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.


24 October, 2011

I always thought the opposite of a boycott was a girlcott. Turns out it’s a ‘buycott’.

In a boycott, a bunch of people punish a company they dislike by not buying their stuff. In a buycott, they reward one they like.

Here on Azimuth, Allan Erskine pointed out one organization pushing this idea: Carrotmob, founded by Brent Schulkin. Why ‘Carrotmob’? Well, while a boycott threatens a company with the ‘stick’ of economic punishment, a mob of customers serves as a ‘carrot’ to reward good behavior.

Carrotmob’s first buycott was local: they went to 23 convenience stores in San Francisco with a plan to transform one into the most environmentally-friendly store in the neighborhood, and promised to bring in a bunch of consumers to the winner to spend a bunch of money on one day. In order to receive the increased sales from this event, store owners were invited to place bids on what percentage of that revenue they’d spend on making their store more energy-efficient. The winning bid was 22%, by K & D Market. On the day of the campaign, hundreds of people arrived and spent over $9200. In exchange, the store took 22% of that revenue, and used it to do a full retrofit of their lighting system.

Can it be scaled up? Can these deals be enforced? Time will tell, but it seems like a good thing to try. For one thing, unlike a boycott, it spreads good vibes, because it’s a positive-sum game. On the other hand, over on Google+, Matt McIrvin wrote:

I’m a little skeptical that this kind of approach works over the long term, because it would have the effect of increasing the market price of “good” products through increased demand, which in turn means that anyone who doesn’t care about the attribute in question will be motivated to buy the lower-priced “bad” products instead. What you end up with is just a market sector of politically endorsed products that may do a good niche business but that most people ignore.

This is also the big problem with just telling people to go green instead of taxing or otherwise regulating environmental externalities.

Here are some good stories:

Ready? Set. Shop! One genius environmentalist puts the flash-mob phenomenon to high-minded use, San Francisco Magazine, June 2008.

Change we can profit from, The Economist, 29 January 2009.

For more, try the references here:

Carrotmob, Wikipedia.

What other innovative strategies could environmentalists use, that we should know about?

By the way, boycotts are named after Captain Charles Boycott. The story is sort of interesting…

The Network of Global Corporate Control

3 October, 2011

While protesters are trying to occupy Wall Street and spread their movement to other cities…

… others are trying to mathematically analyze the network of global corporate control:

• Stefania Vitali, James B. Glattfelder and Stefano Battiston, The network of global corporate control.

Here’s a little ‘directed graph’:

Very roughly, a directed graph consists of some vertices and some edges with arrows on them. Vitali, Glattfelder and Battiston built an enormous directed graph by taking 43,060 transnational corporations and seeing who owns a stake in whom:

If we zoom in on the financial sector, we can see the companies those protestors are upset about:

Zooming out again, we could check that the graph as a whole consists of many pieces. But the largest piece contains 3/4 of all the corporations studied, including all the top by economic value, and accounting for 94.2% of the total operating revenue.

Within this there is a large ‘core’, containing 1347 corporations each of whom owns directly and/or indirectly shares in every other member of the core. On average, each member of the core has direct ties to 20 others. As a result, about 3/4 of the ownership of firms in the core remains in the hands of firms of the core itself. As the authors put it:

This core can be seen as an economic “super-entity” that raises new important issues both for researchers and policy makers.

If you’ve never thought much about modern global capitalism, the existence of this ‘core’ may seem shocking and scary… like an enormous invisible spiderweb wrapping around the globe, dominating us, controlling every move we make. Or maybe you can see a tremendous new business opportunity, waiting to be exploited!

But if you’ve already thought about these things, the existence of this core probably seems obvious. What’s new here is the use of certain ideas in math—graph theory, to be precise—to study it quantitatively.

So, let me say a bit more about the math! What’s a directed graph, exactly? It’s a set V and a subset E of V \times V. We call the elements of V vertices and the elements of E edges. Since an edge is an ordered pair of vertices, it has a ‘starting point’ and an ‘endpoint’—that’s why we call this kind of graph ‘directed’.

