Sunday, May 31, 2009

Permanent Shelter

Temporary shelter can be life saving, but for real security, everyone needs permanent shelter. While there is an amazing variety of permanent shelters, from the wooden yurts I mentioned in my post on Temporary Shelter (5/19/09) to underground houses and structures such as domes and zomes, most of us are not going to build our own houses. (Though this website full of pictures of hobbit-like earth built homes makes me think about it.) There are millions of buildings already out there and rather than tear them all down and build new ones, I think it makes much more sense to adapt what's there to meet our needs.

I have been hearing from people who talk about 'Deep Retrofitting'--redoing a house so it is very energy-efficient. While this is not always possible given our time and budgets, it is useful to think of the home as an ongoing project. Planning ahead with what we'd ideally like, we can take the transition of the building to what we want in small stages. As things need repairing or replacing, we then have an idea of the direction we want to take.

At the least, weatherizing old buildings to make them energy efficient makes a lot of sense. An idea that started in Cambridge and is now starting to happen around the Boston area is the notion of 'Weatherization Barnraisings' where a group of us gather at someone's house and work together to weatherize it. The real benefit is not to the homeowner (who does get their house weatherized) but to the volunteers who often go home with new skills that they can apply to their own houses.

Of course this begs the question of the many people who can't afford to buy a home in the first place. Everyone deserves housing, and affordable housing at that, but our society isn't ready to simply make this a right. While there are folks that own so many houses they can't remember the exact number (a former US presidential candidate is an example), there are hundreds of thousands without homes in the US and millions around the world. Squatting is an option (see my last post), but so is intentional community (see my post of 10/8/09). While I know that some people need to have their own space, I think it makes more sense to share housing than to try to have millions of single family homes. When I see a big old house, rather than thinking about how to subdivide it into apartments or condos, I think of how many people could live together there, sharing their lives. I'm not sure the earth has the space for us to all have our own homes, but we could share enough buildings to make sure everyone has shelter.

Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn--A book on how houses and other buildings evolve according to the needs of the people using them. The book details the principle of shearing layers
Francis DK Ching, Building Construction Illustrated--An architect's manual on the basic principles of construction and materials, filled with diagrams and information. It probably makes more sense to read How a House Works first to get the basic concepts and then this book for all the details
Eugene Eccli, Low-Cost, Energy-Efficient Shelter--Ideas for weatherizing houses, remodeling houses, and building houses from scratch
Duane Johnson, How a House Works--While a bit much on the joys of modern life (it is a Reader's Digest book), this book gives a clear introduction to how a house is built
Lloyd Khan, Home Work--Subtitled 'Handbuilt Shelter' this book has over a thousand photos of all kinds of housing from around the world
Lloyd Khan, Shelter--A classic work from 1973 it looks at everything from gypsy wagons to domes and zomes to English cottage homes
Helga Olkowski, Bill Olkowski, Tom Javits and Farallones Institute, The Integral Urban House--A 1979 rethinking of what an urban house can be, it contains a chapter on 'Conservation of Energy' in the house as well as one on 'Integral Design'. They have taken an old house and rethought it
John Prentiss, The Dome Builder's Handbook--A primer on building geodesic domes
Malcolm Wells, The Earth-Sheltered House--A reprint of the book Underground Buildings, this is a sketchbook of ideas for underground houses by the architect who popularized the idea

Quote of the day: “Houses are built to live in and not to look on.” - Francis Bacon

Thursday, May 28, 2009


With this post I am moving from looking at immediate, life or death, physiological needs into what Maslow refers to as 'Safety and Security' needs and what Manfred Max-Neef refers to as 'Protection' needs.

I am starting with looking at land,which while technically is necessary for survival (we need it to stand on--if left in the middle of the ocean we'd drown if we didn't touch land and if dropped in middle of the sky we'd fall to our deaths), seems to me more of a security need. In order to grow food or build shelter, we need land. Access to land makes us more secure.

Mark Twain was supposed to have advised someone to "Buy land, they're not making it anymore." In fact, buying land may be the problem. A woman I know went to one of those early American history sites where there are replicas of a colonial village and a native encampment and remarked on how the village was divided up into fenced off plots with houses and yards connected by streets and how the Indian encampment was a circle of tipis and seemed more interconnected.

While there has been a long, slow historical development process between the nomadic (and common) existence of the hunter gatherers and suburban (and urban) yards of today, a key piece was the 'enclosure' movement. While this happened all over Europe, England between 15th and 19th centuries typified the process. Medieval life, while harsh and authoritarian guaranteed peasants and serfs access to land. In the fifteenth century, England discovered a market for wool--more of a market than for foodstuff. Sheep owners realized that if they could fence off their land, they could keep sheep more efficiently and their profits would be more secure. Peasants were evicted from their land, laws were passed, and the idea of private property grew as capitalism grew.

In the nineteenth century, Henry George argued that "We must make land common property." (See my post of 2/14/09.) Georgists (also known as 'geoists') believe that "everyone owns what they create, but that everything found in nature, most importantly land, belongs equally to all of humanity." These ideas predate George--Thomas Paine pointed out that "Men did not make the earth. It is the value of the improvements only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property. Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds." While I am hardly a 'geoliberarian', I think it's clear that none of us really owns the land. What we need is to find a way to share it.

Thus, I think that community stewardship is essential. One model of that is the Community Land Trust movement, developed in the United States based on the Gramdan movement in India. A land trust holds land for the benefit of the community and keeps it in the community: "The land is held permanently by the land trust so that it will always benefit the community." Among other features, homeowners lease their land and the lease requires them to sell their homes (if and when they want to sell) either back to the Community Land Trust or "to another lower income household, and for an affordable price." It moves directly away from the model of acquiring land to make money.

