Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight

From left: Al Gore at TED2006; Jane Goodall at TED2003

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened -- as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding -- she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story about how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.

Watch this stirring and potent presentation by Jill at the TED talks:

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

The annual conference now brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).

This site makes the best talks and performances from TED available to the public, for free. Almost 200 talks from our archive are now available, with more added each week. These videos are released under a Creative Commons license, so they can be freely shared and reposted.

The TED Conference, held annually in Monterey, is still the heart of TED. More than a thousand people now attend (indeed, the event sells out a year in advance) and the content has expanded to include science, business, the arts and the global issues facing our world. Over four days, 50 speakers each take an 18-minute slot, and there are many shorter pieces of content, including music, performance and comedy. There are no breakout groups. Everyone shares the same experience. It shouldn't work, but it does. It works because all of knowledge is connected. Every so often it makes sense to emerge from the trenches we dig for a living, and ascend to a 30,000-foot view, where we see, to our astonishment, an intricately interconnected whole.

Friday, March 21, 2008

DNA pollution, GMOs, and Antibiotics...connect the dots.

Read the following excerpts carefully.
We are engineering our demise with GMOs, Confined Animal Feed Operations, and antibiotics.

Research shows that when you eat the GMO food grown with Bacillus thuringiensis genes in their tissues, the genes are actually leaching out of the genetically modified plant into your body. They enter your gut in free form. Your gut bacteria pick them up.

Now bacteria in your gut become resistant to an antibiotic that could save your life, and they can begin making Bt pesticide!

You now can die of an ampicillin-resistant infection from your own genetically modified bacteria, even if you never took ampicillin.

“Antibiotics may be the most powerful evolutionary force seen on this planet in billions of years,” says Tufts University microbiologist Stuart Levy, author of The Antibiotic Paradox: How the Misuse of Antibiotics Destroys Their Curative Powers. By their nature, anti­biotics support the rise of any bug that can shrug off their effects, by conveniently eliminating the susceptible competition.

But the rapid rise of bacterial genes for drug resistance stems from more than lucky mutation, Levy adds. The vast majority of these genes show a complexity that could have been achieved only over millions of years. Rather than rising anew in each species, the genes spread via the microbial equivalent of sexual promiscuity. Bacteria swap genes, not only among their own kind but also between widely divergent species, Levy explains. Bacteria can even scavenge the naked DNA that spills from their dead compatriots out into the environment.

The result is a microbial arms-smuggling network with a global reach. Over the past 50 years, virtually every known kind of disease-causing bacterium has acquired genes to survive some or all of the drugs that once proved effective against it.

the antibiotic-drenched environment of commercial livestock operations is prime ground for such transfer. “You’ve got the genes encoding for resistance in the soil beneath these operations,” he says, “and we know that the majority of the antibiotics animals consume get excreted intact.” In other words, the antibiotics fuel the rise of resistant bacteria both in the animals’ guts and in the dirt beneath their hooves, with ample opportunity for cross-contamination.

A 2001 study by University of Illinois microbiologist Roderick Mackie documented this flow. When he looked for tetracycline resistance genes in groundwater downstream from pig farms, he also found the genes in local soil organisms like Microbacterium and Pseudomonas, which normally do not contain them. Since then, Mackie has found that soil bacteria around conventional pig farms, which use antibiotics, carry 100 to 1,000 times more resistance genes than do the same bacteria around organic farms.

“These animal operations are real hot spots,” he says. “They’re glowing red in the concentrations and intensity of these genes.” More worrisome, perhaps, is that Mackie pulled more resistance genes from his deepest test wells, suggesting that the genes percolated down toward the drinking water supplies used by surrounding communities.

An even more direct conduit into the environment may be the common practice of irrigating fields with wastewater from livestock lagoons. About three years ago, David Graham, a University of Kansas environmental engineer, was puzzled in the fall by a dramatic spike in resistance genes in a pond on a Kansas feedlot he was studying. “We didn’t know what was going on until I talked with a large-animal researcher,” he recalls. At the end of the summer, feedlots receive newly weaned calves from outlying ranches. To prevent the young animals from importing infections, the feedlot operators were giving them five-day “shock doses” of antibiotics. “Their attitude had been, cows are big animals, they’re pretty tough, so you give them 10 times what they need,” Graham says.

The operators cut back on the drugs when Graham showed them that they were coating the next season’s alfalfa crop with highly drug-resistant bacteria. “Essentially, they were feeding resistance genes back to their animals,” Graham says. “Once they realized that, they started being much more conscious. They still used antibiotics, but more discriminately.”

Fertilizer derived from human sewage may contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant genes. “We’ve done a good job designing our treatment plants to reduce conventional contaminants,” he says. “Unfortunately, no one has been thinking of DNA as a contaminant.” In fact, sewage treatment methods used at the country’s 18,000-odd wastewater plants could actually affect the resistance genes that enter their systems.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Pastured Poultry: The Polyface Farm Model

By Joel Salatin

The Pasture Poultry model that we have developed at Polyface Farm offers ecological and nutritional advantages over commercial and "organic." The fundamentals of this system are
(1) portable buildings and yards; (2) fresh forage; (3) birds moved to fresh pasture paddocks daily, or almost daily.

The old free-range models utilized stationary buildings with adjacent pastures, sometimes rotated in a wheel-and-spoke design. While better than cages, this system has several disadvantages. Poultry manure is extremely high in nitrogen and quickly saturates such heavily used areas with nitrogen and pathogens, creating a bitter-tasting forage that is unpalatable to the flock. And their scratching, fluffing and dustbathing destroys much of the sod, leaving the soil exposed and raw.

