly depends on how wisely we act. The possibilities range from nuclear war to a mostly smooth swift transition to fertility-building food production systems that also take large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere and convert it to soil humus. I am, of course, much in favour of scenarios close to the latter one, but that won’t happen unless we put in some effort—first and foremost, to educate people about how it can be done.

Flow analysis can be an extremely powerful tool for diagnosis, but its utility goes far beyond this. When we design systems, paying attention to how we design the flow networks of energy, water, materials, nutrients, etc., often makes a world of a difference.

Nature is a powerful teacher here: in a forest, there is no ‘waste’, as one system’s output is another system’s input. What else is ‘waste’ but an accumulation of unused output? So, ‘waste’ is an indication of an output mismatch problem. Likewise, if a system’s input is not in the right form, we have to pre-process it, hence do work, hence use energy. Therefore, if a process or system continually requires excessive amounts of energy (as many of our present designs do), this may well be an indication of a design problem—and could be related to an input mismatch.

Also, the flow networks of natural systems usually show both extremely high recycling rates and a lot of multi-functionality, which provides resilience. Every species provides its own portfolio of services to the assembly, which may include pest population control, creating habitat for other species, food, accumulating important nutrients, ‘waste’ transformation, and so on. No element has a single objective, in contrast to how we humans by and large like to engineer our systems. Each important function is covered by more than one element. Quite unlike many of our past approaches, design along such principles can have long-term viability. Nature works. So, we clearly can learn from studying nature’s networks and adopting some principles for our own designs.

Designing for sustainability with, around, and inspired by natural systems is an interesting intellectual challenge, much like solving a jigsaw puzzle. We cannot simultaneously comprehend the totality of all interactions and relations between adjacent pieces as we build it, but we keep on discovering clues by closely studying different aspects: form, colour, pattern. If we are on the right track, and one clue tells us how something should fit, we will discover that other aspects will fit as well. If we made a mistake, we need to apply force to maintain it and hammer other pieces into place—and unless we correct that mistake, we will need ever more brutal interventions to artificially stabilize the problems which are mere consequences of the original mistake. Think using nuclear weapons to seal off spilling oil wells drilled in deep waters needed because we used up all the easily accessible high-quality fuels. One mistake begets another.

There is a reason why jigsaw puzzles ‘work’: they were created that way. There is also a reason why the dance of natural systems ‘works’: coevolution. What happens when we run out of steam to stabilize poor designs (i.e. in an energy crisis)? We, as a society, will be forced to confront our past arrogance and pay close attention to resolving the design mistakes we so far always tried to talk away. That’s something I’d call ‘true progress’.

Actually, it’s quite evident now: many of our ‘problems’ are rather just symptoms of more fundamental problems. But as we do not track these down to the actual root, we keep on expending ever more energy by stacking palliatives on top of one another. Growing corn as a biofuel in a process that both requires a lot of external energy input and keeps on degrading soil fertility is a nice example. Now, if we look closer, we find numerous further, superficially unrelated, problems that should make us ask the question: "Did we assemble this part of the puzzle correctly? Is this approach really such a good idea? What else could we do instead? What other solutions would suggest themselves if we paid attention to the hints given by nature?" But we don’t do that. It’s almost as if we were proud to be thick.

JB: How would designing with flows in mind work?

TF: First, we have to be clear about the boundaries of our domain of influence. Resources will at some point enter our domain of influence and at some point leave it again. This certainly holds for a piece of land on which we would like to implement sustainable food production where one of the most important flows is that of water. But it also holds for a household or village economy, where an important flow through the system is that of purchase power—i.e. money (but in the wider sense). As resources percolate through a system, their utility generally degrades—entropy at work. Water high up in the landscape has more potential uses than water further down. So, we can derive a guiding principle for design: capture resources as early as possible, release them as late as possible, and see that you guide them in such a way that their natural drive to go downhill makes them perform many useful duties in between. Considering water flowing over a piece of land, this would suggest setting up rainwater catchment systems high up in the landscape. This water then can serve many useful purposes: there certainly are agricultural/silvicultural and domestic uses, maybe even aquaculture, potentially small-scale hydropower (say, in the 10-100 watts range), and possibly fire control.

JB: When I was a kid, I used to break lots of things. I guess lots of kids do. But then I started paying attention to why I broke things, and I discovered there were two main reasons. First, I might be distracted: paying attention to one thing while doing another. Second, I might be trying to overcome a problem by force instead of by slowing down and thinking about it. If I was trying to untangle a complicated knot, I might get frustrated and just pull on it… and rip the string.

I think that as a culture we make both these mistakes quite often. It sounds like part of what you’re saying is: "Pay more attention to what’s going on, and when you encounter problems, slow down and think about their origin a bit—don’t just try to bully your way through them."

But the tool of measuring flows is a nice way to organize this thought process. When you first told me about ‘input mismatch problems’ and ‘output mismatch problems’, it came as a real revelation! And I’ve been thinking about them a lot, and I want to keep doing that.

One thing I noticed is that problems tend to come in pairs. When the output of one system doesn’t fit nicely into the input of the next, we see two problems. First, ‘waste’ on the output side. Second, ‘deficiency’ on the input side. Sometimes it’s obvious that these are two aspects of the same problem. But sometimes we fail to see it.

