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Ants, Grasshoppers, a New Kind of Economy and the Vision Behind Vertecology

Good morning beautiful world. Here’s a bit of a story for you. There was once an ant and a grasshopper. The grasshopper hopped about all summer, enjoying the fruits and the grains all around him. He looked down on the ant, who spent her summer gathering and harvesting for the winter, industriously taking the bounty into the ground every day… working away.

The grasshopper said to the ant, why do you worry so?

The ant, not understanding the meaning of the word “worry,” asked, what do you mean? I’m just ensuring that our people have plenty through the winter when it comes, that we have abundance then, as now.

The grasshopper replied, “Winter? What is winter?”

This is perhaps the tale now unfolding in America, and not in the way you would expect. We’re now hearing stories in the media about the pending default on US debt, and yes, it is indeed pending. It may not happen on August 2, maybe an emergency deal will be struck, maybe again and again until 2012 or 2015 or even 2040 but it is coming, and through no fault of our own.

It is not a matter of our stupidity, or policies favoring labor or management, or our overspending or our failure to “create jobs.” In fact it is an old story, one that some people might have seen as stupidly and painfully obvious sometime around 1600 AD, when Europeans started coming in droves to the so called new world.

So what is winter then? Do we mean here the inevitable collapse of civilization? Not exactly. There are seasons to all things; many cultures honor and acknowledge this. If you look at a human life, or the emergence of an idea, or the growth of a tree, you could say that there are seasons, periods of progression, each with its own rules, its own appropriate behaviors.

Life on our planet has evolved to work with the seasons, and more than merely to survive them. The evolutionary impulse driving each and every one of us is infinitely opportunistic. It goes beyond “surviving” and makes opportunity of seasons, uses them to maximize the effect of its own energies. The bear hibernates in winter so he can be virile in the spring and strong in the summer. Life uses the seasons as springboards, the way a surfer uses a wave.

So then, perhaps winter is not a thing to be afraid of, though it is a thing to be prepared for. And just like the waves, if we learn to use them, we can capture their energy and catapult ourselves to shore. If we’re impatient with them, they crush us and at the end of being crushed we still have to figure out how to get to shore.

If we try to force a tree to grow out of season we kill it. If we force a child to fill bubbles in a form to make him economically competitive before he can read, we stunt him. If we try to force a truly transformative innovation into a money machine for ourselves or our investors before the next quarterly report, we kill its spirit and lose the true opportunity.

In fact it could be said that the great innovations of our civilization have happened not because of our monetary system but despite it, but that is another story for another day, for now just google the internet and after that, google “Google.”

For now, imagine the street where you live. Imagine it, get into the feel of it. Listen to the sounds, smell the smells, imagine the time of day.

Now imagine there’s just one thing different. Imagine that within a five-minute walk of where you’re standing, in any direction, there is a completely organic forest of food. There are towering trees dripping with fruit. Apples, pears, avocadoes. Maybe there are greenhouses filled with tropical plenty. Beneath the trees are shrubs full of berries and vines growing up around the trees. In the shadows and clearings there are vegetables growing up in plentiful beds.

There are vertical walls and towers bursting with fruiting vines. Perhaps there are pathways and running streams and fish filed ponds stoked with waters captured in the recent rains.

Perhaps there are chickens or goats roaming about in open pens; the chickens are pecking the worms out of the ground before they can become flies. The goats are clearing the brush and dead grass before they can choke the veggies or burn. There are however no fences for keeping people out.

And somebody in the neighborhood has figured out how to make cheese of the goat milk. On the way across their land every once in awhile, you stop by the artful little stand they’ve set up, where the cheese is offered in exchange for a friendly “hello.” They probably demand you eat their cheese. Saying no, well, it just isn’t polite.

The forests near your street have been worked into the available land. Maybe it’s a narrow strip running across the front of every front yard. Or maybe it is a big central park or squeezed between apartment blocks, rising vertically. Maybe it was organized through long, arduous meetings at City Hall, or maybe it was just a bunch of neighbors jumping in on a good idea.

Or maybe it was started some years back when the local hippies just kept insisting on painting up the intersection and seed-bombing the vacant lot the next block over. Maybe it was legislated at the state or even the national level. Maybe you volunteered, maybe you figured out how you could get paid to help, and getting all the exercise you needed you realized you could quit the gym and save the $50 a month. Maybe it was some combination of all the above.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter how it was started.

Now, this is what it looks like. For the most part the food forest now takes care of itself with just a bit of tending, nudging and guiding here and there. The bees pollinate the citrus, and maybe kids from the local school tend some aspects of it, learning invaluable lessons about ecology and natural law and the usefulness of seasons they could never learn in a flurry of classrooms, building forts in the trees after hours and so getting a bit of algebra, geometry, phys-ed and leadership for free before their time, and on and on it goes.

The fruit of the trees and the vegetables and all the bounty is free.

In fact you have to enjoy it. If you don’t there just aren’t enough birds to eat all the fruit, they can only saturate the food forests on other blocks and in other towns with so many seeds, and rotting piles of fruit attract rodents. Of course rodents aren’t so much of a problem since they keep the cats and hawks coming around and the cats and hawks bring more nutrients to the soils, and with the humans offering so much plenty, they’re actually beginning to respond to our training, or maybe guidance is the better word.

Shit here, not here.

So this is what your street looks like. Now expand your view; the whole town looks like this. Zoom out in the Google Map of your mind, and notice that it looks like this for fifty miles in every direction. In fact the whole state looks like this!

