Monday, March 22, 2010

Did Climate Change Drive Human Evolution?

Makes sense of course, and it's the focus of a new Smithsonian exhibit.
As we design ways to adapt to current challenges we may remember how perennial this challenge has likely been.
NPR Climate Story

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Whole Systems Skills Launched

Speaking of adapting - it takes a lot of hard skills. New and old skills from identifying firewood to growing food, to making and repairing tools, to potentially defending your home or self, to ensuring that you have investments more durable than mere paper currency - whether that be soil, water, food, tools, know-how, community and other durable values.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Climate Change Triggering Earthquakes...?

Not hard to believe - the earth's crust is pretty dynamic. Thanks for the link Virginia.
Migrations away from major faults? Redvelopment of those areas in major fault zones or new quake zones? All of the above? Or more catastrophes?
Climate Change Quake Triggers

Friday, January 15, 2010

Why Biomass Won't Solve our Energy Problem

There are other reasons, of course too. But this video shows how perennial biomass based energy is the same old industrial agriculture model that mines soil (or what's left of it) to make woody material for combustion energy. Of course, the soil givens out in these conditions like it always does when we treat it like a road surface, requiring constant inputs of NPK (oil-sourced of course) to keep on going.
So yes, just another wolf in sheep's clothing here friends.
Sounds good though! 'Woody biomass' or 'sustainably harvested woody biomass'. Renewable-sustainable-green-ecogroovy-don't worry we've got the solution covered keep burning up the energy and consuming your way into the future...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Haitian Earthquake of 2010: Mostly a Human Failure, Not Natural Disaster

The Haitian Earthquake of 2010: Mostly a Human Failure, Not a Natural Disaster
A Case Study in Unadaptive Design from an Infrastructure Planning Perspective

The Haitian Earthquake of January 12, 2010 will go down in history as one of the millennium’s largest natural disasters. But how natural, inevitable, unpreventable was it? What are the larger lessons for human society across the globe, visible in this event? What can it teach us about human resiliency planning in the face of myriad challenges, from a changing climate to resource depletion to toxic chemical accumulations in the biosphere? All of these challenges and a multitude of others are on the increase and the 21st Century may prove to be the most acute test of humanity’s adaptive ability to date. In the face of various environmental conditions – both those that are somewhat within our control like climate change, to those completely out of our control like earthquakes – how adaptive will we be? This ‘natural’ disaster in Haiti, was triggered by a strong earthquake, but its results were courtesy of more sustained human disaster rooted in environmental destruction, lack of appropriate technology, failed political leadership and social system instability.

(Most) Earthquakes are not an inherent catastrophe
Earthquakes are one of these conditions, and surprisingly, a condition that is largely ‘absorbable’ by carefully developed shelter, food, water, medical, information and mobility systems. In other words, the vast majority of earthquakes are not like large asteroid strikes, they can be absorbed with relative ease by human settlements. Looking at historic quakes and their results we see that the death toll from an earthquake is not proportional to the quake’s intensity but to the conditions of those human settlements in the affected region.
On the contrast, we know how to design and develop settlements that can function through most earthquakes. Here’s a high rise condo building that can take a quake 'stronger than any seen in modern times':
The Istanbul Airport is also one of hundreds of examples of the latest in sound earthquake design:

This is not new: especially in smaller scale constructions humans have built highly earthquake resistant building and landscape systems for millennia – light structures of organic materials tend to be inherently flexible and resilient to tremors. Earthquakes tend to cause damage when they strike densely inhabited areas or cause tsunamis or floods that affect such areas.

Of course, quakes of extreme magnitudes may always be outside of our ability to design and build around. Fortunately, while tremors are a constant feature of Earth’s dynamic crust (happening hundreds of times per year), those over 8.0 magnitude are rare. A quaking landscape, like a shifting climate, is simply a fact of life on this planet, and one that humanity must adapt to if our tenure on this planet is to be long and reliably enjoyed by many.

