We Can't Get There From Here
by Douglas Barnes
Tonight, we’ll be looking at the state of the world through the lens of sustainability. Then we will examine what are claimed to be our societal goals to try to unravel how we got where we are today. Finally, we will look at a methodology to put ourselves on a sustainable path along with a few examples of this methodology put into action.
Well, to talk about sustainability, we really are going to have to understand what it is. Otherwise ongoing attempts to reduce it to a meaningless marketing term will succeed. For instance, one infamous agrichemical company has marketed its glyphosate herbicide as a means of “creating sustainable pastures.”
The surfactant in their product is highly toxic to amphibians.
Glyphosate kills Rhizobium bacteria, which are the bacteria that live symbiotically with legumes and fix atmospheric nitrogen, nourishing the soil.
It kills mycorrhizal fungi which help plants attain calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and other minerals. They also help supply plants with water in times of drought. They allow plants to communicate to fight off pest attacks and serve as a network to allow plants to share nutrients. They also help sequester carbon and build up soil humus. Killing them off is an exceedingly bad idea.
Glyphosate is toxic to fish.
While not directly toxic to birds, it has been observed to reduce local bird populations due to its overall detrimental effect on ecosystems.
In humans, it has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as well as being linked to liver tumours and thyroid cancer in rats.
If the word “sustainable” is to hold any meaning, it must not be left up to the world of marketing to define it.
Here’s the definition: A system is sustainable if, over its lifetime, it captures and stores more energy than it consumes in its creation, operation and maintenance.
In traditional peasant agriculture systems, the energy required to plant and tend a squash plant is paid back many times over by the harvest. Think of a bank account as an analogy. If you continually spend more than you earn, sooner or later you will reach a point in which you are out of capital.
There have been societies that spent more natural capital than they produced. Sumer, Rapa Nui, Rome and the Anasazi are all examples of societies that did this and collapsed.
But that can’t happen to us, right? We’re exceptional! We have technology.
Consider our industrial agricultural system. It now costs 10 calories of energy on average to deliver one calorie of food energy and that is only counting exosomatic energy, not energy from human labour. This is really bad news considering that we are about half way through our global oil supply, discounting the difficult to extract oil sands. Natural gas production, important for synthesizing nitrogen, peaked in North America a decade ago.
And industrial agriculture has destroyed more soil more quickly than at any other time in human history. We lose 75 billion tons of topsoil globally every year. The Great Plains of North America have lost 6 to 10 feet of top soil since the arrival of farming there; and 38% of Canadian prairie farmland has become significantly salinated. It is worth noting that no civilisation has ever collapsed that did not have loss of soil fertility as a major contributing factor. Soil may not be a sexy topic, but it is premier in importance.
Directly connected to soil loss is deforestation. We lose an area of the Amazon the size of Kuwait every year to soy and cattle farming, which are wholly inappropriate to the climate. Globally, we lose the size of Lebanon in forests every year.
To this I will add that global fisheries are predicted to collapse by 2048; and that global climate change threatens the climate stability that makes agriculture possible while acidifying the oceans, threatening the base of marine food chains.
In this context, we can see that sustainability is another word for survivability.
How Did We Get Here?
A key point in finding our way out of this mess is to figure out how it is we got into it in the first place. To find that out, it’s helpful to examine what it is one has been trying to do.
So, what are we trying to do? What are we trying to achieve? Let’s look at the common answers offered up.
Is the goal to maximise individual and societal happiness?
Happiness is tracked by economists as “Subjective Well Being.” (They call it this because it’s more impressive than saying “happiness.”) In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin asked a novel question in the field of neo-classical economics: “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?” The answer was yes... to a point.
More recently, Lord Turner, former head of the Confederation of British Industry (that noted group of left wing radicals) admitted that “All the evidence shows that beyond the sort of standard of living which Britain has now achieved, extra growth does not automatically translate into human welfare and happiness”
He was on the right track, but the material standard of living today in the West is much higher than the point at which is required to maximise happiness. A recent meta-analysis by Oxford economic historian Avner Offer confirms this, concluding that,
Since the Second World War, and especially since the 1970s, self-reported ‘happiness’ has languished at the same levels, or has even declined.... On any measure used, the rise of aggregate money incomes has done little or nothing to improve the sense of well being.
