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A Living Design for Doing Living Design

At the risk of being called a nerd (and I screwed the pooch on that one 25 years ago) here’s some sideways sharing that comes as the result of the proposal I’m making on Vertecology LLC’s (yes, it’s an LLC!) first large scale permaculture design for an eight acre community to be, just south of Ashland Oregon.

In the act of preparing the bid for the client, which ostensibly would price out a site plan and a relatively fixed final landscape design which would then be carved into an unwilling earth, not because the client demands it but because we don’t even have the language or the software for doing otherwise, I realized said Standard Way of Going About It that I learned in Architecture School is entirely insufficient.

Permaculture after all is about working with living systems, adapting flows midstream, integrating far more than the topography of dirt and the arrangement of neat rows of pretty flowers and pretty houses. We are guiding living systems with an intelligence all their own and being guided in kind by endless feedback loops that yield vision as much as they yield blackberries and soils and unpredictable opportunities and muscles as you roll that wheelbarrow out one more time. Yes, sometimes this tree just gets moved over there. But sometimes you introduce chickens to control the flies. Sometimes you replace the septic with composting toilets and the resultant soil changes the pH where you drop it, sometimes the recommendations are tiny but with huge impacts, and at the end of the day, discovering an opportunity here and taking advantage of it changes the balance over there.

How can a simple, complicated as $!*& CAD drawing, which I can do quite easily and well with my years of training reflect all of that, reflect human, plant, animal, mechanical and invisible factors? CAD is after all, as static as it is precise and it makes our heads more static as we layer our drawings with ever deeper precision and detail. How can CAD bend to reflect seasons and systems theory, succession of evolution and changes that come about on the land as we interlope and guide our systems to optimum? How can we describe the relevant opportunities on the land without involving and locking ourselves into a thousand layers and a thousand hours of ever expanding irrelevant detail? How can CAD describe a river, an unfolding?

Thus in the process I have come to realize that a wider view must be taken. CAD is a part of the solution, but so is an elegant and interactive display where client and designer alike can track ideas, visions and observations. So are books, whiteboards, a growing capacity in the client to read the land, mission statements and meditation in the various microclimates of the place. Perhaps the site map can begin and end with construction paper and crayons… Observing, visioning and implementing blend and blur and cycle back into one another with ever increasing resolution and clarity and ecosystems and income systems take and change shape. Ah, The Brain shall live in the Barn and work while I’m away.

Here’s version 1.0 of the design process diagram… one that may just live on Vertecology for quite some time.

Large Scale Permaculture Design Process

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A Review & Response: Thomas Greco’s The End of Money and the Future of Civilization

While I’ve got several projects in the pipeline and lots to blog about on that front, I’m taking a break to critique the groundbreaking book I just read – Thomas Greco’s The end of Money and the Future of Civilization.

While the plan around Vertecology is to make some money, the plan within the plan is to help us all transition beyond the need for it. Until we’ve done that, we won’t have a regenerative or creative society and it’s not a problem of the left or right but a fundamental design problem. The current economic regime is a boat with a hole in it. Until that’s dealt with, the boat will sink, no matter whether it’s piloted by the red or the blue.

While politicians haw about “jobs, jobs, jobs” and imaginary debt ceilings, the “money system” as currently structured is a resource bottleneck. While there is plenty of computing power, steel, bamboo, sun, biomass, mulch… The millions of people with arms and legs and nimble minds ready and willing to do the real work to be done with the resources sitting all around them are left instead begging for jobs in cities where it’s illegal to grow fruit trees on public property for fear of litigation. And so the factories sit idle, or worse, make things that make life more difficult for all of us.Missile Image

There are of course plenty of people who would empower the willing, give access to the tools and space they need to unfold truly beneficial skill and innovation. But they can’t afford it.

I’ve built treehouses for the children of the ultra-rich in Bel Air. I’ve also built for the destitute in post-quake Haiti.  While both have presented awesome design challenges, it’s pretty easy to guess which has brought greater financial reward, greater “incentive,” and even “smart, realistic” encouragement from well-meaning loved ones. Spirituality aside, it’s pretty apparent who and what gets rewarded, and who we all end up working for.

