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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!


The Amusing Muse Exploring Possibilities for the Hanging Garden

One of the things I’ve discovered in dropping Hanging Gardens in some different locations around town is that there are a whole lot of different ceiling situations to deal with. Some are more difficult than others, and the hope is that I can come up with a few standardized approaches that fit most, as in say 95% of mounting situations. Honestly, I’m excited about the challenge, as solving the mounting challenges is beginning to reveal other opportunities that will help flush out the full potential of the Hanging Garden and will enhance its potential as a kit system usable to anyone who wants to turn that dead corner, porch or balcony into an ecological garden.

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Here’s the latest. I had the good fortune of a temporary install at the Hummingbird Nest Ranch in Simi Valley over Winter Solstice evening, when Evonne Heyning, Tirza Hollenhorst and friends put together a fabulous Dance to Freedom event. Already exhausted from the two week treehouse adventure, I had about six hours before the party started to figure out how to mount the Hanging Garden under a huge beam to which I could not attach any screws, except along the hidden top, and over which it was impossible to run any ropes or cables. I had to “side mount,” and wasn’t sure how to pull it off.

When I finally did pull it off, managing to keep the bad and the ugly from view, I joined the party, spread the biz cards and then as often happens, got the better, cleaner, more elegant and not to mention cheaper, design solution in meditation a few days after it was all over and at the most inconvenient hour… 🙂

The exciting point is that in this solution however is the beginning of an idea of how to quietly integrate water/nutrient delivery that can be flushed out as needed with future installations. The exploration contines and stay tuned, and I must say thanks to Evo, Brent, Pardox, Ed, Lance, Geisty, Tea Faerie, Fuzzy and a lot of others (pardon me if I didn’t include your name…) for sharing yourselves and an amazing evening under the stars and in the cushest horse stables this side of Appalachia…

Sugar Shack’s Rain Collection System Captures Beautifully in its First Rain

Well it’s always a little nerve-wracking when finally cutting the ribbon on a new project, no matter how much you’ve tested it. Even though I dropped a few 15 gallon buckets of water down the chute from the Sugar Shack’s rooftop to test the rainwater catchment system after I finished the build, and even though I added an extra bead of silicone caulk to those pesky corner-rounding spots in the rain gutters, there was still that nagging sense of… what if?

No more. We got our first storm in the neighborhood yesterday, a few solid hours of rain in the afternoon, and I couldn’t wait until the sun popped out to find out how the system was doing. The inflows were dropping a heavy flow into the barrels and doing just fine. After the rains had passed our four barrels were about half full, about 110 gallons caught.

Now I can  get a more accurate idea of how much water we can catch: I went to and typed in our zip code. The nearest weather station to us is on the USC campus, which is a few miles away, but it’s close enough to give an idea of how much rain we got. The USC station got about 0.16 inches of rain during the storm; an average LA rain year of 15 inches would fill our barrels almost 50 times, though most of that will occur over the course of an entire six month “wet” season, and anything over 0.3 inches at once will be lost to the overflow.

It’s a good thing then that I actually improved the garden drainage by shunting the overflow directly into the drainage pipe, and there’s ample opportunity (and barrels around the garden) to do a rooftop catchment as well.

A Rainwater Collection System for the Sugar Shack

Here are some shots of the gravity-fed rainwater catchment system I just finished for the Sugar Shack, the 14-person urban intentional community in the heart of Mid-City LA where I have been residing the last few months. It has been an incredible learning and growing experience, one that has begun to fulfill my vision of “permaculture structures” that are amazingly beautiful and amazingly multi-functional, and I hope this system will serve the community for decades to come.

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This is a 220-gallon system composed of the four 55-gallon drums you see in the photos, all acquired by one of our housemates from a TV shoot he worked on a couple of months ago. The system has two collection sources, on the left a roughly 80 square foot sloped second-story roof area, and on the right the roof deck over the community room. On that side I think we’ll get about 200 square feet of collection area, based on how the roof up there slopes.