For example, a while ago some ground squirrels chewed a hole in an irrigation pipe in our yard. Of course that’s our punishment for using too much water in a naturally dry environment, but look at the two problems it created. One: big gushers of water shooting out of the hole whenever that irrigation pipe was used, which caused all sort of further problems. Two: not enough water to the plants that system was supposed to be irrigating. Waste on one side, deficiency on the other.

That’s obvious, easy to see, and easy to fix: first plug the hole, then think carefully about why we’re using so much water in the first place. We’d already replaced our lawn with plants that use less water, but maybe we can do better.

But here’s a bigger problem that’s harder to fix. Huge amounts of fertilizer are being used on the cornfields of the midwestern United States. With the agricultural techniques they’re using, there’s a constant deficiency of nitrogen and phosphorus, so it’s supplied artificially. The figures I’ve seen show that about 30% of the energy used in US agriculture goes into making fertilizers. So, it’s been said that we’re ‘eating oil’—though technically, a lot of nitrogen fertilizer is made using natural gas. Anyway: a huge deficiency problem.

On the other hand, where is all this fertilizer going? In the midwestern United States, a lot of it winds up washing down the Mississipi River. And as a result, there are enormous ‘dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico. The fertilizer feeds algae, the algae dies and decays, and the decay process takes oxygen out of the water, killing off any life that needs oxygen. These dead zones range from 15 and 18 thousand square kilometers, and they’re in a place that’s one of the prime fishing spots for the US. So: a huge waste problem.

But they’re the same problem!

It reminds me of the old joke about a guy who was trying to button his shirt. "There are two things wrong with this shirt! First, it has an extra button on top. Second, it has an extra buttonhole on bottom!"

TF: Bill Mollison said it in a quite humorous-yet-sarcastic way in this episode of the Global Gardener movie:

• Bill Mollison, Urban permaculture strategies – part 1, YouTube.

While the potential to grow a large amount of calories in cities may be limited, growing fruit and vegetables nevertheless does make sense for multiple reasons. One of them is that many things that previously went into the garbage bin now have a much more appropriate place to go—such as the compost heap. Many urbanites who take up gardening are quite amazed when they realize how much of their household waste actually always ‘wanted’ to end up in a garden.

JB: Indeed. After I bought a compost bin, the amount of trash I threw out dropped dramatically. And instead of feeling vaguely guilty as I threw orange peels into the trash where they’d be mummified in a plastic bag in a landfill, I could feel vaguely virtuous as I watched them gradually turn into soil. It doesn’t take as long as you might think. And it comes as a bit of a revelation at first: "Oh, so that’s how we get soil."

TF: Perhaps the biggest problem I see with a mostly non-gardening society is that people without even the slightest own experience in growing food are expected to make up their mind about very important food-related questions and contribute to the democratic decision making process. Again, I must emphasize that whoever does not consciously invest some effort into getting at least some minimal first hand experience to improve their judgment capabilities will be easy prey for rat-catchers. And by and large, society is not aware of how badly they are lied to when it comes to food.

But back to flows. Every few years or so, I stumble upon a jaw-dropping idea, or a principle, that makes me realize that it is so general and powerful that, really, the limits of what it can be used for are the limits of my imagination and creativity. I recently had such a revelation with the PSLQ integer relation algorithm. Using flows as a mental tool for analysis and design was another such case. All of a sudden, a lot made sense, and could be analyzed with ease.

There always is, of course, the ‘man with a hammer problem’—if you are very fond of a new and shiny hammer, everything will look like a nail. I’ve also heard that expressed as ‘an idea is a very dangerous thing if it is the only one you have’.

So, while keeping this in mind, now that we got an idea about flows in nature, let us ask: "how can we abuse these concepts?" Mathematicians prefer the term ‘abstraction’, but it’s fun either way. So, let’s talk about the flow of money in economies. What is money? Essentially, it is just a book-keeping device invented to keep track of favours owed by society to individuals and vice versa. What function does it have? It works as ‘grease’, facilitating trade.

So, suppose you are a mayor of a small village. One of your important objectives is of course prosperity for your villagers. Your village trades with and hence is linked to an external economy, and just as goods and services are exchanged, so is money. So, at some point, purchase power (in the form of money) enters your domain of influence, and at some point, it will leave it again. What you want it to do is to facilitate many different economic activities—so you want to ensure it circulates within the village as long as possible. You should pay some attention to situations where money accumulates—for everything that accumulates without being put to good use is a form of ‘waste’, hence pollution. So, this naturally leads us to two ideas: (a) What incentives can you find to keep money on circulating within the village? (There are many answers, limited only by creativity.) And (b) what can you do to constrain the outflow? If the outlet is made smaller, system outflow will match inflow at a higher internal pressure, hence a higher level of resource availability within the system.

This leads us to an idea no school will ever tell you about—for pretty much the same reason why no state-run school will ever teach how to plan and successfully conduct a revolution. The road to prosperity is to systematically reduce your ‘Need To Earn’—i.e. the best way to spend money is to set up systems that allow you to keep more money in your pocket. An frequent misconception that keeps on arising when I mention this is that some think this idea would be about austerity. Quite to the contrary. You can make as much money as you want—but one thing you should keep in mind is that if you have that trump card up your sleeve that you could at any time just disconnect from most of the economy and get by with almost no money at all for extended periods of time, you are in a far better position to take risks and grasp exceptional opportunities as they arise as someone would be who committed himself to having to earn a couple of thousand pounds a month.

