Sunday, February 15, 2009
And now, for our next act...
What Darwin didn't know (couldn't know in his era!) but would probably immediately find a theoretical explanation for if he were alive today (Klaatu apparently figured it out in "The Day the Earth Stood Still") is that many of us large-brained naked apes seem "pre-adapted" for the fight against climate change and mass extinction events, and we actually feel energized, hopeful and ''in our element'' during this time of global crisis. We have been tinkering with ideas and technologies and solutions to environmental degradation for decades, long before it became "in-vogue", waiting for our moment in the sun, when 'natural selection' finally would favor sustainable development initiatives and renewable energy techniques and other "evolutionarily stable strategies" (ESS) over the maladaptive conceits of the short-sighted reproducers of transient, dangerous and inefficient forms of behavioral ecology.
It is the classic Darwinian struggle of "K-selection" behaviors versus "r-selection" behaviors. In the long run, game theory predicts, individuals and societies in harmony with the resource renewal rates of Nature will persist, while those who continue to exploit natural capital without replenishment will vanish. Now that we are near the breaking point, we are seeing the emergence of a host of hidden solutions, 'hopeful monsters' that have been waiting in the wings for centuries, hybridized with new serendipitous technological mutations. The beauty, of course, is that this revolution in Evolution is non-competitive on a personal level: there need be no losers because all of us can change our behaviors. Nobody and no gene pool needs to go extinct. Natural selection, when acting on our large brained species, really favors human behaviors, not individuals or pedigrees. This is why we reject eugenics and push for equal opportunity and education, liberty and justice for all.
Artificial selection, on the other hand, is often about focusing on the individual, celebrating the achievements of one or another temporary package of the genetic and cultural mux. Given that this is the way of the Primate world, and I am as anthropoid ape as the next fellow, I have to admit that being selected by a major international media service -- my very favorite media service for the past 4 decades -- fills me with great pride and joy. But I am also aware, on an existential level, of the immense responsibility that goes along with being among the 10 other human beings now joyfully being singled out in magazines, radio, television, web and newspaper reports all over the world for our leadership in projects that were forged collectively with our many colleagues and fellow stakeholders -- on a planet of more than 6.5 Billion Homo sapiens. What Darwin did know all too well (as an intensely religious and moral scientist) was that the success of any individual in the lottery of life depends as much on the behavior of the collection of con-specifics surrounding and supporting him or her, and the lucky environments they happened to be born in. We National Geographic Awardees owe a great debt of gratitude, to our families and friends and colleagues and all the people (and non-humans and spiritual forces) who helped us increase our "fitness" and flourish, not just helping us to survive, but to succeed with our stubborn beliefs that 'being of service' to "God and Country" and Creation was the most important job description one could wish for. How fun to now get recognition and thus "fit in" to our changing social environment with ideas that once seemed "at the margin."
Being chosen to be one of National Geographic's Emerging Explorer's for 2009 is one of the greatest honors I could imagine. I have been reading National Geographic and marvelling at the exploits of the people featured in its pages since early childhood, when, as a schoolboy living near (and infatuated with) Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, I inherited my father's venerable collection of American Nat Geo explorers magazines dating back to the 1940s. On my first international trip (to my ancestral Middle East) at the age of eight, I discovered my mother's father's collection of International Nat Geo magazines in the family home in Baghdad. It seemed that wherever we went in the world after that, National Geographic was there with us, opening up new worlds to discover. The joy of discovering through National Geographic was reinforced in our family every Christmas when we would sit down to watch Frank Capra's masterpiece "It's A Wonderful Life" wherein young George Bailey shows his future wife a copy of the magazine that lined all our bookshelves:
George: "Say, brainless,don't you know where coconuts come from?
Look it here...from Tahiti, Fiji Islands, the Coral Sea!"
Mary: "A new magazine! I never saw it before."
George: "Of course you never.Only us explorers can get it.
I've been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society."
And now, nearly 4 decades later, when our family opened the February 2009 issue of this venerated magazine, we found that "Thomas Taha Rassam Culhane" (the collection of genes and memes that I call "me") has not only been nominated for membership in the Society, but has been honored as one of National Geographic's Emerging Explorers. It is one of the most exciting professional achievements I could have dreamed of!
This great honor, however, now implies even greater responsibility. The 2009 award is for our past Solar CITIES work innovating, building and installing DIY solar hot water systems in the poorest communities of Cairo, Egypt, and launching a U.S. AID funded "Green Collar Jobs Training Program" among the Coptic Christian and Islamic communities that surround the "macabre" city of the dead, bringing new life to slums and informal communities that face grave environmental challenges.
But as they say in Hollywood, "you are only as good as your NEXT movie". With the climate changing in dangerous ways, and prices rising and economies collapsing one has no laurels to rest on. The question is always and ever, "what now?"
We have a chance to use the publicity and goodwill generated by National Geographic (and the previous National Public Radio pieces on our work) to make even greater strides toward eradicating the scourge of poverty and environmental degradation. How will we use it?
And now for something completely different...