Indeed, it can be argued that the influence of monetary wealth on societal happiness has become detrimental. A 2009 study from the London and Harvard Schools of Business has shown that exposure to luxury goods increases self interested thought and decision making. This is counter-productive to a species that is social by nature.
Is the goal of our global society to maximise human potential?
Were this the case, we would expect to see literacy rates at 99%. We’d also expect the average reading grade level in adults to be higher.
The cost of a post-secondary education in the U.S. would not be outpacing the rate of inflation by over 4.5 times, were this true. (The case is similar for Canada with tuitions skyrocketing.)
We would have no national debate about the need to combat mental illness; we would be combating mental illness.
We would not be creating people incapable of relating to other people. The University of Michigan has been recording self-reported empathy among college students and has found it dropping since 1980 when the study started. Seventy-five percent of today’s students assess themselves less empathetic than their average counterpart from thirty years ago. Self-reported narcissism is at an all time high.
A study published in the February, 2007 Quarterly of Economics found that landless squatters randomly given title over land showed increased materialistic and individualistic beliefs, including – and I wish I were making this up – the belief that you can succeed on your own. It also made the newly entitled less trusting of the landless. Apparently, money creates a new paradigm that blinds one to irony.
Is the goal to meet the need for healthy food, clean air and water, and sensible housing?
In addition to costing more energy than it provides (not to mention costing more dollars than it charges – one investigation from the January 12, 1994 edition of the Financial Times found the cost of a hamburger in real dollars was $290 USD, not counting corporate subsidies), industrially produced food is lower in nutrition than traditionally grown produce.
For instance, pasture-raised hens produce eggs that are 7 times higher in beta carotene, 3 times higher in vitamin E, 2 times higher in omega 3 fatty acids, 2/3 higher in vitamin A, 1/3 lower in cholesterol, and ¼ lower in saturated fat than eggs from prison chickens. Sticking with chickens, dark meat has decreased 52% in vitamin A content and increase 54.4% in fat since 1963. Chemist Donald R. Davis has compared data spanning the past 70 years and found median declines of 5 to 40% or more in vitamins, minerals and protein in fruits and vegetables. There is less food in industrially produced food.
Deaths from air pollution worldwide are estimated at 2 million per year by the WHO. Were clean air a serious goal, the only air quality warnings would come during forest fires and volcanic eruptions.
Clean water? You can convince me this is a serious goal when you can safely and confidently brew a cup of coffee with water from every single major river on earth. Deaths from unsafe water are estimated at 3 million per year.
Sensible shelter? Well, shelter, at least, though not too sensible. It is available to most, but the misfits, the mentally ill and those hit by financial disaster fall through the cracks.
Is the goal long term survivability?
We know we are destroying the soil that human health is dependent upon, we know that we use far more energy to produce food than we get from the food and we know that energy is running out. Furthermore, we know that using that energy is threatening the climatic stability that agriculture is dependent upon.
And even if we discover some wondrous new source of energy, it is clear from what we have done with cheap, abundant energy that we would most likely destroy the ecology that makes our lives possible. While survival as a species is likely, if likely hellish, survival as a global civilisation is not in the cards.
No, if these were our goals then we as a species are either grossly incompetent or incredibly stupid.
Looking empirically at outcomes, it appears to me as though the goal of our current system is to accrue and secure financial power for those clever enough, educated enough, lucky enough and/or devious enough to get it and hold on to it. As the saying goes, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
How Do We Get There?
If the global society is to survive, it needs to have a coherent and overt goal that encompasses sustainability. The good news is that there are precedents of societies that have successfully pulled themselves back from the brink and are surviving to this day. One example is Japan, which faced a serious crisis from deforestation. This was turned around by imperial decree during the Tokugawa era. More fascinating for me as an environmental designer is the example of the tiny Pacific island nation of Tikopia. At 4.7 km2, Tikopia has long been at risk of overpopulation. Environmental destruction has always been a risk, threatening starvation. Yet they have been able to overcome serious challenges that have arisen over the millennia and are still going strong 2900 years after first founding the nation.