Another move against private property is squatting. I have some reservations about this practice, especially when the squatters then act as if they own the land, but it is often essential in underdeveloped countries when the poor would have no access to land otherwise. One group with a much more radical view of squatting is the Landless Workers Movement (aka MST) in Brazil. I have already written about MST in two previous posts (see my posts of 8/17/08 and 9/6/08). They have a list of Ten Agreements which go from "To love and preserve the earth and all natural things" to "Never sell the land."

Land is something everyone needs access to. Community ownership can make that possible.

The Ecologist, Whose Common Future?--A book on 'Reclaiming the Commons' with a good history of the enclosure movement
Institute for Community Economics--The group that developed the Community Land Trust model
Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, Hope's Edge--Has a chapter devoted to the MST and another to the 'Green Belt Movement' in Africa which has planted 30 million trees to reclaim the land from desert
National Community Land Trust Network--A group devoted to supporting Community Land Trusts in the US
Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark--While this book is really about witchcraft and social change, there is a small section in the appendix on "Expropriation of Land" that summarizes the Enclosure movement.
Starhawk, Webs of Power--Has a chapter on "Our Place in Nature" that talks about the MST as well as how we can connect with the land

Quote of the day: "Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, Don't fence me in... I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences, And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses, Can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences, Don't fence me in." - Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher

Monday, May 25, 2009


In some ways this is a funny title for this post, because waste isn't really a need. The need is to get rid of it.

I have some mixed feelings about using the word 'waste' because from an ecosystems perspective, waste doesn't exist. (In my post of 8/27/08, I cite Fritjof Capra's principles of ecology, one of which is "... an ecosystem generates no waste, one species' waste being another species' food.") But particular species--us for example--do generate waste, that is things we cannot use, some of which is toxic to us (that being the reason this 'need' is in the most immediate, physiological needs). Still, I often talk about living in a zero-waste situation--meaning creating situations where all waste is dealt with--in many cases by becoming (as Capra says) food for another species.

In the US waste is usually dealt with by 'disposal systems'--which generally means it is taken out of our sight. Many people don't care where it goes from there--often being buried in a landfill, dumped into the ocean, or sent to a smaller country. I want to look at ways we can deal with our own wastes ourselves. I'll start by dividing waste products into inorganic and organic and look at each in turn.

When I think of inorganic wastes, I think of the oft quoted "Reduce, reuse, recycle." The problem is most people just recycle and pay little attention to the first two principles. Recycling has become just another disposal system with little thought as to where the stuff goes. While recycling is marginally better than putting things in landfills, it's fairly energy intensive. I want to take it out of the equation altogether, and look at the other two pieces: reduce and reuse.

I think we need to start by reducing what we take in, moving our way out of the consumer mentality. This is not easy. This society blasts "Buy, buy, buy..." at us. I would recommend stopping watching TV for one thing, and watching The Story of Stuff instead. And start to think about everything that you take in--whether you buy it or it's free. Ask yourself--do I need this? How long will I use it? What will I do with it when I'm done?

Reusing, on the other hand, becomes a challenge to our creativity. How can we reuse something in a different way? (Artists can be really good at this stuff.) One way of giving things reuse is giving them away. Websites such as freecycle and craigslist (which has 'free' and 'barter' categories in its 'for sale' section) do a thriving business in connecting people who don't want things with people who might want them. And then there are the Freegans who are radical reusers--of dumpster food, among other things.

While there are lots of different kinds of organic wastes (paper, for example, is an organic waste that can be reused, composted, or easily recycled) I want to focus on two of the main ones: food wastes and bodily wastes.

The best way of dealing with food wastes is composting. It came from the soil and, with time, it will become soil. Many people and groups have elaborate methods and rules about composting. My motto is 'compost happens'. If it's organic, it will rot, it will compost, it will turn to soil. It's a matter of time. All the methods and rules may make the process faster, less messy, and less smelly, but no matter what you do or don't do compost happens.

That said, there are a couple of particularly interesting things you can do to compost things. For people without a yard, or lovers of earthworms, vermicomposting (aka worm bins) uses a lot less space and produces a rich compost result. Sheet mulching (aka lasagna gardening) is sometimes referred to as 'composting in place'. Here you just stick your food wastes and dead leaves in a sandwich with cardboard or newspaper and it becomes soil (over time) on the spot. I'm not saying that vermiculture or sheet composting are better ways of composting. The old compost bin/pile works fine as far as I'm concerned, but these are just two more ways of composting.

At this point the squeamish should stop reading.

Like it or not, our bodies produce wastes and we need to deal with them. While there are actually many body wastes (blood--from wounds or menstruation, pus, semen, and sputum are just a few examples), urine and fecal matter (aka 'number one' and 'number two'--plus a number of names that could get an adult content warning on this blog) are the main waste products. Both can be composted. Urine is actually close to sterile most of the time (except if there's an infection in the kidney or urinary tract). It can be drunk in emergency situations or possibly used as an antibiotic (see 'Survival uses' in the Wikipedia article on Urine). More importantly, it contains minerals that could help build soil. While it can damage plants if applied directly, it is a great addition to compost--with a high nitrogen and phosphorus content.

Fecal matter is more problematic. It can contain many disease organisms and is not safe to add directly into a garden or farm. However, it can and has been successfully composted. This must be done carefully and over time to make sure that all possible disease producing organisms are killed. Several companies manufacture composting toilets, one of the best known being Clivus multrum, but it isn't hard to create a homemade version.

