Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Closing the Circle

A couple of weeks ago, Energy Bulletin revisited some predictions made in 2000 by Amory Lovins, then as now one of the most vocal proponents of technological solutions to the crisis of industrial society. Under prodding by energy analyst Steve Andrews, Lovins insisted among other things that by the year 2010, hybrid and fuel cell cars would account for between half and two thirds of the cars on the road in the United States.

Lovins was completely wrong, as we now know – hybrid cars account for maybe 5% of the current US automobile fleet, and you can look through every automobile showroom in North America for a car powered by fuel cells and not find one – and it’s to Andrews’ credit that he pointed this out to Lovins at the time. What makes Lovins’ failed prediction all the more fascinating is that there was never any significant chance that it would pan out, for reasons as predictable as they were pragmatic. Hybrid cars may cost less to operate but they’re much more expensive to build than ordinary cars; fuel cell cars, while they could probably have been made for a more competitive price, could only compete in any other way if somebody had invested the trillions of dollars in infrastructure to provide them with their hydrogen fuel. In both cases economics made it impossible for either kind of car to account for more than a token fraction of the US car fleet by this year, and it makes their chances of being much more popular by 2020, or 2030, or any subsequent year not much better.

Those specific reasons can be usefully subordinated to a more general point, which is that airy optimism about technologies that haven’t yet gotten off the drawing board is not a useful response to an imminent crisis in the real world. This is a point worth keeping in mind, because airy optimism about technologies that haven’t yet gotten off the drawing board is flying thick and fast just now, especially but not only in the peak oil scene. Mention that industrial society is in deep trouble as a result of its total dependence on rapidly depleting fossil fuels, in particular, and you can count on a flurry of claims that Bussard reactors, or algal biodiesel, or fourth generation fission plants, or whatever the currently popular deus ex machina happens to be, will inevitably show up in time and save the day.

One of the things that has to be grasped to make sense of our predicament is that this isn’t going to happen. Some of the reasons that it’s not going to happen differ from case to case, though all of the examples I’ve just given happen to share the common difficulty of crippling problems with net energy. Any attempt at a large-scale solution at this point in the curve of decline faces another predictable problem, though, which was discussed back in 1973 in The Limits to Growth: once industrial civilization runs up against hard planetary limits, as it now has, the surplus of resources that might have permitted a large-scale solution are already fully committed to meeting existing urgent needs, and can’t be diverted to new projects on any scale without imposing crippling dislocations on an economy and a society that are already under severe strain.

The green wizardry being developed in these posts thus seeks to craft responses to the crisis of our time that don’t ignore the predictable impacts of that crisis. For this reason, we aren’t going to be exploring the sort of imaginative vaporware that fills so many discussions about our energy future these days. Instead, the curriculum I have in mind starts with a sufficiently solid grasp of ecology to understand the context of the wizardry that follows, and then moves to practical techniques that have been proven in the real world and can be put to use without lots of money or complicated technology. That may seem dowdy and uninteresting, but that’s a risk this archdruid is willing to run; if your ship has already hit a rock and is taking on water, to shift to a familiar metaphor, passing out life jackets and launching lifeboats is far less innovative and exciting than sitting around talking about some brilliantly creative new way to rescue people from a sinking boat, but it’s a good deal more likely to save lives.

All this makes a useful prologue to the subject of this week’s post. Last week we talked about energy, and explored the way that the laws of thermodynamics shape what you can and can’t do with the energy that surges through every natural system. It’s easy to make energy interesting, since there’s always the passionate hope we all retain from childhood that something might suddenly blow itself to smithereens. Even when it doesn’t, watching energy make its way down the levels of concentration toward waste heat is exciting, for most of the same reasons that watching the silver ball bouncing off the bumpers of a pinball machine is exciting.

This week is different. This week we’re going to talk about matter, the second of the three factors that move through every natural system, and matter appeals to a different childhood passion, one that most of us somehow manage to outgrow: the passion for mud. Matter is muddy. It does not behave itself. It does not do what it’s told. As you found out around the age of two, to your ineffable delight and your mother’s weary annoyance, it gets all over everything, especially when stomped. Most people discover this in childhood and then spend the rest of their lives trying to forget it, and one of the ways they forget it in modern industrial cultures is by pretending that matter acts like energy.

Get a piece of paper and a pen and I’ll show you how that works. At the top of the paper, draw a picture of Santa Claus in his sleigh, surrounded by an enormous pile of gifts, and label it "infinite material resources." In the middle, draw a picture of yourself sitting on heaps of consumer goodies; put in some twinkle dust, too, because we’ll pretend (as modern industrial societies do) that the goodies somehow got there without anybody having to work sixteen-hour days in a Third World sweatshop to produce them. Down at the bottom of the paper, draw some really exotic architecture, with a sign out in front, put up by the local Chamber of Commerce, saying "Welcome to Away." You know, Away – the mysterious place where no one’s ever been, but where stuff goes when you don’t want it around any more. Now draw one arrow going from Santa to you, and another from you to Away.

Does this picture look familiar? It should. It has the same pattern as a very simple energy flow diagram, of the sort you sketched out last week, with Santa as the energy source and Away as the diffuse background heat where all energy ends up. That sort of diagram works perfectly well with energy. It doesn’t work worth beans with any material substance, but it’s how people in modern industrial societies are taught to think about matter.

As an antidote to that habit of thinking, after you’ve drawn this diagram, I’d like to encourage you to crumple it up with extreme prejudice and throw it across the room. It would be particularly helpful if Fido is in the room with you, decides that you’ve thrown a ball for him to chase, and comes trotting eagerly back to you with the diagram in his mouth, having gnawed it playfully first and reduced it to a drool-soaked mess. At that moment, as you meet Fido’s trusting gaze and try to decide whether it’s more bother to go get a real ball for him to play with or to take the oozing object that was once your drawing and then wipe a couple of tablespoons of dog slobber off your hand, you will have learned one of the great secrets of green wizardry: matter moves in circles, especially when you don’t want it to.

That secret is crucial to keep in mind. Back in my schooldays, corporate flacks trying to head off the rising tide of popular unhappiness with what was being done to the American environment had a neat little slogan: "The solution to pollution is dilution." They were dead wrong, and because this slogan got put into practice far too often, some people and a much greater number of other living things ended up just plain dead. Dilute an environmental toxin all you want, and it’s a safe bet that a food chain somewhere will concentrate it right back up for you and serve it on your plate for breakfast. It’s hard to think of anything more dilute than the strontium-90 dust that was blasted into the upper atmosphere by nuclear testing and scattered around the globe by high-level winds; that didn’t keep it from building up to dangerous levels in cow’s milk, and shortly thereafter, in children’s bones.

A similar difficulty afflicts the delusion that we can put something completely outside the biosphere and make it stay there. Proponents of nuclear power who don’t simply dodge the issue of radioactive waste altogether treat this as a minor issue. It’s not a minor issue; it’s the most critical of half a dozen disastrous flaws in the shopworn 1950s-era fantasy of limitless nuclear power still being retailed by a minority among us. A nuclear fission reactor, any nuclear fission reactor, produces wastes so lethal they have to be isolated from the rest of existence for a quarter of a million years – that’s fifty times as long as all of recorded history, in case you were wondering. In theory, containing high-level nuclear waste is possible; in theory, it’s equally possible to drill for oil in deep waters without blowing your drilling platform and eleven men to kingdom come and flooding the Gulf of Mexico with tens of millions of gallons of crude oil.

In the real world, by contrast, it’s as certain as anything can be that sooner or later, things go wrong. Despite the best intentions and the most optimistic handwaving, in a hundred years, or a thousand, or ten thousand, by accident or malice or the sheer cussedness of nature, that waste is going to leak out into the biosphere, and once that happens, anyone and anything that comes into contact with even a few milligrams of it will suffer a painful and lingering death. The more nuclear power we generate, the more of this ghastly gift we’ll be stockpiling up for the people of the future. If one of the basic concepts of morality is that each of us ought to leave the world a better place for those that come after us, there must be some sort of gold medal for selfish malignity in store for the notion that, to power our current civilization a little longer, we’re justified in making life shorter and more miserable for people whose distant ancestors haven’t even been born yet.

This extreme case illustrates a basic rule of green wizardry: there is no such place as Away. You can throw matter out the front door all you want, but it will inevitably circle around while you’re not looking and come trotting up the back stairs. There’s a great deal of Mysticism Lite these days that talks about how wonderful it is that the universe moves in circles; it’s true enough that matter moves in circles, though energy and information generally don’t, but it’s not always wonderful. If you recognize matter’s habits and work with them, you can get it to do some impressive things as it follows its rounds, but if you aren’t watching it closely, it can just as easily sneak up behind you and clobber you.

The trick of making matter circle in a way that’s helpful to you is twofold. The first half is figuring out every possible way it might circle; the second is to make sure that as it follows each of those pathways, it goes through transformations significant enough to make it harmless. I hope I won’t offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities here by using human feces as an example. The way we handle our feces in most American communities is frankly bizarre; we defecate in fresh drinking water, for heaven’s sake, and then flush it down a pipe without the least thought of where it’s going. Where it’s going, most of the time, is into a river, a lake, or the ocean, and even after sewage treatment, you can be sure that most of what’s in your bowel movements is going to land in the biosphere as is, because mushing feces up in water and then dumping some chlorine into the resulting mess doesn’t change them enough to matter.

Consider the alternative of a composting toilet and a backyard garden. Instead of dumping feces into drinking water, you feed them to hungry thermophilic bacteria. When the bacteria get through with the result, you put the compost into the middle of your main compost pile, where it feeds a more diverse ecosystem of microbes, worms, insects, fungi, and the like. When they’re done with it, you dig the completely transformed compost into your garden, and soil organisms and the roots of your garden plants have at it. When you pick an ear of corn from your garden, some of the nutrients in the corn got there by way of your toilet, but you don’t have to worry about that. The pathogenic bacteria that make feces dangerous to human beings, having grown up in the sheltered setting of your bowels, don’t survive long in the Darwinian environment of a composting toilet, and any last stragglers get mopped up in the even more ruthless ecosystem of the compost pile.

In the same way, the inedible parts of garden vegetables can be put into the compost pile or, better still, fed to chickens or rabbits, whose feces can be added to the compost pile, so that plant parasites and diseases have less opportunity to ride the cycle back to the plants in the garden. You can cycle other parts of your household waste stream into the same cycle; alternatively, if you need to isolate some part of the waste stream from the rest of it – for example, if somebody in the house is ill and you don’t want to cycle their wastes into your garden soil, or if you want to collect and concentrate urine as a rich source of fertilizer – you can construct a separate cycle that takes the separate waste stream in a different direction, and subject it to different transformations, so that whatever cycles back around to you is a resource rather than a problem.

This logic can be applied to every part of the Green Wizard’s work. Not everything can be transformed in this way; one of the essential boundaries of appropriate tech, in fact, is the boundary between the kinds of matter you can change with the tools you have on hand, and the kinds you can’t, and if you can’t change it into something safe, it’s a bad idea to produce it in the first place. It really is that simple. So, my apprentice wizards, you have three mystic maxims to contemplate:

Matter moves in circles, especially when you don’t want it to;

There is no such place as Away;

If you can’t transform it, don’t produce it.

Aside from that, for this week’s homework, I’d like to ask those of my readers who are pursuing the green wizardry project to replace the pulpy mass Fido’s been chewing for the last fifteen minutes with something less soggy and more accurate. Take one material item or substance you currently get rid of, and figure out, as exactly as you can, where it actually goes once it leaves your possession. Don’t cheat yourself by choosing something you already know about, and don’t settle for abstractions; with the internet at your fingertips, it takes only a modest amount of work to find out which landfill gets your garbage, which river has to cope with your sewage, and so on. Your ultimate goal is to trace your chosen item or substance all the way back around to your own front door – for example, by tracing your plastic bottles to a particular landfill, the polymerizers in the bottles to the groundwater in a particular valley, the groundwater to a particular river, and the river to the particular coastal waters where the local fishing fleet caught the fresh cod you’re about to have for dinner.

This may be an unsettling experience. I apologize for that, but it can’t be helped. One of the few effective immunizations against the sort of airy optimism critiqued toward the beginning of this post, and in another way a little later on, is to spend time wrestling with the muddy, material details of our collective predicament. If your wizardry is going to amount to more than incantations that make people feel better about themselves while their society consumes its own future, it needs to get into the nitty gritty of the work – first with the mind, then with the hands. We’ll pursue one more piece of basic theory next week before proceeding to the first hands-on projects.


Bill Pulliam said...

What the wish is for (paragraph 3) isn't deus ex machina, it's MACHINA EX DEO!

TG said...

Great exercise, and thanks for suggesting it, John Michael.

The water flowing from our taps in Hastings, Nebraska is drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer. That much I knew. After it passes through my body and into the sewer system, the effluent from the wastewater treatment facility is discharged into the south branch of the west fork of the Big Blue River. That I did not specifically know.

My husband and I have a dual flush toilet. I know a composting toilet would be better, and that's something I'd like to do. We do compost our kitchen, garden, and yard scraps already. Our household waste is well under the average 4.5 pounds of garbage generated per American per day. A few years ago, I actually weighed and monitored it every week for a four-month period. Getting our personal information suppressed on the catalog mailing lists was the single most useful thing I accomplished in that regard. The heaviest item in our recycling bin was the stacks of undesired advertising.

--Tracy Glomski

rainman said...

Thanks JMG.
Your explaination of the composting toilet looks like the cover of Joe Jenkins "Humanure Handbook" 2nd edition. For ten years I've been following Mr. Jenkins advise with great results. Along with this, I'm also making biochar, adding this to the compost, with simple stoves made from tin cans and hand tools. And you can even cook on them.
Looking forward to learning more and adding to my "tool kit".

hapibeli said...

I love composting toilets!

Wendy said...

There is no such place as Away. Just sums it all up doesn't it. I will get my daughter to do this project in her home as well. This is excellent information put in such an understandable way. Thanks. I am of now to reread this post and the previous one again. Cheers, Wendy

The Onion said...

I've done a bit of searching for Basic Ecology but found it unavailable from the major online retailers.

Boxwood Press indicates that it can be ordered in a 2nd edition, but I don't see a price listed.

Other than locating used copies, I am not sure where else it may be found.

Another interesting post, btw.

Joel said...

As a child, my parents told me to pour used motor oil on the weeds in the driveway. Not long ago, I had dinner at a fancy restaurant, and ordered a melon salad because I recognized the name of the farm that grew the melons. The farm is run by a grade-school friend of mine, and he takes after his parents in running the farm with strictly organic methods, but now that I think of it, the land is close enough to that childhood driveway that some of that motor oil may have found its way into that very fancy salad.

On the lighter side, it recently occurred to me that saltier food waste, which I divert from my main compost pile due to low precipitation in these parts, might be perfect in a separate pile intended for asparagus.

Robin Datta said...

Beautifully descriptive posts - that's two in a row: thank you!
For those who continue to insist that "our way of life is non-negotiable" the realization may someday dawn that "We're (expletive deleted)!".

My father (who died in Jan 2008 at the age of 94) came to America in 1978. Having lived all his prior days in the Indian subcontinent (with the exception of a year and a half in Burma - Malaya - Singapore in World War II in mortar range of the enemy), one of his early major impressions was that there was too much wasted in this country. At that time I had just gotten off acitve duty in the (uS) Army, and I had a pair of Army - regulation shoes that had worn soles that I intended to throw away. He insisted at first on getting them resoled for his own use. But when he found that the cost of repair was more than what I had paid for them, he reluctantly tossed them himself.

phil harris said...

This is a good course.
(I might be even older than an Archdruid, and I can well remember modernization and being sent on a course in pesticide chemistry where the old 'science' adage: "everything is toxic unless it is diluted - dilute anything enough and it is harmless" was trotted out. There was quite a lot of seriously bad science around in those days. Theories of nutrition and behavioral science were other 'bad' examples ... ahh, memories of youth and tussles and teasing out of tosh.)

I have been trying out some realism. (Ours is only organic garden I know personally where urine is re-cycled. Have not yet got the whole works but most of our N intake (protein)is digested and absorbed and must be balanced each day by excretion in the urine. Same for most potassium as well. There's a start. I just looked at my copy of Eve Balfour's "The Living Soil" (1944): the technical account of why latrines are a bad idea, and how to do better, could still be a starting point for at least thought-experiments.

I had exactly same opinion of nuclear over the decades as JMG (plus it was relatively very expensive here in UK even when compared with extracting oil and NG from the seriously hostile North Sea - latter not infrequently has winter winds over 100mph and other considerations.) However, nuclear is almost certainly going to be built on a large scale - China for a start. Probably not in USA, EU. We will not afford it? We have all those en-mass flying and driving seasons and commutes and shopping to pay for.[smile :)] Though USA is important for the future, I guess most of the future is going to happen elsewhere?

Armando said...

Dear Druid,

Waste from 2nd and 3rd generation nuclear power plants aka Plutonium has a half life (half of its mass disintegrate over that time period) of about 2.5 billion (not million) years. So as you put it very well it will remain dangerous for the rest of existence. The concept here is that it will remain so even beyond the lifetime of humanity and the biosphere. It is several degree of magnitude above what you even dared decribe...

Siani said...

I traced a lot of things in this way long ago..when I first got into composting and began to consider human waste and animal waste.

It can be quite unsettling. I explained it to my sons in simple terms once..the manure bit. I called it the great poop cycle at the time.

I also illustrated other things in that way.

Thought provoking stuff.

Wordek said...

??? So if I hear you right???... ???What you're saying is???....???My Busemann Biplane will never fly???

But its such a great idea.....

Duex ex Hazzard!!

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, quite possibly. Enough people mistake technology for a divinity anyway that the difference is pretty much moot these days.

Tracy, excellent.

Rainman, Jenkins' book will be central to an upcoming post. How's the biochar working for you?

Hapibeli, so do I -- and now that we don't have a landlord, installing 'em will happen as soon as funds permit.

Wendy, good for you!

Onion, you might drop an email to Boxwood and ask them. Last I heard they had copies for sale.

Joel, bingo. A nicely traced circle!

Robin, it's quite true that our way of life is non-negotiable -- no possible negotiation, nor anything else, can make it last much longer.

Phil, yes, most of the near future is going to happen somewhere else. I'm resigned to the fact that there's going to be a massive attempt to build nuclear plants -- I give it another five years, maybe, depending on how soon the limits to windpower start becoming impossible to ignore. The one positive note is that there's a good chance that, for economic reasons, most of the plants will never be finished or fueled.

Armando, that's appalling. Given that plutonium, even aside from its radioactivity, is one of the most toxic substances around, it's quite simply insane to produce the stuff.

