Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A toy story approach to making history... sustainable.

When I came to the attention of National Geographic in 2008 I was living in the slums of Cairo Egypt, working on my Ph.D. studying the micro-economics of hot water demand  among the crafstmen of old Islamic Cairo and the trash recycling coptic Zabaleen community across the “city of the dead”. They taught me a new way of seeing the world – a one in which there can be zero waste because waste is a fiction that exists only in our minds. 

To quote my hero, Bucky Fuller, “There is no energy crisis, food crisis or environmental crisis. There is only a crisis of ignorance.”  Many residents of old and informal Cairo, driven by necessity, seemed to be able to sidestep various crises through an optic that valued wasted outputs as useful inputs, the old "one man's trash is another's treasure philosophy". Living in these communities transformed my own Western wastefulness and egotistical ignorance into a deep appreciation for the possibilities inherent in trash recycling.

I wrote a song about what I learned among the garbage pickers of the world called Talking Trash with the refrain “Look beyond the garbage in the streets to see the garbage in your mind...”. Let me take you into their world for a moment. 

Working with the Zabaleen I discovered  a world where domestic animals live with people in the city in homes they built themselves.  Microlivestock like ducks, chickens, goats and rabbits hang out on the roof, sheep graze  in the streets, even cows, pigs and donkeys dwell  on the first and second floors of my friends apartment buildings, transforming all the wastes they can into valuable products and food. It may not look pretty, but I have to say I never ate so well. We never had to worry about malnutrition or going hungry. With a bit of investment these self created recycling urban ecologies could sustain a lot of people. We just don't have a good model for it yet. Without best practice models we fall into low level equilibrium traps that kind of work at present but doom us when our pipes and pipelines and cables and wires and the centralized systems they connect us to fail and they become bridges to nowhere.  We need resilient cities, cities that can sustain themselves and that grow stronger, not weaker, the more people and animals and plants that move into them.

The Pulitzer prize winning microbiologist and environmentalist Rene Dubos famously said “creating a desirable future requires more than foresight – it demands vision”. The vision I offer you today is a vision of anti-fragility powered by the ability to see everything and everybody as beautiful and useful. A world that has no garbage.

I'd like to talk to you today about a different way of looking at things, a new narrative, a toy story alternative to our species' tortured his-story. It is a story of previsualization, of thinking about something you desire, then thinking out loud by talking about it, and then thinking out louder by making it so others can see what you are thinking about, and then thinking out loudest, by making it real, by making your dreams come true. And dreams can come true for humanity, not just nightmares. But we have to be able to envisage where it is we want to go. But then, as Oscar Wilde said, "“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

We live in a world of uncertainties, yes, but we have our imaginations and, for the first time in history, the ability for any one of us to take our imaginations and make them easy to communicate to others. We don't just have writing or paintins, as did Wilde and others who wrote or painted utopian themes, from Thomas More to Leonardo DaVinci to B.F. Skinner,  have 3d modelling and animation and virtual world physics simulation software and  laptop movie making software and 3d printing available to every man, woman and child. And speaking of children, we have lots of lots of toys. Toys that can be used to play eutopia!

(Picture of Globe).

As a National Geographic Explorer I get to see a lot of the pieces of what I call “the sustainability puzzle”. I have been to over 60 countries – this year alone I travelled to 10 different lands, and many of them, like Turkey, I've had the blessing to visit multiple times and make friends;

One thing I've learned through so much travel is that we have all the technologies and ideas we need to truly make the world a better place, we have all the pieces to the puzzle – we just haven't put it all together yet. 

In January of 2009 I joined Solar Punch and  the India Youth Climate Network on a Sustainability Solutions tour of the Indian subcontinent where we  literally saw "here and now solutions" to each and every problem humanity and wildlife are facing.

As an Urban Planner that tour had a tremendous impact because  I learned how all organic wastes in a congested city could be transformed, through simple industrial ecology technologies available everywhere, into life and industry sustaining raw materials. I traveled the length of the country playing in a solar powered musical group in solar assisted electric cars with a waste vegetable oil powered truck carrying our amplifiers, saw concentrated solar Scheffler Mirrors and photovoltaic lanterns made by illiterate women at the barefoot college, gasifiers turning yard waste into clean electricity, and learned about my favorite of all technologies – the urban home-scale biogas digester that miraculously turns kitchen garbage into clean fuel and fertilizer.

I had heard of biogas technology before -- I had attended a biogas conference in the Sinai at Bassasissa Solar Village in 2004 where Indian, Chinese and Egyptian experts explained different systems and let us visit a typical fixed dome digestor. I had seen large commercial digesters in Germany in the countryside-- but it had always been presented to me as a rural solution, a way of dealing with the dung of domestic farm animals by transforming it from a fly and odor creating problem into a way of getting energy and maintaining soil fertility. I hadn't thought of it as an urban solution so I had dismissed it. My focus was on solar energy for the city. But when I realized that there were animals in some cities I began to think we could apply the technology to urban systems. But then I asked myself “what about parts of cities unlike Cairo that don't have animals?”. And then it occurred to me that there was no city anywhere on earth that didn't have animals, because we humans are also animals, and our wastes have the same microbes within them. Dr. Karve of the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute said to me “everybody has been getting biogas wrong for hundreds of years. The bacteria that make biogas don't want to eat dung, they make dung. They live in a cow's stomach and intestines, not in his butt. They want to eat food. But don't give them the food you eat, for God's sake, they are just bacteria. Give them the food you can't eat. The food waste! That is where the energy is”. The first time I had a meal cooked on biogas in the slums of India, when the family showed me the small home made system on their roof, made from a couple of used plastic water tanks, and I learned that a family of 4 to 6 people produces enough organic waste to cook for nearly 2 hours a day, I cried. In decades of studying sustainable development nobody had told me about this simple and effective solution – about how it can eliminate the need for firewood or charcoal and thus thousands of deaths each year from smoke and indoor air pollution, and the massive deforestation and flooding that wood based fuels cause. About how it can help reduce diseases like cholera, reduce the threat of energy poverty when oil and gas prices go up or supplies are cut. About how the gas can be used for cooking, lighting, heating, refrigeration and running emergency generators.