The big cities jammed with trellises and wild structures for increasing growable surface areas (some of the designs were pioneered by Vertecology 😉 😉 Yee-haw!) The small towns too and the vast rural areas, each in their own way, are bursting appropriate to how they use the land.

And so the songbirds, nature’s agents of plant biodiversity spread seeds from town to town. A drought or a fire or an invasive species here or there does wreak havoc occasionally, but it looks like this everywhere, and with nature’s vast diversity and reserves and people’s vast resourcefulness, the healing happens quickly.

With your street looking like this, how important is the US default to you? How much does it affect you? You know you will always have food, and will always have neighbors. Can anyone control you now? Can anyone force you into a job you hate, that you know doesn’t make a difference? How much do the battles in Washington effect you now? How much control do they have over your future? How much does your home value in next year’s dollars matter?

If you lost your job, would you starve? And if you knew that starvation was off the table, forever, for you, for your family; if even homelessness meant just ending up in another bountiful neighborhood like yours where the neighbors took you in till you earned your keep, how much would you fear it?

What would you do, that you are now afraid of doing?

And now the logical conclusion of this vision. If it looks like this everywhere, then starvation and homelessness are off the table for everyone. Everywhere. Everywhere where everyone has prepared, like the ant, for winter.

How much longer are the neighbors on your street going to slam their doors to you, staring bug-eyed at the TV because they have to recover from yet another day of life wasted at the office, hoping they can someday sell the house for a cool mil and get the hell out of here?

How demanding is the doctor that you pay up front when you’ve broken your leg, when he knows he will never starve? How much longer is the whistleblower in the oil company going to hold his tongue? How long are the foot-soldiers of that oil company going to keep enforcing the internal memos to crush the guy on your block who’s figured out how to power his car on the rainwater he’s catching on his roof or the lettuce he’s gathering down the street?

That’s right, game over for the conspiracy in the sky.

Free energy and open source medicine are already at hand. And there are people among us who are figuring out how to build powertools in their garages with CNC lathes made of scrap. They too can walk away from the crappy job at the parking violations bureau where they’ve been trained to make you miserable. With easing financial pressures, they can begin to become fathers to their children again and show junior how it’s done.

This is the power of preparing for winter. This is the promise of permaculture.

And to those of you who say this is a wild fantasy, consider this: The kind of food/energy forest imagined here is just an ecosystem like nature builds anyway. This is how the natural world already works, we just haven’t been paying attention. If it didn’t work this way there would have been no human beings. We’ve just been too worried about the stock market and welfare-state socialism to notice, and while we’ve been distracted, some of those “kooks” out there have been proving food forestry is possible.

When we find complex alien life on other worlds, we will find in every case that it was born and now participates in some kind of ecosystem, in every case anywhere in the universe, period. And even with human beings in the mix, there is evidence it really looked this way on some parts of the planet for very long periods of time before the arrival of armed colonists who brought plagues from their unsanitary cities and told the locals to forget their languages.

There is a reason why the English named so many places something-“field” in the lands the Haudenosaunee left behind. Deerfield, Bloomfield, Fairfield, Oakfield, Redfield. There is evidence that the Amazon was, shall we say, enhanced by human hands over tens of thousands of years.

It starts, quite literally, with planting a seed and giving it good environment for growing. In a field, in a windowbox, in a planter in a treehouse, on a rooftop. If this vision speaks to you, do it now. Start saving seeds, start the food forest wherever you can, however you know how. If you’re the social kind, involve the neighbors.

If you’re the reading kind, pick up Gaia’s Garden or One-Straw Revolution, or one of the other countless books starting to hit the shelves. Look up Bill Mollison, check out videos on Youtube. Don’t stop because others don’t start. If you’re the political kind, go to City Hall.

And for God’s own sake lets not make a dogma of it; it’s more like science even when it gets spiritual. Experiment, test, see what works and what doesn’t and share the results. This is our world, not the Illuminati’s and it’s ours because we were born here. Of course that means it’s everyone else’s too – well, okay, even those pesky Illuminati – but they have to get along with the rest of us, and like Bucky Fuller said, we’re the crew of this spaceship so sooner or later we’re going to have to learn to fly it straight.

We’re even finding that organic agriculture can diffuse the population bomb.

Perhaps winter in this case, in the evolution of human culture, is that season brought about by a particular money-fearing culture going against the natural order of things and getting away with it for awhile, sort of like the grasshopper in summer. Going against a natural order that does not bind us, as we have imagined in our tortured nightmares, but one that is designed to offer and seize endless opportunity, and after winter, there is always spring.

And this vision by the way, is the reason for Vertecology. I am more of an architect and hammer-swinging builder than a farmer or horticulturist myself, but I am learning that there’s power in the crossover, what permies like to call the “edge condition,” and there is endless opportunity for radical innovation in design and architecture as those vocations take their rightful, meaningful and essential place in a permaculture economy.

I hope to spend many days of the coming years creating such innovations, to share many of them with you on these pages here, and to use a business model that helps lead us from constraint and secrecy to a world that says to you DIYers out there in big capital letters, “GOD DAMN IT, RUN WITH IT AND DON’T WORRY IF YOU LOSE YOUR PANTS ON THE WAY!” In the meantime, maybe some of you will become clients, and no matter what, thank you again for taking the time to read what’s here.

Let’s do our best to make this the world of our dreams, and we don’t have to blow up the Earth to get Heaven too. Nature really is on our side, even if sometimes, she’s a brutal coach indeed.

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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.