Siani, "the great poop cycle" is a great phrase!

Wordek, do not get me started on "great ideas." When our species goes extinct, it will be as a direct result of somebody's great idea.

John said...

OK Archdruid. This time you've managed to unearth a particularly irksome memory from long ago.

Back about 30 years ago, when I was designing the house I currently live in, I designed it complete with a composting toilet, greywater system, etc.

When I went to build it I ran headlong into the local beaurocracy. When building a house that's not near city sewage lines you need to get approval for a septic system. According to the rules then in force, even if I had a composting toilet, I still needed to install a complete water based septic system - even if it went unused!

I argued this point endlessly with local officials to no avail. There was simply no way around it. Since I didn't have the budget for two waste systems, I was reluctantly forced to go with the conventional system and forego the composting toilet.

One of the skills we green wizards will need to develop, along with appropriate technology, is a set of strategies to change or circumvent the fossilized rules in place that prevent us from deploying said technology.

darius said...

I use fresh human urine to inoculate the biochar I make; I'd like to add a mix of other living microbes to it... but one step at a time. Been doing this for 3 years, the plants love it and the Brix is improving.

Tony said...

One really interesting thing I learned about my backyard a few months ago (I live in a city), is that it used to host a privy (i.e., an outhouse), and not all that long ago. There is, in fact, a distinct depression in the backyard where it once was.

I doubt the local code officer would appreciate me rebuilding it, though!

rainman, how do you make your biochar?

Maeve said...

I wanted to comment to let you know I appreciate this series and am following along.

The pdf printing and the book acquiring will be going along slowly as I have available funds (I do have some great gardening books already, and we have assorted books on the environment as well as field guides and things, but it is never a hardship to get more books... other than the pocketbook that is)

The exercise in closing the loop is one I've done before, though not specifically like this. Mainly I'd been thinking about it because of the issue of recycling. Most of the materials accepted for recycling here are actually shipped out of state as near as I could tell.

Dumpsters go in the local landfill, which they've begun drilling to collect the gas/methane/whatever-it-is. In theory landfills don't leach into the groundwater, but I expect there is leaching that ends up in the aquifer and/or river at least in some dilute manner. Sewage is treated and dumped in the river, which eventually ends up in the Missouri which flows into the Mississippi. Storm drains aren't treated at all and empty directly into the river, so any contaminants on the streets and anything people pour down the storm drains ends up in the river.

One of the other commentors mentioned used oil on the roads- I remember when the rural areas would actually spray the dirt/gravel roads with oil to keep the dust down.

The most insidious 'away' I can think of is plastic. There are big plastic gyres in the oceans and the stuff doesn't disappear, it just gets broken down into smaller and smaller bits, consumed by smaller and smaller organisms. Which obviously get consumed up the food chain again.

It's incredibly sobering, and in a way rather frightening because it means changing not just the way one lives but the way one thinks. (It can be eye-opening to realize just how many tasks one does daily, without thinking, that involve plastic.)

Your comments on nuclear waste and its longevity and the inevitability of "waste containment failure" are things I've thought (and said) before when people ask why I'm opposed to nuclear anything. Frankly it is morally reprehensible to create something so deadly horrific that *will* be around for millions upon millions of years before it is no longer lethal.

DIYer said...

About those building codes I mentioned last weed -- (requiring expensive distilled water to be sent down the sewer) ...

I can only imagine what the city would have to say about me composting our human sewage in the back yard. Not that it isn't a good idea, mind you. The neighbors think we're crazy already, since I routinely put everything from shrub trimmings to dog poop on the compost heap by the back fence.

Big pharma companies these days do an interesting bit of chemical hocus-pocus that might haunt such a project as well. They put a covalently bonded fluorine atom on some pharmaceuticals to prevent the molecule from breaking down in human metabolism. Unfortunately such molecules have environmental half-lives in the decades, if not centuries.

We are too clever by half, it seems.

Jim Brewster said...

FYI -- The Humanure Handbook is available online here:

@JMG -- because mushing feces up in water and then dumping some chlorine into the resulting mess doesn’t change them enough to matter.

Except in a way that reinforces your point: we get a bonus return of dioxins and other chlorinated organic compounds. Our cavalier attitude toward chlorine chemistry continues half a century after Silent Spring.

John Michael Greer said...

John, that's a real problem, granted. John Jenkins tells a story about a guy who could only get permits to do humanure composting if he bought one off a short list of expensive commercial models. So he did. It's still in his garage, in the shipping box, while he continues to use the simple and effective system he designed.

Darius, this is great. Biochar is one of a handful of very important (re)discoveries that need to be added to the old appropriate tech toolkit; I'll be doing some research, not least because a urine diversion system is high on my list of priorities, and biochar would be a good way to handle that.

Tony, that's surprisingly common. Still, the old pit privy isn't a very efficient way of recycling humanure; if you're going to put something in its place, make it a composting toilet!

Maeve, good. Plastics are another of those "if you can't transform it, don't produce it" object lessons. For now, using as little as possible and recycling as much as possible may be as much as most people can do.

DIYer, pharmaceuticals are a big problem in dozens of ways. Myself, I won't put anything in my body that I wouldn't put in the soil, and that means I treat what illnesses I get with herbs and other natural means; still, that's a choice everyone has to make for themselves.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, thanks for the link -- I was going to hunt that down when we get to the lesson on humanure composting. As for dioxins, of course you're quite correct. One corollary to the rule about making circles go the way you want them to go, then, would be that you have to keep an eye out for unwanted feedback!

Houyhnhnm said...

I remember being startled when I found out that much of what we officially "recycle" goes Away to China. Much of it most likely then comes back to America in the form of cheap plastic crap. Ironic, isn't it? One of America's major exports is garbage. Garbage out, garbage in. Now there's a circle.


P.S. Time word problem in your remark on making life "more miserable for people whose distant ancestors haven’t even been born yet." Unless you're holding out a time machine on us, I think you meant descendants.

Mike said...

Thanks for the Green Wizard series JMG. Just the prospect of being referred to as a wizard is almost enough to keep me slogging through those articles on weather stripping and insulated window covers.

A note on strontium-90 and milk: papers coming out in the late 50's & early 60's indicated that milk was one of the best ways to get calcium with a minimum of Sr-90. Diets high in dairy were found to lead to relatively lower Sr-90 uptake. If more recent research has overturned these findings, Google doesn't seem to be aware of it.

Tiago said...

Nukes are undesirable, but it is wishful thinking that they will not be built. Yes, they leave a catastrophic "gift" to future generations and the planet at large but, last time I checked long-term thinking is a tad bit out of fashion. Far from me to suggest it is desirable (it is not), but being undesirable (for some of us) does not mean it will not be done.

Ah... and nuclear EROI. Surely a topic of much contention (considering how emotional the issue can get) and, of course one can get a scientific citation (a PhD thesis, an article) to justify ones own bias (in any direction). But I would recommend a more meta-approach, like this one on TOD. I do not know what is nuclear EROI, but assuming with much certainty that it is below 1 seems to me as wishful thinking and not even based on any scientific consensus.

Again, I am not suggesting it is a desirable suggestion. But the nuclear path will be attempted, in fact a resurgence is already being seen (Sweden as already crossed that path and others seem set on it - and there is still plenty of excess energy to build some of these "toys"). Old fashioned reactors if need be (no need for fancy new Thorium tech).

It is not a full replacement for oil (not being safe liquid fuel), but it might make a difference. And if it makes a difference in the next few decades, well, for most of us...

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

"For this reason, we aren’t going to be exploring the sort of imaginative vaporware that fills so many discussions about our energy future these days."

Along similar lines, I personally have little patience for ideas that start with the idea of having to replace houses, neighborhoods, and communities with entire new structures or designs. It we can't come up with answers now that are retrofits and work within the current built structure (and existing technology), it won't help. We don't have the time, the money, the resources, or the room, to go building yet more structures. Our built structure is our starting point. So I appreciate your emphases behind green wizardry in this respect as well.

Luciddreams said...

Funny, when I was training as a nuclear engineer in the USN they actually taught us in school word for word that "dilution is the solution to polution." They taught us that so that when we opened the valve that discharged radioactive water into the ocean we wouldn't feel guilty about it. Or when we pushed trash out of a hole in the skin of the carrier into the ocean we wouldn't think twice about what we were doing. Ironically some of the stupidest people I have ever met were nuclear engineers in the navy.

One thing I'm hung up on. Isn't matter also energy? Also, couldn't it be said that energy flows in circles as well? It's just that the circles are much larger. Example...I work outside in the heat and sweat evaporates off of my body taking energy with it by way of heat. At some point it rains and the energy it took the sweat to evaporate comes back via kinetic energy does it not? Maybe not the best example but it works to illustrate my point. I'm not trying to be difficult. I'm just questioning. I have a hunch that my problem lies somewhere between Newtonian and Einsteinian thinking.

Roy Smith said...

Your comments about "airy optimism about technologies that haven't yet gotten off the drawing board" reminded me of a quote from (ironically) Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of nuclear power: An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now. On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

Admiral Rickover was a fascinating, controversial character. Although he was largely responsible for the creation of practical nuclear power plants, he had this to say about nuclear power when testifying to Congress: I'll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn't have any life — fish or anything. Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet—and probably in the entire system—reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin... Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible... Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years. I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it... I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all.

Michael Dawson said...

I believe the present hybrid share of the US auto fleet is 3 percent.

The automobile is a fantastic learning opportunity for aspiring green wizards, as it unifies the twin mainstream claims that energy is unlimited and that matter comes from Santa Claus and goes peacefully Away, and it also teaches about how these two myths get very dangerous when they interbreed.

The hybrid car is a marketing trick. If people had any working knowledge of physics, they would be able to think about how utterly insane it was for capitalists to imagine that people using 2,500-pounds metal and plastic boxes to commute and run errands could ever be a sustainable thing.

justjohn said...

I know I shouldn't get hung up by your introductory paragraphs, but I couldn't resist looking up the actual percentages of hybrid vehicles.

According to Wikipedia, there were 1.6 million hybrid cars in the US as of December 2009. (US DoE stats) And the says there are 238 million cars and pickup trucks in 2008. So it is really less than 1% hybrid vehicles.

Forest Farmer said...

Closing the Circle reminds me that we humans are rarely smart enough to see all the possible permutations of our actions. As a consequence, we often fall under the influence of Unintended Consequences. Having failed to see the 'Big Picture', most people opt for what is popular. Unfortunately, the popularity of a stupid idea doesn't make it any less stupid, which by the way probably pretty well summarizes current western culture. One of the challenges of being a Green Wizard will be just how observant we are of how things come around. It might be useful for Green Wizard students to have in their library some examples of how to spot Unintended Consequences, or at least recognize the kind of thinking that leads to them. Two books come to mind. The first is "Inviting Disaster: Lessons From the Edge of Technology", by James R. Chiles. The second is "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences" by Edward Tenner. While both books focus mainly on modern tech, we Green Wizards will surely be susceptible to Unintended Consequences of our own, and will need to exercise a whole new level of smarts in feedback systems thinking to minimize them.
Cheers, Greg

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

Used copies of Basic Ecology by Buchsbaum are still available for under $100 - just not from Amazon - see

bb said...

"The pathogenic bacteria that make feces dangerous to human beings, having grown up in the sheltered setting of your bowels, don’t survive long in the Darwinian environment of a composting toilet" Here's a serious, if elementary question: what happens to these bacteria in the sewage slurry laced with chlorine? Or is the problem you refer to the results of those ill advised systems themselves?


Twilight said...

First I wanted to say I think your explanations in these first two lessons are very well done - very clear for people at all levels.

Second, I'd like to ask for a reference to a good composter design guide. I'd like to do something better than the pile I have now.

Last, I agree with your approach to the pharmaceutical issue - unfortunately lyme disease is keeping my family (and the horses and dogs) on antibiotics. It's simply rampant around here, and is in fact one of the problems about life in this region which I have no idea how to solve. If you live here, you will get it. Setting aside the issue of holistic and natural remedies, can ABX be broken down by composting?

rainman said...

Tony:The biochar I make is made with a very simple stove designed by Hugh McLaughlin. Here is a link on instructions.
This stove maks very good char.

Darius: I read your blog about biochar, very interesting. I use an old hand crank meat grinder to grind my char. I then add this to my compost or charge it with fish emulsion or urine. Wear a mask for it is very dusty.

JMG:We have been having very good results with the char. Our Black Turtle Beans this year are two to three times taller, larger leaves, fuller and more vibrant looking than those without char. The same thing last year with our broccoli. Same exact soil in raised beds.

Glenn in Maine said...

The things that leave our household are recycling, rubbish, sewerage and wood smoke. I’ve chosen to analyze our rubbish, which is a single bag each week of mostly floor sweepings and some packaging. Following the fate of Particle X, which let’s say is a dried up bit of Play-Doh my daughter dropped, I find that this and the rest of the non-recyclable rubbish is burned in a facility 2 miles away to generate electricity, which of course generates heat, emissions and ash. As the air pattern here is west to east, I’m guessing Nova Scotia eventually ends up with our exhaust, and some small bit of Particle X. The ash is hauled 2 more miles away to a landfill, where it is capped, and the leachate is collected in under drains, then treated in settling ponds by cattails (according to the facility’s website) and finally discharged into a brook which empties into the harbor. So whatever microscopic bits of Particle X survive that journey come to rest on the sea floor in the bay, and then eventually on my kitchen table in the form of a lobster dinner. Any bits that pass though me end up in the bay again via the municipal sewerage plant, and find their way back to me in a different lobster, and the cycle continues. The surprising thing to me is how small a distance is covered in this circle. It’s highly local (except for the emissions of course) which to me seems fairer than making our waste someone else’s problem.

KAP said...

Thorium fueled nuclear plants produce 0.1% of the long-lived waste as a conventional pressurized water reactor ... and they can even consume small quantities of long-lived waste too, as fuel. Can't melt down (because the fuel is already liquid), and even containment failure results in no radiation loss (the fuel spills onto the floor, cools, solidifies, and is cleaned up easily.)

We built one in the US in the 1960s. But since it doesn't produce plutonium for bombs, the military cancelled the funding.

David S said...

I can't tell you how much I appreciate this weekly blog, yours is one of the few rational voices speaking to our predicament.

However, this time I have to point out a factual error, with regards to nuclear waste. Your comment that "A nuclear fission reactor, any nuclear fission reactor, produces wastes so lethal they have to be isolated from the rest of existence for a quarter of a million years – that’s fifty times as long as all of recorded history, in case you were wondering," is something that "everybody knows" that turns out to be mistaken.

The high level nuclear waste from spent fission reactors is composed of a mixture of radioactive elements, some with short half-lives, some with medium half-lives, and some with long half-lives. The short half-life stuff decays quickly, the medium half-life stuff decays over decades, and so the material remains pretty dangerous. However, after about five hundred years (and let me acknowledge that this is a long time - it's just not thousands, or millions, or billions of years), the short and medium half-life material has all decayed away, with the result that all that is left is the long half life stuff like plutonium, some uranium, etc.

Now, the nature of radioactivity is that if something is highly radioactive, then it decays away fast. If its radioactivity lasts for millions of years, then it can't possibly be highly radioactive. The result is that after five hundred years, the "high level nuclear waste" is about as radioactive as the ore that was dug out of the ground in the first place, and can reasonably be returned to the ground (in controlled ways) with no more expectation that it will be a health hazard than the uranium ore that is already in the ground in various places around the world.

James Howard Kunstler actually got this one right in his book "The Long Emergency," where he notes (page 143) that "[i]t takes five hundred years for the spent, stored waste of a nuclear reactor to decay to the point at whi8ch it is only as dangerous as naturally occurring uranium ore."

gaias daughter said...

If you haven't already watched it, Annie Leonard's *The Story of Stuff* ( is a very graphic illustration of not only the myth of Away but the myth of immaculate conception as well. It's not only what happens to our 'stuff' after we're finished with it, but what it took to get it to us in the first place. As for plastics, Our Today is Forever on Youtube brings it home

Don Plummer said...

I'm about halfway through the Buchsbaums' Basic Ecology. I thought I would read it before opening Odum's text. (BTW, I got the second edition--ordered it early in the hunt from your readers. It cost me ten dollars with shipping.)

The most surprising thing for me about reading Basic Ecology was how much I already knew! I never took a course in ecology; I never even took a college-level introductory biology course. Maybe my longtime interest in gardening, and especially my work with Wild Ones, a native plant landscaping advocacy group, have taught me more than I thought I knew. I look forward to opening Odum's book.

The second, maybe not so surprising, thing about the Buchsbaum text is how accurately it foreshadows elements of our current predicament in the first chapter.

I also think I might read the chapters on ecology from my son's college biology book (Campbell & Reece 7th ed., 2005). I think it takes an evolutionary approach to the topic, which might complement the systems approach of Odum and the Buchsbaums.

Regarding manure composting, a new book on the subject by Ohio's Contrary Farmer, Gene Logsdon, is scheduled for release at the end of August. Gotta love the title, despite the gender bias in the subtitle (somewhat excused by the alliteration it affords): Holy Sh*t: Managing Manure to Save Mankind.

And I really enjoyed the Santa Claus metaphor for "infinite resources." That was a good one!

John Michael Greer said...

Houyhnhnm, no, the time word's correct. The people I'm talking about live anything up to 12,500 generations in the future, and so the people they think of as their distant ancestors are our distant descendants.

Mike, that's interesting, and an exact contradiction of the research I read some years back. I'll have to check into it.

Tiago, of course nukes are going to be built; the fact that building them is an appallingly bad idea isn't going to slow that down. As for the net energy issue, as I've pointed out repeatedly, cost is a workable proxy measure for EROEI, and no nation on earth has been able to sustain a nuclear power program without massive government subsidies. That's not what happens when an energy technology has a significant positive net energy.

Kevin, excellent. You get today's gold star.

Lucid, only part of the energy that you radiate while sweating comes back to you in the kinetic energy of the raindrops. Much of it radiates out into space, where it becomes part of that 3 degrees above absolute zero that's the current background heat of the cosmos. In a complex dissipative system like the earth's biosphere, some energy gets cycled back and even concentrated, but there's always a steady loss to entropy, and sooner or later all of it vanishes into low-grade heat.

Roy, Rickover's worth reading -- much more so than today's crop of nuclear cheerleaders. He understood nuclear power from a hands-on perspective.

Michael, true enough. These are some of the reasons why I've never owned a car.

Justjohn, thanks for checking on that! I was working off a cite from a peak oil website, and they apparently rounded up quite a bit.