I came back from that tour and started building the biodigesters in the slums of Cairo, and even wrote a song about it, which I would like to play for you now. 

All the pieces to the puzzle were somewhere to be found in India, in China, in Egypt, in Nepal, in Kenya.... the more I traveled the world the more optimistic I became. The problem was that nobody had put the entire solution set together in one place. But there is no technical reason that can't be done.

The architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller, creator of the Geodesic dome, declared after the first earth day back in the early 1970s,
“it is now physically and metaphysically demonstrable that the chemical elements resources of Earth already mined or in recirculation, plus the knowledge we now have, are adequate to the support of all humanity and can be feasibly redesign-employed [...] to support all humanity at a higher standard
of living than ever before enjoyed by any human.”
He concluded that therefore war and the politics surrounding it were obsolete.

It may be ironic that one of his greatest inventions – a so-called geodesic dome designed to make affordable earthquake proof housing available to everyone, is most often employed by the military, and even makes its way into our war toys, as you can see here in this play set from Call of Duty. 

But it is also the iconic center of Disney's EPCOT Center – the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a place where children come to play and get an idea of what the future could be.

And that brings me to the subject of models. And... TOYS.

Mammals play. Many birds do too. But mammals – large brained warm blooded creatures who nurse our young.... we are particularly good at play. That is how we learn what we need to know to survive. Long before there was school there was play. 

Often, when I am playing with my 5 year old son and my 18 month old daughter, watching them make the animal toys talk (following perhaps in the footsteps of their granduncle Shamus Culhane?), I find myself reflecting on what a privilege it is to be human. After all, there are at least 4 hominoid creatures on earth right now besides us – the gibbon (Hylobates lar, for example), the orangutan (Pongo pygmaeous) , the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus) and the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla). Any one of them could have ended up in our shoes, standing upright, using their hands and big brains to make tools, inheriting the earth. It's just that we got there first. But in play my son will often substitute this model of a gorilla with this one – and play “Planet of the Apes” and ask me why they aren't the ones designing cities. In his mind a world where gorillas were in charge would be a world of tree houses, like the LEGO one he plays with here.

 I can't answer him why gorillas weren't chosen for the special gifts of reason our creator bestowed on us, but I can show him the tree house village in Damanhur in northern Italy where I did a renewable energy workshop last year, and where I will take him to visit this summer, a tree house village built by a group of artists and environmentalists who once had a gorilla living with them.

 He also knows his Daddy spent a year at a National Geographic research site in Borneo studying orangutans and that they are very easty to get along with if we chose to design our living spaces to accommodate rather than hurt them. 

I can't answer him why the other “manimals” in his toy collection haven't come true – lion-men evolving from lions, tiger-men from tigers. He knows that bears already spend part of their lives bipedal, he knows  that polar bears are in danger of extinction and will have to adapt to human conditions or go extinct, so when he sees them in a circus he figures that this might be the beginning of domestication and adjustment to co-existence in the anthropocene era. He accepts that crocodile men probably wouldn't be feasible, despite the hundreds of millions of years that reptilians ruled the earth before the dinosaurs went extinct, because he gets that brain size relative to body size has something, if not everything, to do with creating a civilization. For the same reason, hermit crab pirates and octopus pirates don't seem realistic to him, despite the complexity of the brains and eyes of cephalopods. But cetaceans – dolphins, orcas and whales – both delight and  confuse him. He knows they have a sophisticated language and that even Humpback Whales are tool users, cooperatively constructing bubble nets to trap fish.  He feels that they are only limited by their lack of hands, and after playing “Ecco the Dolphin” on his playstation 2, in which humans and dolphins cooperate to save the earth, and hearing how his father once spoke sign language to the dolphin Akimake in a laboratory in Hawaii when I graduated from Harvard, he is convinced we CAN work together.

But of course, it is we humans who are the dominant species among the millions of life forms on Earth, and as we know from Spiderman, another tale of hybridity between non-humans and humans that is part of our popular mythology “with great power comes great responsibility”. In an age of genetic engineering we must think through our role as stewards of the genetic heritage of our living planet. But we have to stop blaming human beings and stop thinking of ourselves as the problem, as though the world would be better off without us. Of all the creatures with which we share this animal planet, only we have the capacity to protect life and civilization from the inevitable destruction that another meteor or the expansion of the sun will cause. Only we have the capacity to bring macrocellular life out beyond our solar system. So we do have a great responsibility. We just have to think a little differently, and remember, as the Chinese are fond of saying “every new child born on the planet comes not only with a mouth to feed but with two hands to feed it... and to help others”.