A final bodily waste is, indeed, our bodies. Amazingly, when we die our bodies are often encased in steel and fiberglass coffins. Towns and cities often use a lot of landspace creating cemeteries--and then find they need more as the cemeteries fill up. Cremation is one solution, but it uses propane or natural gas to create temperatures of 1600 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit and spew waste gases. Natural burial is an alternative to all that, where the body is allowed to decompose naturally--in other words, we compost. When I die, I hope to be buried somewhere with a fruit tree planted above my body so I can fertilize the tree. This is just completing the cycle.

Mary Appelhof, Worms Eat My Garbage--The classic book on vermicomposting
Stu Campbell, Let It Rot!--A compost classic
Centre for Natural Burial--A UK site with links to natural burial organizations around the world
Green Burials
--Another website devoted to natural burials
Todd Hemenway, Gaia's Garden--Has a nice section on sheet mulching with instructions
John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables--Devotes a whole chapter to compost
Joseph Jenkins, The Humanure Handbook--Another classic, the book on composting body wastes; Jenkins has a website with a section devoted to 'humanure' and also includes the entire book as an online download as well as a selection of videos on humanure and a photo gallery of 'Owner-built humanure toilets'
Bobbie Kalman and Janine Schaub, Squirmy Wormy Composters--Vermiculture for kids
Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living--Has a chapter on 'Waste' which includes sections on Wastewater Recycling, Composting, Vermicomposting, Recycling Human Wastes, and Putting It All Together
Helga Olkowski, Bill Olkowski, Tom Javits and Farallones Institute, The Integral Urban House--Contains a chapter on 'Managing Organic and Inorganic Wastes' which includes a good deal of information on composting toilets and general composting
ReDO--Website for a nonprofit devoted to finding ways of reusing things
Carol Steinfeld, Liquid Gold--A book on 'Using Urine to Grow Plants'; there is a website for the book which has lots of good addition information (I love the heading at the top for 'Pee on Earth Day')
Bill Talen (aka Reverend Billy), What Would Jesus Buy?--A collection of sermons against consumerism by the founder of the Church of Stop Shopping; yes it's outrageous, but maybe that's what it takes to get people to reduce their consumption

Quote of the day: "Nearly all of life's products, from tree trunks and deer bones down to insect wings and bacteria cells, are recyclable. Nature assembles and breaks down, dissolves and renews, using the same molecules over and over. She leaves no landfills and toxic dumps in her wake. In nature there is no such thing as waste. Everything is food for something else, connected in life and death to many other species." - Toby Hemenway

Friday, May 22, 2009

Emergency Medical Care

Similar to the situation with shelter, I am going to look at medical care in two installments.

Emergency medical care, while not a usual situation, is an absolute necessity when needed. In the section on security needs I will cover regular medical which, while important, is not a life threatening necessity.

Medical emergencies, by their very nature, are not predictable. Most places in the US and Canada, and some parts of Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand have medical facilities and trained personnel available in case of emergencies. But if someone is in a location far from help--or even sometimes when help is nearby but time is essential--knowledge of how to deal with an emergency situation is crucial. If the peak oil people are correct and much of our modern technology is going to disappear, these skills are going to be even more critical as we go along.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (known as the American Red Cross in the US and the Canadian Red Cross in Canada) offer courses in first aid and emergency preparation. In the US the American Heart Association offers trainings in Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and apparently in Europe this is done by the European Resuscitation Council. There is also training (often part of first aid or CPR courses) in what to do if someone is choking (also known as the 'Heimlich Maneuver' or simply 'abdominal thrusts'). Learning some or all of this might make the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.

FirstAidWeb--offers 'free' online first aid courses
The Hesperian Foundation, Where There Is No Doctor--a classic book with a 2009 edition (and some of it is available online through their website)--while it covers a variety of medical care there is a chapter on first aid that assumes there is no help nearby; there is also a chapter on situations that need special medical attention
Mayo Clinic, First Aid Guide--online resource
The Red Cross Store--offers publications on first aid as well as 'Emergency Preparedness Kits and Supplies'
Wikibooks, First Aid--a useful online guide

Quote of the Day: "It is not enough to say, 'Call the doctor'; a doctor may not be available to come to the scene of the emergency." - The American National Red Cross, Advanced First Aid and Emergency Care (First Edition, 1973)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Temporary Shelter

In theory, shelter isn't an absolute necessity. If the weather is nice, we could all sleep under the stars.

However, in bad conditions--when it is cold, in thunderstorms, or really bad hail, shelter could be life saving. Even when it is raining, it is a lot more comfortable to have some kind of shelter.

In this post, I am going to look at temporary shelters--shelter from the storm--as a basic necessity. In a future post I will look at permanent shelters, which supply security needs.

The simplest shelter is a cave--an opening in the rocks on the side of a hill or mountain. In a storm you could take shelter there--and hope that you were the only creature doing so.

The simplest human created temporary shelter is probably a makeshift tent. String a rope between two trees and sling a canvas over it. Tents can be more elaborate than that and have been used by nomadic peoples across the world. Three distinct temporary shelters beyond tents are yurts, tipis, and wigwams (also known as wikiups or bender tents).

Yurts are portable, circular structures used all over central Asia, from Mongolia to the Caspian Sea. Traditional yurts are made of a frame covered with felt. They can be packed up and transported and are moved anywhere from a few times a year to rather frequently. This is very different from the wooden yurt-like structures that are found around the US, which are basically built to stay in place.

