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Last month, I wrote somberly about the outdated and very unsustainable notion of waste – the idea that there are products and materials which are completely, irreparably useless, worth so little that their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 I insisted that rational people in a rational economy can no longer accept this outdated idea as true, but I didn’t get as far as suggesting a solution.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.

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