I keep these toy animals around me so that I never forget that helping others includes helping those without hands, helping those with paws and wings and flippers and four, six or eight or more feet. If we don't include all creatures, great and small, in our planning, we break the great chain of being and tear asunder the web of life that subtends all we do as human beings. And we must also plan for the invisible creatures of this biosphere that actually make the world go round with their constant processes of transduction through cycles of decay. They alone can help us survive.
Kids get it. Even today they play with toys that teach them about how fun it can be to work with garbage, like these “Trash Pack” figures that I bought here in Istanbul, which celebrate toilets and kitchen garbage as something fascinating and alive and worth paying attention to... a definite pre-requisite if we are going to teach our children that we can turn the trash that our ever growing population in our burgeoning cities into assets rather than liabilities. Toys like this are paving the way for a brighter future, they just have to be properly contextualized by parents and educators and policy makers. Then the leaders of tomorrow will know, because of the narratives they played out as kids, what to do with these incredible resources that today we simply throw away.

Through play we model future realities and through play we can try them out in safe environments in which, as the economists put it, the “transaction costs are low”. That just means that the consequences of any given failure aren't so bad.

A belief in cooperation between humans and non-humans, and betweeen civilization and nature can be fostered through the proper use of tools like toys and video games and cartoons. Through play and fantasy we model future realities so that we can try them out in safe environments in which, as the economists put it, the “transaction costs are low”. That just means that the consequences of any given failure aren't so bad. And as Bucky said, "I only learn what to do when I have failures.. There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes."

In toyland, children and child-like adults (engineers,scientists, architects, urban planners like myself) get to make models to play out given scenarios and test them against others. We get to think out loud through models. We get to role play and adopt different points of view.

If there are problems with current  reality one solution is to let as many people as possible in on the planning of a desirable future by letting them play the alternatives so they can choose what works best.
Again Fuller told us,
 "We have reached the point where we are now possessed of sufficient information for each individual human to dare to exercise the option to ``make it'' rather than having to depend on the decisions of an educated elite."

 Most kids and lots of adults know this, and it is no accident that so many of us spend countless hours playing video games and playing with LEGO, and no mystery that the LEGO Movie is one of the top grossing films of the year. The LEGO movie has a message that is similar to Bucky Fuller's and to  my own – everything CAN be awesome, the world can be a super place, if we allow creativity to flourish and stop looking at things in a rigid way. In the LEGO Movie, Emmet, a “common builder”, and President Business both learn that we can all be special and work together to make life better once we allow ourselves to go sometimes go off plan and embrace the unanticipated results of synergy and creativity. "It is not for me to change you. The question is, how can I be of service to you without diminishing your degrees of freedom?" said Fuller, and whether we are talking about the LEGO Universe or the one we live in, we are each "local Universe problem-solvers in support of the integrity of eternally regenerative Universe."

As in LEGO, our universe consists of ever-changing interchangeable parts. All the bricks, all the parts exist, and can be put together in myriad ways, sometimes creating great functionality and beauty,  sometimes according to predefined directions that replicate what others discovered and liked, and sometimes according to our own personal whims and explorations. When we take what already exists and do a mash up with what we would like to exist, we find new ways of looking at the world.

This is what I have attempted to do here, with this playful model, wherein I have taken some pieces from LEGO, some from a dollhouse at FAO Schwartz, and some that I and students from our Envisaj Mercy College Environmental Sustainability and Justice Club created from art supplies and even 3D printing.

Let's first take a look at some of the toys available to kids today illustrating our dystopian nightmares. The first, as I've mentioned, is a Call of Duty set with a geodesic dome. What my students have done, however, is taken the geodesic domes from the games and make them into classrooms and dorms, just like we saw this January when I took them on a trip to the Green Apprenticeship Program at Kibbutz Lotan in southern Israel. There the students are trained to build low cost dome houses with metal frames and straw bales that not only can withstand earthquakes and storms, but have a high insulation value, making them require almost no air conditioning in the summer and only solar heating in the winter. 

Kids around the world are actually familiar with earth dwellings and other well insulated structures that integrate into the landscape and provide shelter and food – they are found in movies like Star Wars, which was filmed in real earth dwellings that I stayed in in Tunisia, and in fantasies like the Hobbit. What most kids don't know is that these types of structures are real, are comfortable and are practical.

Fantasy is built from bits of reality and the two turn around each other like a Mobius strip.  Artists try out scenarios in fantasy that can act as reservoirs of ideas for times when we face crises or changing environmental needs in reality. In another popular set from the Call of Duty game, for example, players learn that they can better survive a zombie apocalypse with the use of a wind generator. Of course this model wind generator is a mere prop, but it gets the idea across. And we don't have to wait for the dead to rise and take over the earth in order to implement renewable energy.

As it turns out there are lots of toys on the market that enable young people to build their own functioning wind generators, and this illustrates a key concept here – SCALABILITY! Once you have built something in miniature it is fairly easy to bring it up to scale until you can take care of your own needs or even those of a community or a city. As I like to say, start small, then grow bigger. The principles can be almost the same.

And why stop there? Once you understand the principles of the dynamo through a toy wind generator, it becomes obvious that you can use a lot of other things to turn the dynamo. This toy kit shows the “hydroelectric” solution – it is essentially the same as the wind generator except that it uses water pressure to turn the dynamo. Kids playing with these toys quickly realize that they could use bicycles or their hands, and that steam engines, coal burning and oil burning and nuclear power plants are all variants on the same theme – simply ways of getting turbines to spin in order to spin a magnet around a copper coil. In fact many toys incorporate the magnet and the copper coil as part of the lesson. 