To combat these weaknesses, pastured poultry producers use light range shelters that can be moved by hand or tractor each day, so that the flock also moves to fresh ground. This keeps the birds away from yesterday's vegetation regrowth and stimulates forage ingestion by the poultry. This system works for both egg layers and meat birds. Chickens fan out on fresh pasture from their Eggmobile. Note the guard dog in the middle ground.
Chickens fan out on fresh pasture from their Eggmobile. Note the guard dog in the middle ground.

The critical element in nutritionally superior poultry is the amount of forage the birds ingest. Their sensitivity to pathogens, overly nitrogenous forage and stale paddocks already creamed of their tastiest forage is much higher than the human eye can see. What may look like perfectly good grass can be totally repugnant to the birds. Furthermore, a favorite forage is clover, which cannot grow in overly nitrogenous conditions created by routinely used poultry yards.

The green material of fresh forage provides B vitamins as well as carotenes, some of which the chicken turns into vitamin A. Omega-3 fatty acids in the forage end up in the fat. Exposure to sunlight ensures that the fat will also contain vitamin D. The more yellow the fat, the more nutritious. The same is true for egg production, with the yolk carrying the signature dark orange color characteristic of high forage intake.

Producers around the country have created ingenious portable poultry structures--we call ours the "Egg Mobile." Chicken houses on wheels and skids now dot the countryside as a method of production that finally meets the full social, nutritional and physiological needs of poultry.

These birds actually live on the ground, catching bugs and scratching in the soil. Every day is a new discovery of salad on a fresh paddock so the birds do not get bored and begin eating one another, as they do in typical confinement factory houses. On our farm, the chickens follow the cattle, which are also moved daily to new pasture. This supplies the chickens with plenty of fresh insect life, living in and under the cow patties.

Pastured poultry has two points of vulnerability: predators and weather. Every producer has experienced losses from these and combats them in various ways. Some producers have guard animals who live with or near the flock. Dogs can be bonded to the birds and protect them from foxes and coyotes. Some folks use geese to dissuade aerial predators. Tight shelters help.

Fortunately, high tech infrastructure coupled with good management can yield production and mortality figures equal to or better than the average in the conventional poultry industry (where many chickens die from disease). The main reason this type of poultry and eggs are more expensive than the supermarket counterpart is because it requires a much higher level of management skill. This skill doesn't come cheap.

Outfoxing the foxes and outwitting the hawks take commitment and ingenuity far beyond simply adjusting the medicator controls in an industrial chicken house. Lightweight hoop houses on skids and polyethylene netting containing electrified stainless steel wire threading keeps chickens in and varmints out. Farmscale landscaping to protect riparian areas and forested zones, coupled with perennial prairie polycultures, encourages small mammal proliferation to feed predators in a balanced ecosystem. Success requires superb ingenuity and managements skills.

It also takes skill to protect chickens from the elements-- not every day is 70 degrees with an azure sky and wispy breeze. The shelters must be designed to shut tight for cold days, and have plenty of ventilation for hot days. During flooding, we put out hay bales for the chickens to perch on. In winter, our layers go in hoop houses with thick composting mulch underfoot. We do not raise meat birds during the winter months, but depend on modern technology (our freezers) to have a supply of birds throughout the winter.

Pastured poultry producers routinely try to create healthy whole farm ecosystems in order to maintain balance. Part of the balance is limiting poultry numbers to what the farm's soils can metabolize-- there should be no more than 500 birds per acre per year, or a limit of 10,000 birds per year on a 20-acre farm. One manure application from 500 broilers per acre will saturate the soil's nitrogen capacity. Interestingly, that is exactly the area required to grow the grain to feed the birds.

Modern chickens need more than just pasture. We feed our birds a "free choice" mixture of non-GMO local corn, oats and roasted soybeans, along with a mineral supplement and kelp. Our layers in hoop houses also get dried alfalfa during the winter.

The modern double breasted broiler has a high protein requirement, which is why we must add soybeans to the ration. This year, for the first time, we raised 400 Barred Rock cockerels, an Old World bird we have dubbed the "Marco Polo." The bird is a great forager and requires less protein in the feed. Sales have been brisk. The meat is tougher than the modern bird but has a wonderful flavor that appeals to aficionados. The fat is a beautiful color and the quality of the livers is the best I have seen.

Interestingly, the single biggest impediment to adaptation of this model on a wider scale, giving consumers easier access to these superior birds, is neither predators nor weather extremes, but government food safety and inspection regulations.

A federal law PL90-492 allows producer/growers to dress up to 20,000 birds annually without government inspectors on site, as long as the birds are "unadulterated" and "sanitary." These two subjective terms have been widely construed by bureaucrats. Some states do not allow any open-air processing and some states do not allow even one bird to be processed without massive facilities.

So far, not one case of food-borne pathogens has been reported among the thousands of pastured poultry producers, many of whom have voluntarily had their birds analyzed. Routinely, these home-dressed birds, which have not been treated with chlorine to disinfect them, show numbers far below industry comparisons. At Polyface, we even tested our manure and found that it contained no salmonella.

Pastured poultry farms exhibit trademark lush pastures and healthy chickens with deep-colored egg yolks and fat. As with any movement, some practitioners are excellent and others are charlatans. Knowing your product by putting as much attention on food sourcing as you do on planning your next vacation is the way to insure accountability.

The pastured poultry model can provide true ecological enhancement and nutritional superiority for you and your loved ones. Enjoy pastured poultry and eggs at your next opportunity-- it will be memorable.