To achieve what those nations did, we first need to establish a holistic goal that answers the question, “What are we trying to do?” Perhaps that goal will be the pursuit of happiness, or perhaps it will be to maximise human potential, but it must be clear and it must address human needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pretty good model for determining human needs, and the diagram here is patterned in large part, though not exclusively, from it. I’ve put together some of the needs that I’ve seen have empirical evidence to back them and avoided the influence of spiritual, political or economic ideology as best as I could. For simplicity’s sake, this is not an exhaustive list of human needs, just a sampling of important needs.
The importance of a holistic goal is summed up in the following analogy. It is near impossible to arrive in Burbank, California from Belleville, Ontario if all you know is that you need to drive 33 hours to reach the destination. You have to know where you are going if you want to get there.
Once a goal is in place, the next step is to draft a plan to achieve that goal. A vital step that most planners fail to do is to assume that the plan you create is flawed. It is too easy to fall in love with one’s plan and near impossible to create a plan that will not need adjustment over time to achieve its goals.
At this point, it is vital to know the eight most important words in sustainable design: Design action around energy, not energy around action. In other words, don’t plan what it is you are trying to do then scramble at the end to get the required energy. Determine your actions based on locally available sustainable energy. It is typical for a single property design to place elements relative to their distance from the house and the frequency with which you must visit them.
With the plan based on the holistic goal, it can now be implemented. Then observe the feedback and make adjustments to the plan accordingly.
I’d be remiss if I did not caution against looking to technology as a panacea for our problems. In the words of 2004 Massey lecturer Ronald Wright,
Our technological culture measures human progress by technology: the club is better than the fist, the arrow better than the club, the bullet better than the arrow. We came to this belief for empirical reasons.
He points out, however, that “[o]ur practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology – a secular religion which… is blind to certain flaws in its credentials.”
Technology may solve a given problem, but it opens up new problems requiring ever more technology to solve. We’ve had all the technology we’ve needed to make global civilisation sustainable for decades.
Now I’ll give the promised examples of this approach in action.
In May of 2009, I visited the small farming village of Talupula in Andhra Pradesh, India and the invite of a local organisation, the Green Tree Foundation, which provides trees to the region at low or no cost. Historically a dry tropical region, biotic pressure and climate change has turned the region into a semi arid zone, with the threat of desertification very seriously looming (desert has sprung up 100 km to the west). The goal in my case was to design and implement a water harvesting system to revitalise a section of land to serve as a demonstration site.
My initial plan had been to establish a system involving a small earthen dam fed by swales (swales are water harvesting ditches dug on contour) along with patterned ripping with a subsoiler to assist in allowing easier infiltration of water and even irrigation of the land.
Well, remember that it is important to assume one’s plan is wrong. While building a dam was an exciting prospect for me, the lateritic soils there made it an unrealistic option. The soil, hard as concrete in the dry season and as squishy as a mattress in the wet season did not lend itself to the kind of dam I had in mind, nor the patterned ripping with the subsoiler. The plan changed.
We settled on a 7-acre patch of hillside that a local organic farmer had abandoned to pigeon pea farming and nothing else. I knew that swales were a good option for the site and could assist in establishing a more water-hungry and more valuable crop of mango trees.
Inspecting the site, I calculated the size and spacing of the water harvesting swales needed and had the site mapped out by a survey crew. With three levels of contour mapped out and with the aid of a backhoe and a labour crew, we dug out 4 swales spanning over 400 metres. These swales capture rainfall that would otherwise wash down the hillside, eroding it, and store the water in the ground, making it available to plants and recharging the water table. When completely filled, the swales hold over one million litres of water. The total cost of the work to make this happen was $650 CND.
The staff at the Green Tree Foundation includes ethnobotanists who grew up in the region, so I left tree and ground cover selection in their very capable hands. This image just six months after I left shows the top swale with nitrogen-fixing Cassia siamea, which helps stabilise the soil along with enriching it. C. siamea leaves and pods can also be cooked and eaten, and helps fight colorectal cancer. It can also be used as a good fuel source. [Correction: C. siamea is not a nitrogen-fixing plant.]
Here we see mango trees that have been established without the use of irrigation. I knew the swales would have a marked effect, but I never imagined mango trees without irrigation.