The problem, once again, is a lack of integration.

In the LEGO Architecture series, for example, we have the famous Frank Lloyd Wright ecological house “Falling Water”. But whereas the idea of the real house was to simply make a house that fit aesthetically into the wilderness landscape, Wright himself seems to have had no idea that he could have powered the entire house with the water that he built into the design. But a kid with these two toys can put them together and, voila, we have a beautiful and sustainable house!

Similarly, in the same architecture series, we see the Farnsworth House, also a classic of environmental architecture. What we don't learn from the traditional narrative, is the importance of building houses on elevated platforms. When I was building a research lodge in Guatemala in the rain forest, and when I was living in Borneo, we took our cues from the Belizeans who traditionally built their houses on stilts on in the trees.

 The idea was simple – a house on stilts is safe in a flood and also permits greater biodiversity and soil fertility. Where most human habitations are seen as barriers to the non-human world, elevated houses permit not only water but other animals to pass underneath. Root systems are not damaged and ecological cycles of decay and regeneration are maintained. In Borneo we didn't have to worry about snakes or scorpions in the house, and we frequently had giant monitor lizards and tortoises hanging out under the house. In a Dyak village I stayed in, the people lived above the forest floor and their Babi Hutan, or forest pigs, lived beneath the house, transforming toilet wastes into food. This kind of integrated ecology can only be achieved by using vertical space. 

The traditional house, shown here, has all sorts of improvements that need to be made if it is to be sustainable, many of which are shown in this diagram from the textbook we use in my class. 

Lego has a new Creator House with Solar Panels, so that part is becoming mainstream.  

But there are many other ways to play our way to sustainability!

Because sustainability is part of the curriculum in my class, we can take a LEGO house like this and make little movie scripts where we say, “hey, did you know you can take a so-called “normal” house like this and retro-fit it to make it more efficient. For example, just by adding overhangs on south facing windows, considerable energy savings can be achieved – in the summer when the sun is high, the windows are shaded, while in the winter when the sun is low the house gets heat and light from the sunshine. The addition of decidious trees on the south side also helps with this – the leaves of the trees in the summer block the suns rays when they aren't needed, but they fall in the fall and so by the winter the sun reaches the house, heating it up. This kind of up-front planning and design is the essence of the “Permaculture” or permanent culture design philosophy. 

Retrofitting existing houses is also the philosophy of Bosch. With ever more efficient appliances that save energy and water, almost any house can be made more eco-friendly. 

Besides producing solar panels and energy efficient water heaters and refrigerators and washing machines, Bosch also makes “ground-source heat pumps”, a type of geothermal energy you can install at home that enables you to both heat and cool your house with a fraction of the energy a typical house uses. We have a friend in Germany who put a vertical loop heat pump in his house with radiant floor heating and now the entire house can meet its needs with rooftop solar panels that even power the robotic electric lawn mower. And we ourselves have a highly efficient inverted gas powered tankless water heater that works perfectly with our vacuum tube solar hot water system – a system that can even boil water in winter on a sunny day.

In my house, of course, we focus on the two rooms of the house that, in my opinion, hold the key to sustainability. They are the places in our civilization that consume the most energy and the most water and create the most waste. They are where the battle for survival of life as we know it can be won – and they are places within our control, places where everybody can pitch in and make a difference, because they are sometime we all have: kitchens and bathrooms.

In our bathrooms and kitchens we use up electricity, gas and water and produce contaminated water and garbage bins filled with organic materials that don't just create bad smells, but attract vermin and can create disease. But as we learned in India, those wastes, the grey and black water, and the piles of smelly organic trash are really sources of nutrients and embedded solar energy and useful microbes and can be harnessed to make fertile soil and clean fuel.

All one has to do is look beyond the garbage in the kitchen and bathroom to see the garbage in our minds. In my house the shower and bathtub and washing machine are sources of warm, saponified fatty acid and glycerol rich grey water to keep my biodigester at a happy temperature throughout the winter. And my kitchen sink is the key to my success in making biogas – under the sink is the humble “garbage disposal” or “food grinder”. This is a piece of technology that I describe as being, in my opinion, the “most important environmental technology of the 21st century”. By the simple act of grinding up our food wastes at their source, we keep tons of garbage out of landfills, dramatically reduce the need for garbage trucks, with all the noise and pollution and street wear and tear they make, and eliminate pests. The food wastes can go down the drain and be carried by gravity and regular water pumping to the waste water treatment plant where they can be turned directly into biogas, as we do in parts of the US, or they can be ground and put directly into the compost, as my parents in law in Germany do, in which case you get perfect compost soil not in 3 to 6 months but in 3 to 6 days. This makes devices like the Insinkerator brand food grinder my family uses the perfect 'compost companion'. Or you can take it a step further, as my wife and I do, and grind into your own home biogas system. In this case you get a liquid compost tea that permits great aquaponics, hydroponics and aeroponics, and you get between a half an hour to two hours of cooking gas every day, for as long as you live.