Tipis are portable cone-like structures used by Natives of the North American Great Plains. They consist of a cover wrapped around a series of poles bound together at the top. Tipis sometimes include a smoke hole and flaps at the top and/or an inner lining. The chum from Siberia and the lavvu used by the Sami people are similar in design.

A third style of temporary housing used by nomadic peoples across the world is what is called a wigwam or wickiup by Native American peoples. The bender tent is a similar style of structure found in Saharan and sub-saharan Africa and used by Gypsies in Europe. All of these involve bent poles that are covered with brush, hides, cloth, or some type of tarp.

While North Americans tend to think of tents and other temporary shelters as recreational, for some people they are life saving. While I don't think that tent cities for the homeless are a solution to the housing crisis--closing them down (as some communities are trying to do) is adding insult to injury. Until permanent, affordable housing can be made available to everyone, often having your own tent is better than staying in a homeless shelter (if, indeed, there are even beds available). (I like the idea that homeless vets could be in a tent city tending vegetable crops while waiting for housing.)

Indeed, everyone needs and deserves permanent housing--but for sheer survival, temporary shelter can be an absolute necessity.

René K. Müller,'Simply Differently'--A website devoted to temporary buildings including tipis, yurts, and various types of 'domes'--with information on wigwams as well
David Pearson, Circle Houses--Lots of pictures of 'Yurts, Tipis, and Benders' with instructions on how to build them
Ted Rowlands and Wayne Drash, "Tents on wheels give homeless people roof and pride"--CNN story on a mobile structure called an EDAR (which stands for Everyone Deserves A Roof) created as temporary housing for the homeless
Kathy Sanborn, "Homeless in Tent City, USA"--Report on homeless encampments around the US, mostly in the western states

Quote of the Day: "Nomadic populations usually live in some of the most inhospitable and barren regions of the world and that is why they are nomads. ... Human inhabitants have little choice but to live off scarce resources. These are quickly exhausted, so soon it is time to move... People living in these conditions have to be remarkably ingenious and adaptable. This is shown in everything they do including the structures they build." - David Pearson

Saturday, May 16, 2009


I've already written about the rule of three in two previous posts (5/7/09 and 5/10/09). But the rule of three only covers air, water, and food. Survival without any heat is not something we'd be dealing with, since that would indicate a temperature of absolute zero. Therefore survival under conditions of cold (ie, freezing to death) depends greatly on the temperature, clothing, and body mass/condition. Still, if I could make a huge generalization, following the rule of three, I'd say that human beings could last three hours without sufficient warmth--which would put warmth after air but before water and food in terms of necessities.

The first and most important source of warmth for human beings is our own body heat, which comes from the stored energy (aka calories) in food, which ultimately comes from energy stored by plant which they get from photosynthesis. I was at a workshop on solar power a few weeks ago where the instructor (George M, a long time solar enthusiast--see his blogs at solarray and Daily Kos) asked how many of us now use solar power. Only a couple of people raised their hands. He announced that the rest of us were liars--we all use solar power; all of the energy that we use to live and move comes from the sun via plants (as I outlined above).

How much warmth do we generate? Considering the normal body temperature is 98.6 (Farenheit), a lot. The problem is that we lose that heat quickly as it radiates off our bodies. This is why clothing and blankets keep us warm: they hold in the warmth that is generated by our own bodies. In very well sealed and insulated buildings, the very presence of people can warm the building. One company used to have radio ads on ways people could stay warm and one of them suggested throwing a party with lots of people and everyone dancing and moving and giving off lots of heat. Since exercise uses more energy, you give off more heat when you are exercising (which is why you can feel hot running around on a cool day).

So a lot of the principles of staying warm are about conserving energy. I will talk more about this when I get to my posts on temporary and permanent shelter.

Since the sun is our main source of energy, it makes sense to talk about ways to use solar energy for heat. George, our instructor for the workshop on solar power, claimed that the basic principles of solar energy were easy: black/dark materials absorb heat, white/light/silvery materials reflect heat, and clear materials let in the heat but protect from wind.

The simplest device he showed us was a solar cloche that he made from old soda bottles. (He also made a video of it.) It doesn't warm us, it warms our plants--by surrounding plants with bottles filled with water. The sun heats the water, which slowly gives off heat.

A little more complicated (but not much) is the Windowbox Solar Air Heater that he's made from about a hundred dollars worth of materials (most of the expense is the insulation board he uses to make it). A bigger version of this could heat a house (and, in fact, we have a type of this on the house I presently live in).

These are basically examples of passive (with the exception of small fans) solar power. Passive solar doesn't use much in the way of moving parts and doesn't need mechanical or electrical devices to keep it going, so it's cheaper and more reliable--and lasts much, much longer than conventional or even active solar power.

One of the most important things to keep in mind for passive solar heating is using materials to store heat--this is known as thermal mass. It can be as simple as dark rocks or a dark stone or concrete wall that absorbs heat and gives it off later, when the sun goes down. (Things filled with water can work similarly, as in the solar cloche above.) Bioshelters (solar greenhouses) use these principles.

Solar energy can also be used to make simple ovens and cookers. They are being used extensively in developing countries, but more affluent areas may need to learn these tricks as they become less affluent. My favorite is making a parabolic cooker out of an old satellite dish.

The most common ways of generating heat (for cooking or keeping warm) in western societies is through the use of fossil fuels. Sometime electricity is used for this process, which is a very inefficient method--my rule on electric use is: electronics (computers, tvs, radios, etc) use the least, followed by motors, followed by lights, followed by heating--in other words, using electricity to heat (or cool) something is the least efficient way of using it.