The problem is not with earning a lot of money. The problem is with being forced to continually make a lot of money. We readily manage to identify this as a key problem of drug addicts, but fail to see the same mechanism at work in mainstream society. A key assumption in economic theory is that exchange is voluntary. But how well is that assumption satisfied in practice if such forces are in place?

Now, what would happen if people started to get serious about investing the money they earn to systematically reduce their need to earn money in the future? Some decisions such as getting a photovoltaic array may have ‘payback times’ in the range of one or two decades, but I consider this ‘payback time’ concept as a self-propagating flawed idea. If something gives me an advantage in terms of depending on less external input now, this reduction of vulnerability also has to be taken into account—’payback times’ do not do that. So—if most people did such things, i.e. made strategic decisions to set up systems so that their essential needs can be satisfied with minimal effort—especially money, this would put a lot of political power back into their hands. A number of self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ certainly don’t like the idea of people being in a position to just ignore their orders. Also note that this would have a funny effect on the GDP—ever heard of ‘imputations’?

JB: No, what are those?

TF: It’s a funny thing, perhaps best explained by an example. If you fully own your own house, then you don’t pay rent. But for the purpose of determining the GDP, you are regarded as paying as much rent to yourself (!) as you would get if you rented out the house. See:

Imputed rent, Wikipedia.

Evidently, if people make a dedicated effort at the household level to become less dependent on the economy by being able to provide most of their essential needs themselves (housing, food, water, energy, etc.) to a much larger extent, this amounts to investing money in order to need less money in the future. If many people did this systematically, it would superficially have a devastating effect on the GDP—but it would bring about a much more resilient (because less dependent) society.

The problem is that the GDP really is not an appropriate measure for progress. But obviously, those who publish these figures know that as well, hence the need to fudge the result with imputations. So, a simple conclusion is: whenever there is an opportunity to invest money in a way that makes you less dependent on the economy in the future, that might be well worth a closer look. Especially if you get the idea that, if many people did this, the state would likely have to come up with other imputations to make the impact on the GDP disappear!

JB: That’s a nice thought. I tend to worry about how the GDP and other economic indicators warp our view of what’s right to do. But you’re saying that if people can get up the nerve to do what’s right, regardless, the economic indicators may just take care of themselves.

TF: We have to remember that sustainability is about systems that are viable in the long run. Environmental sustainability is just one important aspect. But you won’t go on for long doing what you do unless it also has economic long-term viability. Hence, we are dealing with multi-dimensional design constraints. And just as flow network analysis is useful to get an idea about the environmental context, the same holds for the economic context. It’s just that the resources are slightly different ones—money, labour, raw materials, etc. These thoughts can be carried much further, but I find it quite worthwhile to instead look at an example where someone did indeed design a successful system along such principles. In the UK, the first example that would come to my mind is Hill Holt Wood, because the founding director, Nigel Lowthrop, did do so many things right. I have high admiration for his work.

JB: When it comes to design of sustainable systems, you also seem to be a big fan of Bill Mollison and some of the ‘permaculture’ movement that he started. Could you say a bit about that? Why is it important?

TF: The primary reason why permaculture matters is that it has demonstrated some stunning successes with important issues such as land rehabilitation.

‘Permaculture’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Curiously, where I grew up, the term is somewhat known, but mostly associated with an Austrian farmer, not Bill Mollison. And I’ve seen some physicists who first had come into contact with it through David Holmgren‘s book revise their opinions when they later read Mollison. Occasionally, some early adopters did not really understand the scientific aspects of it and tried to link it with some strange personal beliefs of the sort Martin Gardner discussed in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. And so on. So, before we discuss permaculture, I have to point out that one might sometimes have to take a close look to evaluate it. A number of things claiming to be ‘permaculture’ actually are not.

When I started—some time ago—to make a systematic effort to get a useful overview over the structure of our massive sustainability-related problems, a key question to me always was: "what should I do?"—and a key conviction was: "someone must have had some good ideas about all this already." This led me to actually not read some well-known "environmentalist" books many people had read which are devoid of any discussion of our options and potential solutions, but to do a lot of detective work instead.

In doing so, I travelled, talked to a number of people, read a lot of books and manuscripts, did a number of my own experiments, cross-checked things against order-of-magnitude guesstimates, against the research literature, and so on. At one point—I think it was when I took a closer look into the work of the laureates of the ‘Right Livelihood award’ (sometimes called the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’)—I came across Bill Mollison’s work. And it struck a chord.

Back in the 90s, when mad cow disease was a big topic in Europe, I spent quite some time pondering questions such as: "what’s wrong with the way farming works these days?" I immediately recognized a number of insights I independently had arrived at back then when studying Bill Mollison’s work, and yet, he went so much further—talked about a whole universe of issues I still was mostly unaware of at that time. So, an inner voice said to me: "if you take a close look at what that guy already did, that might save you a lot of time". Now, Mollison did get some things wrong, but I still think taking a close look at what he has to say is a very effective way to get a big picture overview over what we can achieve, and what needs urgent attention. I think it greatly helps (at least to me) that he comes from a scientific background. Before he decided to quit academia in 1978 and work full time on developing permaculture, he was a lecturer at the University of Hobart, Tasmania.

JB: But what actually is ‘permaculture’?