Egg factoryModern conventional chicken production takes places in windowless buildings that house tens of thousands of birds, stacked in cages three high. Feed is taken to the birds on conveyor belts and the eggs brought back the same way. The birds are debeaked so that they do not cannibalize each other. Every few days a human being walks through to remove dead birds. Egg battery

Avian Flu

Avian flu is a huge problem in confinement chicken operations. Recently an outbreak among Shenandoah Valley chicken producers resulted in the slaughter of 4.8 million birds--enough to fill 1000 tractor trailers! The industry is asking for your tax dollars to indemnify them for this loss--they want the consumer to pay the price for cheap food. The cause of the outbreak is obvious--too many birds packed in quarters that are too small. But the industry is laying the blame elsewhere. They say that the avian flu epidemic is caused by free-range operations, where chickens are exposed to wild birds which also somehow then spread the disease to chickens in confinement. The avian flu outbreak is a warning that the confinement chicken model is ultimately unsustainable. The future is in small operations like those of Joel Salatin and Steve Warshawer, producing a nutritionally superior, healthy bird that brings good profits to the farmer. (See the YouTube video on Bird Flu that incriminates factory farming.)

Organic Standards for Chickens

The new USDA organic standards for chickens apply to anyone who labels poultry as organic and whose annual revenue from all types of organic products exceeds $5,000. Certification under the standards involves four elements of production: the origin of the animals, and the health care management, feed ration and living conditions they receive throughout their lives.

The USDA standard allows chickens that have been managed organically beginning no later than the second day of life to be used in organic production. This means that a producer may purchase day-old chicks from a non-organically managed hatchery and eventually sell the meat and eggs as organically produced.

Regarding health care management, the USDA requires that a producer establish preventive health care practices by maintaining breeds that are suited to the ecological conditions of the operation and accommodating the animals' natural behavioral preferences to minimize stress. Prophylactic treatment with vaccines is allowed as it the use of all natural medications and specific synthetic medications that are included on the National List. The determination of whether a medicine is natural or synthetic and, if synthetic, whether it should be allowed, is the responsibility of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The USDA standard states that physically altering an animal's anatomy is allowed if it is done to promote the animal's welfare and in a manner that minimizes pain and stress. There has been no guidance from USDA on whether the partial or complete removal or poultry beaks satisfies these criteria.

The feed ration component of the USDA standard requires that any agricultural product, such as soybeans in the feed ration, must be organically produced-- although some large "organic" producers are actually now requesting a "waiver" to the requirement that the feed by entirely organic. Feeding mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products or animal manure to organically managed poultry is prohibited. However, the standard categorically allows nonagricultural, natural feed ingredients (like oyster shells) as well as synthetic feed ingredients added to the National List. Most importantly, the NOSB has recommended the allowance of synthetic methionine. Methionine is needed because the standards do not allow for animal by-products in the feed. The organic standards have turned the chicken, which is a natural omnivore that needs animal products in its diet, into an herbivore.

The provisions for poultry living conditions under the USDA standards are extremely ambiguous. Producers are required to provide poultry with living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight. However, the USDA has provided no guidance on what specific types of living conditions are allowed or prohibited. The animals are allowed "free-range" but mostly remain in barns. Many large-scale organic producers are resisting the requirement that animals under their care must have a chance to go outdoors, citing their concerns about avian influenza. The USDA standard includes an ongoing allowance for temporarily prohibiting animals' access to the outdoors due to their age, safety or weather conditions that could lead to environmental damages.

When consumers pay extra for "organic" chicken and eggs, they believe that they are getting a product that is substantially different from conventional chicken and eggs. The conventional practice has five objectionable tenets: beak trimming, prophylactic antibiotics, pesticide-laced feed, synthetic methionine and continuous confinement. The organic standards allow beak trimming, synthetic methionine and something close to continuous confinement (although conditions are certainly better than the conventional model). The requirement for all organic feed may soon bite the dust. What's needed is a third, much stricter "pasture-raised" label that stipulates that pasture provide a substantial portion of the feed. Until that happens, consumers must get to know their producer and ask the right questions in order to be sure they are getting healthy chicken and eggs.

About the Author

Joel SalatinJoel Salatin is a third generation clean food farmer who has refined techniques for production of pastured animals that improve the quality of the land, provide healthy food for consumers and bring a fair return for farmers He is the author of four books on innovative farming and has been interviewed for numerous radio and television programs. His Shenandoah Valley farm was featured in National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine. His books , including You Can Farm, Salad Bar Beef, Pastured Poultry Profits and Family Friendly Farming, can be obtained from AcresUSA at (800) 355-5313.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Winter Gardening in Southern Indiana

This 20x48x12(high) hoophouse kit from Farmtek took two days to erect with one helper and two 12 ft ladders. The subsequent photos show the interior hoop houses that enable me to produce a winter salad crop. The seedlings this winter went in a month too late and thus have grown very slowly. The soils in the greenhouse have not frozen deeper than 1/4 inch. With a little supplemental heat even this could have been avoided with better growth resulting. A future retrofit of the structure with a clay-straw north wall to act as heat sink will improve function and yield. I aim to build a chicken coop and sauna as attachments to the clay straw wall and gain heat for the greenhouse from both.

The walk-in interior hoop house is much warmer as it also encloses a 250 gal horse-watering trough which acts as a heat sink. This house is where I've started the first crop of seedlings for the early spring garden. These baby plants will be go into low (2 ft high) exterior hoop houses made with 5 ft x 7 ft rebar mesh arches covered with plastic. Some of these are already in the garden producing lettuce, arugula, tatsoi, and cilantro and have been productive throughout the winter with no additional heat and only one layer of plastic. I've even found a few lettuces with no protection at all still surviving despite a colder winter with temps that dropped below zero.