Ultimately, and finally our goal is to create Centers for Sustainable Practice at our college and at other institutions around the world, places where best practices can be tried out and demonstrated and the entire puzzle can be put together. We have envisioned such a place for Mercy college, shown in this model here.
In our model, everything starts with kitchen wastes as the first line of defense because they are so easy to come by and treat. We've already used these small 1 cubic meter international bulk containers around the world, with Indian floating drum digesters, and linked them to these vertical aeroponic tower gardens in this greenhouse. This is the low hanging fruit. The next piece of the puzzle, which we have already built in an elementary school in Brazil and are now building for a restaurant in the favelas, is the ten cubic meter Chinese Puxin biodigester system, a simple system made from cement poured over reusable steel molds. We use one for the cafeteria waste and two for the toilet wastes. The liquid fertilizer from the food waste digester is used for gardening, while that from the toilets goes into a constructed wetland with banana trees and natural vegetation to clean it up and create beauty for the landscape. To keep the systems warm we use two types of solar hot water panels – flat plate and vacuum tube, the former self built and the later purchased. We have solar electric panels that have charged my electric bikes and we've experimented with building our own electric cars which turns out to be quite easy – the principles can all be learned building and playing with toys like this supercapacitor car. We have a real GEK Gasifier at Mercy College that transforms our yard wastes, pine cones, acorns, wood chips etc. into synthetic gas for running a generator, and finally we have a real Blest Plastic to Oil machine that transforms plastic bags and cups and bottle caps and wrappers and packaging back into oil that can be used in a generator. With these and other technologies we are demonstrating that there need be no waste at all.

We are demonstrating many of these options already in real life, step by step, as locations and funding become available. In our fantasy world however, in the world of toys and imagination, we can put it all together in endless combinations and figure out the best placements and scenarios. The marvelous thing is that as my students and I create our “sustainability miniatures” and get ready for the “Green Dollhouse” competitions, we are actually learning the real science and engineering behind the eutopian dream.

I'll close with a final quote from Buckminster Fuller and then a song I wrote about the optimism I share with him,
The quote is  
“We humans are manifestly here for problem-solving and, if we are any good at problem-solving, we don't come to utopia, we come to more difficult problems to solve.You can't better the world by simply talking to it. Philosophy to be effective must be mechanically applied.You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete".

And here is my final song. Consider it done.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Do you Speak 3D?

(from the archives of T.H. Culhane, Ph.D.
January 8 2011
reprinted after working with WMST Public Charter School 9th grader and Porpoise Robotics Blender Protege Benjamin Standfield to create the Sea Perch and Sea Sparrow/MantaRay Robosub and Roboboats  in a 3D gaming environment. This kid really knows how to "speak 3D!")

 Do you speak 3D?

  Can you talk in "animated object"?  Can you communicate in "graphic novel"? Do you speak in pictures?

Moving pictuers?

Pictures that move people?

Today's children are growing up in a world where those may soon be legitimate questions.

We often say that "a picture is worth a thousand words" but we still assume that only a small percentage of humanity will ever really develop the skills to be considered a true "artist".  Speaking in pictures, moving or static, 2d or 3d, is still considered the domain of "experts".
But it needn't always be.

On January 8, 2011 in the German newspaper, "Stellen" ( the front page article was
"Experten fur 3D-Welten: Qualifikation -- Neue Technologie wird in vielen Branchen gebraucht."
The English translation: "Experts for 3D Worlds: (Get) qualified -- these new technologies will be needed in many fields".

The accompanying picture shows a worker wearing a special three dimensional visualization technology that allows him to manipulate virtual objects in thin air. The caption reads, "Das Arbeiten mit virtuellen und 3D Welten ist gefragt -- mit Qualifikationen kann man sich fit dafur machen." (My loose translation: "Working with virtual and 3D worlds is in demand -- with the right qualifications one can make oneself fit for the new jobs").

The article goes on to inform the readers in this historical working class area of Germany that many of the new jobs -- in the auto industry, in medicine, in architecture and planning, to say nothing of film and games -- demand facility with 3D visualization. But they point out that getting qualified can take more than 6 months of intense study, and that the education system is not yet equipped to equip students (much less retrain the rest of us) for this sudden demand. In addition, training courses can cost as much as 400 Euros a day and the software is very expensive.   However, they conclude, for those who are truly motivated, there are tutorials on-line and there is open source software available.

An interesting state of affairs.  There is a tacit assumption that the ability to translate an idea into three dimensions requires special training and that certain barriers to entry for this heretefore domain of experts will (should?) always exist.  But is this so?

Whenever I think of 3D worlds my imagination takes me to a place I've only ever seen in a two dimensional landscape -- the Sea of Monsters in the Peter Max designed Beatles cartoon "Yellow Submarine".  There, amidst a host of marvelous beings, a quadrupedal winged clown walks around "speaking" three dimensional objects into existence.  When we first see him he opens his mouth and we see him produce an ice cream cone.  The vacuum monster ambles over and sucks it up. With consternation he then speaks a gas station, an Egyptian pyramid and a colorful tie into existence. Then the marvelous 3D talking clown gets sucked into oblivion ("or even further" as John Lennon quips...).

But while this incredible talent for reifying thought gets annihilated and lost to the sea monster gene pool in Yellow Submarine, that great two dimensional representation of the way the Beatles made people feel in the late 1960s , it may in fact be evolving right here in our own three dimensional world here on Earth in the early two-thousand-teens.

I envision a day not long from now when technology and our facility with it allows us to answer questions by conjuring objects and animated processes into audio-visual existence in real time. We would describe a building or a motor or even an emotion by instantly placing the object or representational graphic in front of the people with whom we are conversing.

