Monday, January 15, 2018

Solving the Big Problems

This right here. We need to find a way to sustain this.
A couple of years ago I joined the Sustainability Committee of the local chapter of the American Public Works Association (APWA). I have been interested in sustainability and following it for some time, but joining this group made me really look deep at what it means for a society to be sustainable, what makes us unsustainable, what the core problems are, and how we might solve them. Naturally, my perspective is that the only way to really be sustainable is to make full use of ecological cycles. With this perspective, I started to notice some interesting patterns. If you look critically at our current society, with an understanding of what actually helps things, you notice that in many cases, our problems pair up nicely and sort of solve each other. By looking at it in this way, the solutions become pretty thoroughly evident, even if the application of those solutions is a little trickier. What do I mean? Allow me to explain.

Problem #1: Industrial agriculture is damaging our soil to the point that we currently rely on heavy inputs of damaging chemicals just to produce any food at all, and we are looking at losing the ability to produce food at all in the next 60 years, according to some estimates. Problem #2: Improvements in artificial intelligence (AI) over the next 20 years promise to automate enough jobs that some people anticipate up to 60% unemployment in that time frame. The problem with industrial agriculture is that we rely increasingly on monocultures so that we can efficiently harvest larger and larger areas with fewer and fewer people. The needs of automation are fundamentally incompatible with the needs of a natural system, which relies on diversity for health. At the same time, the best plan anyone has come up with for preventing disaster in the wake of massive technological unemployment is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). A UBI basically pays people just to exist so they will have money to live and use to buy products from industry that no longer pays them to produce those products. What if we put these people to work? Let’s put them back on the land to have them repair the land while producing the food we are going to need to feed a growing population.

Let’s try the next pair: Problem #3: The grasslands of the world are rapidly turning into desert, causing increasing droughts and floods, releasing carbon previously stored in the soil into the atmosphere, and causing world-wide erosion problems. Problem #4: A growing population needs ever more space to live. We are actively cutting down forests to build more houses. Plus, (bringing in problem #2 from above) technological unemployment will leave urban and suburban populations unemployed and people who have nothing to do tend to cause problems. Holistic Management helps with the solution for this one. The natural grassland ecosystems all over the world rely heavily on impact from massive herds of hoofed herbivores reacting to pack hunting predators over huge areas of land, at the least thousands of square miles. And they need us pesky humans to butt out and not get involved. The problem is, something as simple as a fence or a road can disturb those interactions, effectively managing them. Time and experience has shown that every unintentional management technique, and even most of the intentional ones, break the cycle and cause desertification. Livestock is capable of providing the animal impact needed if managed properly. By breaking up the land into manageable blocks and reengaging humans with livestock, we can restore the proper impact and repair deserts back into grasslands. But there are hundreds of millions of square miles that need to be fixed in this manner. Maybe we need to offer people a better life on the land than the one they have in cities.

On to the third pair: Problem #5: The current economic system is the biggest threat to any real change. People will always stick with what they know and cling to the little bit of security they have. Problem #6: The current system is unsustainable and is beginning to crush under its own weight. Well, this one is easy. The two pretty much cancel each other out. The trick is to let the old system fail while gently sliding a new system into place to minimize the impact on individual families.

Here is the fourth pair: Problem #7: Animals raised for meat are predominantly raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) lots, creating a concentrated source of animal waste, which pollutes the land and waterways, releasing a huge amount of carbon dioxide and methane, which are both greenhouse gasses. Problem #8: Land degradation due to industrial agriculture has led to increased need for synthetic fertilizers, which are typically manufactured from fossil resources and applied to the land at a cost to the farmer. These fertilizers don’t bond very well to the soils and are prone to running off and polluting the rivers and the oceans they feed into. The problem here is not having the fertilizer necessary, but rather a problem of location. We have all the resources we need to solve both problems, but they don’t work well with industrial agriculture. If we put the animals back on the land, the fertilizer they produce will be distributed evenly exactly where it is needed and will have a regenerative effect on the land.

The fifth grouping is actually a trio: Problem #9: For the last 30 years, the wages of lower and middle class workers have stagnated, leading to a reduced standard of living for the majority of the population. Problem #10: Urban areas have a number of environmental challenges. Concentrated burning of fossil fuels lead to an increase in air pollution. The increase of paved areas causes increased runoff, which increases flooding, as well as increased absorption of the sun’s energy, causing Urban Heat Island Effect. Problem #11: Food security is increasingly a worry in populated areas. Food is shipped from far off and grown on land that is rapidly degrading and doused with toxic chemicals. The solution for these two is truly local food, produced right in the cities. Have you ever had that one neighbor who is always trying to give away extra zucchini or tomatoes? How would life be different if there those people were living every couple of houses? Maybe we could set up a new system that allows them to sell that produce at a local market and earn additional income. With advances in food production methods, such as garden/mechanical hybrids such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and automated systems such as FarmBot, people could produce fruits and veggies enough to feed their families with extra to sell, all on a quarter acre suburban lot. With advances in technology, they can do that without even having to spend that much additional effort. As systems get put in place to encourage this sort of behavior, like friendly zoning and markets for additional produce, people will put more area into production. Roofs become prime real estate for growing produce. Denver even requires green roofs on new buildings. Imagine that area producing food. Yard area not in production for annual vegetable crops can be planted in a food forest and allowed to be natural. With hard spaces minimized, rainwater captured, additions of photosynthesizing plants, and food production abounding, every one of these problems gets significantly minimized.