Because fossil fuels are going to become harder to tap and more costly, I want to look at nonfossil fuel methods of generating warmth. One of the most common methods of creating warmth before the use of oil and gas (and still quite common today) is burning wood.

Henry Ford suggested you should “Chop your own wood, and it will warm you twice.” Although wood is a renewable resource, there are limits to how much it can be exploited. Forests have been clearcut for firewood. In addition, wood smoke contributes to global warming (sending carbon into the atmosphere) and can be a major air polluter. I remember seeing bumperstickers that said 'Split Wood, Not Atoms' in the Connecticut River valley in the seventies. It seemed unlikely that a lot of people would do that, but woodstoves did become popular. Twenty years later there were winter days when a haze of woodsmoke would hang around valley towns.

If you are going to heat with wood, try to use an efficient method. Pellet stoves generate less biproducts compared to regular wood stoves but wood pellets do release more particulate matter and whether they contribute less to global warming is debatable.

Another efficient way of burning wood is in a 'rocket stove'. These produce less pollution than a regular stove and can be simply made using low-cost materials.

Biogas is another fuel source. While typically thought of for powering vehicles, it can be used for heating as a replacement for natural gas.

Geothermal heat uses the natural heat of the earth (as well as the heat stored by the earth from the summer solar warming) to warm homes and buildings.

Compost heaps can also be used to heat greenhouses and other things.

It's strange to be posting on this as the summer is coming and it's getting warmer, but winter will return, and given the probability of rising oil prices in the future, we may all be looking for new sources of warmth.

Bruce Anderson and Malcolm Wells, Passive Solar Energy--Contains lots of information on solar basics, solar windows, solar chimneys, solar walls, solar roofs, solar rooms, and even passive solar cooling systems--plus cute drawings by Malcolm Wells--available from BuildItSolar as a free download--the BuildItSolar site also has a mammoth amount of information on do-it-yourself solar projects
Ken Butti and John Perlin, A Golden Thread--Solar energy isn't a new idea--this book documents '2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology'
eHow, How to Build a Compost Heat Exchange System--Step by step instructions on how to use compost to heat water
Franklin Research Center, The First Passive Solar Home Awards--A book from 1979--apparently there were no more awards--published jointly by the US Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Energy--contains an enormous number of examples of passive solar with basic diagrams for each
Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living--The chapter on 'Energy' contains information on creating Biogas, Passive Solar, and Rocket Stoves--and the passive solar section contains information on how to create parabolic solar cookers
Helga Olkowski, Bill Olkowski, Tom Javits and Farallones Institute, The Integral Urban House--Contains a chapter on Solar Technology that includes Window Box Collectors, Thermal Storage, Trombe Walls (thermal collecting walls), and using Attached Greenhouses--this book has been recently re-issued by New Society Publishers
Ray Wolf, Gardener's Solar Greenhouse--Contains step by step construction plans for building a solar greenhouse--may be out of print--check your local library

Quote of the Day: “Pour down your warmth great sun!” - Walt Whitman

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Food (Soil and Seeds)

I have already blogged several times on food, including a comprehensive post on Feeding Ourselves in the Future (7/24/08), which covered farmer's markets, Community Supported Agriculture,producer co-operatives, eating local, buying local, consumer co-ops, family run stores, growing your own food, container gardening, community gardens, and creating food systems. So what's left? Probably the most important and basic things you need to have in order to grow food: good soil and good seeds.

Soil is a living thing--filled with bacteria, protozoa, fungi, millipedes, and mites--not to mention earthworms and plant roots. Yet it's part of the earth, with sand, clay, and all sorts of minerals in it. And it is practically a chemical factory--filled with potassium, calcium, ammonium (a source of nitrogen), copper, zinc, manganese, phosphates, magnesium, and iron--mostly in the form of ions (positively charged particles).

Many people think the only difference between organic farmers and gardeners and conventional farmers and gardeners is that the organic ones don't use pesticides. But maybe the biggest difference is that conventional growers are concerned with growing plants; organic growers concentrate on growing good soil. Conventional growers see problems with the plants and pour in fertilizer. They think that they can outguess nature. They assume that the plant needs more nitrogen, or phosphates, and pour it on. Organic growers try to feed the soil.

There are several ways to feed the soil but two of the most basic are compost and mulch. Compost is 'waste' products, fallen leaves, rotting food, manure, etc. It is all mixed together and allowed to decay until it is a rich organic stew, known as humus, full of all sorts of minerals that support soil life. (The difference between the conventional and organic approaches is similar to trying to get your vitamins and minerals in a pill, versus getting them by eating whole foods.) Mulch is stuff (often organic) that lies on the soil, protecting it, keeping it moist, and cutting down on weeds. The best mulch often decays and thus turns into compost.

Another way to build soil is with 'cover crops'--some of which can be plowed back into the soil to feed it; while others (especially the legumes) host microbes which convert nitrogen into compounds (like ammonium) which then can be used by plants.

When you have good soil, the plants will come, but if you want to have more than a lovely looking forest--if you really want to feed the world, then you need the right seeds. Heirloom seeds are from old variety plants that have been around for more than fifty years (sometimes for thousands of years), many of which are in danger of being lost. Hybrid plants have been carefully cultivated, mostly for commercial success, and their seeds are useless and often sterile. This is why there is a movement emerging of people saving heirloom (and other useful plant) seeds.

Unsurprisingly, it's corporations that are trying to control the seeds, just as it's corporations that push fertilizer for the soil and pesticides for the plants. And when Michelle Obama planted an organic garden at the White House, she got a letter from an organization representing agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, and DuPont Crop Protection, expressing their 'concern' that she wasn't acknowledging "the role conventional agriculture plays in the U.S.".