(Note that we can have an edge going from a vertex to itself, but we cannot have more than one edge going from some vertex v to some vertex v'. If you don’t like this, use some other kind of graph: there are many kinds!)

I spoke about ‘pieces’ of a directed graph, but that’s not a precise term, since there are various kinds of pieces:

• A connected component is a maximal set of vertices such that we can get from any one to any other by an undirected path, meaning a path of edges where we don’t care which way the arrows point.

• A strongly connected component is a maximal set of vertices such that we can get from any one to any other by an directed path, meaning a path of edges where at each step we walk ‘forwards’, along with the arrow.

I didn’t state these definitions very precisely, but I hope you can fill in the details. Maybe an example will help! This graph has three strongly connected components, shaded in blue, but just one connected component:

So when I said this:

The graph consists of many pieces, but the largest contains 3/4 of all the corporations studied, including all the top by economic value, and accounting for 94.2% of the total operating revenue.

I was really talking about the largest connected component. But when I said this:

Within this there is a large ‘core’ containing 1347 corporations each of whom owns directly and/or indirectly shares in every other member of the core.

I was really talking about a strongly connected component. When you look at random directed graphs, there often turns out to be one strongly connected component that’s a lot bigger than all the rest. This is called the core, or the giant strongly connected component.

In fact there’s a whole study of random directed graphs, which is relevant not only to corporations, but also to webpages! Webpages link to other webpages, giving a directed graph. (True, one webpage can link to another more than once, but we can either ignore that subtlety or use a different concept of graph that handles this.)

And it turns out that for various types of random directed graphs, we tend to get a so-called ‘bowtie structure’, like this:

In the middle you see the core, or giant strongly connected component, labelled SCC. (Yes, that’s where Exxon sits, like a spider in the middle of the web!)

Connected to this by paths going in, we have the left half of the bowtie, labelled IN. Connected to the core by paths going out, we have the right half of the bowtie, labelled OUT

There are also usually some IN-tendrils going out of the IN region, and some OUT-tendrils going into the ‘OUT’ region.

There may also be tubes going from IN to OUT while avoiding the core.

All this is one connected component: the largest one. But finally, not shown here, there may be a bunch of other smaller connected components. Presumably if these are large enough they have a similar structure.

Now: can we use this knowledge to do something good? Or it all too obvious so far? After all, so far we’re just saying the network of global corporate control is a fairly ordinary sort of random directed graph. Maybe we need to go beyond this, and think about ways in which it’s not ordinary. In fact, I should reread the paper with that in mind.

Or… well, maybe you have some ideas.

(By the way, I don’t think ‘overthrowing’ the network of global corporate control is a feasible or even desirable project. I’m not espousing any sort of revolutionary ideology, and I’m not interested in discussing politics here. I’m more interested in understanding the world and looking for some leverage points where we can gently nudge things in slightly better directions. If there were a way to do this by taking advantage of the power of corporations, that would be cool.)

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?

Rationality in Humans and Monkeys

15 July, 2011

Cosma Shalizi wrote a great review of this book:

• David Easley and Jon Kleinberg, Networks, Crowds and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.

Apparently this is one of the first systematic textbooks on network science, which Shalizi defines as:

the study of networks of semiautonomous but interdependent units and of the way those networks shape both the behavior of individuals and the large-scale patterns that emerge from small-scale interactions.

This is not quite the same as what I’ve been calling network theory, but I’d like to see how they fit together.

Shalizi’s review includes a great putdown, not of the book’s authors, but of the limitations of a certain concept of ‘rationality’ that’s widely used in economics:

What game theorists somewhat disturbingly call rationality is assumed throughout—in other words, game players are assumed to be hedonistic yet infinitely calculating sociopaths endowed with supernatural computing abilities.

Clearly we have to go beyond these simplifying assumptions. There’s a lot of work being done on this. One important approach is to go out and see what people actually do in various situations. And another is to compare it to what monkeys will do in the same situations!