Continue the trend long enough and you get the well intentioned of our world crying “I need a job,” crime, clear-cutting and corporations externalizing costs. You get televised false advertising 24/7, “I ain’t got time to garden” and kids who think veggies come from plastic wrappers and who never met their fathers.  It starts to look like the good ol’ USA, the richest, freest, fattest nation on Earth.

So what comes after? The End of Money and the Future of Civilization explores the “money problem” and its history, and offers some compelling and potentially real world solutions. While the proposals have also left me with questions, I am ecstatic to have in Greco such a brilliant and capable partner in this grand inquiry, perhaps the most important of our time. (Click here to check out his blog… At last I know I’m not the only one celebrating “bad” economic news these days).

Greco defines the money problem as having two major components. One is that currency is politically controlled. Just as church and state were once joined, such it still is with money. You have one official state currency, which can only be issued by a state sanctioned central bank. Legal tender laws require that the currency be accepted by all parties at face value, no matter whether they find the currency credible, and all value is calculated in terms of the official currency. Whether the bank is privately owned or state owned makes no difference as it’s a monopoly in either case.

This note is legal tender for all debts, public or private.

This setup enables the bank/state cartel to issue (debt) money out of thin air, hold its tax base accountable for paying the made-up bills, set the terms for getting credit, manipulate the economy in favor of those who can pay to manipulate the economy, and quash all alternatives.

The second part is that usury is built-in. The central bank prints money to cover state debt, but does so at interest, creating the inevitable situation that there will never be enough money in the world to pay all the debts that are owed, and what goes for the beleaguered state must trickle down to the taxpayer, who buys a house, goes to the bank, and has a 1 in 10 chance of foreclosure on the bank’s terms. The economy must grow to cover all this debt, meaning it must generate more debt to pay for the debt.

Credit Card Debt Stretcher

The solution offered comes first with the separation of money and state. Trying to do this politically is like trying to swim up a waterfall, so it’s best to create viable competing alternative systems that stay under the radar until they hit critical mass in the marketplace.

Once the monopoly has been dislodged, “monetary” systems would be left competing like any other product in the market. The most empowering setups would presumably win, and money-as-credit, once decentralized could become the most empowering setup. Credit clearing exchanges such as the former Swiss Economic Circle now known as the WIR Bank and the mercados de trueque that held the Argentine economy together while the state currency collapsed in the 1990’s could become the norm, small pods of prosumers (producer/consumers) creating credit networks that link together into worldwide exchanges. Each joins and offers his products and services and with usury out of the equation, the “money” supply always matches the actual products and services available.

Awesome, but I’ve got questions. I’ll pose them here in hopes of drumming up an interesting discussion. While I like the idea of letting currency systems compete in the marketplace, and the idea of credit-clearing networks, intuition tells me to look from a wider angle, that this approach can well replace the current financial regime, but that is not the whole solution. After all, credit-clearing systems in the current cultural context might still have reason to be manipulated, mismanaged or politically suppressed (and have been, as Greco himself has noted). As our capitalist economy has shown, people get greedy when their survival is on the line (regardless if the threat is real or imaginary).

I certainly don’t have a full understanding of what exactly would happen if the de-politicized global credit clearing genie were let out of the bottle. Maybe no one does. Maybe the explosive growth of internet phenomena like Facebook can provide a case study, maybe not. That’s why I want to jump into discussion and exploration.

I’m thinking from the permaculture principle of redundancy. Build multiple redundancies into the ecosystem you’re designing. Make sure you’ve got multiple sources of water, not just one, that way if one fails, well, you get the picture.

In that sense we’d include experimentation with credit-clearing networks on the free market, where it’s appropriate to use commerce to get what we want and need, and also make that but part of a larger strategy. We’d also go beyond thinking of the “money problem” in monetary terms so we can solve it. Perhaps there is also fundamental cultural evolution that must occur so that the system of energy exchange can take its rightful place in society, be an organ that serves, rather than devours people, communities and the planet.