Greg, excellent -- thank you for the recommendations.

Mistah Charley, thanks for the link!

BB, some of the pathogenic bacteria in ordinary treated sewage sludge are killed by the chlorine; the rest go into whatever river, lake, etc. the treated sewage ends up in. Most of them don't last long, since they're not in a congenial environment, but some do.

Pam said...

Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou! A few weeks before the Green Wizardry school commenced, I'd been fantasizing about moving to Maryland in hopes you'd accept an apprentice... you can imagine my satisfaction when the School began.
Completing the assignments is surprisingly satisfying: although I think I already know about energy generation, for instance, completing my simple drawings of sun to human, to chicken, to soil& microbe & automobile has generated a much heightened awareness of energy discharge & a sort of experience of the glowing complex richness we're part of. Just thinking about the cycle of the waste I produce, while disheartening at best & horrifying at worst, incites me to contemplating increasingly responsible practice. I expect actually completing the exercise will be hundred folds more powerful.
Re composting toilets: a plug here for humanure, the term coined by the excellent pioneer Joseph Jenkins, and his book by the same name. He makes the point that composting toilets, which collect feces (generally not urine, I believe)and compost it in the toilet reservoir, are bulky, expensive to produce in both energetic & $ terms, and unnecessary. Collecting feces & urine in a bucket & then composting
it separately is safe, efficient, & very, very inexpensive in every way, with the possible exception of
delicate sensibility, where it can be quite expensive. The basic information is available online, but the book goes into detail exploring & contrasting the possible microbial cycles & energy use we set up when using a flush toilet, an outhouse, a composting toilet and a humanure system. I use a charming victorian commode chair for the purpose- it's a carved wooden straight back chair with a comfy hole in the seat and panels from leg to leg that hide the bucket underneath. When I started using it, I was mainly concerned with possible offensive odors & alarming my activist friends & house-mates, already alarmed by my ideas & subsequent fumbling practice of disengagement & independence from cultural/corporate hegemony as the only meaningful, responsible action we can take in the face of dwindling resources & ecological ravage. WELL. The true &
final test of my concern was establishing the system in my home & inviting my friends to find it- with a pretty pillow covering the seat, no one discovered the almost full commode- not by eye, ear or nose!
The compost produced from humanure is fast & powerful- our vegetables & soil-dwellers have never been happier.
Again, thankyou for your Teaching, sir- although 'thankyou' hardly covers the gratitude & respect I feel for what you're giving us.

John Michael Greer said...

Twilight, I don't happen to know the answer to that -- I'll have to look into it.

Rainman, thanks for the info!

Glenn, excellent. You get an A on this lesson.

KAP, thorium reactors are one of the pieces of vaporware I discussed in this post. Since nobody's using them, and the only people talking about them are trying to promote them, it's easy to make them look great. Mind you, I'm sure they'll be tried; we'll see people trying everything from algal biodiesel to perpetual motion in the next couple of decades. I just hope we survive the inevitable unwelcome surprises.

David, you need to check your facts. Plutonium-239, for example, is generally considered highly dangerous due to its radiation output (as well as the fact that it's one of the most toxic metals in existence), and it has a half-life of 24,110 years. Furthermore, most of the radioisotopes in high-level waste decay into other radioisotopes, some with short half-lives, some with longer ones, so assuming that fast isotopes just burn out quickly and go inert doesn't even begin to address the situation.

What makes high-level waste so dangerous is that it's not a single thing; it's a cocktail of isotopes cascading down complex decay chains, and for a very long time there are new radioisotopes being produced at nearly the same rate that old ones are going inert. Multiply that by the 12,000 metric tons of high-level waste the world's nuclear industry produces every year, and you have a massive problem that nuclear proponents are doing their level best to evade.

Daughter, thanks for the link. The "immaculate conception" was why I added Santa Claus and twinkle dust to the diagram Fido's been chewing on; it's less central to the point I was trying to make than where things go, but you're right that it has plenty of importance on its own account.

John Michael Greer said...

Don, one of the things I expect to hear as people tackle the ecology books is the sudden realization that many of us actually know most of this stuff already. There's a slowly dawning sense of ecological awareness in our culture right now, one of the few really positive things I can point to in the contemporary zeitgeist. As the limits to growth clamp down further, I'm hoping that this will spread. Thanks for the tip on the Gene Logsdon book!

Pam, I'm glad that you're finding this work useful! Thank you for sharing your experience with humanure, also -- for the time being, many people will have to use composting toilets for legal reasons, but Jenkins' way of doing things is the wave of the future, and five hundred years from now, I suspect, everyone will be using a commode with a bucket under it and throwing in high-carbon biomass after each use.

David S said...

JMG, I have checked my facts carefully. You're right that new radioisotopes are produced as decay products, but this doesn't change the main conclusion that I outlined. I omitted that point for conciseness, not because I was unaware of it.

The chemical toxicity of plutonium is also an issue, but all of the heavy metals are toxic. My main point was that after five hundred years, the radioactive cocktail of high level nuclear waste has decayed to the point where it's radioactivity (and its rate of production of radioactive decay products) is similar to that of raw uranium ore. This is an important fact to know (and very few people know it) as we consider what to do about the nuclear waste that is indeed a disposal problem.

I don't want to minimize the dangers of nuclear power, but simply to correct one highly exaggerated claim of the environmental movement (of which I am a card carrying member), that high level nuclear waste remains "highly radioactive for thousands of years." As a physicist (with no connection to the nuclear industry, incidentally), I know that this is simply impossible. Considering that both your blog and several of your comments took this claim as gospel, would seem to indicate that it's a point worth making, and worth clarifying.

SophieGale said...

I found several reasonably priced copies of Basic Ecology on yesterday. They were from booksellers in the US. European copies were pretty expensive.

And may I recommend a series of booklets published by The Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, Scranton Pa.? I inherited six: Essentials of Cookery, (part one, 51A and pt 2, 51B), Cereals (52), Bread (53), Hot Breads (54), and Essential Stitches and Seams (401). The copyright dates fall between 1915-1922. I actually tried to sell them last fall. Other books in the series were available on eBay for about $15 each.

A fascinating and more recent book(1987)is Forgotten Household Crafts: A Portrait of the Way We Once Lived by John Seymour ISBN 0-394-55830-8. It's pretty much a picture encyclopedia of late 19th century domestic technology--great for antique hunters! From the introduction, "In the great ages of the world the home was held sacred and so it must be again or we have no future on this earth."

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Our largest export to China: cardboard, bales and bales of the stuff.

One thing we do at my (very old, recycled) house is try not to buy things without considering what they're made of, what the embedded energy is and where they'll end up when their useful life is done. This alters or prevents many purchases.

As we consider adding insulation to our attic, I am wondering where fiberglass comes from and what happens to it later. Oh dear, more research. Yet what else could we use that has the right R value and comes in batts? Foam of some sort? Worse, I suspect.

Ah, yes, matter. I find the more I contemplate it the dizzier I get.

Here's a flow chart/cycle I've been working on for awhile: the petrochemicals that are used to manufacture the synthetic fertilizer that industrial farmers in my home state lay on the soil.

The growing corn (or soy) uses half. The harvested corn goes into corn-ethanol that we burn, thence into the air as CO2; is fed to animals which then goes as waste into factory farm holding ponds (and thence?) or food for people; or is broken into fractionated corn products that some people eat, to be ultimately flushed into the sewer system to go--where? In my area waste solids are converted to sludge and sold to various companies as soil amendments.

The left over stalks may get ploughed back into the soil, or possibly used for silage, or may not.

The other half of the synthetic fertilizer gets washed away and the nitrogen leaches into and de-oxygenizes the waterways feeding the Mississippi, does the same to that mighty river and finally empties into the gulf of Mexico to feed the original pre-BP, Rhode-Island-size dead zone...but I haven't found out yet how that extra nitrogen comes back from there. Does it eventually make its way into the atmosphere? I'll have to keep looking.

Whew! Think I'll go grade some papers.

A long winded way of saying thanks for making us all think.

Anne said...

I recently read the Story of Stuff by Ann Leonard, which breaks down how the Stuff we buy (excluding food) is extracted, manufactured, distributed, consumed and disposed of and the horrific effects of how this is done in modern society to the land and people, mostly in the third world.

So I am seriously working on how to reduce the amount of stuff I buy and hence have to dispose of as much as possible. For example the other week I hit the 3 charity shops in our local high street and came away with 4 nice items of clothing for less than £15 - and got compliments the first time I wore them - result!

I recently replaced the duff hook eye fastener on my favorite jeans with a button and button-hole so I could carry on wearing them and didn't have to buy new ones.

Electronics production is seriously bad news so it's really not good to buy any more than you have to. My husband was recently able to replace a dodgy sound socket and dead battery in his laptop through getting some advice and finding the parts on E-bay - instead of buying a new one which he was considering.

If I buy food from our local organic shop I can get fruit and veg in paper bags rather than plastic ones, we even re-use the paper bags. However I buy yoghurt in plastic pots, so that is not so good, as there are only so many plastic yoghurt pots you can use for other things, so I need to try and get into making my own yoghurt in re-usable pots.

And so forth - I hope the blog will go into how can we make, re-use and repair as much stuff as possible in the future.

With respect to nuclear energy, here in the UK the government might approve new nuclear power plants, but is unlikely to give them any subsidies, so hopefully they won't happen. It does mean that we are looking forward to serious short-falls in electricity production in the not too distant future, so I am working on how to prepare for that. It will be like when I was a child and we had the power-cuts in the 1970's with battery powered lights and candles. Also means freezing stuff is not a good idea for food preservation, drying and bottling are a much better bet for a lower-tech future.

Houyhnhnm said...

RE: ancestor/descendants

JMG said, "Houyhnhnm, no, the time word's correct. The people I'm talking about live anything up to 12,500 generations in the future, and so the people they think of as their distant ancestors are our distant descendants."

My mistake indeed. On a second reading, I realized you were doing a zig-zag.

Perhaps I blocked your central idea of mankind having a far distant future. Imagining the misery of the next three or four generations on our degraded planet is about all I can endure. As you said, "There is no brighter future ahead."


Susan said...

Week 1 homework (apologies for the lateness, but I've been overwhelmed with Chemistry homework, too) - We have a woodstove we use to heat the house. Sunlight hits a tree. The tree uses the sunlight to make leaves and more layers of wood. The tree is cut down using a chainsaw, so there are inputs of gas and oil to run the chainsaw, plus the fuels used to run the factory to make the saw. Sunlight also hits the plants used to feed the people who make the saw and who cut the wood (or the animals the workers eat). The wood is cut and stacked, using more energy from people who have eaten plants (or animals that eat plants) that use sunlight to create edible fruits and vegetables.

The wood is loaded into our woodstove in the winter. A good deal of the energy radiates into the house as heat and is retained (The house is pretty well insulated.). Some dissipates into the outdoors through cracks and the windowpanes (Since the house is not perfectly insulated and sealed, and even double-paned windows let some heat escape.). Part goes up the chimney as waste heat and escapes into the atmosphere.

Week 2 homework - We have a septic tank system. We eat food, then we poop into the toilet. The poop goes into the septic tank, where part of it breaks down and flows out into the septic tank field. This effluent eventually finds its way into the ground water. The groundwater eventually becomes a spring, which becomes a creek, which flows into the South River. About 40 miles south of here, the South River becomes the Ocmulgee River, which joins the Oconee River about a hundred miles from here to become the Altamaha River. The Altamaha River flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

If we buy Georgia shrimp, the poop eventually recycles back to us and we eat it, starting the cycle again.

I can see we need a composting toilet. Or at least a chamber pot.

DIYer said...

David S,
Regarding 500 years being "not such a long time":
What language were your ancestors speaking 500 years ago?

Petro said...

Still rapt, sir. This is fine work.

Cathy McGuire said...

Wonderful post, again – I haven’t found the ecology books in stores, but I see they are both available at OSU library, where they allow me a “locals card”… so next time my errands take me over there, I’ll check them out.

As my week's assignment, I researched what exactly happens in my septic tank... I know the plants over the leach lines are happy! But I am diverting some of the pee as "tunnel offerings" to get rid of the gopher in the veggies... fingers crossed!

One of the things I’m more aware of, as I read all these posts, is the growing overall system ie: how each time I add something to my “manual system” (go off store-bought or machine), I then have to continue to maintain that piece, as well as all the other pieces I’ve got. For example, I now have the chickens to maintain, as well as the garden, berry patches, compost, and all the manual house chores… and having just got a good sturdy bike (3-speed from the 70’s), I have to add in daily rides to build my stamina and balance so I can bike to the grocery. All of this means that my ability to attend to anything outside of the ol’ homestead (such as my freelance jobs, my friends – all of whom live 1 hr+ away) is reduced… And the time it takes to add a new bit to the system (the chickens’ pen is still much too temporary) makes me realize part of responsible homesteading is having a sense of how much one can maintain. I wonder how you‘all do it!! :-} Of course, maintenance is not my forte... I think I’m gonna someday write a book, ‘The AbsentMinded Farmer”… might be kind of short. :-}

Today, while on a reading break from wood chopping, I found two quotes from Wendell Berry (his essay “Think Little” in “A Continuous Harmony”) that to me are very appropriate:
Without a complex knowledge of one’s place and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly, and eventually destroyed. Without such knowledge and faithfulness, moreover, the culture of a country will be superficial and decorative, functional only insofar as it may be a symbol of prestige, the affectation of an elite or “in” group.

…If we are to hope to correct our abuses of each other and of other races and of our land, and if our effort to correct these abuses is to be more than a political fad that will in the long run be only another form of abuse, then we are going to have to go far beyond public protest and political action. We are going to have to rebuild the substance and the integrity of private life in this country. We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and responsibility that we have parceled out to the bureaus and the corporations and the specialists, and we are going to have to put those fragments back together again in our own minds and in our families and households and neighborhoods...We need persons and households that do not have to wait upon organizations but can make necessary changes in themselves, on their own.

Sounds like Green Wizardry! It’s a great essay (and book!) Always a lot to chew on.

Mark said...

So, along my path of green wizardry tooling, I've found a very good way to cycle urine into many yields. I use a waste 1 gallon plastic jug to urinate in; when it is full, I walk into my backyard to my comfrey patch where I deposit one whole gallon straight to the root system of the comfrey. In return, the comfrey jolts with new growth, which I chop down and feed to my chickens. My chickens then make beautiful, nutritious eggs and litter fallen oak leaves, which accumulatin downslope of their coop after thorough scratching and manuring. I then compost this and return it to my vegetables and varied perennial food plants.

John Michael Greer said...

David, every source I've been able to find in the last half hour or so, including university textbooks with extensive footnotes, says that you're wrong. Not just a little bit wrong, either; for example, because decay chains of other isotopes in high level waste steadily produce plutonium 239, the number of curies of Pu-239 in a given amount of reactor waste continues to increase for at least the first 10,000 years after the waste is produced. (The source for this is D. Ford et al., The Nuclear Fuel Cycle, MIT Press, 1975.) I've found nothing that supports your claims; that being the case, I think you're simply shoveling smoke.

Sophie, would you be willing to scan or copy those booklets and have them made available on the Cultural Conservers website? They're well out of copyright and sound very worth getting back into circulation. As for Seymour, all his books are first-rate -- his The Self-Sufficient Gardener is one of the first books I turn to when I need to figure something out about the garden.

Adrian, nicely traced. If you can find a book on ocean ecology the nitrogen cycle in the sea should be detailed there.

Anne, once the forum's up and running I hope to have an entire section there for people to exchange hints on how to "use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." It's an important part of the work, and I probably have as much to learn as anybody!

Houyhnhnm, "no brighter future" doesn't mean no livable future. I remind myself of that when things look very grim.

Susan, nicely done. A composting toilet of some kind is a very good thing to do, but we'll be covering a lot of other ways to turn waste of various kinds into resources.

DIYer, nice. Still, the strategy here is probably to argue that high level waste only needs to be isolated for 500 years, then insist that this can be done, even though it probably can't. Something about wastes that will be around long enough to poison species that haven't even evolved yet spooks people -- for good reason! -- and getting past that is essential if the misguided attempt to revive the nuclear industry in the US is going to get any traction.

Petro, thank you.

Cathy, you've touched on one of the most loaded issues in all this. When you do something for yourself, it's not being done for you by somebody else working sixteen-hour days in a Third World sweatshop for 12 cents an hour, so you start to confront just how much labor it takes to maintain your lifestyle. It's humbling. As for Wendell Berry, his stuff is great! Definitely up there on the green wizard reading list.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, a reminder to all -- if you get the Google screen saying the comment is too large, it's a Blogger bug and you can ignore it. If you get tossed back to the comments page with a note below the window saying that your comment has too many characters, then you actually have to shorten it or divide it into a couple of posts.

Flagg707 said...

Hi John,

Very intriguing series of posts.

I would like to suggest a topic that might be a separate grimoire or at least an appendix to the grimoires that will be written in the coming decades.

The subject would be "When to Worry." Our Green Wizard some centuries hence would refer to it when coming upon a site from our civilization. This would be an exercise in risk management. Come upon an old refinery two centuries from now? Well, if the grimoire had basic pictures and some sort of list of what was hazardous and what just looked scary, our Green Wizard could be of use in a salvage operation, advising about reclamation or at least giving whatever potentate who rules that area (I'm sure in a nice communal setting where all opinions are deeply cherished, etc., etc.) some realistic advice of what it once was.

For instance, let's take the biggest bogeyman of the post-1945 era - nuclear installations. This being my gig, I can speak to it with some knowledge. Our grimoires might include basic plant layout, a description of the spent fuel pools and dry cask storage. It would cover low level waste, high level waste, uranium, plutonium, etc. It might contain some examples, such as the fact that there are measureable amounts of plutonium in Tokyo from Chinese nuke tests and life goes on fairly well. A discussion of the low risks associated with mild radiation vs. the well-characterized hazards associated with used fuel rods could come in handy when advising whether to use a well or enter a "forbidden zone."

Risk management may be key. Fear itself can make people ill, sort of a reverse placebo effect. This has been documented in Ukraine near the Chornobyl site, where people who were not exposed to anything above background radiation are ill with many vague symptoms and they are sure it is from the disaster site. Knowing when to worry is very important to planning. Treating everything as a major hazard won't be an option - we aren't going to have the resources to go to DEFCON 1 every time our Green Wizard descendants come upon an industrial building.