The soil in which the lettuce was planted, local soils mixed with purchased compost, is only about 4-5 inches on top of cardboard scavenged from a furniture store dumpster 1/4 mile from home. The cardboard effectively kills off most of the grass and weeds underneath it by the time it decomposes.

The soil under the cardboard was very dry and hard but ,with regular watering and the "rain" of condensate from the roof on sunny days, should be much improved by spring, especially with tunneling rodents and worms eating the beetle grubs and rotting organics.

Here's another style of hoophouse made with plastic tubing and cement blocks. Others have used bamboo, pvc pipes, or bent rebar.

Peak Moment Television

Peak Moment: Community Responses For a Changing Energy Future are weekly 28-minute programs featuring host Janaia Donaldson's conversations and on-site tours with guests. It highlights practical solutions and responses towards a lower-energy, more connected, sustainable life. How can we thrive, build stronger communities, and help one another in this time of transition?


Peak Moment: Economic Localization - A Community Rediscovering Itself

In this freewheeling conversation, Jason Bradford and Brian Weller, co-founders of Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL), discuss local food security, creating a farm at a nearby grade school, being rooted in community, urban / rural friction in wealth and land use, regional trading partners, reinventing local public transportation, and more. Episode 95.


Peak Moment: A Sustainability Renaissance Man

Earth needs humans to figure out our shared destiny, says Alan Seid, whose interest is both the outer and inner dimensions of sustainability. Outside there's ecology, social systems and economics (e.g., in Permaculture). Inside is the psychological dimension of personal and group values and intentions. How do we meet people where they are, engender respect, promote crucial information-sharing, and motivate change? Episode 91.


Peak Moment: Practical Tools to Grow an Intentional Community

Communities Magazine ex-editor Diana Leafe Christian concisely spells out what the successful 10% of intentional communities do: common vision and purpose, fair participatory decision-making, clear agreements in writing, good balance of right and left-brain knowledge, methods of staying accountable to agreements, criteria for new members, good communication and processing skills. She also discusses peak oil effects on the wider community. Episode 83.


Peak Moment: Alcohol Can Be a Gas, Part I

The first automobile fuel was alcohol, which could be produced by most farms. Permaculturist David Blume discusses the history, production and properties of alcohol. He notes that plants are more efficient in producing sugars (used for alcohol) than oils (biodiesel). If corn were first fermented, its starch could be used for alcohol and the remainder fed to cattle -- far more efficient for food, fuel and land use. Episode 78.

Peak Moment: Alcohol Can Be a Gas, Part II

Permaculturist David Blume discusses alcohol's low emissions, and producing alcohol as a biological complex in which wastes become raw materials for other processes. He claims that with one year of the U.S. Defense budget, the entire world could be set up to produce alcohol and permanently replace oil for transportation. He discusses vehicle conversion, and how citizens can undertake alcohol fuel distribution. Episode 79.


Peak Moment: City Repair - Permaculture for Urban Spaces

What happens when citizens apply permaculture principles to a city grid? They create friendly places within the grid that invite people to come together. Mark Lakeman, co-founder of Portland, Oregon's City Repair Project describes these "creative intervention" projects as placemaking at its best. People learn to work together, build trust and have fun. The results, from painted intersections to cob benches and other organic structures, invite people "to inhabit the planet on our own terms" rather than the grid-locked culture imposed by the city. Episode 76.


Peak Moment: Post Carbon Cities - Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty

Smart municipalities are planning and preparing for energy vulnerability and climate change. Daniel Lerch, manager of the Post Carbon Cities project, has prepared a guidebook including case studies of cities large and small planning how to maintain essential services in the face of energy and climate uncertainty. Episode 73.


Peak Moment: Bullock Brothers Homestead - A 25-Year Permaculture Project

Take a tour with Joe, Doug and Sam Bullock on their Orcas Island property, site of a yearly Permaculture design course. Using nature as their model, they create edges and wildlife habitat, move water through the landscape, promote diversity, and raise an astonishing variety of plants from sub-arctic to tropical -- a wise investment in these climate-changing times. Episode 68.


Peak Moment: Peak Oil, Peak Coal and Beyond

Hot topics from Richard Heinberg: record-high U.S. fuel prices; the ethanol big-business boondoggle; coal projected to peak about a hundred years early (around 2020); what the climate change discussion is missing; and enjoying ourselves as we "go local." Episode 63.


Peak Moment: A Defining Moment in Human History

The planet is rapidly confronting us with limits to the exploitative, dominator system of the past 5000 years. David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World, and more recently The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, implores us to replace the old dominator-control stories with new stories -- affirming life values of cooperation, community and interdependence. Episode 48.

Peak Moment: Learning from Cuba's Response to Peak Oil

Megan Quinn of Community Solution discusses her visit to Cuba, and the movie "The Power of Community." This young woman sees Peak Oil as an opportunity to create the communities we want, but notes that we must reduce our consumption despite environmentalists' assurances that biofuels will save us. Episode 27.

Friday, March 7, 2008

High Density Vertical Growth Video

This short video shows a demonstration project where algae is grown in vertical plastic bags (to capture more sunlight than possible on a pond surface). The algae contain lipids which can be used for food oil or fuel oil depending upon the algae variety. The speaker says that 20,000 gallons of oil per acre per year can be obtained in this way.

Their website says: Valcent Products Inc. creates, designs, and develops and patents highly innovative consumer and industrial products and processes for global markets. A pioneer and
leader in ecotechnology and responsible and effective consumer goods, Valcent's team of scientists and designers set the highest of standards in marketing proprietary products developed to enhance the lives and lifestyles of its clients.