I've just returned (or, let us say "emerged", emerging explorer that I am), from a three week trip of discovery to the Indian Sub-continent, traveling from Pune to Mumbai to Ahmedabad to Udaipur to Jaipur to Delhi (and many places in-between) with the India Youth Climate Network's (IYCN) "Climate Solutions Road Tour". We traveled half the country in a caravan of solar/electric and Jatropha fueled bio-diesel vehicles, searching for functioning pieces of the anti-poverty/anti-climate-change puzzle that we can assemble and weave together into a safety net that can preserve and protect human and non-human diversity and dignity (see Thomas L. Friedman's piece on the tour here!). What we found in Pune, at the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI), was the missing piece for our work in Cairo, a solution so simple and yet so radical that we are still giddy from the staggering implications of it all.
Kitchen-waste powered kitchens: The urban biogas solution
If you spent much of your life growing up in New York, as I did, you might remember the despair the city fell into when the garbage collectors went on strike. Black plastic bags teeming with flies and rats piled up along the streets, emitting a powerful nauseating stench. The same tragedy recently spoiled the beauty of many of Italy's cities (particularly Naples). Of course, in Cairo and the cities of other mis-managed economies, the spectacle of mountains of smelly garbage -- most of it kitchen waste from typically irresponsible urbanites who in all countries and cultures seem never to have learned to compost or bothered to engage in source separation -- is an everywhere-all-the-time-thing.
Meanwhile, in Germany, where Solar CITIES has its home office, and where we do compost all our organic waste (so we can keep our garbage around for weeks or months at a time without it creating any nuisance at all), Russia has threatened in recent months to cut our (Un-)Natural Gas supply, prompting a fear-based decision by policy makers to start reviving the dangerous and irresponsible (particularly to future generations, like our baby son) nuclear energy (read "let's use deadly radioactive materials to boil water") program.
What we learned in India is that in one fell swoop we can solve all these problems, simply by turning all household, yard and food-market organic wastes into clean-burning biogas.
During the two days I spent with Ashden Award winner Dr. Anand Karve and his daughter, bio-gasification expert Dr. Pria Karve, visiting homes where families cooked meals for us on stoves powered by yesterday's garbage, I discovered how easy it was to build a backyard, roof or porch mounted biodigestor and eliminate all the smell and disease potential of garbage while creating an endless supply of truly natural gas.
The secret is to think like a sacred cow
Dr. Karve's great insight was that the methanogenic bacteria that produce natural gas eat food too, and are happy with our left-overs. All over the planet people have been using cow dung and other animal manures from which they have tried to squeeze a few kilocalories of useful energy using methanogenesis. It works, but the input to output ratio is low -- a mere 100 kg of methane (CH4) per tonne of feedstock. The low efficiency of the system demands that about 40 kg of cattle dung (from 6 to 8 head of cattle) must be made into a slurry and introduced in the digestor every day, and must ferment for 40 days and nights (enough time to flood Mesopotamia) before useful gas is produced. The space, animal dung and labor demands, to say nothing of dealing with 80 to 100 liters of effluent every day, make the system a chore for rural people and an impossibility for urban dwellers.
But Dr. Karve started thinking like a sacred cow -- reasoning that the bacteria in the cow's stomachs don't eat animal dung -- they make dung and biogas (the methane that cows burp and fart into the atmosphere, allegedly adding to the greenhouse effect) while eating food that has been chewed and partially digested by the cow. The solution, of course, was to simply "recreate a cow's stomach" in a plastic barrel, introduce the bacteria and some spoiled food (kitchen and market waste, flour swept from the bakery floor, rotten inedible fruits from garden or street trees, non-edible oilseeds, etc.) and let the bacteria do their magic. At the end of the day, every tonne of feedstock produces 250 kg of methane (dry weight basis), and it does so in a mere 24 hours, effectively increasing the efficiency of the system 400 times! A family of 4 or 5 (such as Paul Lincoln and I visited) merely has to put in 1 kg of feedstock in the morning and another kg in the evening to get enough biogas to cook two full meals a day. The feedstock (mostly plate scrapings and kitchen scraps) is simply mixed with water in a blender and poured into the digestor feed pipe. Only 10 liters of effluent slurry is produced each day, used to irrigate rooftop and side gardens and flower boxes. Getting the gas, which is piped into the kitchen from the digestor with a common garden hose, is as easy as turning on the stove.
Having seen this system in operation in two different household's in different parts of the city, and eaten meals generated by this clean, inexpensive and renewable resource, I'm now poised to transfer the technology to our colleagues' homes in inner-city Cairo, arriving in Egypt next week.
And so, on to our next act...
Many of our stakeholders in the city have no access to direct sunlight because of urban density and shading, but all have access to organic garbage. As a complement to our solar hot water systems, Indian designed urban biogas digestor construction will become Solar CITIES second "green-collar jobs training program", hopefully sparking a whole new renewable energy industry that can bring inflation relief, dignity, health, safety and business opportunities to the urban poor.
Hopefully the next time our work makes it into the media, our fellow explorers on planet earth will see not just the beginning of a million solar roofs in old Cairo, but an inflorescence of Indian household bio-digestors that will help keep the city's streets and air clean while helping fight climate change. I know my Iraqi grandfather, now in heaven, and always proud of the innovations of the Middle Eastern Civilization he was heir to, will smile when he picks up a future celestial edition of National Geographic and learns that his grandson followed up our first act of introducing solar energy systems into the indigent areas of the Arab World by transferring to the Judeo-Christo-Islamic world, a great technology from Hindu India, that equally great civilization to the East. We know he admired India, which he read all about in his National Geographic magazines in Baghdad, because he named his daughter, my mother, "Hind".