Advice: When compiling these grimoires, get nuclear plant locations and basic plant designs on paper. Get basic engineering and radiation safety info in it (not scaremongering, but do some real work compiling work from real studies - not editorials in newspapers). Also, keep an eye on developments. As things crater, see what mitigation efforts get taken. Write it down - how was the fuel secured? Was it buried? Was the containment dome sealed? Etc. Those of us that will fight the long fight to preserve some semblance of the industrial world, we may come up with ideas about smaller footprint reactors, new waste treatment ideas, etc. Keep an eye on our work so you can write it all down.

Also, I would like to second John, above where he said:

@John: " wizards will need to develop, along with appropriate technology, is a set of strategies to change or circumvent the fossilized rules in place that prevent us from deploying said technology..."

As a number of you Go Gandalf (or maybe Go Radagast is more appropriate, as opposed to Going Galt), there is one key thing you can do - get your local plant or maybe the NRC to commit to putting down plant and waste basics on long-life archival paper. This should be a relatively easy political maneuver. Have those records committed to various libraries. Could come in handy.

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

Good stuff, as usual. THANKS!

Please be careful suggesting biochar. It looks like a problem of scalability and appropriate use. has more info.

Another "quick" reference: Hoodwinked in the Hothouse: False Solutions to Climate Change (

Not the final word but takes the conversation in the right direction (protective of environment.

Best regards,

Bill Pulliam said...

It seems to me that I once calculated that one kg of Pu-239, properly distributed, could give every person on earth lung cancer. That was decades ago, world population has increased, so it may take 2 kg now.

JMG -- do you plan to discuss some of the particular biogeochemical cycles in more detail, like C or N, at some time in the future? Those things are kind of hard to really explain without pictures, I s'pose it's all i the basic Ecology books, too.

My specialty in Ecology was biogeochemistry, by the way...

BlackDove said...

Regarding the nuclear waste half-life "debate," I found several references to the waste being dangerous for thousands of years, including the DOE website. I also found this, dated 1979, from "Radioactive waste: A technical solution?". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: 12–18:

Hannes Alfvén, Nobel laureate in physics, described the as yet unsolved dilemma of high-level radioactive waste management: "The problem is how to keep radioactive waste in storage until it decays after hundreds of thousands of years. The geologic deposit must be absolutely reliable as the quantities of poison are tremendous. It is very difficult to satisfy these requirements for the simple reason that we have had no practical experience with such a long term project. Moreover permanently guarded storage requires a society with unprecedented stability."

But actually, even if the deadliest waste did last for a mere 500 years, does it matter any more than 5000 or 50,000 years would? We humans can't even manage run-of-the-mill pollution problems in our own time, nor cap a runaway oil well without dumping millions of tons of additional toxins into the ocean besides the oil itself. We argue for weeks over whether desperate, chronically unemployed people should get a few months more help after spending trillions on bailouts ond war. Does anyone seriously believe that we could successfully manage a nuclear waste dump for even a few decades, let alone centuries, without inviting disaster?

DaShui said...

Greetings Archdruid Greer!

Amazing blog. Originally I thought this blog would be a dispassionate discussion of peak oil, the emotion here really surprised me. Never discuss politics, religion, or energy scarcity?

I'm afraid most countries are already planning for a nuclear salvation. My 88 year old neighbor is a former diplomat. Sometimes I drive him around when other diplomats come to visit him. Last year a high level Japanese came to visit. He said that Japanese government is concerned about peak oil and that he had just returned from discussions in Russia on nuclear technology cooperation. Japan is one of the few places that has the facilities to build large nuclear reactors, and Russia is the most advanced in breeder reactor research.
The only hope I see is that the world will run out of money to build these things.

SophieGale said...


Sophie, would you be willing to scan or copy those booklets and have them made available on the Cultural Conservers website?

I don't have a scanner, I might be able to talk someone into scanning them for me.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, very good. That's another example of how to make matter's habit of circling around work to your benefit.

Flagg, this sounds like something to which you could contribute. Once the forum's up and running, perhaps you'd like to put something together on the parts of "When to Worry" where you have specialized knowledge, and others can add to it.

Edde, it's certainly something that can be overused and misused. What intrigues me is that some people, at least, have worked out ways to use it on a small scale in their own gardens, and are getting good results; that's something that deserves attention and further experimentation.

Bill, one of the reasons I want people to get the ecology books is so they can learn about nutrient cycles. That's better studied from a book, or in the physical presence of a teacher, than via essays on a blog. As for plutonium, that seems about right -- it's a potent alpha emitter, meaning that once you inhale it, it starts throwing whole helium nuclei at your lung tissue, with predictably bad effects on the cells, and of course it's also one of the worst heavy metal poisons, which doesn't help.

BlackDove, those parallel the references I've seen. Of course you're right; it's even odds that, in the real world, a nuclear waste dump would start springing leaks within a fairly short time. The point of stressing the quarter of a million years is simply that it makes it a lot harder to ignore the brutal absurdity of the whole nuclear agenda.

DaShui, one of the other problems with nuclear power is that it produces very little net energy. Think of the amount of diesel fuel and other energy that has to go into mining the ore, manufacturing the fuel rods, building and maintaining the reactor, etc., etc., and it becomes clear why no nation has had a nuclear program without massive subsidies. Nuclear power is basically a roundabout way of burning fossil fuels to produce energy; as the fossil fuels run out, I don't expect the nuclear programs to survive long.

x2fer said...

I've had a few thoughts on why matter matters.

The first one relates to JMG's third matter maxim: If you can’t transform it, don’t produce it.

One of my wizardly apprenticeships has been as a Master Recycler, so I'm regularly asked about the recyclability of random items. When I feel the questioner is open to learning something a little deeper about recycling, I suggest that they think about the object in question as its component materials. A glass bottle, or aluminum can, or cardboard box are all easy to comprehend, as they are predominantly made of one material. Invariably, the item they're wondering about is made of multiple materials — for example the ubiquitous Tetrapak container (used for soy milk, juice boxes, soup broth, etc.). I tell them to tear the item a bit, whereupon they can see paper, plastic and aluminum layers bonded together. The light begins to go on a bit, as they realize that trying to separate materials that have been designed to stay together might not be that simple.

A corollary of the maxim might be something along the lines of: The more materials an item is composed of, the more difficult it is to transform it.

(And Tetrapak containers aren't even that difficult an example, as Tetrapak the company has been quite diligent about trying to promote the recycling (actually, downcycling) of their containers around the world. With enough focused attention, the three component materials can be separated and retrieved. Many other multi-material items are impractical to separate.)

x2fer said...

The second thought is a longer one about the linearity vs. circularity of matter.

JMG's main point about the way matter cycles is an extremely important concept to keep in mind. While it complicates his point, it's also important to recognize the ways in which matter is effectively linear.

One way to think about the distinction between the two is to consider atoms vs. molecules. The obvious example is fossil fuels, the ultimate background for this entire blog.

Atoms, since they cannot normally be created or destroyed, behave circularly. An atom of carbon in some prehistoric carbon dioxide, which was taken up by a plant and became part of its structure, which died and fell to the bottom of a lake and decomposed, which was covered by layers of mud and silt and converted by temperature and pressure into natural gas (methane), which worked its way into a pocket where it was drilled and piped to a furnace, which was burned in air, and which finally became part of more carbon dioxide, obviously cycles through the environment.

However, molecules often behave linearly. The aforementioned methane molecule, once found and piped to a furnace, ceases to exist once it has been burned. The methane, and the energy it carries, are transformed into carbon dioxide, water and waste heat, leaving us with at least one predicament.

Matter behaves linearly because it can change form over time. It doesn't disappear — it changes shape, often with a dissipation of energy.

If I might return to Tetrapak containers here (since I've chosen them as my vehicle for this week's exercise in in-depth learning) the use and "recycling" of the containers is effectively a one-way ticket to oblivion. There was once a tree (that provided "ecosystem services" such as filtering air & water, providing shade, etc.) that was chopped down and pulped to make the paper for the carton, but the recycling process weakens some of the fibers in the paper, so Tetrapak doesn't want to use that recycled fiber and instead uses more trees. The recycled fiber is "downcycled" into newsprint or less demanding uses such as toilet paper, which is then downcycled into sewage which we are learning becomes a mass of nutrients in some river and ocean. So although the atoms are all circulating, the organism of the tree is lost, at least for a few human lifetimes, and the molecules of cellulose which supported the tree and Tetrapak container are degraded in such a way that they no longer provide the rigidity that made them useful.

It's even worse for the plastic layers, as they once again involve methane, which is converted to plastic, which upon being ground up for "recycling" loses its ability to preserve and protect liquids, and so instead is typically burned as fuel and becomes in the best case, carbon dioxide, water and waste heat, but likely contributes to some toxic byproducts as well.

Another way circularity vs. linearity plays out is in differences in time-scales. Matter typically cycles over long time-scales, while it behaves linearly over shorter times, often in time periods that humans can relate to, like weeks or years or even a lifetime. Although the matter is still around, its usefulness to humans may have disappeared. Water taken from the Ogallala aquifer doesn't go away, it's still here on Earth, it's just not available for drinking any more…

Many of the ways we're degrading our biosphere involve the ways we change the form of matter in a short time period, when its regeneration takes much, much longer.

x2fer said...

And one last thought just for fun:

Matter and energy are theoretically interchangeable via the famous equation: E=mc^2. What isn't immediately obvious is that the "c" in that equation, the speed of light, is a really big number. And when you square that number (multiply it by itself), it becomes a really, really, really big number. So a little bit of matter ("m") gives you a big amount of energy ("E") — the reason why nuclear explosions are so devastating. But going in the other direction, you'd need a really, really, really large amount of energy to create a tiny amount of matter, something that is effectively impossible — although Star Trek encourages us to think otherwise…

Toni said...


Here in New Zealand we make wool insulation and its very popular - comes in bales just like the fibreglass stuff. My builder friends prefer to use it - same weight, good R values and no skin reactions. Not sure about the production cycle.... I guess my homework is to find out :-)

pfh said...

There's another underlying moral lessons of this, that we should get as familiar with as the road home from work...

When people build economies, most of the work is done by nature, building of vast networks of unintentional infrastructure to support diverse unnamed businesses operations. The reality is that business planners naturally don't understand the environmental systems they use, but didn't design or build...

So... people don't understand what's involved in changing them, usually vastly underestimating the task.

There's also almost no science that even studies the nature of the embedded unintentional design in our systems...

Wouldn't it be a good idea if there was, as long as we're all talking about making sweeping changes to it?

Don Plummer said...

In the "for what it's worth" department:
Perhaps this is nitpicking, but there seems to be some confusion about the percentage of hybrid vehicles out there. I think we're confusing two distinct, though related, sets of statistics.

Michael Dawson wrote, "I believe the present hybrid share of the US auto fleet is 3 percent." The Web site Michael cited doesn't read that the "hybrid share of the US auto fleet is 3 percent." It reads, "... hybrid cars will achieve a 3.2 percent market share in 2010" (emphasis mine). is talking about the percentage of new vehicle purchases that are hybrids, not the percentage of the entire US auto fleet that are hybrids.

JustJohn's 1 percent statistic is probably much closer to the actual percentage of hybrids among all the cars on the road in the USA.

Amory Lovins seemed to be talking of new vehicle purchases as well; he said that hybrids and fuel cell cars would command half to two-thirds of "market share" by 2010.

It's clear, however one measures the statistics, that Lovins' prediction fell far short.

Bill Pulliam said...

Plutonium -- the one saving grace it has is that it is not very mobile in the environment, in contrast to other radioisotopes like Cesium and Strontium. It's solubility in water is next to nil most of the time, so it tends to stay where it was put IF IT IS NOT DISTURBED. It does travel around attached to small particles (I believe it likes clay), which does allow it to get up in the air and into the water. And when one of these particles gets in your lungs, it tends to just sit there for quite a while, attacking your DNA.

Nutrients -- yeah it'll all come up in context about waste and compost and garden soil and crops and such. The stuff that happens with C and N in soil organic matter is quite interesting and has a lot of bearing on when your soil is too cold, too hot, or just right!

Mrs Jarvie said...

I have come to accept that every piece of plastic that I accept becomes my responsibility.

For example, if I take the plastic bag at the market, I also take on the responsibility of using it as many times, for the most possible uses, before it goes to the tip (landfill).

I avoid purchasing anything that comes in a plastic bottle, box, bag, wrapper, or tube. Am I perfect? No. If everyone did as I did, would the planet have less plastic rubbish? Yes. Can I do better? Yes.

I could do better in quite a few ways when it comes to closing the circle, but I have the excuse of living in the inner city and having roommates who are not dedicated to producing less waste. But my excuses are not insurmountable. I can always do better, and find better ways of explaining how great it is to not produce so much trash.

But I don't think that guilt is really the best way. I leer at the paper towels (PAPER TOWLES?!?!?) purchased by a roommate, and she responds with guilt. Sure, I'm glad that because of my leering she's thinking about her purchasing habits, but she's not really learning about her own misguided consumer habits; she just feels bad. There has got to be a better way.

Flagg707 said...

@John Michael Greer: I'd love to help. I'll work up some sort of basic outline and I'll put it out for review and comment on the forum when it is up.

MisterMoose said...

Actually, it's even worse than you think...

Many years ago, when I was the project manager for a large municipal construction project, we dug up an old leaky underground storage tank that wasn't on any of the maps. We spent over $100,000 in an effort to "remediate" the contaminated soil before the LUST Fund took over. Part of the remediation involved heating up the contaminated soil to vaporize the volatiles, essentially converting solid pollution into air pollution. After that, we had to obtain special permits to haul the stuff off to a landfill. The permits were expensive and required lots of interaction with the EPA and other agencies, but we thought it was worth it to be able to get rid of the problem.

So, one day, I decided to follow the covered dump trucks to the land fill to see what all that special disposal really ammounted to. Imagine my shock when I watched them dump the contaminated soil into the same landfill that everything else got dumped into! That special (expensive) EPA permitting process turned out to be a total scam. We could have just as easily have left the leaky tank in place (under a parking garage) and saved the taxpayers a ton of money.

Concerning the problem of zoning and building code enforcement re: nontraditional waste-disposal systems, I've had some experience in this area. It is possible to hide or disguise many things, and people do it all the time. I'm not advocating this, because the inspectors can make your life a living hell if they catch you, but it is possible. Some jurisdictions are much more anal than others; generally speaking, rural areas are a lot looser than the suburbs or the cities. Of course, as various city and county governments run out of money and lay off "non-essential" personnel, we may soon reach a point where there won't be any building inspections any more.

If you want to see real anarchy, imagine a society without zoning and building codes. Actually, we don't have to imagine it; we saw it in Haiti a few months ago...

But, I digress. I do have a couple questions: The Chinese have been fertilizing their crops with "night soil" for thousands of years. Have they run into any major health problems as a result of this practice, or have the bugs been pretty much wrung out of this system? Is the Western reluctance to use this method (or even municipal sewage sludge) based on anything more than the "yuck" factor, or can this be done relatively safely?

Jim Brewster said...

@bb -- "Here's a serious, if elementary question: what happens to these bacteria in the sewage slurry laced with chlorine? Or is the problem you refer to the results of those ill advised systems themselves?"

One of the ironies of chlorine treatment is that it is most effective and safest where it is least needed: in clear water. Adding it to sewage will kill most but not all bacteria and create many hazardous byproducts. Dormant cysts and eggs of roundworms will have a high survival rate. Thermophilic composting is much more effective at destroying pathogens.

The process that turns the vital chloride ion into the highly reactive chlorine radical which leads to highly stable but biologically disruptive organo-chlorines is an interesting thermodynamic lesson in itself, and a microcosm of the cheap energy predicament.

I've also thought about a blog post series on the biogeochemical cycles of various elements. (My concentration in college was animal ecology, but with a minor in chemistry.) But, yeah, maybe the books are a better place. I also find that Wikipedia, for all its faults, is usually a pretty good resource when it comes to basic technical information, and I link to it extensively in my blog. It also has the advantage of being a highly-linked central resource with name recognition. The links allow for a holistic approach to research; you can go from history to geology to ecology to all kinds of other topics on, say, a river or a town, in a logical and streamlined way. While it lasts, and with caveats in hand, I will continue to use it.

On the home front, mention of humanure composting a few weeks back brought a quick spousal veto ("We're not doing that"), but that hasn't stopped me from adding my own pee to the compost bin whenever I get the chance. I'm going to try to get my son, who's currently on a long potty-training curve, to contribute some as well. Fecal composting will have to wait until I can get geared up, which mostly involves a large purchase of straw bales for bin construction and cover material. I don't want to go about it half-a**ed, so to speak!

JMG, I will be curious to see your take on it. I personally favor the Jenkins system, which doesn't involve urine separation, integrates with and enhances standard composting, and involves very little dedicated expense or materials. The downside is that you crap in a bucket and have to haul it periodically to the compost bin. But as Joe Jenkins would say, that helps put the humility back into humus.

Bill Pulliam said...

Gettings sort-of-sidetracked back to the energy stuff by the return of talk about net energy. Many folks seem to think that for an alternative energy source to be viable you just need to get its EROI (energy out/energy in ratio) above 1. They seem to feel that if it gets to 1.1, then we can power our economy with it (OK I'm exaggerating a bit). That is extremely unrealistic and narrow. Our society functions now on energy sources with EROIs WAY WAY more than 1; more like 10 (maybe even 100 in the boom days of easy oil). THIS IS WHAT MAKES THEM CHEAP AND ABUNDANT! As a rough guess, you might think than an energy source with an EROI of 2 might be about 99 times as expensive as one with an EROI of 100. As JMG and others have said Sooooooooo many times, for a technology to really work in society and economy it has to be much more than just "possible." It has to be economically viable on a large scale in the long term. There is simply NO WAY IN HADES you will keep an economy running and sustain a standard of living like what we see now on energy with EROIs in the 2-4 range. Sure in theory that means we can produce "all the energy we need" (forgetting pesky limitations of material supplies, available sites, etc.) but in practice it would be far too expensive even if the practical aspects were overcome.

If nuclear power could do all the things its promoters promise, it would already be powering the world. It is economics, not regulations, that have limited its growth on a global scale. When push comes to shove, environmental concerns always get shoved aside in the face of major economic issues (How y'all likin' that new climate and energy bill? Oh right, there ain't gonna be one!).

Tony said...

Great comments all. Very exciting to be part of this learning process with everyone else.

rainman, if I may beg your indulgence again, when you say

I then add this to my compost or charge it with fish emulsion or urine,

do you literally just add urine to the mix? Is this somewhere in the humanure handbook? Thanks for the link to the biochar-making instructions. That's great stuff!

I just need to gloat a moment... a few months ago, our library had its huge annual book sale. I showed up on the last day and found Odum's Basic Ecology (2nd Ed) for $0.50. That may have been my best purchase this year (although I'm also rather fond of my new 6"-aperture Dobsonian-mounted telescope).