In an average LA rain-year, with about 15 inches of rain and about 85% efficiency in the system (we’ll lose a bit of water to some gutter leaks even as I’ve improved them extensively), we can potentially catch up to 2,200 gallons, assuming we cycle the water into the garden between the usual run of winter and spring storms.

For every foot you raise the rain barrels, you get about one pound per square inch (PSI) of pressure, so I built the table to raise the barrels about 2-1/2 feet off the ground and stabilized it with concrete pier footings on a bed of sand. When the barrels are full, the added height will yield a pressure of about 5 or 6 PSI, enough to run a hose around the garden (and maybe better than our showers, I might add :)). Plus a double coat of eco-friendly Penofin oil finish on reclaimed wood otherwise headed for the garbage is amazingly beautiful, waterproof, easily restored, and will last for years.

Learning about rain catchment in the last couple of years, I was compelled to take the project on as a gift to the community; like any well-designed permaculture system, a good rainwater catchment system as part of a larger ecological strategy can provide multiple “yields” or benefits to residents and communities. Some of these are hidden until you look a little closer at a good system and what it can do. Catching water for garden use is actually just the beginning, and more than it seems to be at first glance. A well-functioning system

  • Keeps local moisture local. Instead of shunting rainwater uselessly and often toxically down storm drains, captured rainwater cycles through your garden, then percolates through the soil and back down to the local aquifer or evaporates from the leaves of plants. Either way the water gets naturally cleaned in the process and eventually becomes available to plants, animals and people in the watershed to use again either via rain or wells. Even just putting filters made of old window-screen on the inflow points of your system can cleanse the inflow more thoroughly than many municipalities now do, even if some of that inflow just ends up in storm drains as excess.
  • Converts dollars into ecosystems – the system costs some money to build, but then increases your self reliance as opposed to dollar reliance. You spend a little money only once, rather than continuously for costly municipal water unsustainably imported from somewhere else, and the captured water supports your food forest.
  • Can save lives in a disaster. In LA, like much of the world, fires are a fact of life and when the municipal water supply is taxed, 220 gallons to wet the ground can mean the house is still standing. Even non-potable water can be boiled and drank in an emergency as well; 220 gallons for the Sugar Shack can mean a 6-day emergency supply for the house’s 14 residents.
  • Can take the pressure off aging infrastructure. In the US, much of our water infrastructure is approaching the limits of its design-life. Considering the condition of our institutions and economic system here in the US, we can’t count on these systems getting redesigned or even restored to original functionality any time soon. “We the people” must now shoulder the burden of building a decentralized infrastructure, but this can be an opportunity.
  • Can include structural elements that can become trellising for vertical gardens. The truss beams on our table will make nice supports for tomato vines.
  • Can act as thermal mass, dampening temperature fluctuations around the garden and even part of the house.
  • And can give you more water than you might expect. Depending on your location, you can perhaps expect to see your system fill several times during a season. The system I built here in Los Angeles for instance is a 220 gallon system; during an average winter, I expect that it will get filled three or four times based on the square footage. To see how much water you can collect from a system, click here.

In the near term, I’ll be posting some video on Youtube showcasing the Sugar Shack system and releasing a short e-book on how to build your own rainwater catchment system. For now, enjoy the photos while your party is reached and stay tuned.

Oh, and let it rain, let it rain, let it rain!

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.

Free Energy Can Be So Black and White

Ever the iconoclast, or at least ever the wannabe, I spent a good number of my teen years insisting on an all-black wardrobe, and to this day I still have my happy black days. Leaving for school in September, Mom would always ask “Aren’t you hot?”

“Nah…” (yes, but it was about looking good. Sweat, what sweat?)

So everyone knows a black outfit on a hot day is very different than a white one, even when they’re otherwise identical. Black absorbs heat and white reflects it.

But just how useful might this principle prove in ecological design? What opportunities does it provide? Could we generate flow in still ponds with patterns of black and white stone? Create temperate and tropical microclimates right next to each other? How about artificial winds where the air gets purified as it flows? Could we reduce the need for powered heating and cooling with color? If so, painting the house isn’t just about pretty; it’s functional… and more profoundly beautiful.