High Density Vertical Growth Video

Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson pic Photo by Charles N. Brown
After devouring his latest trilogy which highlighted Permaculture for millions of readers (Thank you very much, Stan!) I contacted the acclaimed science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson, and he consented to the following interview. If you haven't read his work, I recommend it VERY highly. See the links at the bottom of this interview for other mentions of his work on this blog.

I am very grateful to Mr. Robinson for taking the time to engage my questions and curiosity. I hope you enjoy it. Keith
KEITH: Permaculturists are trained to recognize 'leaks' in, or 'damage to, the landscape (or a continent) so that appropriate strategies can be applied to restore and enhance life support for all organisms that could be sustained in that essence a kind of localized 'terraforming' using simple earthworks to manage water and other flows. How do you imagine that we can accelerate the adoption of these terraforming practices and what might they look like in the places most people now live: cities?

Kim Stanley Robinson: It would be really good if ecological and permaculture principles were taught in schools as a basic part of the science curriculum and one's general education. I think to an extent this is happening, it's getting more common to learn ecology and earth sciences by studying where your food and water come from, and the energy and carbon and water cycles, and so on. These educational basics are needed to make sense of the oncoming problems of this century.
It would help also if this education led to a more realistic economics, in which there wasn't so much false pricing based on theft from the future generations. This would take legislation and run into opposition from "free enterprise" (read free to steal from the future).

Making things cost what they really cost; this would be part of any real solution.
I think the "terraforming" of cities will involve a melange of approaches that will run the gamut from ancient "low tech" technologies to still emerging "high tech" technologies. To generalize, I think the best way forward would be to use all "appropriate technologies" in the sense Victor Papanek used the term. I'd also like to point out that the appropriate technologies for bridging from the current unsustainable population and technology set to true sustainability might not be the same technologies as those that will be appropriate once we have bridged to true sustainability.

I would hate to see permaculture used as a term only to describe a hypothetical sustainable population much smaller than what we really have. It needs to describe also the way forward from this actual moment in history.

Cities: maybe there will be streetgrasses and cities become kind of prairies, and maybe the streetgrasses would be a GMO. Then also intensive gardening where we don't usually think of it, as on rooftops, interior floors, balconies, streets [vertical surfaces - Keith]. Also a lot of tearing down and rebuilding to better design and materials, a centuries-long project for sure, but cities are always doing this anyway.

In compact cities, walking, bikes and trolleys could all happen on street prairies. In extensive autopias like southern California, freeways could be converted so that the fast lane was railed for light rail, the middle lane for golf cart type cars, and the slow lane for bikes. White bicycles everywhere (the Amsterdam model) using also big group bikes or bike-trolleys, could make transport a really low-carbon and fun activity. In general I've been trying to make the point that decarbonization will raise our quality of life rather than lower it.

At sea, big sailing ships should come back, they could be made much safer than a hundred years ago when the last generation of really big ones all disappeared, presumably sunk in storms from problems of scale engineers weren't seeing. Now they could do better and it would be a much cleaner tech than what we use now. Of course it would help too to bioregionalize things so that there is less pointless global transport.

In the air, blimps and zeppelins. All these transformations would require an adjustment in our sense of the need for speed. There is no human need for the speed of transport we have. If there is a system of continuous supply in which a unit is appearing every week, then it doesn't matter how many weeks at sea or in air any unit took to make its trip. So there are adjustments that could be made. They would often require more human labor, which while only a "cost" in current economics might really be a benefit in human terms. Ships' crews as parties, colleges, prison sentences, simple cruises, or other.

Maybe this train of thought (that slow isn't necessarily bad) should cause us reconsider even the idea that we need to "accelerate" these better technologies and practices. Granted we appear to be facing a crisis moment, but maybe that will force the action in a natural way, so that we don't have to always feel that we are failing because of the slow pace of change relative to our perception, the discrepancy between biological time and historical time. If it's slow relative to our need, that's indeed bad, and that may be happening.

Maybe the real acceleration needed now is in everyone's sense of how badly capitalism is failing us, tearing the human and natural world apart. So many of these issues raised by the concept permaculture are more economic, political and social than specifically technological; I know it's all bundled together but given the immense power in many possible technologies, it's the political/economic/cultural element that is the crucial point of decision.
Keith: Another interviewer said, "It seems so easy [to terraform] on Mars, and looks so hard on earth, which is kind of ironic," to which you replied, "It's infinitely more difficult when there's already an established ecology. There's no room for error. And also, alas, there are some mistakes that we simply don't have the power to correct"...such as "ocean acidity." Do you think that huge engineering projects will be necessary or could many small human-scale solutions (where, for example, bulldozers and other heavy equipment are used to shape earth for ponds and in-ground water storage with contour infiltration channels) produce similar results?
KSR: This is a tough question because I'm not sure which problems will really eventuate. I don't think we can do anything to alter the acidity of the oceans by any engineering project large or small; and I wonder if we go to more than 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, if we could do anything to stop the resulting major climate change. I doubt it.

Once we push over relatively delicate tipping points the climactic momentum is massive, beyond the forces we can marshal with any kind of engineering.
If big environmental changes start to occur that have positive feedbacks and are far beyond our powers to reverse, maybe society will then try the various space projects now being proposed, launching clouds of solar deflectors or particulates or whatnot, in the desperate hope of trying to reverse things by initiating what would really be the start of a kind of artificial ice age. But what a scary thought.