Wendy said...

What a great project! I've contacted the company that pumps our septic tank to see what they do with "it." They're the same company that takes our solid waste (garbage) and our recycling, too. So, next will be to see where all of that goes. The garbage used to go to an incinerator, where it was burned to produce electricity, but the problem with that was that the incinerator was in the middle of a downtown area, and people started to complain about the smell and the pollution. Personally, I liked the idea of burning the garbage more than the idea of letting it sit in a landfill for thousands of years, but I know that neither is a good option, which is why we've really worked hard to cut back on the amount of garbage we have. It's not perfect, yet, but each day we make a little more progress.

My husband's blog moniker is "Deus Ex Machina." I found it funny that you used that term as what "we" were wishing for :).

DPW said...

"For this reason, we aren’t going to be exploring the sort of imaginative vaporware that fills so many discussions about our energy future these days."

Does that include the prospect of acquiring land and resources to live a less energy intensive way of life?

I'm in the PNW - land is at least $30K/acre for schwaggy 3rd growth timber unless you have the cash to buy 40 at a time.

A run-down house with a 1-5 acre plot is still $170-300K.

Right now I could buy either given my credit/job, but it seems like some serious vaporware to consider doing so...especially since said parcels are 40-100 mins of commuting by fossil transport from my place of employ (each way).

Too bad I don't have a spare $500-600K sitting around so I could live sustainably in the city....

At what point do you just say certain opportunities have passed you by and start accepting your dependence on the industrial complex...that you may never have access to providing for your own water/food/energy security in any meaningful way? That you are, in essence, tied to the beast; lock, stock, and barrel.

Sure, there're still the baby steps of personal choices within the framework, but it can get disheartening to listen to all this wonderful dialogue when not being able to join-in.

Well -- I did pee in a public park the other day...does that count?

Mary said...

Meh. The plastic crap I put into the landfill works its way into the Medomak River and from there it empties into the Atlantic...and into the clam flats that I will *not* be harvesting when I learn clamming. (For that, I'll be heading a bit north to the next river basin. Not because it's any cleaner, but because I missed the conservation/cleanup season at my own river). The rest of my crap is recycled. My own sewage goes into my private septic leachfield and back into the ecosystem, sans chemical treatment, except for the portion that is pumped out every 5 years. Not sure where they take that -- whatever that is after 5 years in a septic tank -- for "treatment."

But this brings us to a major, major topic. Potable water. Before I moved up here, when I meditated on where to go, my inner voice said, "There will be water in Maine." A year later, when I took the Master Gardener course, the program director told us that "water will be the oil of the 20th century." Already various towns throughout the state have been under legal attack by Nestle, trying to suck up our water to sell in plastic bottles. I'm hoping they've moved on to greener pastures...water is our one advantage up here...

Mary said...

Oh, I forgot to mention, dontcha know? Electric cars are the ones that will save the day. By 2012...

Ric said...

Heh. Speaking of sending our garbage Away, NYC is mulling a proposal to increase the marginal cost of a bag of garbage to something greater than zero. I'm not sure which is more entertaining; the clueless article or the clueless comments.

The current series of posts have been spectacular, JMG. Your book recommendations plus those of all your readers will keep me busy for quite a while. I'm a little behind on homework due to being in the process of moving 1,000 miles or so, but Odum's Fundamentals is on its way and I'll be double-timing it to get caught up once we land.

John Michael Greer said...

X2fer, of course the whole matter and energy thing is more complex than the shorthand I've used here. Still, I've found that it works very well, as a way to help people grasp the shape of our predicament and the responses that can help with it, to treat energy as moving in straight lines and matter as moving in circles. It's also accurate at a high level of detail; what moves in a straight line in crude oil as a fuel, after all, is the chemical energy in the oil; the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen move in circles.

Toni, that's good to hear -- sheep being a renewable resource, after all.

Pfh, that's an excellent point. I suspect you'd have a hard time getting funding for an institute to study that, though.

Don, thanks for the clarification.

Bill, all this makes it all the more idiotic that the US has been planning on putting its nuclear waste in a part of the country famous for its dust storms and wind erosion. You'd think somebody was paying us to be stupid.

Mrs. Jarvie, good. We've had two thousand years of people trying to make other people change their ways by loading guilt on them, and it basically hasn't worked. Time to try something else, I think.

Flagg, thank you!

Moose, as long as you compost it or cycle it through some other ecosystem that will eat the pathogens, humanure is perfectly safe. I'm not familiar in detail with the Chinese system, but it's very sophisticated -- to the point of cultivating a variety of duckweed in rice paddies that fixes nitrogen in the mud -- so I suspect what they do would be worth copying.

Jim, my take is that the Jenkins system is the most economical of the lot, and very likely the wave of the future, but for legal reasons it's mostly going to be used in places where building codes aren't enforced. For the time being, a commercially manufactured composting toilet will be a good bet for many people. (As soon as we have the money for a few spare parts, we'll be installing a BioLet we got by barter.)

Bill, sweet light crude from an onshore well that doesn't need to be pumped has an EROEI around 200 to 1. Nothing else in the known universe has that kind of net energy -- which, as you point out, is why nothing else will keep a civilization founded on petroleum running.

Tony, did you get the telescope at the book sale? If so, I need to visit that library sale -- mine is only 4" aperture.

Wendy, nicely traced!

DPW, for most people, moving out into the countryside to an eco-cottage and organic farm is complete vaporware. That's not what we're talking about here. If you have a house with a yard, you can do pretty much everything I'll be discussing, even if you're in the middle of a city; if you have an apartment or a condo, your options will be somewhat more limited, but there's still a lot that you can do -- and it's not just limited to baby steps. Climb on board; I think you'll be pleasantly surprised where the journey takes you.

Mary, potable water's an issue. A big one, and one that can be addressed in various ways. We'll be discussing some of them down the road -- though it's encouraging to remember that the bottled water industry probably isn't going to survive long into the Great Recession.

As for electric cars, very funny. Me, I prefer the horde of flatulent unicorns from Epsilon Eridani who are hurtling toward Earth in flying teacups as we speak, and whose abundant methane production will solve all our energy problems. Hey, it's as plausible as most of the schemes being suggested these days!

Ric, if people in the US ever actually have to pay the full costs of the goods and services they use, the caterwaul of complaint will be loud enough to deafen astronauts in orbit.

Tony said...

Tony, did you get the telescope at the book sale? If so, I need to visit that library sale -- mine is only 4" aperture.

That would be quite the amazing book sale! No, I paid around $230 for that. It's an Orion Skyquest XT6 "Classic". It was a "second" with some minor cosmetic flaw that I can't even find. It's quite a nice scope. I figured it was time to invest in something that would give me enjoyment and pass the time that wasn't dependent on electricity. Plus I have some savings that I don't exactly expect to appreciate in value, if you know what I mean. I have yet to regret the purchase.

Not that I want to shill for Orion, but I also recently picked up a wind-up red LED for looking at skycharts at night (you charge by spinning the handle). Can't beat that!

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

The Women's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, some of whose publications we have been made aware of by Sophie Gale, was founded by Mary Brooks Picken, who wrote many works on dressmaking, etc. There is an article about her at Wikipedia, and it links to books by her at, and at Home Economics Archive - Research - Tradition - History (i.e. HEARTH) at Cornell University. One implication of this is that Sophie may not need to scan what she has on hand.

HEARTH has MANY resources freely available by internet, as long as current conditions continue (maybe not quite as long as the grass will grow and the sun shine). A quote from their home page:

"Home Economists in early 20th century America had a major role in the Progressive Era, the development of the welfare state, the triumph of modern hygiene and scientific medicine, the application of scientific research in a number of industries, and the popularization of important research on child development, family health, and family economics. What other group of American women did so much, all over the country, and got so little credit? ... We must do everything we can to preserve and organize records and materials from this important female ghetto."

- Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and Professor, Cornell University College of Human Ecology and author of The Body Project: an Intimate History of American Girls.

And Prof. Brumberg's thought leads me to a wish I have for a future I'll never see: as the era of cheap energy ends, it is my hope that it does NOT mean the end of systematically applying the scientific method to learn about how nature works. The survival of a scientific attitude seems a bit iffy to me, since I believe it is already a minority in American culture. For example, I have some relatives who are fundamentalists who regard evolution as manifestly wrong (for example, one asked me [my paraphrase]: "Doesn't the complexity of the adaptations to harsh conditions shown in The March of the Penguins PROVE intelligent design?" I have great respect and love for this intelligent, caring, and practical man - but our epistemological assumptions are grossly incompatible.

Jim Brewster said...

JMG--"Jim, my take is that the Jenkins system is the most economical of the lot, and very likely the wave of the future, but for legal reasons it's mostly going to be used in places where building codes aren't enforced. For the time being, a commercially manufactured composting toilet will be a good bet for many people. (As soon as we have the money for a few spare parts, we'll be installing a BioLet we got by barter.)"

Oh yeah, I guess that's a downside of building from scratch. If you already have something in place (we're on the county sewer) you can implement the Jenkins system without anyone needing to know, as long as you are discrete about it. On Jenkins' humanure forum there are some apartment dwellers who manage to do it all indoors in trash cans. Now that's dedication!

DPW said...

"If you have a house with a yard, you can do pretty much everything I'll be discussing, even if you're in the middle of a city; if you have an apartment or a condo, your options will be somewhat more limited, but there's still a lot that you can do -- and it's not just limited to baby steps. Climb on board; I think you'll be pleasantly surprised where the journey takes you."

I've been on board for a good long while...but not owning a home/land is a tenuous situation at best. And there are a good number of people (like me) who don't even have a yard or patio. I do what I can with my consumer dollars, but that's still plugged firmly in to the machine...not so self-sufficient. I mean, an electric upside-down tomato grower isn't going to stave off the long descent...nor is sprouting beans in my south window. I'm learning to cook from scratch; but those ingredients aren't in any way under my control. Not that we aren't all to one extent or another equally f-ed, it just seems like the un-landed city dwellers are the first wave out of the trenches.

Maybe I just need to recognize that my baby steps are the best I can do. Acceptance or resignation, acceptance or denial.


Hopefully I'll have some warning before the system breaks and figure some way to high-ground, but if not, I guess I'll just go the way of the Flagellates...out early in the elimination round.

"When animals exploit an environment, their own life activities tend to make the surroundings unsuited for their continued multiplication. However, the very changes which render their environment unfavorable for their own survival pave the way for some other form of life" - Buchsbaum, p. 103

Doesn't take a James Earl Jones voice-over to turn those words into an X-Rated horror flick...if you believe in the primacy of humans.

Bill Pulliam said...

DPW &Cathy -- I think there is an important distinction between self-sufficient households versus self-sufficient communities and economies. Even for those of us who own enough land to in principle grow all of our own food, starchy calorie base like grains and tubers included, the workload piles up very fast and it becomes quite overwhelming if you are trying to be entirely self-contained. It's also an unnatural way to live. People have not normally lived as independent self-sufficient households, and I'd bet that in areas with any sort of population density at all this has virtually never been normal, even in hunter-gatherer days.

No one person needs to do everything. Living in town you might not be able to grow your own corn, millet, and potatoes. But you can do other things with the time you are not spending planting and weeding and maintaining irrigation systems and digging and threshing and building rat-proof storage and... etc. Maybe you can bind books, learn blacksmithing, build furniture, teach school, fabricate solar dehydrators, repair canning jars, make art and music, sew clothes, fix shoes, etc. etc. etc. a million little tasks that those of us out in the countryside tending the fields often won't have time for. There will still doubtless even be jobs -- sawmills, stores, transportation vehicles, etc. will all still be around, in modified forms. Nobody has to do everything so long as someone does each thing and everyone does enough. And that part has a way of sorting itself out as people identify needs (their own and others) and set about to fulfill them.

FernWise said...

Either my brain is in full fart formation, or the HEARTH set up at the Cornell web site a HUGE pain in the butt. It seems that I can only print out books one page at a time. Every single page (at least of the book I started to try to read) is an individual PDF. It looked like a good one, but 150+ pages, one at a time, one page per sheet, isn't going to fly for me. At the very least I'd like to print 'em out double sided, if not two pages per side!

Has anyone else run into this?

Again, it could just be me - it's late on Friday afternoon here!

rainman said...

Tony: No problem.
No, the urine in char is not in the Humanure book. It's located other places. See link below. Scrool down to # 3.05.

Here is another link for urinals usinging char.

Did I mention that one can make their own charcoal for cooking? I'm BBQing chicken at this moment, using homemade charcoal!

TG said...

Congratulations on your new scope, Tony! Is she your first? The Dobs are my personal favorites. They're a great example of appropriate technology, don't you think? I learned my way around the sky on a Coulter Odyssey 10.l".

I'm trying to decide whether to take our astronomy club's homemade 10" f/8 Dob to the Nebraska Star Party. The tube consists of irrigation pipe, which is great except she's not exactly the most portable beast. If I pack the Dob, there's no room for the solar oven, and vice versa.

Odum's Fundamentals of Ecology is coming along, regardless. I hope to read the whole work, cover to cover, while I'm outdoors in a lovely natural setting. I bought the same edition as yours. I didn't score quite as good a price on it, though. That is an amazing find. I envy your luck!

Librarian of Hillman said...

for DMW and my fellow Urban Wizards-in-Training: as you say, the idea of suddenly plunking everyone down on some self-sustaining acre or so IS "vaporware" right now, there is not enough land that is workable, people don't have the skills & they won't want to go anyway. but that does not have to be an unsolvable problem! until the 1850's or so, even in the United States, most ag was small-scale, far more sustainable than current mega mono-crop practices, and extended not only to the cities' edges, but even INTO them (urban "night soil" and other compostable "waste" collection and sale was a *business* even in the United States. bat guano and then other fads like oil shut that down...lots of back-yard gardens and chickens, etc.! but the times are changing, right?)

living in the more dense community of a large town or city does not mean you must rely on The System, but it *does* mean that you (and by "you" i mean ME too) have to rely on working in groups, on making connections happen within the people-ecosystem. we may need a side-class, JMG, on Green Wizardry for the Town Folk?


Librarian of Hillman said...

(Part Two on The Urban Green Wizard)

i recently attended a talk by a local academic and compost fiend (Nick Shorr) here, and after, as most of us were playing with ideas for finding the advantages in our city neighborhoods as far as composting and urban gardening, one 50ish aged woman there was just obsessed with "why" *her* yard compost was "slimey" and "buggy" and all she wanted was someone to tell her "how to fix it"...well, that was obvious, her compost was mostly grass and leaves from her nice big yard. she wondered when we would "progress" to a system that would haul that...AWAY...for her and use it for something! hmmm...

meanwhile, you, me, all the folks with little or no yard space, who are playing around with worm boxes and secret compost toilets in our apartments have the exact OPPOSITE problem right? our stuff is ALL kitchen waste..." got your chocolate into my peanut butter!" (apologies for the 70's era TV ad reference!

but DUH! what that woman needs, and what WE need, is to work together, even block by block, to mix it all up, compost it someplace, and then share it back out!

i have family and friends with yards in the suburbs and further out that i can play around with, but REALLY a large part of my interest here is in finding ways to revive some of those 1850's type co-operative relationships between the town or city, and the farms around it. there's a deep Doomer current that views all us "city people" as 100% negative, a danger to their Doom Steads, whatever. but really, we are a *resource*...literally our kitchen and cafe scraps, even our poop could be *gold*! but we are also skilled or teachable labor, we'll be the ones sitting on most of those useful BOOKS, lots of knowledge, tools, JUNK, everything! and just in the few blocks around me i've got engineers, doctors, skilled tradesmen, teachers, and forgive my blunt phrasing but OLD people! we got lots of them here for sure, and a lot of them remember or still practice tons of low-impact useful home-making of their least appreciated skills is the impulse to NEVER "throw it away" whatever it is! there are people on my block who pre-date the concept of "garbage"!

is this model going to work in the SUPER long-haul? i don't know. but i won't be around for that, either. short-term, we MUST make it part of the steps toward whatever WILL be the super long-term model...the wave washes up on the shore, and it goes back out the same way it came in.

anyway, the community connections thing doesn't have to be your focus...anything you can adapt for use in town/city environments, any funky way you can make a compost toilet or a worm box or any kind of balcony/roof/window garden work for apartment dwellers, any way you can take the "garbage" that is maybe our *biggest* resource these days, and transmogrify that BACK into any kind of useful *anything*...there's a home-work assignment for the few of us in the Urban Track: look around you, identify something that is viewed as waste and a nuisance and which is WAY abundant, and find some useful purpose for it, prior to any traditional recycling! someone earlier mentioned a personal plague of plastic yogurt cups...can they be filled with something and used as walls for raised beds in gardens? can you cut the plastic up and weave it somehow? i've got the directions for crocheting plastic grocery bags into sandals...

it's only "garbage" when nobody loves it anymore.

Librarian of Hillman said...

btw JMG--awesome installment. and "Present!"

you better get that forum going before we take over your life...and, when that does get going, i've been keeping my own "notes" in a doc, with book etc. recs from comments, which i'd be happy to post for anyone who comes in after the Add/Drop deadline!

all this graph paper, cycles, matter, energy...i'm feeling very chicken-and-egg for some reason: do we have SO much "junk" *because* we're using energy like there is no end of it? and vice versa? is that the feed-back loop we're stuck in? mis-use of energy results in too much "junk" which in turn requires huge energy inputs to manage?

(sorry to keep running off on stoner's a librarian thing i suspect.)

but can this be a magic incantation: There is NO SUCH THING as "garbage"?

we waste so much energy turning good, useful matter, into dangerous crap, and then trying to hide it under the rug!

matter does NOT easily "go away" but energy we've got that exactly backwards, right? we think energy is endless, and "garbage" goes "away"? woops!

Kevin said...

Bill Pulliam wrote -

I think there is an important distinction between self-sufficient households versus self-sufficient communities and economies.

Thanks Bill for those words of wisdom. I feel sure you're right. The only historical example of self-sufficient households that I'm aware of were huge plantation manors owned by a small class of very wealthy ancient Romans, which were operated by their many slaves (Petronius spoofs this wealthy class in the character of the nouveau riche Trimalchio in The Satyricon). Even medieval baronial castles must have depended for their goods and provender on the economies of the villages that typically clustered round or near them, and on the services of the farmers and artisans who presumably dwelt there. It all comes back to John's assertion that a community, not the individual nor the isolated family, is the basic unit of human survival.