Monkey money

Here’s a video by Laurie Santos, who has done just that:

First she taught capuchin monkeys how to use money. Then, she discovered that they make the same mistakes with money that people do!

For example, they make different decisions in what mathematically might seem like the same situation, depending on how it’s framed.

Suppose I give you $1000, and then ask which game would you rather play:

1) a game where I give you either $1000 more or nothing more, with equal odds.

2) a game where I always give you $500 more.

Most people prefer game 2), even though the average, or expected amount of money collected is the same in both games. We say such people are risk averse. Someone who loves to gamble might prefer game 1).

Like people, most capuchin monkeys chose game 2), although Santos used grapes rather than money in this particular experiment.

So, like people, it seems monkeys are risk averse. This is not a ‘mistake’: there are good reasons to be risk averse.

On other hand, suppose I give you $2000 — twice as much as before! Feel all those crisp bills… think about all the good stuff you can buy. Now, which game would you rather play:

1′) a game where I either take away $1000 or nothing, with equal odds.

2′) a game where I always take away $500.

Most people prefer game 1′). The strange thing is that mathematically, the overall situation is isomorphic to the previous one. It’s just been framed in a different way. The first situation seems to be about ‘maximizing gains’. The second seems to be about ‘minimizing losses’. In the second situation, people are more likely to accept risk, in the hopes that with some chance they won’t lose anything. This is called loss aversion.

Monkeys, too, prefer game 1′).

This suggests that loss aversion is at least 35 million years old. It’s survived a long process of evolution! To me that suggests that while ‘irrational’, it’s probably a useful heuristic in most situations that commonly arise in primate societies.

Laurie Santos has a slightly different take on it. She says:

It was Camus who once said that man is the only species who refused to be what he really is. But the irony is that it might only be by recognizing our limitations that we can really actually overcome them.

Does economics elude mathematical reasoning?

For yet another approach the enormous project of reconciling economics to the reality of human behavior, see:

• Yanis Varoufakis, Foundations of Economics: A beginner’s companion, Routledge, London, 1998.

• Yanis Varoufakis, Joseph Halevi and Nicholas J. Theocarakis, Modern Political Economics: Making Sense of the Post-2008 World, Routledge, London, 2011.

For the introduction of the first book go here. The second is described on the Routledge website:

The book is divided into two parts. The first part delves into every major economic theory, from Aristotle to the present, with a determination to discover clues of what went wrong in 2008. The main finding is that all economic theory is inherently flawed. Any system of ideas whose purpose is to describe capitalism in mathematical or engineering terms leads to inevitable logical inconsistency; an inherent error that stands between us and a decent grasp of capitalist reality. The only scientific truth about capitalism is its radical indeterminacy, a condition which makes it impossible to use science’s tools (e.g. calculus and statistics) to second-guess it. The second part casts an attentive eye on the post-war era; on the breeding ground of the Crash of 2008. It distinguishes between two major post-war phases: The Global Plan (1947-1971) and the Global Minotaur (1971-2008).

The emphasis is mine here, not because I’m sure it’s true, but because of how important it could be. It seems quite plausible to me. People seem able to squirm out of any mathematical framework we set up to describe them, short of the laws of physics. Still, I’d like to see the book’s argument. If there’s a ‘logical inconsistency’ in something, I want to actually see it.

You can get a bit more feeling for the second book in a blog post by Varoufakis. Among other things, he makes a point reminiscent of one that Phil Henshaw has repeatedly hammered home here:

Imagine a theorist that tries to explain complex evolving ecosystems by means of engineering models. What would result but incongruity and a mindset bent on misunderstanding the essence of the explanandum; a flight from that which craves explanation?

(By the way: I thank Mike Stay and Miguel Carrión-Álvarez for pointing out some items that appear in this blog entry. They did this on Google Plus. More on that later, maybe.)