Thermostatting Earth's average temperature; I don't think we'll be very good at that as a species.
Certainly it would be better to engineer it by way of a great number of small early human-scale solutions, as you suggest in your question. Treat each watershed as a water and carbon repository of a certain capacity, and coordinate action over all the world; it comes down to a matter of continuous landscape restoration and biome management. But starting this in the next ten or twenty years may be the crucial factor.
There's a philosophical impact to this realization that humans have to take on responsibility for stewardship of the biosphere, as a highly conscious Gaia sort of action. It's scary and it seems presumptuous and really beyond our knowledge, power, and wisdom. And yet since we clearly have the power to wreck the whole thing and create a mass extinction event, the burden of responsibility for avoiding that falls on us more or less inevitably, and permanently from now on. It's as if permaculture is now required, both morally and in sheer survival terms.

Keith: How are you applying permaculture principles in your own life and landscape? Has the example of Village Homes and its extensive food forest / edible landscape / swale infiltration system been inspirational to you?
KSR: Oh yes, most definitely. Village Homes has changed my life. My wife and I fell into Village Homes by accident; we did not seek it out, and if we had not fallen into it, we would have lived a much more ignorant and conventional life. So we were very lucky.

Also, I should say that VH is not that extraordinary a place, but merely a kind of tweaked suburbia, in which some of the ordinary bad design of suburbia has been mitigated by the application of some fairly simple tweaks, which nevertheless violate some of most American cities' zoning and building codes, so that it was a political hassle to get the approvals and do it. Some of the tweaks just come out of condominium complexes, others from East Coast earlier practices, some from British garden cities of the 19th century, others from 1960s ideals, which themselves usually had older roots.
So, it's only 80 acres and about 220 units in west Davis, and the housing density is not great. But the swales and ponding of rainwater, the common ownership of all the land not occupied by houses, the communal buildings for daycare and offices and restaurant and meetings, the bike paths and de-emphasis of streets, the edible landscaping, the many garden spaces, the orchards and vineyards, the open space for gatherings and sports—all these are really great ideas, and they combine to make something wonderful.

If every suburb built since WWII in America had been built to the Village Homes plan, we would have a much saner society, and be burning much less carbon (energy use in VH is about half the normal American rate.) Without claiming too much for it—it is not an intensive effort nor rigorously applied—it has still been a profoundly calming and educational place for me and my family to live, and I would imagine about two-thirds of the neighbors feel the same (the rest don't seem to notice it is any different, and often move away).

Living here had a huge impact on my Mars novels and really all my books since 1991, and when I look at my utopian novel Pacific Edge from 1987, written before I knew about VH, I am surprised to see that I was longing for something like this place, thinking about alterations in the suburbia I came out of in southern California.
Living here the last 17 years I've learned gardening, and grow about five percent of my family's food, variable by season of course; I've experienced village life, both the social life and sense of community, and the nano-politics of managing a commons together; I've brought up two boys who don't know how good they've had it; and I've greatly enjoyed my place. All this feels rare and lucky in the postmodern American context. There is room for further progress and improvement, of course, but it shows what can be done and how much urban/suburban design matters.

Keith: Water is a major theme in your Mars trilogy and also your Science in the Capital series. In the former humans had to deal with too little of it (extreme aridity and the necessity of importing it via comets) and in the latter too much (storm surge, flooding, rising sea levels, lots of snow). Currently our planet has an abundance of H2O but very little fresh water. 97% of Earth's water is saline. Of the remaining 3% which is fresh water, 75% is stored in ice and glaciers (this figure is subject to rapid change), 13.5% is in aquifers 2500+ ft deep, 11% is in shallower aquifers less than 2500 ft, .3% is in lakes and ponds, .06% is in soils near the surface, .035% is in the atmosphere, and .03% is in rivers.

Humans are using the available fresh water faster than its replacement rate such that we are reaching what Richard Heinberg and others call "Peak Water". Currently 31 countries are dealing with severe shortages and lack of access to clean water. What do think it will take for humans to become adept at managing water resources half as well as beavers did for this continent before they were decimated?

KSR: "Peak Water"—that's a powerful concept! Again, education about this matter of fossil water and our unsustainable mining of it is an important part of the story.
The standard economic answer to this would be price, I guess. Do we pay less for water than it really costs? Is this yet another case of "predatory dumping" therefore, with the ones predated on being the future generations? Theft from our grandchildren, again? It would be good to be always asking these questions and "costing out" answers. But it's also dangerous to play these economic games, as that seems to concede that economics really is what it says it is, which is a rational system of evaluating our ecologies and their healthy actions. It isn't really so, as permaculture theory tries to show, as I understand it. But it may be a powerful rhetorical or persuasive strategy, to be able to use economic theory to show that even in standard economic terms, the system is not sustainable. Talking about spending capital as if it were disposable income, etc. Always reminding people that many real costs have been externalized, and that standard economics is often a big lie about reality, trying to justify the privileges of the powerful few. Comparing it to the use of astrology in the middle ages, calling it just another pseudo-science justifying power. But also trying to reform it to make it a truly useful tool of evaluation of practices.

If economics were real, it it was based in ecology and admitted to having values embedded in it, and explicitly tried to include positive human values like the simplest ones of justice and sustainability, it would become a very important tool, a human science. It is not that now, but it could and should be.
So many of these problematic issues, like water and food, will come to the forefront of the attention of our society either by war, economic depression, natural catastrophe, or ongoing successful education. Looking at that list, it becomes clear that education is very important.

Keith: The aim of permaculture is to liberate people everywhere to provide for their own and their communities' needs for food, energy, shelter, and a decent life without exploitation or pollution and from the smallest practical area of land. Cuba had to adapt in three years to the sudden unavailability of fuel but they were successful even though most adult Cubans lost 20 - 30 lbs. How do you think Americans will adapt to energy decline, especially since we are not blessed with Cuba's climate? [See The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil]

KSR: But soon we may have Cuba's climate, right? And a lot of us want to lose ten or fifteen pounds, right?