On the road to that version of reality we still have a lot of work to do, but in my mind it starts with teaching our children (and ourselves) that it is normal to "speak 3D".  Rather than continuing to operate in linear 2d spaces, painstakingly training ourselves and our youth to put letters together into words and words into sentences and then paragraphs and then pages, all from left-to-right (if you are in the Western tradition) with the proper punctuation and all just for the purpose of describing a room, setting up a scene or describing a vector of motion and emotion, we can start now training them to operate in what my post-modern urban planning professor Ed Soja calls "third-space" -- a non linear environment where the medium truly is McCluhan's massage and our message.

The problem with descriptions of third space (also the title of one of Ed's highly stimulating books) is that they normally are only ever done in second space.  Ed writes about this brave new world using normal textual conventions. In lectures he speaks about it from "left to right", from "beginning to end", following the normal prepared-speech-for-the-lecture-hall format.  "Speech" is still two dimensional. And we need people who can think, and act, in 3D.

So what do we do?

One of my first stabs at training myself to think and speak 3D was to read and study Scott McCloud's mind-opening "Understanding Comics -- The Invisible Art" (and moving on to his equally riveting sequels

"Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form" and "Making Comics").

Now I am toying with writing reports using the software program "Comic Life" rather than Microsoft Word, and trying to think not only about how to use pictures and graphs to illustrate points better, but how to use layout and space, size and color, and other design principles like gradation, repitition, unity, contrast, and harmony (what my father, animation historian John Culhane, used to call "GRUCH" so I would remember them!).

My next steps are doing all the tutorials I can find and find time for to better my skills in the Gimp, Sketchup, Blender, Unity 3D, Celtx, CamStudio, Suicidator City Generator, MakeHuman, Scribus, Elder Scrolls Construction Set, Sims3 and other animation, game engine, 3d visualization audio and video production software (like many in the NGO/Philanthropy world I can't afford Maya, 3D Studio Max or Cinema 4D so I use what I can find).

 When I answer questions about our work on solar hot water systems and biogas systems in the real world, I try more and more to answer them using these software resources and the techniques of audio-visual production and graphic representation I'm learning from book's like McClouds.

In effect I am trying to learn to speak 3D. And to carry on a conversation or give an explanation using hypertext, illustrative hyperlinks and some good 2D and moving representations of the three dimensional (really n-dimensional) reality we inhabit.

In my line of work it is actually very important to develop these skills now, not in the future, because so many of the people we are trying to reach (in our sustainable development efforts) are separated from us by language barriers and cultural barriers and class barriers and lots and lots of real three dimensional space.

The use of multi-media, of  music and video and gaming and -- let's face it -- FUN -- are paramount in importance if we want to share real solutions for empowering people and preserving or creating healthy environments.  This is a point His Excellency former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made both publically, when we presented together at the melody-dialouge for civilization conference in Geneva, and privately when I stayed at his home last summer building biogas digestors with his family and community. We are both on the board of the UNESCO sponsored Melody Dialouge organization because we and many others (like Melody Dialouge founder Mehri Madarshahi and 5D founder Tali Krakowsky and I think all of us who participated in the FMX conference) believe that we must act now to use all available channels of communication for the necessary dialogue about real things that humanity must come together on to preserve (and better) civilization.

And so this was the intent of creating this forum on Blending Realities here on facebook -- to create multiplier effects and accelerators, share insights and skills so that we can be part of that evolving generation of human beings who not only thinks, but who eventually, inevitably will speak, in surround sound, melodic and musically intoned, audio-visually enhanced, animated 3D.

Or should we say 5D?

Can you speak 5D?

Dr. Thomas H. Culhane
Visiting Facuty Researcher
School of Health and Natural Sciences and Social and Behavioral Sciences

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why Food Waste Grinders are a key to Sustainable Development

The following is the presentation T.H. Culhane of Solar CITIES Solutions gave at the Insinkerator International Marketing Strategy Meeting in London. England, Monday October 21st, 2013.

 Hi, I’m T.H. Culhane, and behind me in the picture on the left are live hippos in the Okavanga Delta in Botswana, while behind my wife and son in the picture on the right is an elephant. The reason we both have food waste grinders in our arms is because we humans don’t have the mighty teeth and jaws that these behemoths have, and without such teeth and jaws it is very difficult to chew up organic matter to the point where bacteria can quickly and efficiently turn it into energy and fertilizer. Because of this, organic garbage tends to build up faster than nature can properly recycle it, and this creates environmental and social problems that need to be solved.

 But once equipped with machines that act as the same powerful teeth and jaws, we human beings, like the giant herbivores of the African savannah from which we all developed,  can become powerful transformers of the abundant solar energy that plants absorb each day, making it readily available as fuel and fertilizer to make our lives better.  And that’s why we and our friends take food waste grinders with us wherever we go.

 From the the urban shantytowns, jungles and savannahs of the Middle East and Africa to the last villages at the base of Mt. Everest in Nepal, I have been using food waste grinders as the essential tool in my arsenal to fight poverty, disease, deforestation, malnutrition, and pollution while guaranteeing energy security. Because of the importance of this technology I treat food grinders in a “don’t leave home without ‘em” way.  This is no exaggeration.   --

 Because food grinders are not available in many countries, because they are usually unknown as part of an environmental solution set,  and are since they are  often  prohibitively expensive in developing countries because of high poverty levels, constrained markets and extraordinarily high import duties and other trade restrictions -- factors that sometimes make an equivalent unit cost up to 5 times the cost we can buy it for in the US - I am frequently seen on airplanes and buses carrying a food waste grinder like these Insinkerators with me wherever I go.