This is well for people like me and DPW and many millions of other urban dwellers who will not be receiving forty acres and a mule any time soon. Even for those who have the land, self-sufficiency might not be feasible without the aid of those robots whose delivery we are still awaiting along with the ubuquitously available flying cars that some folks, Micawber-like, are evidently still expecting to turn up.

Jim Brewster said...

DPW, you don't have to own land to work the land. Most urban and suburban areas have some kind of community gardens where you can rent a plot. CSA's, farms, and parks with demo organic ag projects also offer opportunities ranging from work-barter to volunteer positions to full-blown internships and apprenticeships.

Getting more on the creative side, perhaps there is an elderly couple with a yard who would trade a food plot for broader gardening or landscaping duties, or with agricultural land who would rent to you. Craig's list could be your best friend in this type of endeavor. Perhaps there are abandoned or neglected parcels where some gardens or livestock would fit in. The point is there should continue to be many opportunities for the post-peak peasant or sharecropper willing to seek them out. I recommend you read You Can Farm by Joel Salatin. It is geared toward practical ways of making money in agriculture, but the principles can be applied to subsistence as well. His approach is frugal, low-tech, and strictly organic, and he definitely got me thinking outside the box on the whole "need to get me more land" issue.

Brad K. said...


I have heard or read theories that the Earth wobbles on its axis, and that Hudson's Bay and the Sahara Desert were previous location of the "north" pole.

I have also read that the Sahara is what it is, because naturally migrating Uranium was washed there, until it accumulated a critical mass and blew out the region.

Anyway, I wonder that using nuclear waste for source radioactive material isn't pursued. I suppose, like the old wives tale about mining land fill projects for trace elements - the landfill is supposedly "richer" than natural ore - the regulatory burdens and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) activists prevent anything useful or sustainable from being developed. Not to mention the ambulance-chasing lawyers.

Even in fiction, managing reactor waste was a problem. I recall reading a couple of the early "Space 1999" books. The story had nuclear waste sent to "graveyards" on the Moon - until a critical mass blew the Moon on a trip about the galaxy. Many SF authors posit moving dangerous manufacturing processes into Earth orbit - so that any escaping contaminants are purified, more or less, to the ion level as they are consumed on entry into the atmosphere, are blown away as cosmic dust by Solar "wind", or possibly just "go Away". The possibilities for solar power on orbiting industries strike me as quite compelling. Unfortunately, that would have been a good way to spend some of that union-pocketed money the Obamans call "stimulous". Thus I don't look for that sort of resource development any time soon. Similar is the idea of a space elevator. The science is intriguing, but requires resources that don't buy votes or entice Earth-bound Labor bosses.

BTW - I got my copy of Basic Ecology.

robertguyton said...

I know this.
I like to be reminded of the fact.
I have a compost toilet and my grey water from the sinks and basins in the house goes into a reed bed.
I still have much to do.
" If you can’t transform it, don’t produce it."
(or buy it!)

Cherokee Organics said...


Waste is something I think about a lot. The simple reason for this is that we have no garbage pickup. None at all.

We also don't have power, water, sewerage, stormwater drainage - pretty much every bit of infrastructure that most people don't give a second thought to - unless it stops working and then I've noticed that they get angry. As part of our low energy design house, we have supplied all of these infrastructure items and tried to keep it as simple as possible. It is difficult to achieve this as local government an various engineers always lean towards complex technological solutions. They were not very complimentary about our large worm farm (which has EPA approval) - they'd prefer to see systems with UV radiation and/or chlorine!

I'm already living in the future that some of your readers are concerned about and it's not really all that bad.

Plastic is the biggest disposal headache that I face. I generate a very small bag of it every week and have to accumulate it. I'm not excited about burning it though.

Everything else gets a second life or is fed back into the soil one way or another.

Incidentally, I read recently that the old timers use to dispose of their sewage by digging a hole and putting a small upright building over it. Australian's would call this building a "dunny". Once the hole was reasonably full, which would take quite a while as the earthworms, bacteria etc ate it and broke it down, a new hole was dug and the small building was relocated. The old hole was backfilled with a bit of soil (you don't want the excrement to be exposed for health reasons) and a fruit tree was planted in it. A very healthy orchard results from this concentration of nutrients and trace elements!

Local government regulations are a bit precious in relation to the above sort of arrangements - so I wouldn't recommend doing this in your backyard - although I personally have no problems with it. Before people comment on the contamination of the ground water, remember that half of all septic tanks leak into the ground water anyway. Also, in urban areas older in ground plumbing tends to be made from clay fired pipes and they leak or have been infiltrated by tree roots anyway. Furthermore, even larger sewers leak and sometimes collapse spectacularly.

What your friendly local treatment plant operator won't tell you is that during large storms, the sewage settling ponds become inundated with excess storm water and are actually designed to discharge into local creeks, rivers and eventually the ocean.

What you flush down the toilet does not disappear magically. It is a resource that is sadly wasted and also contaminated by industrial discharges (think heavy metals). When we could be increasing soil fertility, we are simply dumping nutrient loads into areas and environments that have not evolved to accept them.

You can only hope that one day as a society we become fully responsible for our own waste and then we will realise that waste is not waste at all, but an untapped resource.

Good luck!

Zach said...

it is my hope that it does NOT mean the end of systematically applying the scientific method to learn about how nature works.

Given that the scientific approach was worked out well in advance of the energy glut (by people who today are looked at as "fundamentalist Christinas" by many), I see no inherent reason why it can't be salvaged during the Long Descent.

(Canticle for Leibowitz, anyone?)


Zach said...

Interesting discussion of nuclear waste and its hazards -- this (along with the inherent fallibility of humans) is what turned me anti-nuclear back when.

I did manage to finagle a tour of the Beatty, Nevada low-level waste repository before it closed, and was impressed. While those bits of matter will circle around eventually, it seems like their part of the cycle will be suitably delayed for quite some time. It certainly seemed to be a far better location than the proposed site in my (very nearly literal) backyard in rainy Hillsdale County, Michigan -- headwaters to five watersheds emptying into two of the Great Lakes.


Zach said...

Green Wizardry homework -- received the Odum and Buchsbaum ecology texts via ILL, now to actually read them...

Scored Wood Heat by John Vivian and Living the Good Life by the Nearings at our local Recycle Center.

I can tell that I'm not going to be able to keep up with the pace of this "class," though. Life is already committed to study of economics (which seems related to Green Wizardry!) and food/health issues (for myself and some of the kids -- prepping now for a test of going gluten-free). Not to mention the business of earning a paycheck so I can indulge in such things. JMG, any recommendations for how best to follow along this year and do the remedial catch-up later?


P.S.: I hope that the beard is not essential to being a Green Wizard. My wife doesn't like it, and mine grows in patchy anyhow. :)

darius said...

Since it has come up in posts here more than once, here's a bit about urine used to inoculate biochar:

Plants need nitrogen but are only able to take up fertilizing nitrogen in 3 forms: nitrate, ammonium and urea. The commercially manufactured urea (chemically identical to urine) is 45-0-0 (45% nitrogen), whereas animal/human urine is 2-5% nitrogen and also contains many needed minerals and microbes, depending on what we eat and how healthy we are.

In the whole scheme of what we are contemplating with green wizardry, we still must first eat to survive. We have depleted our soils of minerals (mainly the micronutrients) which feed the microbes, and if we don't address how to sustain the microbes, none of us will be eating for long.

According to the USDA, the vegetables grown in this country contain only about half the nutrition found in them just 50 years ago (and after a lot of soil nutrient loss even then). Those studies do not address meats, but they would have to show similar losses since meat animals eat plants too.

Soil nutrition is very complex, and even after several years of studying what we know (and don't know), I still have barely a basic understanding. However, I have learned enough to know the absolute importance of microbes in the human gut, and in the soil.

If we don't start to do the very best we can to feed the right stuff to the critters that feed the soil that feeds the plants that feed the animals that feed us, all else is naught.

jean-vivien said...


since compost toilet is a big line on the agenda, may I ask a simple, practical question, to people who have used this type of system for many years.
How do you clean up the seat and the bowl after each use ? Do you use regular tap water ? Some special product to help keep it clean ? Because I assume that unlike mainstream systems, the compost toilet bowl is not permanently filled with water.

Thanks, it is just... curiosity about an important detail.

K said...

Another mainstream mention. However, he thinks we have another 100-150 years. (No need to post this unless you want to...)

John Michael Greer said...

Tony, excellent. There's quite a range of "hobbies" that consist of the practice of science as an unpaid avocation -- that is, doing science the way it used to be done, and will most likely be done in the future if it's done at all. Amateur astronomy is one of them; I'm always encouraged when I hear of people getting into that.

Charley, if the scientific method is going to survive -- and it would be a shame to lose it; it's the first significant improvement in logical method since ancient Greek times -- it's going to have to be handed over to people outside the community of professional scientists, and it's also going to have to divest itself of some of the ideological baggage that has been heaped on it of late. Both of those can be done, but there's going to be quite a bit of grumbling from scientists if that happens.

Jim, true enough. Of course you know that for legal reasons I can't recommend that anyone violate their state and local health codes by using Jenkins' methods where they're not permitted by code.

DPW, you can also start making plans now to move from your current apartment to one that has more options. My wife and I lived in apartments for twenty years, and managed to find places pretty regularly where we could do some gardening, use energy efficiently, and so on.

Bill, good. We'll be talking about specialization down the road a bit.

Fern, I haven't tried that site yet, but I hope it's not that dysfunctional!

Rainman, the profession of charcoal burner used to be an ancient and honorable one, if grubby to a legendary degree.

Librarian, good. Very good. There were basically two lifestyles that were worked out in detail back in the old appropriate tech movement; the first one -- the one that everybody thinks of nowadays -- is the rural commune hippie farm, but the other is the small urban house or apartment building. All this stuff can be done in an urban setting just as well as in a rural one, and the exchange of resources you've discussed is an important part of that.

As for incantations, you're quite right that there's no such thing as garbage, but it's possible to put the matter even more strongly: the word "garbage" means "a resource nobody is smart enough to use yet."

Kevin, exactly. Cities are a form of human ecology with a long history, and under the right conditions they can be sustainable for a very, very long time -- there are cities in China and Italy that have been lively places for getting on 3000 years. Urban centers close to agricultural regions do very well by providing specialized goods and services in exchange for farm produce, and that's not going to change -- in fact, a lot of small cities that are struggling to survive right now may find themselves doing a lot better fifty or a hundred years from now, when transportation is a much dicier proposition and local production for local markets is the name of the game.

Jim, all good points.

Joe said...

Hi John, I have recently read both of your books and one area you talk about in particular - the stories we tell ourselves, seems very much in line with the British political philosopher and author John Gray. Are you familiar with his writings? If not I suggest you read Straw Dogs which ties in in many ways with your own thoughts on humanity.

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, we'll be talking about the end of the space age in a few months, and at that point I'll talk about why those fantasies of orbital factories and mining the sky are about as realistic as trying to import fuel from Oz.

Rob, good. The thing I'd like to ask of you at this point is to teach it to others.

Cherokee, exactly. This is why I advocate for composting toilets as often as I do -- turning waste into resources is an essential part of being a green wizard.

Zach, once we really start getting into the nitty gritty, nobody's going to be able to keep up -- I'll be covering months of work at a time, and pointing people to books that have even more work. Take notes, do what you can, and remember that all this is the first rough draft of a future book, so if you miss it this time around, there'll be a second chance.

Darius, there's an excellent book on using urine in gardening and agriculture; it's titled Liquid Gold. Well worth a look.

Jean-Vivien, you clean the seat the same way you'd clean any other toilet seat, with soap and water or a biodegradable cleanser. There isn't a bowl in the usual sense; instead, there's a composting chamber. You put in a good layer of organic matter -- peat moss, shredded leaves, or what have you -- before you go, and then throw in more after every use.

Especially if you have a urine diverter or a standing urinal for guys -- and you should -- the result is relatively dry and almost odorless; you can empty out the composting chamber into your regular compost pile, hose it out, let it dry a bit, and then put in another layer of organic matter and keep using it with no trouble at all.

K, it's always on topic to watch the media wrestling with the fact that the unthinkable is happening. Not to mention wryly amusing.

Lamb said...

Well, since so many traced their poop, I decided to trace something that was sitting on my desk.
A plastic (oh the shame!) 2 liter soda bottle. Dr Pepper to be exact.
My favorite treat that I indulge in when budget allows.

Once the awful beverage is consumed (with much enjoyment, I might add, this bottle begins it's change cycle...
Typical Life Cycle of the Dr Pepper 2 liter Bottle in My Household:
1)Rinsed out with hot tap water and then filled with water, tightly capped and tucked in the back of the pantry for emergency water. (I live in a hurricane prone area)
2) After 6 months, I *cycle and rotate* my water, if it has not been used. If it has been used, I have saved the bottle. It is now used for food storage. Beans or rice. I dry the bottle out completely, fill 1/4 way with dried beans or rice, put in an O2 absorber, fill to top, put in another O2 absorber, tightly cap.
3 Maybe I have enough food storage...or I opened and used the what?
One good use for a 2 ltr. bottle is for seedling pots and mini-greenhouses or garden domes. You cut the bottle in half...bottom is your pot to start seeds, top is your dome to put over a plant to protect it from the nights frost. You even have a cap to vent it during the day!. You can also (when transplanting your seedlings), just cut the bottom out, pop it into the garden and have the seedling protected from various species of cutworms.
I also use the top for funnels.
I could probably fill a book on the uses I have managed to find for used 2 liter bottles, lol!

When I FINALLY get to the point where I throw one goes to a recycling station near-by...I found that the folks that run said station sell the plastic there to a company that shreds, breaks it down and sells it to a company that makes park benches from recycled plastic.

My book recommendation for today...good for realizing the dangers of pollutant toxins on our planet and how there is no "Away":
Summer of the Apocalypse
Written for teens and young adults, it is still compelling reading for old adults.And the kicker at the end...when you realize what pollution has done...smack upside the head revelation time.

Hal said...

Just done with my post-farmer's market nap, I'm realizing I'm another who is going to have to audit this class this time around. Growing season is no time for me to try to get anything done. I had a couple of thoughts to share, though.

It's something I've noticed before that as soon as people start thinking about small-scale sustainable living systems or appropriate tech, the question of what to do with one's wastes become obviously important. I'm afraid the rest of the world sees this concern as a sign of an amusing idiosyncrasy if not serious OCD. But it is something we have to deal with, I just don't make a big deal abut it. I have a history of kidney stones, so am required to monitor my volume, among other things. This ends up with me in possession of a couple of liters (minimum, hopefully, but I do come up short a lot of these hot days.) So far, my solution has been to spread it around the fairly large grass areas around here I have to keep mowed. I am using it to grow grass, in other words, which I then compost for soil food. Of course, diluted about 7:1 it can be applied to any crop, but I limit it to things where the whiz won't have a chance of contacting the product, e.g., tomatoes, cucurbits, corn, etc., not root crops or leafy greens.

The thing you have to consider with a septic tank system such as I have is can the system handle the volume? If you push too much through the tank/leach field system, it will tend to flow out and eventually enter some water body somewhere. I have a system I know very little about, and won't till something goes wrong. I assume it was designed for an average family of some sort, and since I am alone, I hope to get some years out of it before needing to make any changes. Assuming I am not taxing it very hard, using it just for my own solid waste, I don't think much gets past the leach field. I hope not, anyway, as I am just a couple hundred feet from the Tallahatchie River.

I keep a couple of 5-gallon buckets full of sawdust in the barn so I can go to a humanure system in the event of an extended power failure, which would knock out my well-supplied water system. I already have to haul drinking water, as the well has gone bad and though it tests OK, and works fine for most uses, it is very hard and the color is not appealing. Anyway, I'm collecting materials for a rainwater system I hope to install in the next year.

Luciddreams said...

DPW, I've been thinking about our plight today as well. By "our" I mean those of us who must depend on many elements of the remnants of the industrial civilization that we live in (productive jobs being one an element that is disapearing). I was thinking about what I would have done differently if I could go back to 20 years old, and I ended up placing myself in an eco-village most likely in another country besides the good ole' USA. I'm 30 now. I have a wife, a career, a house, and a newborn. I am now stuck because convincing the wife to drop the comfortable Western lifestyle we are living now to move to an eco-village somewhere with an infant is not going to happen.
My point is that even though I have a house with almost 4 acres of land there are still many aspects of modern civilization that I must participate in...rather against my will. I don't want to depend on a motorized vehicle, but there is no other option. I want to have livestock to complete a closed cycle of growing food but I'm in the city limits and can't. I want to learn how to plow with a mule but that's not going to happen. I want to amend my house with a lot of appropriate tech (wood burning stove being one example) but can't afford it right now because my house is old and everything breaks all the time. So we move in degrees. Another idea that may give you comfort is advice Dimitri Orlov gave in "Reinventing Collapse." He says it's better to be mobile when society collapses...not tied down.
All that being said, how important is living purely with your ideals to you? It could be that you could give up the comfortable Western lifestyle you are living and take a chance on finding your way in accordance with your idealistic world view. Look at Siddhartha Gautama. If your not willing to give up your lifestyle for your ideals than it would seem your ideals need adjusting. I know I didn't ask for the Western lifestyle. I was born into it. When I woke up I was already mired, but then maybe that's just an excuse. What I have realized is that we stay positive and do what we can. You never know what tomorrow will bring. Depression about your apartment confinement will only add to your suffering. Change your mind and reality may follow.

Hal said...

More. Sorry for the long post.

As far as the questions about community-scale wastewater systems and chlorine, I might have something to add. Things might have changed since I had a couple of engineering water quality classes in the 80s, but at that time, the type of treatment that uses chlorine was still pretty rare. A little background: There are three levels of treatment. Primary treatment basically just amounts to letting some of the solids settle out and flushing the liquids into the nearest "away." It's all that most communities did before the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. Back then, it literally took an act of Congress to get people to stop putting something that was basically raw sewage into our rivers and lakes.

Secondary treatment is what you have in most community systems today. That consists of designing a holding tank, or tanks, to hold the liquid fraction long enough for bacteria to work out most of the objectionable elements in the effluent. It's basically a large reaction chamber, with the reaction being a biochemical one done by bacteria. What bacteria would we use for this? Why, the very bacteria in the "solids" to begin with, so it's pretty much a self-perpetuating system if designed and implemented right. In fact, it's just a concentration in space and time of the work that those same bugs would eventually do in the environment. This system can get rid of the overwhelming majority of the sewage hazard, and as I said, was the system used in most places at the time I was studying this.