Haiti – History of Vulnerability
The recent earthquake to strike Haiti begs the connection between environmental health, national security and disaster resistance. Haiti is a case study in failed human settlement strategies. It's been said before that “a people can only get so impoverished within a forested landscape, it’s only when the trees are gone that poverty becomes truly desperate.” The link between the current destruction and deforestation, while not 100% direct, is clear in most regards:
Progression toward a catastrophic 7.0 earthquake
1. Nation is 97% deforested, mostly for charcoal production for cooking
2. Nation becomes deeply impoverished due to lack of productive agriculture, acute floods, landslides, malnourishment, joblessnesses and other direct results of a failing land base.
3. Widespread desperateness of citizenry due to failing land base creates conditions ripe for corruption, tyranny, warlord-ruled social systems.
4. Infrastructure systems are minimally developed and with complete disregard for soundness, resulting in complete vulnerability to a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
5. Emergency response to earthquake is wholly inadequate.

For more on Haiti's recent ecological background:

Of course, what is briefly written here is a generalization of a highly complex society where social norms and taboos, colonial slave-based history and numerous other forces have been at work for generations, all of which lead up to the contemporary condition that is Haiti. The parallels, however, between this event and other ‘natural’ disasters, especially to the fastest growing economy in the world, China, are striking. Most of the modern world’s most major ‘natural’ disasters have been in China, and probably will continue to be. Of course, this is not actually the result of natural conditions but of cultural and technological conditions. The U.S. faces growing vulnerabilities in this same vein of “cultural vulnerability follows ecological condition.” Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of the majority of the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline estuaries are a prime example of this.

“Designing for Disaster” Benefits in Any Scenario
So, from a planning perspective, let’s remember that most natural disasters are not acts-of-god, but are manmade (yes made by men, not women) catastrophes made acute, largely, by the vulnerabilities inherent in quick-fix, short term infrastructure developments, lack of ecological sustainability and vitality in a nation’s land base and the resulting social and economic conditions created by these. America today is entering an era of increased vulnerability in this regard as we seek to ‘rebuild’ quickly and cheaply aging infrastructure as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

As planners and infrastructure developers we need to design all systems with the expectation that magnitude 7.0 earthquakes, category 5 hurricanes, 3’ snowstorms, droughts and major flood events are simply guaranteed. The design discipline of permaculture calls this “designing for disaster.” And it’s not a negative depressing approach – on the contrast – designing with the worst case scenario in mind can be the most direct route to the best result. One upshot of designing for disaster is that making infrastructure of such high quality involves more jobs both in both the design and development end and yields higher performance results even if these systems never need to stand up to an acute environmental challenge. Designing for disaster simply lends better, more economical and higher performing systems in the end.

One can only hope that the assistance in rebuilding Haiti will involve developing earthquake-resistant infrastructure systems (most strategies are not particularly expensive or materials intensive) and reforesting the Haitian landscape so that the foundation of a more sustainable, disaster-resistant culture can be laid. For now the aid needed for the most immediate needs of food, water and medical care is mind numbing – the planning needs are secondary. Here are a few locations that seem good for sending donations toward the effort:

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dean's Mountain Permaculture Farm

The farm is headquarters for our ongoing research and development into low/no input perennial farm systems development and represents one site among a growing handful of properties in our network where ecosystem agriculture projects are maintained, harvested from, and observed, recorded and shared.

Perpetual Fuelwood System Research and Development

In an effort to advance home heating security, fuel security, and forest sustainability in Vermont, New England (and the cold climate world in general) WSD is conducting research and development on the production of concentrated fuelwood via rapid biomass producing hedges. Such fuelwood producing systems simultaneously build soil fertility (via mulching, root zone soil interactions and NO2-fixation) and sequester atmospheric carbon. Trials include tree crop production of hybrid willow species, speckled alder and hybrid poplars. Test sites includes Deans Mtn., Teal Farm, and in the future Northfield and Warren project sites. We are in grant writing phase for a test plot along the I-89 interstate corridor in Vermont and are continually seeking input and collaborators in this process. The most economical and regenerative short term application would likely be along the 300 miles of Vermont's interstate corridors (and the 46,837 miles/426,378 acres of interstate corridor in the United States highway system).