Commerce is just an evolutionary strategy, an ecological adaptation. We trade things because it enables us to expend less energy than we would otherwise have to. As long as it’s efficient for us, it makes sense to trade. When it ceases to be more efficient for us, it no longer makes sense. As we widen our view and look upon the state of our world today, we are beginning to see that threshold. And a strategy is not who we are; it is just what we do.

Desert trade caravan

So I’ve thought of “money problem” solution as a spiral. As we advance up the spiral, less and less depends upon the “economy” as we now understand it:

First, getting basic food requirements out of the currency-exchange equation – make food free for everyone – goes a long way to eliminating our dependence on money for immediate survival. While this may sound impossible to some, it can be easily achieved with cultural willingness, ecological literacy and techne (the Greek root for technique and technology, most simply, the knowledge of how to make things). One study considers that the arable land needed to feed an adult human being is about 1,000 square feet, if organic methods are used.

If permaculture principles are intelligently applied, then the land can produce until the next comet strike or alien invasion, and in such a way that when the ecosystem is mature on the land, there’s just some human guidance required and sustenance for the wildlife too. Even in the far north, people have been feeding themselves for generations, and with food forestry in modern urban cultures, the pressures on their lands will diminish considerably. It does take labor, of course, just not money.

Even more critical of course is water, but this is at the same point on the spiral because wise design for food takes care of water. Plants keep water on the land; then there’s just a need to harvest, filter, cleanse and replenish it, all of which can be handled via the ecosystem services that give us the food. Such systems also restore soil, pull carbon and pollutants out of the atmosphere, get us outside and exercising and meeting neighbors, reduce our dependence on big pharma, big ag and big oil, restore our relationship with nature and spirit, and provide endless opportunities for educating children.

Moving beyond this point on the spiral, society gets a little more courageous, since we don’t need the jobs as bad. We can blow the whistle, which hastens the next level of the spiral – energy. When we can get energy out of the money system, our means and volume of production will become consistent with real need and imagination, rather than balance sheet expectations. I’m not going to advocate for one kind of energy production here; I will only say that what we pull out of the field of endless possibility, once the groping hands of big oil have lost their ability to control our politics and pocketbooks will be contextually appropriate and consistent with our true science and values.

With our ingenuity, we will surely in time come up with automated, sustainable energy production, and with free energy, we advance further up the spiral toward ubiquitous, but also authentically appropriate decentralized DIY manufacturing. Since manufacturing will always involve human imagination and effort, exchange will always be involved, but by this point there’s far more incentive for that to become honest, equitable, mutually empowering and ecologically sustainable.

Next on the spiral comes health. As energy and manufacturing are liberated, medicine will become far more open source. Combine this with freer time, functioning ecologies and communities, organic food and medical research’s decentralization and release from money-dependence, you get far healthier people. (See the research on blue zones). We will always need practitioners for certain issues and honor them with energy exchange, but the bill won’t give us a heart attack.

And how about land? That is certainly the most entrenched form of “property,” going back thousands of years. One could imagine it coming far sooner on the spiral, except for that very reason. Yet I imagine in the liberated environment made possible by uncoupling food, water, energy production and to some extent automated manufacturing from the system of commerce, creative and innovative arrangements even here will become a lot more plausible, an appropriate balance between the commons and private ownership rediscovered.

From Money-Dependence to Global Commons and Regenerative Civilization

Part of my reason for starting Vertecology is to facilitate this spiraling process. 1,000 square feet doesn’t necessarily have to be all on the ground, and it can be artfully arranged. Free energy possibilities come in two forms really, both of which I am also exploring with gusto. One is conservation – transferring dependence from man-made systems like air-conditioning to naturally facilitated “passive” systems like solar chimneys. The other is energy production.

That said, I would love to hear response from Greco and others here, since from discussion can emerge more and more effective efforts in climbing the spiral. What I have to offer through Vertecology will be just one node in a whole ecosystem of efforts, skills, and approaches that will have to be engaged. Our two approaches can be complimentary, along with a host of others. Get the book to read for yourself here, and let the discussion, and the adventure continue.

The First Residential Install

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Well, I spent the last week and a half building a pergola for Vertecology’s first private residential client. This was an exciting milestone personally and for Vertecology, the name inspired by “Vertical Ecology,” though going with the “e” instead of the “i,” has turned out to be quite the creative inspiration.