Food Price Spike

9 July, 2011

Back in 2007, food prices surged. Millions went hungry, and there were riots from Egypt to Haiti and Cameroon to Bangladesh. In 2008 they dropped, but starting at the beginning of 2009 they’ve been going up, and now they’re staying high:

This graph shows the “food price index”, which is a weighted average of food commodity prices. The exact formula seems to be a carefully guarded secret… well, at least they don’t make it easy to find!

Here’s a more long-term picture:

taken from here:

• United Nations Environmental Programme, The Environmental Food Crisis, 2008.

What’s been happening since 2000? You can blame the rising world population, but that’s not something that suddenly hit us at the turn of the century. People point to many causes, including:

1) A growing middle class in India and China, eating more—including more meat, which pushes up grain prices. For example, according to the Economist, the average Chinese consumer ate 20 kilograms of meat in 1985, but 50 kilos of the stuff in 2007. If you consider the population of China, that’s a lot more meat!

2) The use of grain and other foodstuffs for biofuels, heavily subsidized by some governments like the US, has increased competition for grain and, perhaps worse, created a tighter link between oil prices and food prices. If the price of oil goes up, gasoline costs more, so people can charge more for ethanol, so grain prices go up!

One small piece of good news: the US federal budget crisis is making more people consider cutting grain ethanol subsidies. But it hasn’t happened yet: don’t underestimate the power of the corn lobby.

3) More weather disasters, like the heat wave that caused Russia to halt grain exports last year, or the drought in Brazil that’s pushing up sugar prices now, or the drought in India that set sugar prices soaring in the summer of 2009.

People like to argue about whether these weather disasters are really increasing, and whether they’re really due to climate change. It remains hard to prove. Some people, like Al Gore, have already made up their minds. On 20 June 2011, he said:

Look what’s happened in the last twelve months:

– The twenty million people displaced in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country, one of the biggest flood events in their history.

– An area of Australia the size of France and Germany combined, flooded.

– The nation of Colombia, they’ve had five to six times the normal rainfall. Two million people are still homeless. Most of the country was underwater for a portion of last year.

– My hometown, my home city of Nashville, a thousand-year flood. Thousands of my neighbors lost their homes and businesses. They had no flood insurance because there had never been a flood in areas that were flooded.

– Drought. Russia, biggest drought in their history, biggest fires in their history, over 50,000 people killed, and then all of their wheat and other food crops, along with that of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, taken off the world markets, leading to an all-time record spike in food prices.

– Texas, right now. The drought raised from “extreme” to “exceptional.” 254 counties in Texas, 252 of them were filed in the major disaster.

– Today, biggest fire in the history of Arizona, spreading to New Mexico.

– Today, biggest flood in the history of the Mississippi River valley underway right now.

At what point is there a moment where we say, ‘Oh, we ought to do something about this?’

A growing world middle class, the rising use of food for fuel, the effects of climate change… when it comes to rising food prices, there are lots of other causes one can point to.

But the big question is whether it’s a matter of many small causes that coincidentally happen to be boosting food prices now, or something more systematic.

In other words, is our world civilization hitting the limits of what the planet can support?

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’?

Concerning energy and material flows, an important principle is "be aware of the boundaries of your domain of influence, capture them as early as you can, release them as late as you can, and extract as much beneficial use out of them as possible in between". We already talked about that. In the era of cheap labour from fossil fuels, it is often a very good idea to use big earthworking machinery to slightly adjust the topography of the landscape in order to capture and make better use of rainwater. Done right, such water harvesting earthworks can last many hundreds of years, and pay back the effort needed to create them many times over in terms of enhanced biological productivity. If this were implemented on a broad scale, not just by a small percentage of farmers, this could add significantly to flood protection as well. I am fairly confident that we will be doing this a lot in the 21st century, as the climate gets more erratic and we face both more extreme rainfall events (note that saturation water vapour pressure increases by about 7% for every Kelvin of temperature increase) as well as longer droughts. It would be smart to start with this now, rather than when high quality fuels are much more expensive. It would have been even smarter to start with this 20 years ago.

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


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