Anyway, jokes aside, whatever climate we have in the USA is adequate for the needs you list in your question, and there is no requirement that we do not engage in some trade to get some things distributed around from watershed to watershed. That would be part of any solution and would be okay. Purity is not really an idea I like in any realm.
Food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, education, and a decent life: these have been my definition of utopia for a long time.

I think you are right to include energy, which at a certain quantity forms the basis for many of the other things; though we don't need as much as we use in the USA today. So, it's a good list to focus on.
I don't know how Americans will do. Right now we are caught up in a culture of capitalist hyper-consumption, also ideological fantasies about any number of things; what constitutes a good life, what America has been about historically, where we stand in the world community, what would make us happy. In many cases, for many of these questions, we are completely deceived and living as rats on a wheel in a cage, even though the cage has an open door and a better life lies just outside it waiting to be constructed. So it's a desperately deceived culture, neurotic, ill-educated, over-worked. And yet we are social creatures, and we tend to do what everyone else does, what our culture suggests is normal to do. We strive to be normal.

So... I try to imagine cultural revolution, which is to say changing the idea of what is normal. Big cultural revolutions have happened before from time to time. But analogies to past situations seldom work, they were all so different from now. Now there is a level of faux affluence created by stealing from the future, a sense that there is just enough stuff and just enough leisure time and just enough conformist triumphalist American theory, to keep people grinding on in lives that only intermittently reveal their Thoreauvian "quiet desperation," mostly at moments of bad health or unemployment, which we try to imagine will never happen to us. Risk is being privatized, and Americans are nervous and unhappy and resentful about it, but until the crisis hits, not miserable, and often distracted along the way by various future-stealing techno-euphorias that substitute for or mask what would constitute a truly good or decent life.
So it will be a strange and potentially awful century.

But cultural changes sometimes happen very rapidly, even explosively. So maybe the task now is to try to set the ground for change and work on various starts. Just keep talking and even proselytizing for a different normal, for permaculture as a goal norm. I've started giving copies of Walden to every teenager I know. You can buy copies for a dollar, every used bookstore (including has tons of them, and even new they're usually only five dollars. Maybe only one kid in ten reads it, maybe one in ten of those is impressed by it. But it's like a kind of sign or symbol. And symbolic actions are also real actions. I mention this as just one example, because I am so impressed by Thoreau as a thinker and writer, scientist and artist. The case could be made that he is the greatest American writer ever, Walden the greatest American book; people often do this; and so this points to a strong strand of permaculture in the middle of American thinking, going back to the transcendentalists, the Quakers, the Shakers, many of the early utopian movements. And also Thoreau was a small town guy, living a pretty ordinary small town or suburban life, impure and compromised; you don't have to leave society for some heroic wilderness action like Muir's to follow Thoreau's example of daily permaculture practice in the American context of waste. So it's one way in, and has a historical, literary, and spiritual component that I like.
Keith: Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs), dependent upon hormones, antibiotics (without which most of the animals would die before going to market) and GMO feedstocks, are the norm for American's meat supply. What do think about these practices in regard to a sustainable future food supply especially as famine looks more and more a real likelihood for many people?

KSR: Meat might be the crucial word here. Americans eat 800 kg of grain a year while south Asian poor people eat 200 kg of grain per year, and Italians 400 kg of grain a year, probably the healthiest, and most of the differences here are because of the pyramids involved with feeding grain to cows for beef. It would be better for the earth and for our bodies to eat a lot less meat. Eating healthier is better for the planet, and more and more this is common knowledge.

I would separate out GMOs from this problem for a separate consideration. To me the problem there is not so much the actual genetic engineering, which in many ways is only a heightened or more knowledgable form of the selective breeding that we have been practicing for thousands of years, but rather the corporate ownership of the results, and the stealing of the commons involved. As so often, the problem here is not intrinsic to science and technology, but to capitalism and its hierarchy of power and ownership. It's really important always to separate these two out and support the one (a utopian drive by way of science to a clean tech and to justice) and attack the other (the urge to power of the few over the many, and the destruction that results). In today's world this often is a delicate matter of surgically separating conjoined twins, but it's important to do it on a consistent basis, or else our way off the rickety tower of prostheses will not be clear to us.

Science is a utopian process, permaculture is a kind of science, science itself is full of half-hidden good values. I could go into this at much great length and often do, but will desist here, except to repeat I have no automatic objection to the concept of genetic engineering.
Keith: You said in another interview, "It's likely that we'll cause a small mass extinction, but I believe that ultimately reason will prevail. If the amount of money going into the war economy were invested in landscape restoration, we would be in a far more positive position. It may get a little dire before we pull together, but I think when the prosperous nations, and in particular the US, realise they're wrecking their own kids' lives, there will be a mass change in value. It will be a difficult century, and ugly, but I don't think that in the end people are so stupid as to kill themselves off." This same "hopefulness"(?) permeates your novels. What degree of "small mass extinction" are you imagining and how "dire"? (BTW, the universal permaculture answer to questions of this, or any other, kind is, "It all depends...," followed by a list of limiting factors.)

KSR: Yes, you have to say "it all depends." It could be conceptualized as an array of possible futures that extend out from the present moment and its realities, possibilities that range from very good to very bad, and bulking in some middle, as in any probabilities chart or weather forecast. Science fiction is the detailed description of this array of possibilities; but it's not like weather in that it depends on the choices we make now, and in every moment to come.

From this present moment, it's hard to see any possible future that doesn't include some damage to the environment in the coming half century, just from a matter of historical and technological inertia, path dependency, and selfish and destructively applied political power. But the response in each year creates a new set of possible futures arrayed before it. Right now it would be really counter-productive, even irresponsible, to be pessimistic. "We don't have the luxury of pessimism any more," and besides it would be factually wrong, because it is undoubtedly physically possible to proceed from this moment in a way that would save many many species and biomes.