TF: That depends a lot on who you ask, but I like to think about permaculture as if it were an animal. The ‘skeleton’ is a framework with cleverly designed ‘static properties’ that holds the ‘flesh’ together in a way so that it can achieve things. The actual ‘flesh’ is provided by solutions to specific problems with long term viability being a key requirement. But it is more than just a mere semi-amorphous collage of solutions, due to its skeleton. The backbone of this animal is a very simple (deliberately so) yet functional (this is important) core ethics which one could regard as being the least common denominator of values considered as essential across pretty much all cultures. This gives it stability. Other bones that make this animal walk and talk are related to key principles. And these principles are mostly just applied common sense.

For example, it is pretty clear that as non-renewable resources keep on becoming more and more scarce, we will have to seriously ponder the question: what can we grow that can replace them? If our design constraints change, so does our engineering—should (for one reason or another) some particular resource such as steel become much more expensive than it is today, we would of course look into the question whether, say, bamboo may be a viable alternative for some applications. And that is not as exotic an idea as it may sound these days.

So, unquestionably, the true solutions to our problems will be a lot about growing things. But growing things in the way that our current-day agriculture mostly does it seems highly suspicious, as this keeps on destroying soil. So, evidently, we will have to think less along the lines of farming and more along the lines of gardening. Also, we must not fool ourselves about a key issue: most people on this planet are poor, hence for an approach to have wide impact, it must be accessible to the poor. Techniques that revolve around gardening often are.

Next, isn’t waiting for the big (hence, capital intensive) ‘technological miracle fix’ conspicuously similar to the concept of a ‘pie in the sky’? If we had any sense, shouldn’t we consider solving today’s problems with today’s solutions?

If one can distinguish between permaculture as it stands and attempts by some people who are interested in it to re-mold it so that it becomes ‘the permaculture part of permaculture plus Anthroposophy/Alchemy/Biodynamics/Dianetics/Emergy/Manifestation/New Age beliefs/whatever’, there is a lot of common sense in permaculture—the sort of ‘a practical gardener’s common sense’. In this framework, there is a place for both modern scientific methods and ancient tribal wisdom. I hence consider it a healthy antidote to both fanatical worship of ‘the almighty goddess of technological progress’—or any sort of fanatical worship for that matter—as well as to funny superstitious beliefs.

There are some things in the permaculture world, however, where I would love to see some change. For example, it would be great if people who know how to get things done paid more attention to closely keeping records of what they do to solve particular problems and to making these widely accessible. Solutions of the ‘it worked great for a friend of a friend’ sort do us a big disservice. Also, there are a number of ideas that easily get represented in overly simplistic form—such as ‘edge is good’—where one better should retain some healthy skepticism.

JB: Well, I’m going to keep on pressing you: what is permaculture… according to you? Can you list some of the key principles?

TF: That question is much easier to answer. The way I see it, permaculture is a design-oriented approach towards systematically reducing the total effort that has to be expended (in particular, in the long run) in order to keep society going and allow people to live satisfying lives. Here, ‘effort’ includes both work that is done by non-renewable resources (in particular fossil fuels), as well as human labour. So, permaculture is not about returning to pre-industrial agricultural drudgery with an extremely low degree of specialization, but rather about combining modern science with traditional wisdom to find low-effort solutions to essential problems. In that sense, it is quite generic and deals with issues ranging from food production to water supply to energy efficient housing and transport solutions.

To give one specific example: Land management practices that reduce the organic matter content of soils and hence soil fertility are bound to increase the effort needed to produce food in the long run and hence considered a step in the wrong direction. So, a permaculture approach would focus on using strategies that manage to build soil fertility while producing food. There are a number of ways to do that, but a key element is a deep understanding of nature’s soil food web and nutrient cycling processes. For example, permaculture pays great attention to ensuring a healthy soil microflora.

When the objective is to minimize the effort needed to sustain us, it is very important to closely observe those situations where we have to expend energy on a continual basis in order to fight natural processes. When this happens, there is a conflict between our views how things ought to look like and a system trying to demonstrate its own evolution. In some situations, we really want it that way and have to pay the corresponding price. But there are others—quite many of them—where we would be well advised to spend some thought on whether we could make our life easier by ‘going with the flow’. If thistles keep on being a nuisance on some piece of land, we might consider trying to fill this ecological niche by growing some closely related species, say some artichoke. If a meadow needs to be mowed regularly so that it does not turn into a shrub thicket, we would instead consider planting some useful shrubs in that place.

Naturally, permaculture design favours perennial plants in climatic regions where the most stable vegetation would be a forest. But it does not have to be this way. There are high-yielding low-effort (in particular: no-till, no-pesticide) ways to grow grains as well, mostly going back to Masanobu Fukuoka. They have gained some popularity in India, where they are known as ‘Rishi Kheti’—’agriculture of the sages’. Here’s a photo gallery containing some fairly recent pictures:

Raju Titus’s Public Gallery, Picasa.

Wheat growing amid fruit trees: no tillage, no pesticides — Hoghangabad, India

An interesting perspective towards weeds which we usually do not take is: the reason this plant could establish itself here is that it’s filling an unfilled ecological niche.

JB: Actually I’ve heard someone say: "If you have weeds, it means you don’t have enough plants".

TF: Right. So, when I take that weed out, I’d be well advised to take note of nature’s lesson and fill that particular niche with an ecological analog that is more useful. Otherwise, it will quite likely come back and need another intervention.