Tertiary treatment is where chlorine may or may not come into play. There is always some contamination left over at the end of secondary treatment. It's inherent in the system in which you're needing a minimal viable population of the very thing you're trying to eliminate. Usually, ending up with a small residual bacteria population, as long as kept below standards, is something that the natural processes in the receiving water can handle. In those cases where you need a cleaner effluent (e.g., another drinking water intake too close downstream) the residuals have to be eliminated. The standard engineering approach has been to kill them with chlorine. I won't go into the downsides of this as the post is already way too long. Another approach, still cutting edge when I was in school, is to use a constructed wetland to take up the last of it. Eureka, California was the pioneer in this and there should be a lot of references on their system.

So I'm sorry for the long post, but I think there are a couple of important thing for aspiring green wizards to know. First, even in our conventional systems the vast majority of the work is done by natural processes and agents. It's really quite elegant if you study it in more detail than I have been able to put here. The second is that the tertiary step is only necessary because we've taken up too much of the available space for the natural processes to work in the environment. It might point to some areas of study for design of appropriate-scaled systems in a post-decline world. Finally, I hope it answers some questions about the chlorination.

Cathy McGuire said...

@ Bill Pulliam But you can do other things with the time you are not spending planting and weeding and maintaining irrigation systems and digging and threshing and building rat-proof storage and... etc.

Ah, but the gardening is the part I like! ;-) And although, as you say, a community is needed to encompass all the tasks of survival, it’s literally the day to day work, done by hand, that impresses me with, as JMG says, the humility and awareness that I had been relying on others’ labor for “cheap solutions” to a lot of that. Most of my women friends have housekeepers, and most of them aren’t rich, which means the housekeepers are working cheap… and they justify that by saying at their time of life (middle aged, like me) they finally “deserve” it… but what of the housekeepers?? So I’ve gone the other way, and don’t have a housekeeper (or a dishwasher, or readymade food, or lawn service)… and day to day, there’s a lot of work that goes into a household!

@Librarian I've got the directions for crocheting plastic grocery bags into sandals...
I want it, I want it! :-} Seriously, email me at cathy(at) I love crochet, and what a fashion statement! :-}

it's only "garbage" when nobody loves it anymore.
That’s definitely the philosophy of places like Wacky Willie’s and SCRAP in Portland, OR… and the thrift shop in my town has all sorts of stuff… the challenge, as you say, is in the logistics – ironically, I believe our current systems evolved as middlemen took up the challenge of getting A to B so that it could be used by those who want it! But then it got out of hand… I often look at bits and scraps and wonder what I could turn them into… on my less-than-an-acre, I have to be careful what I salvage, though.

@JMG – BTW, if you need help on the forum, I manage 3 websites currently, so I’d probably be able to assist where you need me. That would be volunteering that I’d be proud of!

Cathy McGuire said...

Under the heading of "going in the opposite direction" - here is an article about something I can't conceive of ANYONE needing -- and just think about all the energy input needed to make it work! (Their "no waste at the point of cooking" is so egregious, it is mindboggling). The whole thing makes me shudder...

US scientists have introduced a concept design of the "Cornucopia" or Digital Fabricator, a "personal food factory" able to print food from specified ingredients, with no waste at the point of cooking.
The food printer is at the concept design stage, and would work by storing and refrigerating ingredients and then mixing them, cooking layers of the mixture and printing them onto a serving tray.

… The researchers say the printing process brings cooking technologies into the digital age and allows entirely novel textures and flavors to be created that would otherwise be unimaginable and which are unobtainable through traditional cooking techniques. They say users would be able to control the nutritional value, quality and flavors in each meal through a touch-screen interface and Internet connectivity, which would allow them to manipulate parameters such as carbohydrate or fat content and calories. The design also allows for the food printer to be able to automatically order new ingredients and suggest an alternative ingredient if one runs out.

SunsetSu said...

Most old books about home building, gardening, candle-making, etc, can be very helpful. However, DO NOT follow recipes from old books about canning. I just completed a six-week course on canning and food preservation at Seattle Tilth, a wonderful non-profit that provides classes in growing and preserving organic food.
Our instructor warned us to use only modern kitchen-tested canning recipes. Many of the old practices have been proven to be dangerous. Please check the National Center for Home Food Preservation website. Buy up-to-date books on canning techniques and use only modern recipes tested by food scientists. Badly canned food can cause serious illness or even death.

Gauk said...

There's an extra use of solar energy in your firewood cycle. The sun provides the energy to season the wood. Green wood barely breaks even when trying to burn it.

Twilight: I live in Old Lyme, CT. I've had Lyme disease twice(once it paralyzed half my face. I got better.) My dad's had it three times, my sister just once but for a long time. I cursed capitalism when the Lyme disease vaccine was cancelled in testing due to being 'unprofitable'. The only way I know to reduce the prevalence of Lyme disease is to break the life cycle of the little spirochetes that cause it. This involves killing a whole lot of either ticks, rodents, or deer; Deer are the easiest targets and the simplest to count. claims reducing deer density to 10-12 deer per square mile will do the trick. Either we reintroduce predators like wolves to keep the deer population in check(probably a good idea) or we eat venison all winter(hey, win-win).

jean-vivien said...

and the soap does not hurt the compost ?
also, the bowl would have to be made of ceramic, not wood... wood is porous, and will absorb some of the unwanted residues, no ?


John Michael Greer said...

Joe, I'm not familiar with him at all. I'll give his stuff a look.

Lamb, very good. Now trace something that you normally get rid of, as the assignment said; there was a point to the request.

Hal, no question the fixation on human wastes is specifically a mental hiccup in the world's industrial nations. Still, it's worth exploring, since it is such an emotional issue for the people who make up most of my audience.

Lucid, you seem to be treating full immersion in the industrial lifestyle, on the one hand, and living in an imaginary ecovillage, on the other, as the only two options, when they're simply two endpoints of a spectrum. In your situation, you can do a huge amount, if you choose to.

Cathy, I've forwarded your contact info to the person who's putting the forum together. I've also asked my spouse to find a pattern she has for crocheting shoulderbags out of used plastic grocery bags; you may end up entirely accessorized with crocheted grocery bags, you know!

As for the, ahem, Food Printer: dear gods. If I had spent a year hard at work trying to come up with a raucous parody of today's most preposterously meretricious techno-delusions, I couldn't have done half so well. How can you even satirize something like this?

Sunset, true enough. That was going to come up when we talk about food preservation, but it's good to reference it now as well.

Gauk, wolves are good, but so is venison, and the skills you learn by deer hunting can come in handy in other contexts as well. 'Nuf said.

Jean-Vivien, ordinary soap residue will be eaten by compost bacteria; you can also use biodegradable cleansers. As for the composting chamber, yes, it's usually made of something nonporous for ease of cleaning.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Re: keeping the scientific method alive

As I recall, the basis of the scientific method is to experiment (make a thesis/test it out/document what happened/see if you proved or disproved your thesis). "I think potatoes will grow in semi-composted barnyard waste": try it! See what happens! Write down results. Did it work? Cool, you proved your thesis. Not? Try something else next year, based on what you know *doesn't* work.

Unless American educations are VASTLY different than Canadian ones (I realize they have significant differences, but surely this much of the scientific method gets through to the junior high students?) ... the core of the scientific method ought to survive. It's just too practial to ignore. :)

Re: composting vs septic
We have a septic tank-and-field setup. The tank only needs to be 'sucked out' every few years, as it takes care of itself (presumably through those biological processes so thoughtfully described by Hal). I figure if it was necessary not to deal with the septic truck man, one could manually extract the sludge (I'm sure that would require a good bath afterwards), and compost it safely as per regular humanure handling protocols. In the interim, the septic field - for as long as it lasts - is essentially a composting toilet system, is it not?

Wordek said...

“How can you even satirize something like this?”

Ahem.. Please allow me to assist

Were I running that project my goal would be to remove the last inefficient human element altogether and have a turd printer operating in every home by 2015. Now if we can just convince everyone to fit a composting dunny at the same time, all the worlds food production problems could be solved at a single stroke. We should call our system “Perpetual Motion” ™ and use the slogan “flushed with success!”

Bet no one listens to me though, yet another million dollar opportunity goes begging through the usual lack of imagination.
Bluddy typical..

gaias daughter said...

JMG, this post seems to have generated some of the best discussion ever!

I've a couple of things to add. Just finished reading _The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind_ by William Kamkwamba. What an inspiring read! It's the true story of a young African who found a book called _Understanding Physics_ in the local library. With that book and scraps from a junk yard, he built a windmill that generated electricity and made it possible for his family to have light.

On a totally different subject -- others have found that keeping guinea hens can greatly reduce the number of ticks in an area, limiting the risk of Lyme disease.

Twilight said...

Gauk - once the infected ticks are here, it's not the deer that are the problem, rather the mice and other small animals that the ticks can get to more easily. The deer and birds serve only as long distance transportation. We've got a couple of dozen chickens running free every day, but even that isn't enough. I am trying to burn and clear farther from the house every year, but things regrow so quickly. My son got bit again last night.

One interesting aspect I looked into was the eastern fence lizard, and trying to re-establish them around here. One theory is that California's much lower incidence of Lyme is due an enzyme in the blood of the western fence lizard that kills the spirochetes inside the tick. That effort kind of ran into a dead end though.

Anyway, Lyme is a big issue all by itself, and I don't want to see it clog up our host's site. The relevance is more general - learning to deal with medical issues without the aid of "modern medicine", and that too may be outside the scope of the project here.

I find that there are actually quite a few people with a lot of knowledge concerning herbal remedies, but often when I look at where the ingredients come from it turns out that they cannot easily be grown around here. There will be a need for more local knowledge in those areas, and that would be a important magic for some future Green Wizards to specialize in.

John Michael Greer said...

Apple Jack, many US school districts have eliminated all lab work from science classes, and some have eliminated science classes. There are some that no longer teach grammar and spelling. I don't think you realize just how bad things have gotten down here.

Wordek, good. No doubt the machine could be set up so that if supplies of poop were insufficient on site, it could send a message via the internet to MIT, where they clearly have quite an excess of it.

Daughter, I've been impressed by the quality of the conversations on this list for a while now. Thanks for the book reference; that level of appropriate tech -- put some stuff together out of scrap to produce a modest but useful amount of energy -- is exactly the sort of thing that needs to be done as we head down the far end of Hubbert's peak.

Twilight, low-tech health care is outside the green wizard project as narrowly defined, but it's a major issue all its own. The current US health care system is already broken -- these days, deaths directly caused by medicines and health care procedures in the US outnumber those due to any other cause of death, including heart disease and cancer -- and the impacts of economic decline and energy depletion aren't going to help. That being the case, taking care of one's own health and that of one's family is about the only viable option left, and the more people who learn to do that, the better.

Apple Jack Creek said...

... many US school districts have eliminated all lab work from science classes, and some have eliminated science classes. There are some that no longer teach grammar and spelling.

You are right - I had no clue things were that serious. That's ... stunning.

I now understand why your book recommendations don't include any high school science texts! It had puzzzled me a bit, as my son's grade 7 course covered the basics of ecosystems, and this year the Grade 8's studied freshwater & saltwater systems, and the impact of humans on both. I see that the Alberta Science 10 course will be going over the same things as your recent posts: energy flow in technological systems and cycling of matter in living systems. I did some hunting: the Alberta texts are from, the other major publisher is Nelson - books are terribly expensive new, but if any Green Wizardry students stumble upon Canadian Science textbooks for junior high and up, they probably have useful (if high level) information on a lot of the relevant subjects.

Hal said...

Apple Jack: All the evidence I can find tells me my septic tank has never been pumped, and it's at least 10 years old. How often it needs to be pumped mostly depends on the size of the tank and the volume it has to handle (flow rate.) An efficient system breaks down the solids component so that there is little residual sludge buildup, and most of the microbial breakdown occurs in the tank. (In that sense, calling it as a composting system is correct.) So the tank takes care of the primary treatment and part of secondary. The leach field takes care of the rest of secondary and tertiary. Microbes in the soil column break down a lot of the remaining carboniferous wastes (mostly dead bacteria cells) and the plants take up the nutrients.

Which reminds me of a great naked hippie book I have somewhere in my possession. The Septic System Owner’s Manual by Lloyd Kahn has been the bible since sometime in the 70s (gotta love that R Crumbesque cover) and it seems to have been recently updated. Here's a link I googled up, but I can't attest to the vendor:

Librarian of Hillman said...

ok Cathy--plastic grocery bag nirvana as requested!

i suspect they may not have great traction though! so i'd watch that when you try them out!

BUT the basic crochet knot is one of the most useful things i've ever learned...any kind of twine, old fabric, plastic strips, can be made into bags, containers, clothing, rugs, something to hang over the window in winter for insulation, seat covers...anything!

with enough time, i could probably crochet a HOUSE. so much easier than knitting, and kind of mindless too--you can do it while watching kids, talking, whatever.

(i picked up some super cheap kids kits yesterday at a one-off store for knitting, and for weaving, too!)

Tony said...

Hi TG,

She's almost my first scope. My first was a "Galileoscope", a project of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA09). That scope whet my appetite, but turned out to be so frustrating to use on my cheapo $40 camera tripod that it's just a showpiece now. The Dobs is very nice, but I'm not sure why I bothered with the 148x eyepiece... you can really see the rotation of the earth with that much magnification (i.e., everything really zips by).

Ok... WAY off-topic... although I recommend amateur astronomy to anyone looking for no-energy night-time amusement. Also, being back in touch with the night sky, with the stars and planets and the moon, has definitely been a good thing in terms of reconnecting with nature. Think of how much poetry and prose has been inspired by the nocturnal sky....

@ rainman, thanks for the links.

Cathy McGuire said...

This seemed to be relevant to the overall discussion, if not this post... sounds like if one looks around, there might be small homesteading opportunities....

BEATRICE, Neb. — Give away land to make money?
It hardly sounds like a prudent scheme. But in a bit of déjà vu, that is exactly what this small Nebraska city aims to do.
Beatrice was a starting point for the Homestead Act of 1862, the federal law that handed land to pioneering farmers. Back then, the goal was to settle the West. The goal of Beatrice’s “Homestead Act of 2010,” is, in part, to replenish city coffers.
The calculus is simple, if counterintuitive: hand out city land now to ensure property tax revenues in the future.
“There are only so many ball fields a place can build,” Tobias J. Tempelmeyer, the city attorney, said the other day as he stared out at grassy lots, planted with lonely mailboxes, that the city is working to get rid of. “It really hurts having all this stuff off the tax rolls.”
Around the nation, cities and towns facing grim budget circumstances are grasping at unlikely — some would say desperate — means to bolster their shrunken tax bases. Like Beatrice, places like Dayton, Ohio, and Grafton, Ill., are giving away land for nominal fees or for nothing in the hope that it will boost the tax rolls and cut the lawn-mowing bills.
Beatrice (pronounced bee-AT-russ), which sits about 40 miles south of Lincoln down a highway called the Homestead Expressway, is recognized as home to the first Homestead Act application nearly 150 years ago. That law ultimately granted 270 million acres of land in 30 states to nearly anyone who could survive on it and pay a minimal fee.
Beatrice’s new Homestead Act is not the first to revive the land giveaway. Some tiny towns, particularly in the Great Plains, have made such offers before, mainly as a way to increase dwindling populations. But disappearing is not the fear in Beatrice, which is home to several lawn-mowing equipment manufacturers and where the population has held steady at around 12,000 for decades.
Instead, city officials are hoping to return some of the many lots the city has accumulated, because of unpaid taxes or flooding risks from the Big Blue River, and return them to the tax rolls. The city has not suffered gaping budget shortfalls or the property tax declines seen in some larger cities, but some large purchases and road reconstruction have been delayed, waiting for a return to flusher times.
If the city were to give away just a few lots — and if people were to, as required by the law, build homes on them and stay for at least three years — Beatrice would secure annual real estate taxes on them, collect money for water, electric and sewer use, and no longer pay to mow the lawns.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Librarian ok Cathy--plastic grocery bag nirvana as requested!

Yeha! Thank you! I will have fun trying this. I have already crochetted a bunch of washcloths from thick cotton cord, and since I attend a couple of poetry critique groups each month, I use that time to crochet granny squares and other things (it keeps me from interrupting w/o thinking, too!) I just saw at Powell's City of Books a crochet book from the 70's, where they even showed crocheted lace curtains! My first thought is - "who had that much time???" :-D (But back then, I'd once made quilt-square cafe curtains, so I guess I did!)

Twilight said...

I'm still reading the Buchsbaum's Basic Ecology, but I wanted to say that I find the perspective to be quite eye-opening. I read the accurate descriptions of the problems we face now, and then I mutter "1957". In the beginning there is discussion of ecology being a new science, and the difficulty of predictability in such a complex field of study. I should think that question has been settled.

I used to think that it was bad enough that we lost the 35 years between when the US peak in oil production and world peak today. Now it turn out the issues we face were mapped out quite accurately before I was born. An excellent example for anyone who feels that knowledge of the problem will in any way influence what society does.

John Michael Greer said...

Apple Jack, these days what most US schools teach is the answers to the government-mandated tests that determine whether the schools get their federal funding with punitive measures, or without them. That leaves very little time to teach anything else. Old school textbooks -- before 1960 or thereabouts in the US -- are well worth collecting; it sounds as though Canadian textbooks can be added to that list.

Hal, good heavens. I had no idea Lloyd Kahn was still turning 'em out. Shelter was an absolutely classic naked hippie book; Kahn was a major dome builder and proponent for a while, and his switch to more traditional and ecosystem-specific vernacular architecture marked a watershed in the appropriate tech movement. Thanks for the link!

Librarian, please do crochet a house! ;-) Many thanks for the links.

Tony, while it's off topic, the idea that ordinary people can and should practice amateur science is enough of a hobby horse of mine that I'm not going to hit the delete button.

Cathy, yes, there are thousands of opportunities like that -- and also the somewhat less demanding option of simply moving somewhere that has very cheap real estate and a low cost of living. The only challenge that has to be worked out is how to earn a living wherever you are, and that's not insuperable as long as you don't remain stuck in the belief that somebody else has to create a job for you and then hire you to do it.

Twilight, good. You get today's gold star. We all live in the shadow of our civilization's colossal failure to deal with the detailed, repeated, cogent and timely warnings of its impending death that it's been given over the last half century. Our challenge now is to figure out what can still be done by individuals, families, groups, and communities as those prophecies play out; fortunately, we've still got options.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, Blogger is apparently having all kinds of electronic hiccups when people try to post things here. Comments are still getting through -- sometimes 3 or 4 copies of each one! -- so don't despair if you get some kind of weird response. As the Long Descent picks up speed, we'll all have to cope with less than functional technology a lot of the time, so treat this as a chance to practice...

