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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

Succession of Evolution and Oregon, a Land of Seasons

Hello once again beautiful world.

It is as always an end, and a new beginning. As I mentioned in the last post I am dealing what seem to be growing pains. I’ll paint a metaphor appropriate to my residence for the next two months: a seven acre parcel of gambel oak forest and grassland in the countryside a couple miles north of Central Point, Oregon.

Observations on the land in Central Point, Oregon


Land Observation Photos Clockwise from Top Left: 1) A look west and slightly northward from the house, showing the bird feeders and the westward view. The gambel oaks thin out into grassland and ranchland in the valley below. 2) A towering gambel oak at the end of our driveway. A westward look from the house, showing the thinning wood and grassland below. 3) An eastward look up the lightly wooded hill behind the house. Gambel oaks dominate. 4) The gambel oaks lose their leaves, dropping a cushion of mulch as much as 6 inches deep, keeping the soil moist and cool even on hot days. 5) A northward look from the house, showing the hill slope. The rebar in the foreground contains the former veggie garden and a chickenwire fence that kept out the deer. 6) The drive and the house, a mobile home, a bit run down but quite cozy, sitting on the eastern slope and getting the moring sun.

There is a permaculture principle that goes something like “Accelerate the natural evolutionary succession of the ecosystem you are building.”

The essence of the idea is to use your own as well as general observations of the succession of species mixtures that naturally occurs in the wild to fast-track your ecosystem to its climax and maximum diversity and yield.

In natural succession, one species mixture creates the conditions necessary for the next. For example, pioneer plants like grasses may arrive by wind in barren and damaged lands, fix nitrogen, loosen compacted soils, reduce salts or stabilize steep slopes and thus create a more favorable environment for low shrubs.

These in turn create in turn a more favorable environment for small trees, all the while attracting animals, insects and birds and the seeds and pollen they bring from other places. The small trees will hold moisture, contribute to the formation of clouds, keep the soil moist under all the leaves they drop and make it ripe for mycelial networks that will in time drive the emergent forest to new heights and new heights of fertility.

While on the land here, I am largely working the day job that brought me here, working on building the “infrastructure” that will enable Vertecology to function as a “real business” that embraces both the permaculture principles and the tactics necessary for function in and eventually transformation of the current economic system, and of course getting a bit of exploration in too.

While that isn’t leaving much time, it is leaving me enough time to do some observation on the land, and even the hour or so I am able to devote daily is proving incredibly fruitful. I am able to glean much already about the history and possible futures of this beautiful landscape, and spot opportunities to accelerate the ecosystem to its climax.

Here are a couple of videos.

And strictly for the hardcore, an online mind-map of my observations of the land and its opportunities for ecological acceleration:

Observation and exploration of how to maximize the ecosystem yield at the land I'm renting in Central Point, Oregon

The notion of succession of evolution can be applied just as easily in the business and spiritual realms, and in such places it hints at the very zen notion of “letting go,” so easy once its done and so hard until it’s been done. As a twentysomething soaring visionary, the idea of letting go to me was synonymous with killing, destroying, leaving something I loved by the side of the road. And so I held on until I pretty much destroyed whatever it was I was holding on to.

Now with a little more wisdom under my belt and a growing ability to trust the intelligence of life/universe/unfolding whatever you call it, I’m just beginning to entertain the radical idea that letting go is actually more of a move in a dance that you repeat and repeat. When you pick your foot up off the floor you are in a way letting go. And letting go, and letting go, and letting go, and at some point you realize you’re delivering a staggering performance, telling a story, building a legacy and have only an instant to notice before its time to move again.

In ecosystem building, it could be said that holding on is the equivalent of mowing the lawn week after week, making sure that grass stays perfectly green with no patches and nary a dandelion, making sure the sprinklers work through the summer no matter how hot it is, and yelling at the neighbors to make sure their dogs don’t poop on the lawn. Yes, you have a beautiful lawn, dear sir, but it is ecologically dead, dead to opportunity and a drain on all around it including you.

And by contrast, it could be said that letting go is letting the weeds, shrubs and mushrooms in. Even dog poop is a nutrient reservoir. You let the grass go so everything else can come in. And you may find that at the end of it, on the floor of your towering forest, you still have some patches of very fertile grass that ask nothing of you at all and play a vital role.

Such it is with the towering forest Vertecology wishes to become in days to come. I pioneered the realm with this blog, telling of some early projects and explorations; if the blog is the pioneer species, then what are the shrubs and the trees? A year ago, I had only ideas. Now…

  • The patent pending Hanging Gardens and the fundraise to complete the prototyping process , develop market ready product and finance further experiments and initiatives.
  • Water Harvesting Systems and educational media about how to build them.
  • Maximizing the opportunity that two months on the Central Point Land offers to make myself a far more capable permaculturist, designer, consultant, writer and educator
  • Further development of festival concept structures which began with the Geo and integration of these into the greater permaculture driven vision
  • Other educational media around economics and permaculture
  • And more ambitious initiatives to come

With some of this coming to fruition and demanding time to develop further, and with more of it now becoming feasible with greater financial, spiritual and social capital coming into my realm and greater experience and skill in my hands, I am seeing that focus of Vertecology itself crying to change. It’s not about the grass anymore; it’s now about the shrubs and trees. I’m not shutting down the blog, but I am seeing that its role is destabilizing as an ecosystem emerges around it.

For a time the blog may become a little more erratic. For now I don’t know exactly if that means more or less blogging, or a new form taken; I’m just giving myself permission to be erratic and unpredictable so that a new rhythm can take shape. I would have in the past called this a death and would have been deathly afraid. Now I am seeing that it is only the natural succession of evolution. It is in fact, a birth.

I have thus far been trying to update the blog weekly, and have been struggling to do that the last couple of months, and couldn’t let myself see why as the last of my fear has held on. Now it is clear and in fact has been clear for some time. It is because for now, in this stage of the emergence of Vertecology, I need the time and energy to build the rest of the ecosystem.

Geodesic Sphere Diagram

It’s time to begin upgrading the web site, creating videos for the upcoming fundraise, finalizing prototype designs for the Hanging Gardens, and half a million other tasks, hiring out when I can’t do them myself and doing the research regarding even how to that in a way that will best serve the vision.

And of course I will keep you all posted in whatever form is most appropriate. Here’s to the next stage of evolution!

Thanks!

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.