I'm not going to go into all the corporate nastiness (which includes things like seed patenting, Roundup Ready seeds, and GMOs--Genetically Modified Organisms). It's enough to say that we need to take control of the use of soil and seeds, and take that control away from agribusiness.

One very creative, very noncorporate use of seeds is in making Seedballs (also known as Seedbombs). Seedballs are mixtures of clay, compost and seeds that can be used for Guerrilla Gardening. The Seedballs can be dropped or tossed anywhere there is dirt and don't need planting or watering. Vacant lots, abandoned land, and private lawns can all be reclaimed as green space--and possibly as food growing areas--although there is the need to be careful in case the soil is contaminated.

However, even if the soil is contaminated, there are methods of bringing it back--also known as bioremediation. With good soil and good seeds and a little gardening knowledge, almost anyone can feed themselves--and possibly others as well.

I'd like to conclude with Michael Pollan's advice on food: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." That is, real food, grown from seeds in the soil.

Stu Campbell, The Mulch Book--Mulching is a great way to care for the soil--and plants
Eliot Coleman, Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook--How to grow foods right through the winter by a farmer in Maine
'Heavy Petal', How to make seedballs--Instructions for making Seedballs/Seedbombs
Todd Hemenway, Gaia's Garden--Good book on Permaculture and ecological design. Has an excellent chapter on 'Bringing the Soil to Life' that includes information on the biology and chemistry of soil, on composting, on sheet mulching, and on cover crops
John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables--A book on Biointensive food growing which has a chapter on 'Building Soil, Building the Future' and another on 'Seed Propagation'--plus lots of good information on food gardening
Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living--Has a chapter on 'Food' which includes tree crops, aquaculture, and mushroom cultivation; it also has a detailed chapter on 'Bioremediation'
Seed Savers Exchange--"...a non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds."
Self Watering Container Instructions--How to make a container that holds water and slowly waters whatever is growing in it
Vandana Shiva, various books including Biopiracy, Stolen Harvest, Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, and Soil not Oil--She has lots of information on how corporations are trying to control seeds and the soil
J Russell Smith, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture--A classic from 1929 that was one of the sources of Permaculture. Has lots of information on acorns and nuts as food and includes a picture of muffins baked from acorn flour
Starhawk, The Earth Path--Contains a chapter on 'Earth' which includes The Cycle of Rock to Life and Seeds in Jeopardy as well as information on composting, sheet mulching, worms, and fungi; also has a chapter on 'Seeds and Weapons' which talks about corporate control of agriculture and features a story about Seedballs

Quote of the Day: "Agricultural soil should have 600 million bacteria in a teaspoon. There should be approximately three miles of fungal hyphae in a teaspoon of soil. There should be 10,000 protozoa and 20 to 30 beneficial nematodes in a teaspoon of soil. ...
"There should be roughly 200,000 microarthopods in a square meter of soil to a 10-inch depth. All these organisms should be there in a healthy soil." - Elaine Ingham

Sunday, May 10, 2009


I mentioned the rule of three in my last post: you can only live 3 minutes without air, you can live 3 days without water, and you can live 3 weeks without food. Therefore I'm covering the first three needs in that order: Air, Water, and Food.

We are surrounded by water, most of our body is made of water, and most of what we eat is mostly water. Water, water everywhere.

But most of the water on this planet isn't drinkable. The majority of it is seawater. As Toolbox points out: "Only 2.5 percent of that water is fresh (non-salt) water. Of that fresh water, 69.5 percent is inaccessable for human use, locked in glaciers and permafrost." And many of our water supplies have become contaminated. While there has been significant clean-up of that pollution in the developed world, in developing countries manufacturing processes (moved 'overseas' from developed countries) have poisoned their waters--a case of simply shifting the problem.

But the biggest threat to water is the attempt by corporations to 'privatize' it. Yes, they want to claim they own the water so that they can sell our waters to us. This is already happening in third world countries.

What can we do? One first step is to not buy bottled water. Unless your local water supply is really polluted, drink tap water or well water.

And drink water, rather than soda--or even fruit juice.

Another thing you can do is collect rainwater. There are several sources (Toolbox, below, has a good section on it) that tell you how to set up rainbarrels. You can make your own or buy them. (My city just had a day where we could buy the barrels at a nice discount.) While most sources (including the company I just bought a barrel from) will tell you to just use them for gardening, Toolbox discusses possibilities of ways to use them to collect drinking and washing water.

Something else to look at for gardening, is using 'graywater'. Graywater (sometimes spelled 'greywater') is water that has been used for doing dishes, washing your hands, washing clothes, or bathing. Basically, it's any waste water other than from your toilet. (The waste water from your toilet is called 'blackwater'.) Instead of letting this water go into your sewers or septic systems, it can be used for gardening. The little bits of food and biodegradable soap are likely to nourish food, but if you are concerned with what is in the water you can create what are called 'Constructed Wetlands'--artificial streams and ponds that purify the water. More intensive Constructed Wetlands are being used for natural sewage treatment. John Todd (who used to be with the New Alchemy Institute) has created what he calls Eco-Machines (also known as Living Machines), constructed wetland systems that can purify wastewater from anything from a highway reststop to entire city.

Finally, an important thing to learn is where your drinking water comes from. Most of us live in the catchment/drainage area of a major river. Learning what that is, where your water comes from, and where the water goes to is what Peter Warshall refers to as 'Watershed Consciousness'. Just as it is important to know that food comes from the soil (see my next post) before it goes to your supermarket, it's also important to realize that water doesn't just come from a tap.