I would consider this "letting systems demonstrate their own evolution while closely watching what they want to tell us and providing some guidance" the most important principle of permaculture.

Another important principle is the ‘user pays‘ principle. A funny idea that comes up disturbingly often up in discussions of sustainability issues (even if it is not articulated explicitly) is that there are only a limited amount of resources which we keep on using up, and once we are done with that, this would be the end of mankind. Actually, that’s not how the world works.

Take an apple tree, for example. It starts out as a tiny seed, and has to accumulate a massive amount of (nutrient) resources to grow into a mature tree. Yet, once it completes its life cycle, dies down and is consumed by fungi, it leaves the world in a more fertile state than before. Fertility tends to keep growing, because natural systems by and large work according to the principle that any agent that takes something from the natural world will return something of equal or even greater ecosystemic value.

Let me come back to an example I briefly mentioned earlier on. At a very coarse level of detail, grazing cows eat grass and return cow dung. Now, in the intestines of the cow, quite a lot of interesting biochemistry has happened that converted nonprotein nitrogen (say, urea) into much more valuable protein:

• W. D. Gallup, Ruminant nutrition, review of utilization of nonprotein nitrogen in the ruminant, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 4 (1956), 625-627.

A completely different example: nutrient accumulators such as comfrey act as powerful pumps that draw up mineral nutrients from the subsoil, where they would be otherwise inaccessible, and make them available for ecosystemic cycling.

Russian comfrey, Symphytum x uplandicum

It is indeed possible to not only use this concept for garden management, but as a fundamental principle to run a sustainable economy. At the small scale (businesses), its viability has been demonstrated, but unfortunately this aspect of permaculture has not received as much attention yet as it should. Here, the key questions are along the lines of: do you need a washing machine, or is your actual need better matched by the description ‘access to some laundry service’?

A further important principle is to create stability through a high degree of network connectivity. We’ve also briefly talked about that already. In ecosystem design, this means to ensure that every important ecosystemic function is provided by more than one element (read: species), while every species provides multiple functions to the assembly. So, if something goes wrong with one element, there are other stabilizing forces in place. The mental picture which I like to use here is that of a stellar cluster: If we put a small number of stars next to one another, the system will undergo fairly complicated dynamics and eventually separate: in some three-star encounters, two stars will enter a very close orbit, while the third receives enough energy to go over escape velocity. If we lump together a large number of stars, their dynamics will thermalize and make it much more difficult for an individual star to obtain enough energy to leave the cluster—and keep it for a sufficiently long time to actually do so. Of course, individual stars do ‘boil off’, but the entire system does not fall apart as fast as just a few stars would.

There are various philosophies how to best approach weaving an ecosystemic net, ranging from ‘ecosystem mimicry‘;—i.e. taking wild nature and substituting some species with ecological analogs that are more useful to us—to ‘total synthesis of a species assembly’, i.e. combining species which in theory should grow well together due to their ecological characteristics, even though they might never have done so in nature.

JB: Cool. You’ve given me quite a lot to think about. Finally, could you also leave me with a few good books to read on permaculture?

TF: It depends on what you want to focus on. Concerning a practical hands-on introduction, this is probably the most evolved text:

• Bill Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture, Tagari Publications, Tasmania, 1997.

If you want more theory but are fine with a less refined piece of work, then this is quite useful:

• Bill Mollison, Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual, Tagari Publications, Tasmania, 1988.

Concerning temperate climates—in particular, Europe—this is a well researched piece of work that almost could be used as a college textbook:

• Patrick Whitefield, The Earth Care Manual: a Permaculture Handbook for Britain and Other Temperate Climates, Permanent Publications, East Meon, 2004.

For Europeans, this would probably be my first recommendation.

JB: Thanks! It’s been a very thought-provoking interview.

Ecologists never apply good ecology to their gardens. Architects never understand the transmission of heat in buildings. And physicists live in houses with demented energy systems. It’s curious that we never apply what we know to how we actually live.Bill Mollison

## This Week’s Finds (Week 314)

6 June, 2011

This week I’d like to start an interview with Thomas Fischbacher, who teaches at the School of Engineering Sciences at the University of Southampton. He’s a man with many interests, but we’ll mainly talk about sustainable agriculture, leading up to an idea called "permaculture".

JB: Your published work is mainly in theoretical physics, and some of it is quite mathematical. You have a bunch of papers on theories of gravity related to string theory, and another bunch on magnetic materials, maybe with some applications to technology. But you’re also interested in sustainable agricultural and building practices! That seems like quite a leap… but I may be trying to make a similar leap myself, so I find it fascinating. How did you get interested in these other topics, which seem so very different in flavor?

TF: I think it’s quite natural that one’s interests are wider than what one actually publishes about—quite likely, the popularity of your blog which is about all sorts of interesting things witnesses this.

However, if something that seems interesting catches my attention, I often experience a strong drive to come to an advanced level of understanding—at least mastering the key mechanisms. As far as I can think back, my studies have been predominantly self-directed, often following very unusual and sometimes obscure paths, so I sometimes happen to know a few quite odd things. And actually, considering research, I get a lot of fun out of combining advanced ideas from very different fields. Most of my articles are of that type, e.g. "sparse tensor numerics meets database algorithms and metalinguistics", or "Feynman diagrams meet lazy evaluation and continuation coding", or "Exceptional groups meet sensitivity back-propagation". Basically, I like to see myself in the role of a bridge-builder. Very often, powerful ideas that have been developed in one field are completely unknown in another where they actually can be used to great advantage.