Even my wife, when she brought our baby to visit me in the slums of Cairo where I was working on solving food waste issues, brought a food waste grinder in her backpack.  She carried from the US to Germany and on to Egypt  so that our Solar CITIES colleagues Mostafa Hussein, a young carpenter and Hussein Farag a retired metal worker and accountant whom we trained as renewable energy experts, could install the first food grinder in the thousand year old Islamic city to serve the solar heated rooftop biogas system we had built on Hussein’s roof. While doing my Ph.D. studies on hot water and cooking fuel, when my wife and I were  living in this vermin and fly infested slum a place where our friend’s baby was actually bitten and killed  in her crib by rats that couldn’t get into the sealed garbage can, we learned that the best way to deal with such plagues was to grind organic wastes and put them in a tank on the roof to be transformed into safe clean fuel and fertilizer.

 In fact for the past 4 years I’ve presented the importance of food grinding on stages around the world, like the stages in  these pictures from  National Geographic in Washington DC, in Spain, in Egypt and at environmental conferences from Aspen to Istanbul, declaring that the most important environmental technology for solving our environmental challenges in the 21st century is actually  the humble “garbage disposal”, which I have been calling “compost companion and biogas feedstock preparation device”.

 At home in Germany, at a National park in Botswana, at a healing center in the Swiss Alps and aSolar Village in Portugal, and in Brazil we showed people that after grinding food it no longer takes 3 to 6 months to create a humus rich compost, but merely 3 to 6 days. We also demonstrate that the usual prohibitions against using meat and bones in urban composters or citrus and acidic fruit for vermiculture worm composting no longer apply. All organic wastes, once ground up, can rapidly be turned into value added products for the garden or landscaping. Our first line of defense therefore is to teach people that the so-called "garbage disposal"  really is the best compost companion and that they can immediately start grinding and putting all food wastes into the compost bin or, if they don’t have one, they can even pour the ground up scraps directly into the garden and simply cover with mulch.  But once this local use of ground up food wastes has been established it becomes a simple matter to show people that much more can be done with the high value of the ground up food scraps.  We teach people how to  construct an anaerobic digester so that from that same food waste one can win not just fertilizer but clean, safe and effective renewable energy through biogas.

 I have long believed that biogas digesters were the "elephant in the room" that few people seem  to see; an ancient, natural simple solution to literally all of our organic waste problems, from toilet wastes to food wastes, available instantly everywhere, turning liabilities into assets, eliminating deadly diseases and deforestation and plagues of rats and flies and other vermin, and indoor air pollution and environmental pollution and providing inexhaustable clean renewable energy and returning vital nutrients to the soil, actually creating soil and making deserts bloom and feeding humanity. Yet despite these tremendous low cost high impact advantages, this solution has been “hidden in plain sight” for literally thousands of years? What is it, I asked myself, that makes this elephant invisible...?
A biodigester, like the Puxin family sized digester shown here at the Ministry of Science and Technology in Baghdad, Iraq, that I've altered for illustration,  is simply an artificial stomach -- a chamber into which put ground up food and a starter culture of the archaea and bacteria that are found in all animal manures and even lake mud.  You use an insinkerator as the sacred elephant or sacred plastic cow’s mouth,  put a pipe at the back  for the fertilizer to come out, and another out the top to let out the gases that naturally occur as food is fermented -- just like what happens in you when you eat too many beans,  and shazam, you have a biogas system.

 When I visited an urban slum in Pune India in 2009 and learned how easy it was to build a home-scale biodigester that could turn food wastes into methane and liquid compost it was a revelation to me.  I had visited large scale biodigesters in the early 2000s but had never really understood the sheer simplicity of the design.  One needs a stomach with a mouth, a fertilizer outlet and a gas outlet, I realized that, but in India in 2009  they showed that a small family could make their own from two simple water tanks, one upside down inside the other.  A feeding pipe served as the throat and an overflow pipe for the fertilizer. The gas collected in the upside down tank floating on the water that filled the tank, and this rose as the gas was produced, taken out of the top, and sank as the gas was used. It turned out to be something anybody could do at any scale and even the little one my wife and I made here produced about two hours of cooking gas every day from the previous day’s leftovers and scraps. That same amount of gas could also be used to run a 2 kW  electric generator for about 45 minutes, enough to charge batteries to run the lights all evening.

 This was a revelation to me because while studying for my UCLA Ph.D. in Urban Planning and  international development I had spent years living and working in the slums of Cairo teaching people how to build their own solar hot water systems from local materials thinking that this was the most efficient way to use Egypt’s abundant sunshine.  What I didn’t know until my trip to India was that fermenting food wastes is really the easiest and most efficient way  to obtain and use solar energy.  Worldwide we waste between 40 and 60% of the stored sunshine that photosynthesis puts into our food . Capturing that energy for use as heat or electricity is not only easier and less expensive to do than building solar thermal or photovoltaic  panels, but takes care of solid waste and health problems at the same time.  So it is a clear win win.

 Once I learned  this and began to apply my energies to teaching others how to build small scale biodigesters in urban as well as rural areas an incredible world of possibilities began to open up.  In India we had seen how the people would soften their food waste in buckets in the sun and then mash it up by hand but we realized that the labor involved and the need for larger more expensive tubes to keep the system from clogging would deter most people from adopting home scale food waste digesters en masse.  When we burned up several blender’s in Egypt just as the systems were getting popular, I started making trips to the US and bringing Insinkerators in my luggage.  Ultimately, through the vision of US Embassy Director of Public Affairs Frank Finver, we began working with Al Najah University and the Palestinian Wildlife Society in Palestine and Eco-Gas in Israel and  started promoting the idea of integrating food waste grinders into the digester design.