Through Vertecology I am committed to the permaculture principles and one of those principles is “stacking functions.” That means making each element you design produce lots of abundance for the whole – the ecosystem, people, the community and the planet. For example a tree provides shade, habitat for lots of plants and animals, mulch and building materials. It fertilizes and stabilizes the soil, raises the water table, creates diverse microclimates supporting biodiversity, and keeps moisture in the locale (the trees are responsible for as much as 50% of the rain that forest regions receive).

A pergola or patio structure like this if well designed, placed, and planted can aspire to that level of multi-dimensional function. At the very least it can do lots more than look pretty, and that said, I still look forward to photos of this one in a year or two.

First and foremost in the client’s mind was beauty, and shade and enjoyment in the warm months. The lady of the house is looking forward to warm-weather entertaining.

And yet this pergola will mean more than 300 new square feet of growable surface area for oxygen-producing, flowering vines. Structures like this and some much wilder ones in the works are one way to make small urban and suburban yards, nooks and crannies unique, compelling and ecologically productive.

Covered with vines that leaf in the warm months, this pergola will shade the west (back) wall of the house in the afternoon, helping to keep the house cool with less air conditioning. In winter the afternoon sun will shine through much thinner foliage from a lower angle, warming the rear wall and therefore the rest of the house with less electric heating.

The client is considering a flowering, climbing vine such as wisteria which while inedible to people, is a big attractor for moths and butterflies who will pollinate gardens throughout the neighborhood as they make rounds and attract birds as they do. The birds will control bug populations, fertilize a bit of ground themselves and possibly bring seeds from other locales.

And finally, this project was built entirely with Forest Stewardship Council certified wood from Anawalt Lumber. While I prefer to work with reclaimed wood, the finer detailing and longer dimensional lengths desired here meant taking another approach. So the pergola also helped finance a supply chain that takes ecology into account and even me a happy ending after an hour on hold: asking the local Home Depot buyer if they carry FSC lumber, he responded “No… but, you’re the second to ask this month, I’m going to make some phone calls to make it happen.”

Build it and they will come…

Prototype “Truss Table” and “Octet” Make an Appearance at the California Gift Show

Well there’s nothing growing on them (yet… stay tuned…) but this table and octahedron, built of entirely reclaimed materials made an appearance this weekend at the California Gift Show as part of the booth for Looptworks, a Portland, Oregon based startup that has recently been featured in Fast Company and Entrepreneur magazines (Click on the links for the articles). Looptworks specializes in limited runs of stylish clothing and other accessories such as iPad and laptop bags made from “upcycled” materials – scrap fabrics that would otherwise be thrown away by textile manufacturers.

As the photos attest we also included displays for their presentation that were entirely improvised from scrap palettes and plywood dumped in a Midtown LA parking lot – it’s amazing what a bit of paint and style can do. After a hump-day all-nighter building the table I met up with Scott Hamlin and Kiana Neal, who commissioned the design and flew down to represent Looptworks at the Gift Show. We then spent most of a tired but fun Thursday installing at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The table and octahedron are entirely modular. The table is constructed from a single repeating wooden form that can be modified slightly with each iteration and positioned either to become part of the top or one of the side supports, and that when put together form a solid truss.

The frame was made from reclaimed Douglas Fir 2×4’s that were originally used by a photographer friend for another display, and we decided to leave a few traces of the text she painted on the wood for a little taste of the materials’ history and a stylish flair further enhanced by artful cuts and gaps on the plywood and scrap corrugated plastic tabletop.

The octahedron, also of reclaimed Douglas Fir mostly purchased from Jose Nunez & Son scrap yard in East LA (2×4’s for $1 a piece if you’re willing to pull the nails), is also part of a repeating system, one that can be adapted as a multifunctional garden system – individual octahedron/tetrahedron elements such as this one can be stacked, bolted together, individual units being left open, partially or wholly enclosed, with each unit taking on one or more ecological x structural x happy-people functions, pretty much limited only by imagination. Check the photo below.