Todd Hemenway, Gaia's Garden--Includes a chapter on Catching, Conserving, and Using Water that has information on Water-Harvesting, Using Greywater, and Creating a Backyard Wetland
Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living--Has a chapter on Water that includes Rainwater Collection and Water Purification; they also have a section on Wastewater Recycling in their chapter on Waste that includes an overview of Constructed Wetlands
Kevin Kelly, "The Big Here Quiz"--This is taken from Peter Warshall's work and includes all sorts of questions concerning Watershed Consciousness and Bioregional Awareness
Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit--Good book on privitization of water and what she calls 'Water Democracy'. She lists Nine Principles of Water Democracy which include "Water is essential to life" and "Life is interconnected through water". There are online excerpts from the book.
Starhawk, The Earth Path--Contains a chapter on Water with information on Water Cycles, water conservation, and water privitization. Starhawk's website has information on the Cochabamba Declaration written by Bolivians who fought against Bechtel's attempt to privatize their water.
John Todd's Eco-Machines--gives an overview and some pictures of the systems
Peter Warshall, "Watershed Consciousness", in CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter 1976/77--
The original edition is out of print, but you can buy an 'eBook' PDF version for $2 from the Whole Earth Magazine website
Wikipedia articles on Constructed Wetlands and Living Machines--which includes the locations of some of these Living Machines/Ecomachines

Quote of the Day: "Watersheds are our energy mediators. They are our life support. They provide for ecosystem support." - Robert Curry

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I've read about what's called the rule of three: we can last 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, but only 3 minutes without air. That's why I'm covering our need for air first.

The air is everywhere and we don't usually think about it.

But we do pollute it. Smog is created by our manufacturing processes, as is climate change.

Oxygen is less than 21% of our atmosphere (nitrogen is over three-quarters of it), but that's the most important element for human life. We want more oxygen in our life and less carbon dioxide (which is one of the principle causes of global warming). Fortunately green plants take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen--at least when they are in sunlight. Not only that, but the leaves of plants and trees filter toxins out of the air.

So one quick solution to protecting the atmosphere and stopping global warming is having more plants. I think that cities--which are filled with buildings with flat roofs--should make a priority of 'green roofing'. Grow as many plants as you can, whatever way that you can.

Plants are also an important part of purifying the air inside buildings. As we 'airseal' more buildings to save energy and cut heating costs, we create airtight buildings that too often become 'sick buildings' as toxins, mold, and disease germs accumulate. Toolbox (see below) says that the addition of any plants (and as many as possible) will improve indoor air quality, but they particularly suggest these plants as beneficial for removing toxins: Reca palm, corn plant, lady palm, bamboo palm, ficus/weeping fig, Boston fern, English ivy, mum, umbrella tree, and peace lily. A garden shop near me had a handout with similar information. While they included many of the plants above, they also mentioned a plant called Janet Craig (Dracaena deremensis) and the 'rubber plant' (a variety of ficus). They also had a handout on the best houseplants for areas that don't receive much light and 'Janet Craig', bamboo palm, lady palm, corn plant, and peace lily were also on that list.

Beyond growing plants, to protect the atmosphere buy less stuff. (The less stuff manufactured, the less toxins added to the air.) Reuse more things. Above all, boycott fast foods, especially hamburgers. Whole acres of the Amazon rainforest (which has been called 'the lungs of the world') have been cut down to create pastures for cattle raised for North American burgers.

Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living--Contains a small but comprehensive section on Air Purification.
Starhawk, The Earth Path--Has an entire chapter devoted to 'Air'; it includes a bunch of witchy, magical material, but also covers Microclimates and Global Warming/Climate Change. Starhawk makes a point of mentioning the reciprocal relationship between air and life: life requires air, but life also created the atmosphere we have now.

Quote of the Day: "Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air." - John F Kennedy

Monday, May 4, 2009

Looking at Needs

In a post that I wrote last fall (9/2/08) I talked about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Briefly, his list was:
  • Physiological needs
  • Safety and security needs
  • Love and belonging needs
  • Esteem needs
  • And what he called 'Self-Actualization' needs

A critic of his is Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, who has a non-hierarchical list of what he refers to as Fundamental Human Needs:
  • subsistence,
  • protection,
  • affection,
  • understanding,
  • participation,
  • leisure,
  • creation,
  • identity and
  • freedom.

As I look at Maslow's and Manfred Max-Neef's lists, I don't see them as that different. So I am going to start with what I will call M3N3: the Modified Maslow/Max-Neef Needs Notation:
  • Physiological/subsistence needs
  • Safety/security/protection needs
  • Love/affection/belonging needs
  • Esteem and understanding needs
  • Participation and involvement needs
  • Leisure/rest/recovery needs
  • Artistic and creativity needs
  • Identity needs
  • Freedom needs
(I think Maslow's need for Self-Actualization would include Max-Neef's creation, identity, and freedom needs.)

I wrote my own list of needs in my post of 9/4/09. I am going to integrate them in the lists that follow.