Let’s look at one last pair: Problem #12: As the soils that produce our food degrade, they have fewer nutrients to put into our food. By some estimates, our food has 60-70% fewer nutrients today than it had a hundred years ago. The impact on our health is undeniable, but hard to accurately estimate. Increases in mental disorders, cancer, allergies, and possibly even obesity could all be related to reduced nutrition in our food supply, and also likely even increased amounts of toxic agricultural chemicals. Problem #13: Municipalities are spending ever more money on maintenance and construction due to increased flooding and erosion. The problem is, drainage solutions are being designed in an attempt to solve a soils problem. As natural cycles that build soil organic matter are disturbed or broken entirely, the soil loses its organic matter and thus its ability to absorb water. As rains hit, more water runs off and faster, taking soil with it. When that water hits roads, it closes the road, first because of the running water, then because of the sediment it drops as the floodwaters recede. City and county governments spend tens of thousands of dollars either cleaning up after every single rain storm or tens of millions of dollars designing catchment structures to mitigate the problem. That money could instead be allocated to help people engage with the land in regenerative practices. By growing vegetation in a way that regenerates soils, the water would better infiltrate the soil, the soil would be less erosive, and the plants would bring more nutrients up from the deep soil, increasing the nutrition of any food crops grown there. The best part is that with an investment of three hundred thousand dollars, a family can be set up to manage 200 acres and be financed for a couple of years until they become profitable on their own. For the cost of a regional detention basin, which can run in excess of $12 million, you can do that for  8000 acres. With careful placement of these homesteads along critical washes, this solution can be used to permanently solve drainage problems at several stream crossings rather than just one while providing employment and economic growth.

Of the big problems, the only one that doesn’t have a convenient pairing with its solution, or at least a common solution that solves the two together is the increasing levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the air. But the rest of these solutions hit this problem as well. As a society, we tend to look primarily at the source of all that carbon in the atmosphere, such as our energy consumption. But it runs like a budget. When your household is overdrawn, you can work on curtailing your rampant expenditure of money all you want, but until you begin to pay down the debt, the problem will never get any better. Soil is our best and least used carbon sink. Until we start storing all that carbon safely in the soil, we’ll never truly get a handle on climate change.

The problem with our current system is that we are actively using things up. Put differently, we are extracting the wealth with little regard to what is left behind. We are extracting it from the land, from the soil, from the biosphere of the world, and from our fellow human beings. There is a whole lot of momentum behind this system. It is the only one we know. More importantly, the people who are currently doing very well for themselves off of this system of exploitation and destruction are actively throwing a portion of those profits at the effort of making sure it doesn’t change. That makes actual, lasting change very difficult. The only real way to do that is to show regular people that there really is a better way to live. There is a way to live that will give more satisfaction, put money in their pocket (or at least allow them to spend less of what they have), and give their children better nutrition so they can grow strong and healthy.

It is possible to do all this through one seemingly simple, but very important medium: soil. Soil is the basis of all terrestrial life and the single most important substance for human life on earth. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. Or, as I always, say, my job as a gardener is not to take care of my plants. I take care of the soil and the soil takes care of the plants. The soil is alive. It plays a very active role in the cycling of nutrients and keeping plants healthy. Those plants, in turn, perform nearly every function we need performed. They make the oxygen we breathe, pull carbon dioxide out of the air, shade and cool the ground, turn the sun’s energy into something usable, produce the food we eat, produce the food our food eats, make medicines, make the materials we build our homes out of, and the list goes on. All that depends on healthy soil. While some of those functions can be performed without healthy soil, as they are now, they function at a much lower efficiency. By simply focusing on the soil, we can improve so many things.

Growing up, my father always told me that Mother Nature takes thousands of years to produce one inch of healthy topsoil. I know he meant it to point out that it is a precious resource and we should treat it as one, I guess I always took it as a challenge. By carefully applying a range of techniques I have covered previously on this blog, you can make that inch of topsoil in anywhere from a couple of years to just a couple of months, depending on the scale of your operation and your dedication to the task. I will note that hydroponics and aquaponics do not actually produce soil, though the remnants of the plants can be used to do so. Instead, I focus on these techniques because they offer options for urban dwellers that might not necessarily be available otherwise.

More importantly, careful use of the set of these techniques that is appropriate to each individual’s situation can help them personally while helping the world at large. There is nothing quite so effective for solving big problems as showing people how meeting their rational self-interests can make a significant difference on the big problems.