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

I can't remember if Boy Scout Handbooks have been mentioned here yet as a useful resource. Like so many of the books that JMG and others are mentioning, the earlier ones are the better books. With Boy Scouts of America (BSA) handbooks here in the States, in my opinion the last truly useful book was the 7th Edition, published from 1965 until 1972. After that, starting in the mid-1970s, BSA underwent a major rethinking, in large part to bring it out of its old form and more into something that might be of interest to scouts in major cities. Merit badges all changed, and they added lots of other award mechanisms. I was a Scout at this time, and it really turned me off such that I quickly quit, and the sourness of that was so great that I never really interested my boys when the time came, nor did it attract them.

Anyway, the handbooks from that transition forward (8th edition and newer) are not nearly as useful as the earlier books. A lot of the useful stuff, like flora and fauna identification, building survival shelters, simple wood fire cooking, etc., started to disappear from the handbook. Any edition will be better than nothing, but the earlier the better.

Also not mentioned yet would be for my suggestion of college physical geography textbooks. The most complete will be those by the father-son authors of Strahler and Strahler. But you can also get an online physical geography textbook that is a work in progress by a Canadian (Univ. of British Columbia) professor by the name of Michael Pidwirny. He has a fundamentals textbook found here,, and he is working a more expansive textbook at the same website.

DPW said...

LucidDreams and others: Thank you very much for the perspective you lent. It seems I continue to violate Peak Oil Blues' "Maladaptive Strategies":: .

Following this advice: "Change your mind and reality may follow." is exactly what I plan to work on. I have to stop playing the role of the victim and start working on doing what I can, where I am, with what I've got.

Someone else posted the Seattle Tilth website…I can look into that. Maybe we can find a WWOOFing opportunity close-by to volunteer with. Or maybe I can volunteer with Habitat for Humanity to learn some construction skills. And yes, I had a long and productive talk with my wife this weekend about getting busy trying to do some sort of gardening on our very small, very HOA restricted patio.

And the rest, I agree, has to just come as it does. I'll try to keep working on the mind aspect and try to remain positive through the strength of action…even if it seems like my actions aren't enough in the sense of jumping all the way to self-sufficiency (as if that existed), at least they are actions and attempts at doing something.

Small step: I made chicken stock yesterday from a leftover rotisserie (free range, organic) carcass. Not going to save the world, but it was moderately empowering to learn a new way to make more use out of what was previously just waste to go in the trash. Maybe next week I'll figure out somewhere to land the chicken parts/bones…stealth composting?

Again, thanks for the cold water to the face. Looking forward to more discussions, hints, tips, and insights for the currently Urban among us.

rainman said...

DPW: I've composted animal bones in my compost for several years now with no problems. I do keep a wire mesh over the top to keep any dogs and other four legged's out. In a year or so when I'm sifting compost, I'll remove the clean bones and then char them in my TLUD stove. Bones are an excellent source of phosphorus. Here are some plans for the TLUD.

TG said...

Cathy, thanks for the article about Beatrice's Homestead Act of 2010. Beatrice is roughly 25 miles from the farmstead established by my great-great-grandfather in 1869. I'm a fifth-generation Nebraskan. This place runs deep in my blood and bones. As much as I would love to stay, there is a good chance we will move to Michigan to look after my husband's family within a few years. I hope to acquire some green wizardry skills that I can take along. Perhaps that will aid in our transition.

Tony, you're going to love your 6" Dob. You can see some wonderful views through that instrument (and also through a 4", John Michael!). When the new forum is operational, we can chat about this more, if you like. Last autumn, my husband presented a program describing four ways that amateurs can make real contributions to the science of astronomy. If you're interested in the specifics, just let me know at the forum. Of course, it's also fine to simply oooh and ahhh over the gloriousness of the night sky. I do that a lot. I'm leaning toward leaving the scope at home and just enjoying the naked-eye views of the Perseid meteor shower at the star party.

I think I'll make a few wishes on those falling stars.


SophieGale said...

Oy! So many posts to respond to! I checked the HEARTH site at Cornell. I only found three or four volumes from the Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences--none of them mine. I was deeply, irrationally moved to find home ec/shop books that were actually published here in my hometown Peoria, IL, almost 100 years ago, But, as Fern(?)discovered, you can only read/print one page of a document at a time--a major pain in the butt! I will get my books scanned or copied for the Master Conservers.

Love the crocheted plastic bags.

Gardening in the city. Google "yard sharing" or check out

Two liter bottles--you can transform them into non-pesticide roach traps, or so I've been told.

sebzefrog said...

About biochar:
I had never heard about it, and therefore followed one of the links
about it in this post. What struck me was that, after a very good
explanation about how to build a biochar-maker with two paint boxes,
it came to the combustion part, where it explained that the best thing
one could burn in such a device was wood pellets.

Using wood pellets to make biochar sounds like burning few acres of
the neighboring forest in order to have nice salads. Processing wood
into wood pellets costs energy. And it is more efficient to use
perfectly good wood to make them in a plant than using wood scraps.
I thus think (but don't have any reference to back it up completely)
that wood pellets are an artifact of our Oil Age.
BTW, this is the line of thoughts we followed here when we decided
againts a wood pellet stove. They make more heat, for less money, but
we think it is because of an oil energy subsidy.

Now, beware ! I am not speaking against biochar. I am simply following
the line of energy and circle of matter. If instead of burning wood
pellets one burns his own wood scraps, or wood that comes from his
garden edge trimming, then we are talking. This is turning a potential
"waste" into something useful. The matter of the wood scraps cycles
once more into your household, and you might even be able to get
something out of the energy produced as it flows out. Or not, but in
both cases it is much more efficient than treating them as "waste".

About the end of the world:
Catching up with the posts, I saw gloom thoughts about the future of
mankind. I am no Seer, and won't really get there, but in gloom days,
it might be worth remembering this: loosing the access to infinite
energy also means loosing the access to the scale of damages humanity
can inflict to the global ecosystem. If get past the current screw up,
I think that humanity as a whole, even if it might live through
"interesting times" will manage. I always envisionned humanity as a
below-average kid playing with a gun. If the gun is taken away, the
kid might never hunt the way he could have would he grow up, but he
will not blow up his head neither.

About science future, and science present:
There are scientists working from the inside to hand science over to
people outside of the community. And also to change the ideological
bagage. More than you might suspect actually. There is more than one color in wizardry.
And It is also worth noting that it is not as if "the community" was that eager to follow this path...
On that I totally agree with your hobby horse about more people doing science as a hobby.

But enough on that: the discussion about how to save science, what
science is, and what "the scientists" people keep refering to are, is
indeed very interesting but I think off topic for now. Or at least I
take this as an excuse to defer to a later time a discussion that
would take more of my time than I have currently available. August is
closing up, and in France, it means holidays. Lots of things to do in
the house. Time to get more green in the wizard. Grins.

Sebzefrog at

pasttense said...

You might want to check out the extension publications for your state and neighboring states.
(Do a Google search for extension publications and the name of your state...)
For example here is the one for Iowa:

There are also some states which have preserved their older publications (a source of older appropriate technology).
For example here is Kansas:
And Michican:

Carl Hutchins said...


Indeed, Lloyd Kahn is still turning 'em out. His latest, Builders of the Pacific Coast, is a trove of appropriate tech in vernacular architecture. The description and drawing of the homemade water pump on page 47 is sheer inspiration to an aspiring green wizard.

Anne said...

Lots of great comments this week.

A few bits to add.

Regarding those of us who are trying to do this in the urban situation. Me & my husband sat down and talked this through a few years ago and decided to stay in our terraced house in a smallish city, rather than move into a rural community living situation. My husband is now a part-time 'urban peasant', spending many happy hours in our allotment which we are fortunate enough to have down our street. Meanwhile I recently bought small orange and lemon trees in pots which now live in our south-facing patio, and the orange tree has baby oranges and loads more blossom on. We try and eat the fresh stuff we get as we go along, and Nigel Slater's book Tender is a great source of inspiration for that. We also have a wood-burner and have wood to process, but also have an offer of scraps from a local tree surgeon when we need more.

For those who don't have their own growing space look into local schemes for communal gardening or garden-sharing eg you grow stuff on part of someone's garden who can't manage it themselves and share produce with them or keep their bit tidy in exchange. Local Transition initiatives are often active in developing and promoting this kind of thing, although it isn't and doesn't have to be limited to them. If there isn't something like that going on in your area already try starting it up. Another good idea on those lines is community harvesting and use of fruit from fruit trees that are not being harvested in the area - check out for a project that does this in a city in the UK.

I just read a thought-provoking article critiquing the Transition movement and advocating a more radical move towards local economies based on a lot simpler standard of living than we currently have in the West. Check it out on

With respect to the book search (from two posts ago), finally got to Hay-on-Wye, didn't have long there but found a small section on Appropriate Technology and a larger section on Ecology/environment. Didn't find any of the books on the list, except 'Fundamentals of Ecology' but didn't buy that as found 'Ecology' also by E Odum, which is a simpler book aimed at a less technical audience, may be worth folk looking out for that one. It was published in 1980, but is eerily predictive of the mess we are now in as a society. Picked up various other interesting/useful books while I was at it. Looking forward to the more interactive site where we can share stuff in a more structured way.



John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, excellent. A word might also be put in here for the books produced by a now-forgotten rival of the Boy Scouts, the Woodcraft movement founded by nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton, which had an even more nature-centered focus.

DPW, good. It's important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the possible; do what you can, with what you have, right now -- this was one of Seton's mottoes! -- and then see what other options open up for you.

Rainman, thanks for the link!

Tracy, true enough -- the first time I caught Saturn on a clear and moonless night, rings and all clearly visible, is still quite a memory.

Sophie, true! Two liter bottles with the bottoms cut off also make great mini-greenhouses for newly planted vegetables in the spring.

Seb, of course you're right; the end of the age of cheap energy also means the end of the age of easy ecocide. One of my concerns is that it may also mean the end of the age of science; it's uncomfortably true that there's only a minority of people outside the scientific community who are interested in practicing science, and a pretty fair number who might find science and scientists a convenient scapegoat when things start getting really difficult. But this might be better discussed on the forum, or in another conversation.

Pasttense, thanks for the links!

Carl, this is very good to hear.

Anne, Odum's Ecology is a very solid introductory textbook, so will do very nicely for this work. As for the critique of the Transition Town movement it's certainly worth a read. I'm not convinced that the author's political ideology is as useful or viable as he thinks it is, but the core point that you've stressed -- that any functional response to the crisis of the industrial world will have to involve accepting the end of abundance and a much less materially extravagant lifestyle -- is crucial.

darius said...

Some great comments made in the last 2-3 weeks, my thanks to everyone who widened my perspective!

Here's a fun clip, solar light from 2 liter soda bottles.

Don Plummer said...

I cracked open Fundamentals of Ecology this morning on the bus ride to school. Given the conversation that's been going on here about the perils of nuclear energy, I found it more than curious that Eugene Odum devotes a chapter to "Radiation Ecology." He says in his preface to this second edition that, recognizing the depletion of fossil fuel energy, we are about to enter an era of atomic and solar energy.

He was apparently a man of his time. I wonder what he might have to say about "radiation ecology" were he around today.

Kregan said...

I often see links in the comments sections to websites with good information on appropriate technology. I probably missed it, but is there a site that collects a great deal of this information, organizing and linking to thousands of 1970s-current manuals, articles, etc.?

Bill Pulliam said...

I guess the local financial permaculture people don't read this blog, 'cause I just got an e-mail invite from them for their latest weekend Permaculture Design Course for "only" $250...

About BioChar... in what ways is BioChar not just plain old-fashioned charcoal? I can't see anything indicating otherwise. The only difference seems to be whether your intention is to put it in the soil or use it for fuel; the actual substance seems identical. So if it is just charcoal, why does it need a fancy New-Age-ish Green-Tech name? Making charcoal from plant matter by smoldering it in an oxygen-deprived fire or oven is an ancient technology. To revise an old joke: What's the difference between Green Technology and old-fashioned technology? A couple of zeros at the end of the price. Note that this has no bearing on the value and utility of using charcoal for all these purposes; but it does smack of marketing over substance. I also share sebze's fear of forests being clearcut in the name of "green tech," especially since "biochar" on an immense scale is being promoted as a potential geoengineering "solution" to climate change. It might be Brazilian biofuels all over again.

About carbon sequestration... given that it's a safe bet that we will eventually extract most of the accessible oil from the planet, regardles of policies or movements that seek otherwise, should we really be recycling or avoiding plastics? Carbon that goes into plastic does not go into the atmosphere, and plastic that is sent to the landfill rather than recycled creates the demand to make more plastic and divert more fossil carbon from the fuel pipeline. From an atmospheric CO2 perspective, perhaps we should actually be using more plastic bottles and bags and sending them to the landfills rather than recycling them or replacing them with "greener" alternatives.

Tony said...

@ Bill re biochar.

I share your confusion over the name. I first heard of biochar when I read Dr. James Hansen's (Director of NASA's Goddard Center) 2008 paper on climate change, in which he discovered, through examination of the paleo-record, that 300-350ppm CO2 is the max the climate can hold without disastrous consequences. Since we exceeded the upper limit of that around 20 years ago, that's a problem. Near the end of that paper, he proposed "biochar" as one way of sequestering CO2 (the argument being, if we didn't "char" the bio-matter, it would just decompose and give its CO2 back to the carbon cycle; charring it takes it out of that cycle for hundreds or thousands of years). Since reading about that, I've been trying to find the differences between "biochar" and plain old "charcoal", but haven't had any luck yet. Maybe you're right, and it's just the intended use that makes the distinction. Maybe it's a marketing term ("charcoal" doesn't sound quite as sexy). I'm tending to think that it really just confuses the point, if it's true that they're the same thing.

sgage said...


I'm a bit skeptical about the general applicability of "biochar" myself. It is ground-up charcoal, as you say.

In any case, its use seems to make sense in wet tropical situations - situations in which the soils are subject to leaching. Evidently it provides some good CEC/adsorption surface area, and hangs onto nutrients, and is persistent in the soil for a long time.

The modern "biochar" thing got started with the discovery of the terra preta soils in the Amazon Basin and other tropical regions. These soils seem to be human-made, and are still black and fertile after all these years, vs. the usual lateritic crap.

In the colder soils of the North, where much of the nutrient capital exists in the soil anyway, vs. in the above-ground vegetation as in the tropics, I don't think there is much benefit to be had.

The only charcoal my garden (in New Hampshire) gets is the odd bit that comes in with the wood ashes I sprinkle on it from time to time...

MarMelodian Musings said...

I live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which you may know is the site of the old K-25 uranium enrichment plant, the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant and the x-10 National Laboratory. We are a perfect example of 'what cannot be made safe should not be produced.' Now the biggest industry in town is clean up...of mercury, radioactive junk, cyanide, and Lord knows what else. There are so many sick (if not already dead) workers who were never told about the poisons and risks they were exposed to working at those facilities, and the government really doesn't want to know about or settle any claims. The whole process is a charade. I honestly think they are hoping that everyone dies and the whole issue will just go away. Thanks. Martha Maria (recording as MarMelodian at

ken said...

Had to change my screen name. I was rainman

Bill Pulliam: My understanding is that biochar is charcoal but is made by pyrolosis at around 600 degrees C, in a near oxygen-free container. It is an ancient process, perhaps 3000 years old. Biochar is used both as a soil amendment and as a fuel source. Wood gas and bio-oil are also byproducts biochar. The new technology is different from the ancient slash and char process. It is more controlled. Whether you call it charcoal or biochar is up to you. I usually refer to it as char.

The large piles of debris left over from logging operations can be used in biochar production. Other plant matter such as wild blackberry vines, grasses, vineyard and orchard trimmings can be used instead of clear-cutting forests “in the name of green tech.”

What I really like about biochar is that I can make it using low-tech hand tools and recycled materials. I call myself a “Tincanologist.”
I’ve included some links that I have found useful.
Hope the info below helps further explain biochar.

What is Biochar?,%209-20,%202007,%20Warnock.pdf

Biochar is … a term reserved for the plant biomass derived materials contained within the black carbon (BC) continuum. This definition includes chars and charcoal, and excludes fossil fuel products or geogenic carbon (Lehman et al. 2006).

From the International Biochar Initiative:

Brad K. said...


weekend Permaculture Design Course for "only" $250, I think they are following President Obama's secret to ending the economic crisis: Pay "union scale" plus that extra expected handful, when you can.

I have to agree - if they were teaching Permaculture to increase Permaculture they would charge enough to cover the kool-aid and donuts.

At the same time, there is the phenomenon of the cheap horse. That is, if you give someone a horse or sell it cheap, they get a cheap horse, and treat it that way - unlike if they paid the vet and feed bills, thought about training, and bought tack for an expensive horse.

Paying dearly for a lesson often increases the amount of information you retain. Unfortunately, $250 is more than "dear" for someone struggling with a couple of jobs and kids, and not enough to raise a Yuppie's eyebrows. This looks more like a get-rich scheme. Get a buddy to go, and crib the notes.

And do like dedicated horse fans do. Find someone doing permaculture, and work for them a while - take a job if they will hire you, or volunteer if they will have you. You can't learn horses without a nose to rub and someone that knows how to watch. Same with many other endeavors. Sometimes we call it school, other times apprenticing or On the Job Training (OJT). Or we watched how our folks did it at home (or it was part of our chores growing up).

Karel said...

Many thanks, JMG. Czech translation of this post was already read by more than two thousand inhabitants of Central Europe, resulting in flurry of comments from followers of our powerful nuclear lobby. Those people aren`t able to accept this even as the smallest minority opinion.

Rainman, thanks a lot - you make me very happy with link to that "biochar reactor"; in last cca 12 months I spent lot of time trying to "invent" something like this via DIY project.

hapibeli said...

Knowing you'll discuss the various space fantasies in the coming months, I still have to say after reading somewhere in the hundreds of science fiction tales in my youth, I used to believe that we might achieve even more of the science wonders in the years to come. Running out of petroleum now, seems like a bargain for humanity. The thought of billions more people adding to our planetary woes no longer excites me. After 9/11 while I was still in Portland, Or.,it seemed like such a restful and quiet time with no planes in the air. I began to consider fewer automobiles and other oil consuming devices running around me on a daily basis. It felt right, more human, less "driven" [ pun intended]. When is the next installment

gooboo said...

The circles actually can be very large and the people in the departments called "marketing" make you believe they are endless. (look for "Eastern Garbage Patch")
One example of a thing that we learned wrong the other way round is that the planets move around the sun in circles. Actually the sun moves very fast and the planets moving around an obejct moving (nearly) linear describe a braid.