There are now many small scale biogas business starting up around the world.  Our friends at Eco-gas in Israel, who are now working in partnership with the Palestinian Wildlife Society, have patented a “kitchen island biodigester” for indoor or outdoor use that has a built in food grinder, faucet, cutting board, stove and even an hydroponic garden that turns the fertilizer into food for the kitchen, making a complete cycle. While there they let me take biogas heated showers; the energy came from the previous day’s ground up food scraps.  The secret really is getting the surface area to volume ratio between microbes and food particles maximized and we predict that someday soon  biodigesters will become common home appliances, winning useful quantities of supplemental energy and nutritious food at the head of the waste stream  before sending any surplus to the waste treatment plant. 

In the meantime Solar CITIES Solutions continues our work training people around the world in the creation of food-waste-based biodigesters at the home and community scales.  Through Insinkerator’s generosity we have been able to introduce food waste grinders to policy makers as well as local families and NGOs all over the planet, from village chiefs from the Maasai tribe shown above to the former president of Nigeria, Oluwasegun Obasanjo shown below. Working with Ohio State University/Berkley Urban Planning professor Charisma Acey (photo right) and her students the work has expanded to Ghana.  In places, such as the Great Plains Conservation field camp in Africa shown above, we installed food grinders along with macerating toilet pumps to carry all organic wastes, including fecal material,  into local community built biodigesters that turn all of the wastes into clean burning methane gas and nutrient rich liquid fertilizer, dramatically reducing the potential for water borne diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

Because of the dramatic potential for small scale biogas to immediately address life threatening challenges in waste management, sanitation and energy security, the US Embassy and the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology brought us to Baghdad and Erbil in Iraq last spring to work with engineers like Dhia Baiee and Taha Majeed from MOST, shown here, and engineers and humanitarian officers  like Karin Mayer and Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, Ms. Jacqueline Badcock from UNAMI,  the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, to introduce rapid deployment food-waste fed biogas systems throughout the country based on the ARTI India and Puxin China models. With the expertise of our Iraqi colleagues, who had already been working with and proving the value of both wet-waste biogas and dry biomass gasification, confidence in the potential of the systems led to the insertion of this highly effective "low hanging fruit" solution into the worldwide "Greening the Blue" campaign of the United Nations, starting with builds we did at the UN compound in Baghdad.

 This summer Insinkerator corporation sponsored my trip to the Puxin biogas company in Shenzhen China, whose products we had introduced to the Philippines and Iraq,  and based on our experiences and needs in the field the inventor and engineers developed a new improved  turnkey mold based biogas system for us to use in our Brazil favela sanitation improvement initiative and elsewhere.  This system enables us to build 4, 6 or 10 cubic meter digester tanks with the same metal plates, used over and over again, for just the cost of cement and pipes.  With this system we can rapidly replicate effective digesters throughout the poorest sections of Rio in time for the World Cup and Olympics.

 In Rio, sponsored by Insinkerator, we are working with Architecture for Humanity, Catalytic Communities, Viva Rio and 4 favela communities to build and train others to build food and toilet waste Puxin systems that will turn the nightmare of garbage and raw sewage from a problem into a solution.  We start this fall with an elementary school in Niteroi which will receive all the cooking fuel and some electricity for its 80 students from the cafeteria and bathrooms.  Then we move on in our trainers of trainers model to a montane forest community like the one seen in the movie “Rio” , a coastal shantytown, and a  congested urban slum that was once the site of drugs and crime,  like the one featured in the movie “The Hulk”.  Here we will prove the model of small scale urban biogas for the world, just in time for the world cup where the world will be watching. On Twitter we tweeted, "Something big and green is coming to the favelas of Rio to help everybody win as we prepare for  the Olympics... and no, it is not the Hulk!"

To make this a reality of course, we need food waste grinders  to be the teeth and jaws of our new Elephant-sized biodigesters.  And in true Emerson solutions fashion, we were blessed to have Julio Porta (gerente de desenvolvimento de neg√≥cios da InSinkErator no Brasil) volunteer his time and fly all the way down from Emerson in Sao Paulo to Rio and spend all day with us, not just hand delivering Brazilian Insinkerators as gifts  for our partners, which would have been gift enough,  but engaging in a thorough training presentation in Portuguese for all stakeholders AND actually working with us through the night to build a functioning mini-biodigester for the day-care center whose owners donated the land for  the elementary school where we will build the big biogas tanks. This is the kind of commitment to excellence, quality and social welfare that makes the Emerson/Insinkerator team stand out in the world.

Finally, in that same spirit, Insinkerator engineers led by Dane Hofmeister and Don Gapko worked over time for our relief effort and invented this extraordinary bicycle powered insinkerator for our work in parts of Brazil and Africa and the Middle East and other regions where electric power is in short supply. This is the most ecologically sustainable, green food grinding technology in the world.  We are now experimenting with this great new appropriate technology -- a true case of “Design for the Other 90%” -- trying out the prototypes with our digesters at Mercy College in New York. We will  be field testing them in Brazil this spring.

So when I go around the world telling people that we really can “grind virtually any kind of food waste into an unending supply of electrical power for a city, or cooking fuel for a village” and they say “but it’s never been done before” I can say with complete confidence that, thanks to this wonderful partnership with  Emerson/Insinkerator, “Consider it Solved!”