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.

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