All in all a great weekend and I look forward to working with Looptworks again in the near future; we are already planning on another show in October

You can see more photos including process shots on my facebook profile photo album. And do, if you get the chance, click on the link above for Douglas Fir – it helps us all to know where the materials originally originated. These trees can grow to 393 feet. I was quite amazed to learn 🙂

How 500 Toilets Could Change the World

One of permaculture’s 20 or so principles goes something like “Make the smallest change possible for the greatest effect possible.” In a sense it’s taking efficiency to the ultimate degree. It’s like the karate master taking down the boxer by quietly letting the boxer throw a thousand punches and then… wham!

From another direction you could think of it like the overquoted statement “a butterfly flaps its wings in China, and a hurricane occurs in Brazil.” Systems scientists talk about “chaos points,” pivotal convergences or moments whose outcomes can cause the direction of history. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell wrote something interesting about Duke Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 led to World War I, and World War II since that grew out of Germany’s response to the Allies’ punishment for World War I. Ferdinand had been traveling in the American west sometime around the turn of the century. He stopped at a rodeo show and stepped up when one of the performers for a volunteer. She asked him to put an apple on top of his head, and then she shot it off clean with her six-gun. Apparently the story goes, she never missed. But what if she’d missed that one time? We might have had a very different 20th century.

So chaos points are apparently random. None of the people at the rodeo show could have predicted the future. But sometimes we do have foresight. Sometimes we can see the rough outlines of staggering opportunities. Which brings us to the 500 toilets. Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That’s a story told by economists, who, as far as our government, media, etc., are concerned, might as well be priests. Seeing through their “gross national product growth” model where product and growth and even human livelihood can only be conceived in terms of dollars, Haiti is the poorest country, and it’s pretty much fucked. The debt-load, which to economists is like a physical object, as real and non-negotiable as a tree, a plastic bag, the ocean or a person, is just too great, there is little dollar-generating business or export, 90% of the population doesn’t hold a paying job and without money, you can’t do anything.

The story I experienced on the ground is something more like this: the Haitian people do indeed face incredible hardship. Their institutions are barely functioning, and where they are, they’re propped up by NGO’s that have a lot of problems of their own including the politics that affect any organization, but also well-meaning but one-dimensional goals and a tendency, perhaps to see things in economists’ terms – the biggest complaint is often lack of resources. The streets and waterways of Port-au-Prince are filled with rubble and garbage. There’s the cholera, the depleted soil, and lots of people build their houses and livelihoods out of whatever they can find. The literacy rate is something like 50%… most of us who care to read this far probably know enough of the story that I don’t have to go on. But that’s only half the story – more on that in a minute.

If Haiti is an extreme, Cite Soleil, a district within Port-au-Prince is an extreme within an extreme. It’s an area with about 2,000 residents, cut roughly down the middle by a slow moving river that flows into the floodplain and ocean that borders the area to the west. If history had gone a little differently, Cite might have been a beach resort. Here the garbage shapes the landscape to a whole other level in places, and it’s also mixed with human feces. With only 2 functioning toilets, people just shit in the streets, or in the river, where other people bathe and wash clothes. With no toilet paper, they’ll just use whatever they can find or nothing at all. In Port-au-Prince you often see hungry, feral dogs in the streets, goats, and even the occasional cat. In Cite Soleil, there are also pigs, who wallow in the shit-smeared mud and garbage. To the average American, this just sounds disgusting. Don’t include Cite on the itinerary, and what’s wrong with those people, why don’t they help themselves, maybe they need psychologists to plumb the depths. Enter the chaos point.

For 2,000 people, figure 500 toilets. One toilet for four people, enough that people won’t fight over the bathroom in the morning, or just give up and head for the river. But how would we do this? We’re talking about millions of dollars to retrofit the town, tear up the ground, lay pipe, rehabilitate sewers, import toilets, prepare the water for flushing the toilets with a filtration plant – and that would certainly be millions. This time, we’d bring in safety inspectors so that the buildings don’t collapse the next time there’s an earthquake or a hurricane, and oversight to ensure transparency and nip corruption in the bud, and people to staff the plant and maintain the sewers. Haiti could borrow the money it needs at interest, good news for the global credit system, the Haitian government cajoling and incentivizing farmers to pull more out of depleted soils for export, finding ways to get its urban populace to compete with the Chinese, GNP and tax revenues being shoved upward up to help pay the debt, but it’s never enough. Wait a minute… And where would the Cite sewer go? To the Carribean? Human shit in the ocean, algae blooms killing the coastal ecology, so another treatment plant on the other end. Hold on. We’re talking about a chaos point, a staggering opportunity, not… this.