Directly below the second and largest swale, there was a large tamarind tree that I would frequently seek shelter under (and it no doubt saved my life on the 45oC+ days we had). The tamarind fruits during the monsoon season and typical crops are like this one on a tamarind very close to the site but on the opposite slope.
Here is an image of the crop from the tamarind directly beneath the swales. The difference is night and day. Considering the tree saved my live several times over, this is the least I could do for it.
I had predicted to the team that within 3 years, springs would appear at the bottom of the hill below the swales, if only during the rainy season. Well, slightly to the side below the site, the farmer had dug a well for irrigation. When I was there, the water level was 3 metres down and inaccessible without a hose. Here, six months later, the same well was full, they say as a direct result of the swales.
My confidence in the effectiveness of this technique came from learning of the experiences of one of my teachers, Geoff Lawton. In 2000, he was invited to Jordan by NICCOD, a Japanese NGO and the Hashemite Fund for Human Development.
On a ten acre site in the Jordan River valley, 10 km from the Dead Sea, he led a project to establish a demonstration site for sustainable design. Rainfall at the site comes in 2 or 3 large events and amounts to only 100 to 150 mm per year. Regular hot, desiccating winds contribute to severe evaporation on the site. The soil is very infertile with little organic matter and extremely high salinity. Soil to a depth of 30 cm was found to have 98.1 dS/m, and soil from 30 to 60 cm deep registered 101.7 dS/m, making it extremely salty. [A dS/m, or decisiemens per metre, is a measure of electrical conductivity which can be used to measure soil salinity. The United States Department of Agriculture considers soil over 4 dS/m to be “saline soil.” The soils at the Kafrin site are above this level by more than an order of magnitude!]
To capture every drop of rainfall possible, the site was surveyed to provide a detailed map of the site contours. Once the contour lines were identified, swales were planned for the site to capture as much of the runoff rain to allow it to sink into the ground where it is most easily stored for the benefit of soil life and vegetation. Nitrogen-fixing trees were planted and drip irrigation was used to help establish them, although the site used 1/5th the irrigation of the surrounding farms in the area.
Eighteen months later, the site looked like this.
Geoff’s wife Nadia Lawton used similar permaculture techniques to design her family’s garden in Jordan. At the start, the site was very dry. They dug in a swale to capture rainwater and shunted greywater from the sinks into the swale. Before the trees were planted, the site looked like this.
The next year, the site was unrecognisable.
It’s not just applicable to arid regions, either. Before I left for India, I designed a passive solar home for my wife and I and have been building it myself since the end of 2009. As opposed to active solar, which is used to generate an electrical current, passive solar is a means of utilizing heat from the sun.
At 45° latitude (north or south) there are 957 Watt hours per square metre available for heating on a winter day. We can use this energy to assist in heating rather than relying totally on external sources of heat.
Taking advantage of free solar heat will not only save money, it will also help in making a building sustainable over its lifetime.
South facing fenestration allows us to capture solar energy where it is stored in the concrete pad and the thermal mass of the masonry stove that also serves as a backup heat source.
Though I was busy during the summer with construction of the house, I did take some time to establish 160 square feet worth of garden to supply us with fresh vegetables. In just that little area, I was able to grow about $400 worth of produce. Finding people to give the surplus away to was the main challenge. I will admit that we did need to water the garden a few times during the summer, but when it came to weeding, I report in all honesty that I spent less than 30 seconds weeding the entire summer. Similarly, we had no problems with pests whatsoever, so my recipes for drinkable insecticides were unnecessary.
Design is not limited to individual properties, either. I have recently worked with Transition Toronto, which is part of the Transition Movement. The Transition Movement seeks to assist communities in dealing with the challenges faced by declining energy levels. This includes creating action plans to provide food and energy for people as well as developing commerce strategies for a world that will surely see cast economic changes.
A colleague and fellow student of mine who is from Colombia has taught an entire village design and assisted them in designing a sustainable village for themselves in the mountains of Colombia.
And another piece of good news before I wrap up. It has taken us a tremendous amount of effort and energy to do the damage we have to the Earth. As we can see, if we pattern our actions in harmony with nature and make nature a partner rather than an opponent, positive response is instantaneous.
Once we can establish a sensible goal for ourselves and create a sustainable plan that involves working with nature, we can turn our planet on a dime. So, don’t panic.
(References will be added soon.)