Concerning sustainability, it actually was mostly soil physics that initially got me going. When dealing with a highly complex phenomenon such as human civilization, it is sometimes very useful to take a close look at matter and energy flows in order to get an overview over important processes that determine the structure and long term behaviour of a system. Just doing a few order-of-magnitude guesstimates and looking at typical soil erosion and soil formation rates, I found that, from that perspective, quite a number of fundamental things did not add up and told a story very different from the oh-so-glorious picture of human progress. That’s one of the great things about physical reasoning: it allows one to independently make up one’s mind about things where one otherwise would have little other choice than to believe what one is told. And so, I started to look deeper.

JB: So what did you discover? I can’t resist mentioning something I learned from a book Kevin Kelly gave me:

• Neil Roberts, The Holocene: an Environmental History, Blackwell, London, 1998.

It describes how the landscape of Europe has been cycling through glacial and interglacial periods every 100,000 years or so for the last 1.3 million years. It’s a regular sort of pattern!

As a glacial period ends, first comes a phase when birches and pines immigrate from southern refuges into what had been tundra. Then comes a phase when mixed deciduous forest takes over, with oak and elm becoming dominant. During this period, rocky soils turn into brown forest soils. Next, leaching from rocks in glacial deposits leads to a shift from neutral to acid soils, which favor trees like spruce. Then, as spruce take over, fallen needles make the soil even more acid. Together with cooling temperatures as the next glacial approaches, this leads to the replacement of deciduous forest by heathland and pine forests. Finally, glaciers move in and scrape away the soil. And then the cycle repeats!

I thought this was really cool: it’s like seasons, but on a grand scale. And I thought this quote was even cooler:

It was believed by classical authors such as Varro and Seneca that there had once been a "Golden Age", "when man lived on those things which the virgin earth produced spontaneously" and when "the very soil was more fertile and productive." If ever there was such a "Golden Age" then surely it was in the early Holocene, when soils were still unweathered and uneroded, and when Mesolithic people lived off the fruits of the land without the physical toil of grinding labour.

Still unweathered and uneroded! So it takes an ice age to reset the clock and bring soils back to an optimum state?

TF: There are a number of different processes, all of them important, that are associated with very different time scales. A general issue here is that, as a society, we have difficulties to get an idea how our life experience is shaped by our cultural heritage, by our species’ history, and by events that happened tens of thousands of years ago.

Coming to the cycles of glaciation, you are right that these shaped the soils in places such as Europe, by grinding down rock and exposing freshly weathered material. But it is also interesting to look at places where this has not happened—to give us sort of an outside perspective; glaciation was fairly minimal in Australia, for example. Also, the main other player, volcanism did not have much of an effect in exposing fresh minerals there either. And so, Australian soils are extremely old—millions of years, tens of millions of years even, and very poor in mineral nutrients, as so much has been leached out. This has profound influences on the vegetation, but also on fauna, and of course on the people who inhabited this land for tens of thousands of years, and their culture: the Aborigines. Now, I don’t want to claim that the Aborigines actually managed to evolve a fully "sustainable" system of land management—but it should be pretty self-evident that they must have developed some fairly interesting biological knowledge over such a long time.

Talking about long time scales and the long distant past, it sometimes takes a genius to spot something that in hindsight is obvious but no one noticed because the unusual situation is that the really important thing that matters is missing. Have you ever wondered, for example, what animal might eat an avocado and disperse its fairly large seed? Like other fruit (botanically speaking, the avocado is a berry, as is the banana), the avocado plant co-evolved with animals that would eat its fruits—but there is no animal around that would do so. Basically, the reason is that we are looking at a broken ecosystem: the co-evolutionary partners of the avocado, such as gomphotheres, became extinct some thousands of years ago.

A blink with respect to the time scales of evolution, but an awfully long time for human civilizations. There is an interesting book on this subject:

• Connie Barlow, The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms, Basic Books, New York, 2002. (Also listen to this song.)

Considering soils, the cycle of glaciations already should hold an important lesson for us. It is important to note that the plow is basically an invention that (somewhat) suits European agriculture and its geologically young soils. What happens if we take this way of farming to the tropics? While lush and abundant rainforests may seem to suggest otherwise, we have old and nutrient-poor soils here, and most mineral nutrients get stored and cycled by the vegetation. If we clear this, we release a flush of nutrients, but as the annual crops which we normally grow are not that good at holding on to these nutrients, we rapidly destroy the fertility of the land.

There are alternative options for how to produce food in such a situation, but before we look into this, it might be useful to know a few important ballpark figures related to agriculture—plow agriculture in particular.

The most widely used agricultural unit for "mass per area" is "metric tons per hectare", but I will instead use kilograms per square meter (as some people may find that easier to relate to), 1 kilogram per square meter being 10 tons/ha. Depending on the climate (windspeeds, severity of summer rains, etc.), plow agriculture will typically lead to soil loss rates due to erosion of something in the ballpark of 0.5 to 5 kilograms per square meter per year. In the US, erosion rates in the past have been as high as 4 kilograms per square meter per year and beyond, but have come down markedly. Still, soil loss rates of around 1 kilogram per square meter per year are not uncommon for the US. The problem is that, under good conditions, soil creation rates are in the ballpark of 0.02 to 0.2 kilograms per square meter per year. So, our present agriculture is destroying soil much faster than new soil gets formed. And, quite insidiously, erosion will always carry away the most fertile top layer of soil first.