So to grow as a designer and see what’s possible, I pulled together an experiment. It isn’t rocket science, and I know I’m not the first to do it, but it was great to engage.

With one of my wooden octahedron prototypes, about 3 feet to a side already painted black for the LooptWorks show, I painted the other one white. On each I put a triangular “table top” made of half-inch ply, one painted black, the other white. Then I lined them up about two feet apart along the sun-arc so that both got full sun all day and so that neither sat on a hotter or colder spot than the other.

The two octahedrons, one white, one black, side by side in the roof garden

With a laser temperature gun, I took the temperature at the center and corner of each table top, and for comparison, took the temperature of the tar-panel rooftop itself. I should also mention that I did this experiment on a hot LA August day, with not a cloud in the sky after the initial coastal burnoff by probably 10 am.

I found several relationships. When the sun is directly overhead, there was as much as 65 degrees F difference between the tabletops. The black might close in on 150 degrees F while the white hovered around 80 or 90. The difference fell quickly once the sun dropped to the horizon, and disappeared entirely once it was gone, so with sunlight out of the equation, factors other than color determine temperature.

Results from the temperature experiment, showing big differences between the black and white octahedrons

The temperature of the black octahedron swung wildly in daylight with even a slight breeze, more in the corner than the center. While I scanned with the temp gun for 20 seconds, the temperature at the corner might vary 10 degrees with a breeze. The thin plywood, with little thermal mass, would dissipate and regain its heat quickly. The white also fluctuated but not nearly so wildly. And the white sometimes even hung out in the 60 degree range while the hot sun roiled above, setting the roof ablaze to the tune of 120-140 degrees F. The temperature difference between the black center and black corner also varied as much as 20 degrees F while the sun was high up, showing again how the slight thermal mass and poor heat retention of the plywood gives it up to the air quickly.

So can we we generate flow in still ponds with patterns of black and white stone? Create temperate and tropical microclimates right next to each other? Artificial winds where the air gets purified as it flows? Reduce the need for powered heating and cooling with color? Yes, but exactly how and how much is a matter of more experimentation, as well as learning from people who have done these sorts of things, in some cases thousands of years ago, and in some cases learning from the most recent science available. A half-cup innovation plus a half-cup of remembering.

Thinking about the 2012 festival circuit, experimental structures in the “developing world” and some planned DIY offerings, this new awareness is definitely clarifying and helping to define some Vertecology build proposals already in the works.

Some design opportunities now apparent: Using a material other than wood will effect the temperature differences. Using steel or some kinds stone of could produce differences in the hundreds of degrees, maybe enough to turn electrical turbines or “magically” pull water out of “thin air,” though steel heat would probably dissipate a lot faster than stone heat.

Greater thermal mass would also take much longer to heat but also to cool, making it possible to radiate warmth well into the night and keep a house cool well into the day. And materials can be played against one another – low retention, low conductivity wood painted white, vs high retention and moderately conductive stone, vs highly conductive and low retention steel, to create truly designer passive solar effects.

Taking this into consideration, here’s one application of passive solar in a “permaculture structure” with multiple functions in the diagram below. This is based on solar updraft tower technology, and this specific set of diagrams takes the fuel-free energy-generation Botswana Solar Updraft test facility, which ran in 2007, as the starting point. (Their experiment documentation here).

Solar Updraft tower diagram, inspired by the Botswana Solar Updraft Test Facility, a fuel-less passive energy genesis system with more potential ecological benefits

While their small test tower would probably not generate much power, with the right combination and density of materials, its performance might improve dramatically without an increase in size. This at the very least would make a great project for the 2012 festival circuit, and it could become a model for community-scale free energy generation, desert-greening and even seed spreading and vertical habitat building… all at once. (I actually have less interest in really huge industrial versions of this structure 800 meters tall, which require industrial-scale funding, a corporate building approach, and which could have adverse effects on the earth’s atmosphere – think jets of our precious air superheated and streaming into space)

On a more immediate note I also now know why the Sugar Shack roof garden is frying, and we can do something about it. The first of the new tire planters has already been painted white, as of about 4 pm today.

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 – Thanks again & much love.