Another permaculture principle goes something like “pollution is resources out of place.” Matter is a resource, even human shit. There are lots of ways to build a compost toilet, but the simplest is a toilet seat on top of, say a 15-gallon bucket. You sprinkle some organic material, like sugar cane scraps in the bowl when you’re done. At GrassRoots United we used rice hulls, and voila, no smell. When the bucket gets full, you empty it out into a large compost bin, shovel some more organic scraps on top. Dumping can be a bit queasy, but think of the alternative, remember the street and the river? Make sure the bin is covered so that rain doesn’t get into it. The compost gets hot, human pathogens get fried, and wait about six months, at which point you have the kind of black earth gardeners salivate over. You’ve taken water out of the cycle completely. No pipes, no cholera, no algae blooms, no sewage treatment plants, no oversight, no corruption, no jobs for jobs’ sake, no permanent NGO installations, no debt, and readymade soil for the garden, food scraps for the newly clean pigs, who can now become a food source, and food for returning wildlife that will carry biomass, seeds and soil in the form of droppings all over the country. The healthy soil makes healthy gardens, which make more soil, and healthy, self-sufficient people regaining their dignity, hooray for such advanced technology, and hold on we don’t have to stop with Cite Soleil.

Excited Cite residents spread the word about those 500 toilets, the difference they’ve made. Other districts begin building them. A bucket in a box, with a toilet seat, four posts and a tarp… it takes a lot of skill. Haitians with an average 6th grade education could never build them, let alone understand the benefits, wait a minute…. Really? Soil starts coming back in other areas. Within, say a year or two, compost toilets become standard fare in Haiti, embraced by the government, and the benefits are on the ground for all to see. The country begins turning a corner, focusing resources elsewhere, planting in the channels, addressing the mountains of plastic garbage, etc. And the world, even the so-called developed world begins to accept and consider this technology more seriously. “Haiti has virtually eliminated cholera, reforestation is well underway, and the Carribean around Port-au-Prince is becoming clear” the news report goes. Oh yes, the mainstream media is still talking about Haiti’s dollar poverty, but facebook, twitter, and a hundred thousand blogs are getting the word out, and creaky-boned old Uncle Sam just can’t avoid it any longer.

In LA we don’t want to do it with just a bucket and four sticks and a tarp. We want bio-mechanics to do the queasy parts and custom tile floors to boot, but having the best of both worlds just means we’re learning how to really live in style. And by then, the Haitians might have enough resources to lux their toilets just a little, even if they’re broke. The oceans get cleaner, we get more drinkable water, the soil cycle gets completed, we’ve got food on the vine, and we’re all a little freer. The best part about it is those Haitian people, who in the GNP growth paradigm can be nothing but victims, are actually an intelligent and resourceful bunch who are aware of their situation. There are leaders among them who are going to run with the opportunity when they see it and they are already seeing it. While in Haiti I met several Cite locals enrolled in the Love & Haiti / Larry Santoyo permaculture course who, with new knowledge in hand, couldn’t wait to get to work. I’m not sure, but by the time of my writing this, after two weeks back in LA, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they’ve already made connection with the Sustainable Oganic Integrated Lifestyles folks, who are already working on compost toilets in Cite Soleil. It’s amazing that, with their backs against the wall, the Haitian people might just embrace an approach that we in the USA are unwilling to consider, and that it could eventually make them among the most advanced and richest in the world, in an age when “advanced” and “rich” have come to mean something very different. It wouldn’t be the first time in history something like that has happened.

And I really hate to do it, but I think it’s in order, I feel strongly enough about it. I’m not really in a financial position today to be donating a lot to causes, but maybe some of you are and it will make some difference if you can’t make it to Haiti. So here goes – http://oursoil.org/donate. Thanks again & much love.