Let's look more closely at these needs. What do they actually consist of? Let me break them down into what I see as the specifics of each:
  • Physiological/subsistence needs
What are our most basic needs? (Even Max-Neef admits that these take priority.) My list:
  • Air
  • Water
  • Food
  • Warmth
  • Temporary (at least) shelter
  • Emergency medical care
  • Ways to deal with our waste products

  • Safety/security/protection needs
What do we need in order to be safe and secure on an ongoing basis? I think we need the following:
  • Land
  • Permanent shelter
  • Regular access to medical care
  • People we can rely on when we need help (a basis for community)
We also need protection from (and, if possible the elimination of):
  • War
  • Crime
  • Violence of any kind (including rape, verbal abuse, and any kind of intimidation)
  • Poverty (ie, a situation where we can't get our needs met)
  • Pollution
  • Inequalities of all kinds

  • Love/affection/belonging needs
What do we need to feel loved and connected?
  • Touch and affection (sex is in here, but also nonsexual connection)
  • Intimacy (a special closeness--sometimes physical, sometimes emotional)
  • Friendship (people we can count on)
  • Family (people we define as family--supportive people that we can communicate with)
  • Community (a group of people where we belong)
  • Social Gatherings

  • Esteem and understanding needs
What do we need so we feel respected and understood, as well as being able to understand others and the world?
Esteem includes:
  • Self-esteem and self-respect, a sense of confidence
  • Respect from others (To be accepted and valued by others)
  • Respect for others
  • A sense of achievement, a feeling of being useful
This also includes systems of:
  • Education and
  • Communication

  • Participation and involvement needs
In order to feel useful, we need to be useful and in order to do that we need:
  • Meaningful work
  • Energy to accomplish the work
  • Organization (people willing to do the work and willing to work together)
  • Transportation
  • Trade (of some sort)

  • Leisure/rest/recovery needs
What do we need to keep going?
  • Time for (and a safe place to) sleep
  • Recuperation time
  • Healing time
  • Connections with nature
  • Spiritual connections
  • Challenging (non-work) activities

Finally, I think the last three are single focused and self-explanatory (the Self-Actualization needs):
  • Artistic and creativity needs
  • Identity needs
  • Freedom needs

I intend to do a post on each of these specific needs, outlining what we need of each and how we can meet those needs. That's forty-three more posts. There is the next segment of this blog.

Quote of the Day: “Keep high aspirations, moderate expectations, and small needs...” - William Howard Stein

Friday, May 1, 2009


It's the beginning of May. Pagans and witches celebrate this time of the year as Beltaine. Beltaine is one of the two pivot points of the year; the other is Samhain. (See my post of 11/1/08 for more about Samhain.) Where Samhain is about death, darkness, and decay, Beltaine is about life, love, and lust, about flowers and fertility. Beltaine is about joy, sillyness, dancing, and above all, living, breathing, flowing, flowering life. Beltaine is teaming with life, bursting with life.

Taking advantage of this amazing point in the year, I want to introduce a few new things.

The first is the subject of the next segment of this blog. I want to look at what people actually need and how we can meet those needs. I know I've looked at this before, particularly in the first segment of my blog. But the emphasis then was about cutting down on consumerism--which is something that I still believe in. But now I want to look at needs from the point of view of building a simple, egalitarian, cooperative, and sustainable society--particularly one facing the challenges of peak oil/everything, climate change, and economic uncertainty. What is it that we actually need to survive? What do people need in order to thrive? And how can we meet those needs, simply and sustainably? So for the next few months, I am going to look at human needs in detail--as a way to give us the tools to build, create, nurture a new society. Yes, another world is possible. Now we are going to focus on how to build it.

As an experiment, I am going to try posting every three days. I'll see if that's too much given all I hope to do this summer--so the posting schedule is subject to change with very little (if any) notice.

And I have an announcement. As of June 21st (the first anniversary of this blog) I will be publishing a 'zine', a small publication basically printing out my posts from a year ago. I'm calling it Bodhisattva Revolutionaries and Social Alchemists, the name I originally had for a book I wanted to write. That book became this blog and now this blog is becoming a zine. 'Volume One' will be entitled 'Some Theory'. Spirit Mover Enterprises has agreed to distribute it. The only thing new in the zine will be an introduction, the cover (with Audre Lorde, Emma Goldman, and Malcolm X drawn as superheroes by an artist I know named Cam Wilder), and a few things in the back pages.

Why reprint this blog as a zine? Mostly I hope to reach a different audience. Young people, for example, who are the prime readers of zines. Also, I have friends that dislike computers and there are others I know that might like using them but don't enjoy reading long pieces on a screen. And, of course, there are all those people who don't have a computer because they can't afford one. All these people may be more likely to read my ideas in a zine. And maybe, hopefully, someone will just stumble upon my zine and find it useful.

And if you, or someone you know, wants a copy, you can send a check (made out to Spirit Movers Enterprises) for $2.50 (which includes postage) to MoonRaven, c/o Spirit Movers Enterprises, 50 Churchill Ave., #320, Cambridge, MA 02140 and I will gladly send the first issue to you as soon as it's published. (Incidentally, that is not my address--Spirit Movers Enterprises has kindly agreed to distribute my zine and forward any mail to me.) Bodhisattva Revolutionaries and Social Alchemists will be filled with information (over seventy pages worth). With this zine in hand, if and when the internet crashes or goes away, you can still enjoy my thoughts on social change, love and compassion, peak oil, bonobos, and complexity theory.

Meanwhile: Enjoy the warmth. Enjoy the flowers. Enjoy the spring. Enjoy life.

Quote of the Day: "It begins in spring. ... The gentle warm rays of the Sun provide quickening, urging barren trees to turn green with baby blossoms. Their fragrance perfumes the air.
"We inhale this scent and the waters of our bodies begin to bubble. ... Love is what we are seeking. Love in all its forms: love of Life, love of Earth, love of self, friend, and mate. ...all of us--plant, animal, and human--respond to the bubbling fertility of Earth, the hunger for Birth." - Luisah Teish