The Call and Times, Column 13 – Waste Not, Want Not, Part 2 – Solving for a Pattern

5 10 2014

(October 3, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Waste Not, Want Not, Part 2 – Solving for a Pattern

Last month, I wrote somberly about the outdated and very unsustainable notion of waste – the idea that there are products and materials which are completely, irreparably useless, worth so little that their only meaningful purpose is to be trucked away and never seen again. I insisted that rational people in a rational economy can no longer accept this outdated idea as true, but I didn’t get as far as suggesting a solution. No, entire libraries could be written on the complex solution to this very complex problem, and because it is arguably the most valuable topic that I believe I will ever write about, I felt that it at least deserved its own column.

That solution, in a few words, is called “solving for a pattern”, and was termed and developed by my favorite writer and philosopher, Wendell Berry. The basic idea of his philosophy is that “the whole problem must be solved, not just some handily identifiable and simplifiable aspect of it”. His definition of a good systemic solution is one that “solves more than one problem”, and which “does not make new problems” in being executed.

Looking specifically at the systems of agriculture, forestry, and every other industry that links production to the environment, this idea suggests that we have to find the irresponsible decisions that were made to construct those systems – decisions that amped up production, or which were very convenient or very profitable, at the expense of the health of the people, environment, and economy – and reverse them. On an even higher level, solving for a pattern means to understand a local ecosystem or culture well enough, that you can solve its problems by finding the ways in which it was forced to deviate from Nature’s own method.

Berry uses the perfect example of America’s food production system to put this idea into practice. Modern industrial agriculture produces plant products and animal products in two basically disconnected systems, with the only interaction being that grain is bought to feed the animals in concentrated feedlots. It is somewhat obvious why this was done. Animals require less room (as far as factory-like efficiency is concerned, anyway) and crops can be raised more efficiently if they are separated, and both systems are more immediately productive when specialized farmers manage them separately.

Looking only at the bottom line, this system is great – production, and therefore profit, is increased, and meat, eggs,  milk, and grains are raised with industrial efficiency. But when you take a step back, looking at the whole system rather than just the specific farms, it doesn’t look so pretty. By separating the animals and plants, we’ve created industrial quantities of manure on one side, and a severe deficit of soil fertility on the other. Can you see the pattern to which we might try to solve? We also see pest problems in our crops, and fowl with a wildly unbalanced, bug-less diet; giant monocultures of grains that require so much more carbon-emitting fuels than pastureland to grow, and grass-eating cows, goats, and sheep, that suffer terrible health problems from eating only corn; and lots of fossil fuel required to make this system work. By separating plants and animals in our agriculture, we have contributed to so many of the major environmental problems that we face as a species today. In light of this, it may be time to take Berry’s advice.

In a typical urban farm, there are dozens of different components that must work together to produce a functioning whole. These include the deliberate work of the farmer: vegetable gardens, fruit trees, chickens, rain barrels, solar panels, and compost. They also include more subtle interactions with the environment, called ecosystem services: rain, clean air, sunlight, decomposition, soil fertility, temperature regulation, and natural biomass production.

It is a principal job of the urban farmer to integrate all of these components, and many that I haven’t even thought to mention, into a functioning, productive, and sustainable whole – to “solve for a pattern”, to put it blatantly. Each component generally has inputs and outputs – materials, energy, and knowledge involved at both ends of its life. Normally, a process is done for the primary purpose of one of its outputs, as in chicken-keeping for eggs, vegetable gardening for produce, solar panels for energy. But by integrating these components, by using your knowledge to tie the many systems together into an interwoven whole, all outputs, including what we traditionally call “garbage”, can become inputs to other components. By doing this, the urban farmer can reduce costs, by eliminating the need for expensive inputs like fertilizer and energy and drastically increase sustainability, both of the economic flavor, by constructing a resilient system that isn’t apt to fail, and the environmental flavor, by reducing environmentally-destructive production that our modern economy creates in order to keep us alive.

Let’s look at an example that outlines this approach well in a typical urban farm, one that has caught some media attention in the past few years – let’s (theoretically) raise chickens. A typical flock of chickens requires inputs including water, grain-based feed, access to grass for roughage and bugs, and straw for bedding. The flock will produce outputs of eggs, nitrogen-rich manure, and, as agricultural services, pest control and soil aeration. Let’s say you grow some grain to feed to the flock, and give them access to your yard for pasture. From the get-go, the act of feeding themselves on pasture acts as natural and very effective pest control and lawn-fertilization and aeration. In growing grains, you provide not only feed, but also straw for their bedding. They can also be fed kitchen scraps and yard wastes, and their manure is composted to fertilize the soil so that it can continue to produce abundantly. So not only does the flock provide its primary output, eggs, but also produces manure and agricultural services (fertility and pest control), while most of its inputs can come directly from the garden. This, my friends, is a perfect example of solving for a simple but effective pattern.

This type of approach can and should be extended to whichever components of the urban farm it can, with the goal of integrating the whole system to require few, if any, external inputs, and which produces no waste, but only primary products (eggs, vegetables and fruit, energy, soil fertility) as its outputs. This relies on thinking not in terms of linear production, like is common in modern industry and (regrettably) agriculture, but rather in terms of nutrient and energy cycles, where our urban farms are integrated not only amongst themselves, but as parts of the larger ecosystem in order to provide for environmental sustainability and resiliency. But this principle, thinking in cycles and loops, is not limited only to urban agriculture, and brings us back to our original purpose.

I started off this two-part column with a staunch rejection of the notion of waste. I still hold to that belief, but this discussion is so much bigger than just trash. The systems upon which we have come to depend – for our food, our water, and our energy – are built to eventually fail. They were constructed with the assumptions that the Earth is a limitless source of raw materials, and an infinitely large dumping ground for garbage, neither of which is even remotely true. That our global food- and economic-production systems make so much waste is but a symptom of a much bigger problem.