We have the theory, we have the technologies. What we lack is the political power, the will, the cultural support, the supportive economics. So to say at this point that it's impossible to avoid a crash is factually wrong, and it really only is saying that we are whipped politically and can never win, or that people are too stupid and selfish, greedy or fearful, ever to do things right. That's a view that feeds into the power of the few over the many, that obstructs progress, that also, given the various hard-won successes of past history and politics, is factually wrong and cheaply cynical. Too easy, even cowardly. Well, I don't need to be saying this to a permaculture audience. The optimism I advocate as policy (and temperament if you're lucky!) is inherent in the philosophy and practice of permaculture.

All that said, six to nine (though my guess is it will never surpass about 7 or 8) billion people on Earth, using the current technology set, is a dangerous thing; and worse yet is capitalism's extractive strip-mining of everything. And capitalism does LOOK massively entrenched, and has tried to buy all the governments, armies, laws, and the future itself, in the form of debts, mortgages, contracts and laws. It is one dangerous awful system, appealing to the worst in us, and also trying its best to create and expand the worst in us (fear and greed, but all the deadly sins really) to increase power of the few, over the many and over the world at large. So in that context I think it is right to call the coming situation "dire," even though the biosphere is robust, and hard to damage in any permanent way.

Keith: You said in 2005, "The current guy is worthless, probably the worst president in American history. There's a sort of stupid, small-minded meanness - a pathological assholery - to him. I think he likes doing bad things." No doubt your opinion is only further confirmed since then. What can we hope for in terms of a realistic governmental-corporate response to our escalating crises? Any hopeful candidates in the current lineup?

KSR: Yes, I like a lot of the candidates in various partial ways, always keeping in mind that they are mainstream capitalist politicians, but I'm talking about what is available in the current election.
This has indeed been the worst administration in American history by a long shot. Its impact could be either good or bad, in a range like everything else. It's been so bad it may have shaken people, and so prove useful in the long run. On the other hand it may have just lowered the bar and helped destroy the very idea of good government, which was part of their project, and must be resisted. It's important to work to create politics of a more democratic, progressive and future-oriented sort. That would be one way to resist the Bush jihad against government, to say "we were better than that, those were dismal years." That particular nightmare will soon be over, but repairing the damage will be a long project.

You are right to point out the corporate nature of the problem, but I tend to think of government as the commons, as "we the people," a commons under assault by a process of enclosure that never ended ("privatization"). We should never fall for the Reagan-Thatcherite assault on the idea of government, their assertion that government itself a bad thing. We are the government, and government is the vestige of the commons and the collective, with huge potential to do good in the name of all. But it needs to resist being bought; we need to make the demands and collect the votes, and try to free up government from being bought by private interests to become in effect their private Blackwater against us.
Partly that depends on us conceptualizing government as a good force.

Therefore you shouldn't, to my way of thinking, speak of "government-corporate" as if this were one entity. Capitalist power tries to buy governments because they are immensely dangerous to it. In theory a democratic government could be elected that would rewrite the laws in a month and nationalize all kinds of things (public utilities!), tax corporate "profits" so intensively that surplus value is returned to those who created it, redefine property and ownership, reconfigure work and health care—and all of that be just as legal as can be, because of it being enacted by the legal government, and enforced by the police, courts, and military.

The New Deal is only a (very encouraging) partial indication of what could happen; it could go further. So democratic government is immensely dangerous to corporate-feudal hierarchy, and thus the capitalist response is to buy government to the extent possible (which is big right now), and to confuse the issue as much as possible with talk of "freedom," "government is bad," etc. etc. Keep your mind clear on that, and keep the faith that democratic government can change the laws and make things better, as a collective exercise. Losing that faith is a victory for feudalism.

"Mineral Deficiencies—and Their Fall Out"

Wondering why our nation's peoples are so obese, in poor health, popping vitamins and drugs like candy? They're f**king STARVING...on FULL STOMACHS...because the soil ain't what it used to be...AND we're still losing topsoil at a rate exceeding the Dust Bowl era!

And, when you consider that one year's production of urine from a moderately healthy person is enough to provide all the Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (and more) for ONE ACRE of garden or orchard, it begins to seem not merely stupid but suicidal. Especially when that same nutrient flowing to the sea is causing huge oceanic dead zones and toxic algae blooms. DUHHH!
Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants at the Permaculture Activist website. It's a golden opportunity, go with the flow, urine charge. Pee Here Now!

This table was recently published in Acres, USA.
Read Neal Kinsey's essay (PDF) on soil minerals here.
THIS is why I buy rock dust soil amendments for my garden. Search for local mineral sources here.

"Mineral Deficiencies—and Their Fall Out,"
by David Thomas, D.C

Full details at:

Average Mineral Content of Food—1940-1991








(2%) (gain)
















(9%) (gain)



























Runner beans

Nearly 100% of sodium


93% of copper


75% of magnesium


75% of calcium

Spring onion

74% of calcium


71% of iron


60% of iron


47% of phosphorous




67% of iron


62% of sodium


55% of calcium


45% of magnesium

Passion Fruit

43% of potassium


39% of calcium


35% of calcium


32% of phosphorous

After viewing this table it should be incontestably obvious why we must remineralize our soils. We are literally starving on full stomachs from food grown on depleted soils. Obesity, degenerative and immune-deficient diseases are DIRECTLY related to mineral shortfalls in our diets.


for regions pertinent to folks on this forum,

When I first learned about remineralization in the late 70's, it was from these folks in Massachusetts

Also see