It is worthwhile to compare this with agricultural yields: in Europe, good wheat yields are in the range of 0.6 kilograms per square meter per year, but yields depend a lot on water availability, and the world average is just 0.3 kilograms per square meter per year. In any case, the plow actually produces much more eroded land than food. You can see more information here:

• Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, FAOSTAT.

Concerning ancient reports of a "Golden Age"—I am not so sure about this anymore. By and large, civilizations mostly seem to have had quite a negative long term impact on the soil fertility that sustained them—and a number of them failed due to that. But all things considered, we often find that some particular groups of species have a very positive long term effect on fertility and counteract nutrient leaching—tropical forests bear witness to that.

Now… what single species we can think of would be best equipped to make a positive contribution towards long-term fertility building?

JB: Hey, no fair—I thought I was the one asking the questions!

Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe some sort of rhizobium? You know, those bacteria that associate themselves to the roots of plants like clover, alfalfa and beans, and take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that’s usable by the plants?

But you said "one single species", so this answer is probably not right: there are lots of species of rhizobia.

TF: The answer is quite astounding—and it lies at the heart of understanding sustainability. The species that could have the largest positive impact on soil fertility is Homo sapiens—us! Now, considering the enormous ecological damage that has been done by that single species, such a proposition may seem quite outrageous. But note that I asked about the potential to make a positive contribution, not actual behaviour as observed so far.

JB: Oh! I should have guessed that. Darn!

TF: When I bring up this point, many people think that I might have some specific technique in mind, a "miracle cure", or "silver bullet" idea such as, say, biochar—which seems to be pretty en vogue now—or genetically engineered miracle plants, or some such thing.

But no—this is about a much more fundamental issue. Nature eventually will heal ecological wounds—but quite often, she is not in a particular hurry. Left to her own devices, she may take thousands of years to rebuild soils and turn devastated land back into fertile ecosystems. Now, this is where we enter the scene. With our outstanding intellectual power we can read landscapes, think about key flows—flows of energy, water, minerals, and living things through a site—and if necessary, provide a little bit of guidance to help nature take the next step. This way, we can often speed up the regeneration clock a hundredfold or more!

Let me give some specific examples. Technologically, these are often embarrassingly simple—yet at the same time highly sophisticated, in the sense that they address issues that are obvious only once one has developed an eye for them.

The first one is imprinting—in arid regions, this can be a mind-blowingly simple yet quite effective technology to kick-start a biological succession pathway.

JB: What’s "imprinting"?

TF: One could say, earthworks for rainwater harvesting, but on the centimeter scale. Basically, it is a simple way to implement a passive resource-concentration system for water and organic matter that "nucleates" the transition back from desert to prairie—kind of like providing ice microcrystals in supercooled water. The Imprinting Foundation has a good website. In particular, take a look at this:

• The Imprinting Foundation, Success Stories.

This video is also well worth watching—part of the "Global Gardener" series:

• Bill Mollison, Dryland permaculture strategies—part 3, YouTube.

Here is another example—getting the restoration of rainforest going in the tropical grasslands of Colombia.

• Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI), Reforestation.

Here, the challenge is that the soil originally was so acidic (around pH 4) that aluminium went into the soil solution as toxic Al3+. What eventually managed to do the trick was to plant a nurse crop of Caribbean pines, Pinus caribbea (on 80 square kilometers—no mean feat) that have been provided with the right mycorrhizal symbiont (Pisolithus tinctorius, I think) that enabled the trees to grow in very acidic soil. An amazing subject in themselves, fungi, by the way.

These were big projects—but similar ideas work on pretty much any scale. Friends of mine have shown me great pictures of the progress of a degraded site in Nepal where they did something very simple a number of years ago—puting up four poles with strings between them on which birds like to gather. And personally, since I started to seriously ponder the issue of soil compaction and started to give double-digging a try in my own garden a few years ago, the results have been so amazing that I wonder why anyone bothers to garden with annuals any other way.

JB: What’s "double-digging"?

TF: A method to relieve soil compaction. As we humans live our lives above the soil, processes below can be rather alien to us—yet, this is where many very important things go on. By and large, most people do not realize how deep plant roots go—and how badly they are affected by compaction.

The term "double-digging" refers to digging out the top foot of topsoil from the bed, and then using a gardening fork to also loosen the next foot of soil (often subsoil) before putting back the topsoil. Now, this method does have its drawbacks, and also, it is not the "silver bullet" single miracle recipe for high gardening yields some armchair gardeners who have read Jeavons’s book believe it to be. But if your garden soil is badly compacted, as it often is the case when starting a new garden, double-digging may be a very good idea.

JB: Interesting!

TF: So, there is no doubt that our species can vastly accelerate natural healing processes. Indeed, we can link our lives with natural processes in a way that satisfies our needs while we benefit the whole species assembly around us—but there are some very non-obvious aspects to this. Hacking a hole into the forest to live "in harmony with nature" most certainly won’t do the trick.