But this problem is not unsolvable. By employing Wendell Berry’s principle of solving for a pattern, we can organize and integrate our economic and agricultural production such that the outputs of every process are necessarily the inputs to others, a very powerful idea in theory and practice. Doing so, we can eliminate the production of any significant amount of trash, and therefore, the requirement that the Earth be our dumping ground, and the very notion of “waste” in our society. We would no longer need the rickety, expensive economic system, which has been constructed and maintained by our governments and corporations, which exploits the Earth in the extraction of raw materials, and deals with the resultant environmental degradation and production of massive amounts of garbage. Instead, we can replace it with a truly sustainable system, the only acceptable way for us to live.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call and Times, Column 12 – Waste Not, Want Not – Part 1

5 10 2014

(September 5, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Waste Not, Want Not – Part 1

A very close second to Spring, the beginning of Fall is one of my favorite times of the year. The Earth puts every fiber of its being, all of the energy and fertility that it has built up over the past six months, into an amazing production, one which has been celebrated since the dawn of our species – the fall harvest. But there’s something else. The changing leaves, the cooling weather, and the fruiting trees are all signs that the Earth is undergoing a deep change, figuratively tucking itself into bed for a well-deserved winter’s rest, before arising with even greater vigor next Spring.

An important question, one that our planet has answered with millions of years of ecological evolution, and one which humankind has sought to reduce down to an absurd oversimplification, is: what is to be done with the byproducts of production, the extra materials and energy, the garbage? The Fall is Earth’s subtle answer to this profound question. When the plants have finished photosynthesizing, the hardy perennials have gone dormant, and the animals have fed and stored up for winter, the Earth takes whatever is left – spent leaves and plant remains, animals’ defecation, and all sorts of organic material – and carefully breaks it all down, feeding it to microbes, fungi, and bugs, in order to start next year even better than it did last. Humans, in contrast, throw it into the garbage, to be hauled to God-knows-where and sit in limbo for hundreds of years, polluting the land, water, and air.

The modern concept of garbage, something deemed to have no possible use, to be absolutely worthless, and which would require more work to reuse or recycle than to simply throw away – this is a completely outdated mode of thinking, an idea that we can no longer rationally accept as true. We have come to realize, increasingly through resource scarcity and the effects of environmental degradation, that the Earth is not limitless. When we drill for oil, mine for metals, and too-quickly log the forests, these resources are depleted – it’s basic subtraction. But when, simultaneously, we have built an economy which relies on those “raw materials” to function and grow, a system where our own very continued existence then relies on those limited and quickly-depleting resources, there will come a point where the Earth can no longer provide what we ask of it – the definition of unsustainable. Though it may be one of the most difficult changes to make, it is therefore our responsibility – as human beings, as urban and rural farmers, as stewards of this Earth – to ditch the idea of waste, and to cast absolutely nothing off as trash.

Widespread waste collection systems first became popular in Europe in the mid-18th century. Before that, humans produced significantly less waste, most of which was natural, and could be disposed of locally and relatively sustainably. Since the conception of the idea, though, and specifically since the beginning of the last century, waste collection has grown into a municipal responsibility, and our society has gladly responded by hugely increasing the amount of solid waste we produce.

According to the EPA, in 2012, Americans generated an average 4.5 pounds of solid waste per person per day, of which about 1.5 pounds were recycled. Of that 4.5 pounds, nearly 30% was food and yard waste, a huge quantity. Another 34% was paper and wood products, of which only a fraction were recycled.

All of these materials are derived from natural processes (agriculture and forestry) which could be done sustainably, and nearly all are capable of being composted. By changing how we source these materials, throwing away less food, and returning them to nature through composting, rather than disposing of them in the municipal waste collection service, we could conceivably eliminate over 60% of our solid waste.

Another 35% of our waste consists of glass, plastics, metals, and textiles, which present more of a problem than organics. While some of these materials can be recycled, reused, or potentially composted (a few types of textiles), many cannot. The solution to these is to figure out ways to not use them in the first place.

With this discussion, as with many others, I want to make it very clear that fault does not lie with just consumers, just companies, just governments, or any group in particular. We have all contributed to this problem, and I can attest first hand to how difficult it is to eliminate all waste from one’s day-to-day life. A huge part of our waste stream is unrecyclable, uncompostable plastics and other synthetic materials, and with how common these materials are in consumer goods, it is almost impossible to avoid them as individuals in an imperfect society.

That being said, we can make positive changes together. Nature does an amazing job at generating biomass, at keeping plants, animals, fungi, and all sorts of microorganisms alive and thriving with an incredibly complex set of nutrient and energy cycles that result in a zero-waste system. By taking a look at the world around us, it is entirely possible for us to make our home and national economies alike interface sustainably with these natural cycles.

But this is a very complex subject, and there is a lot more that I need to discuss than can fit in this column. Here, we’ve discussed our society’s modern waste problem. In my next column, we can take a look at how urban farming can cast itself into a zero-waste mold, and even contribute to the solution of this problem in the rest of society. At some point in the end of the Fall, I will also write about reusing and repurposing of products and materials and buying local and used items, practices that are inseparable from the concept of reducing and eliminating waste.

Before I forget, I have some really great news. On Tuesday, the Woonsocket City Council voted 4-3 for the first passage of the chicken ordinance that they had started discussing in July. This is an amazing achievement, and I anxiously await the second vote for passage, and for this ordinance to become law. We owe a great gratitude to the city council members who worked tirelessly on this ordinance, for being so forward-thinking, and concerned with the well-being of their constituents. I will include regular updates of this ordinance.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.