The importance of the key insight—we have the capacity to act as the most powerful repair species around—cannot be overstated. There is at present a very powerful mental block that shows up in many discussions of sustainability: looking at our past conduct, it is easy to get the idea that Homo sapiens‘ modus operandi is to seek out the most valuable/powerful/convenient resource first, use this up, and then, driven by need, find ways to make do with the next most valuable resource, calling this "progress"—actually a downward spiral. I’ve indeed seen adverts for the emerging Liquefied Natural Gas industry that glorified this as "a motor of progress and growth". Now, the only reason why we consider this is that the more easily-accessible, easy-to-handle fuels have been pretty much used up. Same with deep-sea oil drilling. What kind of "progress" is it that the major difference between the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Ixtoc oil spill in 1979 is that this time, there’s a mile of water sitting on top of the well—because we used up the more easily accessible oil?

Now, there are two dominant attitudes toward this observation that we despoil one resource after another.

One is some form of "denial". This is quite widespread amongst professional economists. Ultimately, the absurdity of their argument becomes clear when it is condensed to "sustainability is just one problem among many, and we are the better at solving problems the stronger our economy—so we need to use up resources fast to get rich fast so that we can afford to address the problems caused by us using up resources fast." Reminds me of a painter who lived in the village I grew up in. He was known to work very swiftly, and when asked why he always was in such a hurry, wittily replied: "but I have to get the job done before I run out of paint!"

The other attitude is some sort of self-hate that regards the key problem not as an issue of very poor management, but inherently linked to human existence. According to that line of thinking, collapse is inevitable and we should just make sure we do not gobble up resources so fast that we leave nothing for our children to despoil so that they can have a chance to live.

It is clear that as long as there is a deadlock between these two attitudes, we will not make much progress towards a noticeably more sustainable society. And waiting just exacerbates the problem. So, the key question is: does it really have to be like this—are we doomed to live by destroying the resources which we depend on? Well—every cow can do better than that. Cow-dung is more valuable in terms of fertility than what the cow has eaten. So, if we are such an amazing species—as we like to claim by calling ourselves "Homo sapiens"—why should we fail so miserably here?

JB: I can see all sorts of economic, political and cultural reasons why we do so badly. But it might be a bit less depressing to talk about how we can do better. For example, you mentioned paying attention to flows through systems.

TF: The important thing about flows is that they are a great concept tool to get some first useful ideas about those processes that really matter for the behaviour of complex systems—both for the purpose of analysis as well as design.

That’s quite an exciting subject, but as you mentioned it, I’d first like to briefly address the issue of depressing topics that frequently arise when taking a deeper look into sustainability—in particular, the present situation. Why? Because I think that our capacity as a society to deal with such emotions will be decisive for how well we will do or how badly we will fail when addressing a set of convergent challenges. On the one hand, it is very important to understand that such emotions are an essential part of human experience. On the other hand, they can have a serious negative impact on our judgment capacity. So, an important part of the sustainability challenge is to build the capacity to act and make sound decisions under emotional stress. That sounds quite obvious, but my impression is that, still, most people either are not yet fully aware of this point, or do not see what this idea might mean in practice.

JB: I’ve been trying to build that capacity myself. I don’t think mathematics or theoretical physics were very good at preparing me. Indeed, I suspect that many people in these fields enjoy not only the feeling of "certainty" they can provide, but also the calming sense that the universe is beautiful and perfect. When it comes to environmental issues there’s a lot more uncertainty, and also frequently the sense that the world is messed up—thanks to us! On top of that there’s a sense of urgency, and frustration. All this can be rather stressful. However, there are ways to deal with that, and I’m busy learning them.

TF: I think there is one particularly important lesson I have learned about the role of emotions, especially fear. Important because it probably is quite a fundamental part of the human condition. Emotions do have the power to veto some conclusions from ever surfacing in one’s conscious mind if they would be painful to bear. They can temporarily suspend sound reasoning and also access to otherwise sound memory.

This is extremely sinister, for you are not acting rationally at all, you are in fact driven by one of the most non-rational aspects of your existence, your fear, yet you yourself have next to no chance of ever discovering this, as your emotions abuse your cognitive abilities to systematically shield you from getting conscious access to any insight which would stand a chance of making you question your analysis.

JB: I think we can all name other people who suffer from this problem. But of course the challenge is to see it in ourselves, while it’s happening.

TF: Insidiously, having exceptional reasoning abilities will not help the very least bit here—a person with a powerful mind may be misguided as easily as anybody else by deep inner fears, it’s just that the mind of a person with strong reasoning skills will work harder and spin more sophisticated tales than that of an intellectually average person. So, this essentially is a question of "how fast a runner do you have to be to out-run your own shadow?" How intelligent do you have to be to recognize it when your emotions cause your mind to abuse your powerful reasoning abilities to deceive itself? Well, the answer probably is that the capacity to appreciate in oneself the problem of self-deception is not related to intelligence, but wisdom. I really admire the insight that "it’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head."

JB: Richard Feynman put it another way: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool." And if you’re sure you’re not fooling yourself, then you definitely are.

TF: Of course, everything that has an impact on our ability to conduct a sound self-assessment of our own behaviour matters a lot for sustainability related issues.

But enough about the role of the human mind in all this. This certainly is a fascinating and important subject, but at the end of the day, there is a lot of ecosystem rehabilitation to be done, and mapping flows is a powerful approach to getting an idea about what is broken and how to repair it.

JB: Okay, great. But I think our readers need a break. Next time we’ll pick up where we left off, and talk about flows.

Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than
against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.
– Bill Mollison