Monday, November 30, 2009

The Scale of Ecology

An exceptional example of incorporating sustainability in all of its aspects is being implemented by the CGH Earth Resorts in southern India. It addresses not only low-impact principles of living within the ability of the land to support human occupation, but also includes local food supply sources, social capital and natural capital. This comprehensive approach to sustainability is modeled on a system that is appropriately scaled to its local ecology and its community, as I discussed earlier as a "regenerative approach".

This chain of resorts has received awards and commendations for its approach to eco-tourism, setting a very high bar for its development and preservation of local culture and ecology. The resorts consist of seven developments that are recycled or native construction materials, provide local food, captured rainwater supply, recycled water supply (for garden watering) and captured methane for cooking gas in the case of Coconut Lagoon.

At the Coconut Lagoon resort in Kumarakom, Kerala, it begins with the Vechoor Cow. This is a rare breed of Bos indicus cattle that was nearly bread to extinction by cross-breeding with larger cow varieties that produce more milk. It's the smallest breed but a real efficient cow, producing a better volume of milk relative to the food it consumes, which happens to be the lawn on the property. The milk from this cow is used in traditional Ayuervedic medicine, and thus provides an incentive for protection of this native species and its biodiverse habitat. Not to mention that the waste recycling process doesn't work without the facilitation of its dung in order to "boost" the digestion process in the recycling tank that produces the methane used for cooking in the staff kitchen.

The water reclamation process begins with rainwater harvesting from the roofs, which is channeled to holding ponds for treatment and subsequent tank holding for supply of the water in the resort. There's sufficient water for all uses, but this is achieved by conservation principles of low water use by the staff and by guests. This manages to include a pool as well as adequate shower facilities. No bathtubs, however, since they're not necessary in a place where Ayurevedic medicines and massage therapies are available on an almost constant basis, including a resident physician. The staff is from the local community, which is an important aspect of partnership values in the social capital component of sustainability.

I found all of the CGH resort developments that I visited to be very well integrated into an appropriate scale of development that doesn't degrade the environment or destroy the culture. They essentially provide one of the best examples of living within the means provided by natural ecology, and minimize the "brute force engineering" approach to development by adapting time-honored local means and methods of living in these communities.

They have more information in their newsletter, "Earth Calling".

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Green Strategy

Archweek Green, an online AEC industry "green" newsletter (archives here), is posting weekly summaries on sustainable news to the entire industry. The latest discussion concerns pollution and greenhouse gasses, and they make a very clear and important point.

In cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we not only have to do a lot of things right - we also can't afford to do any big things badly.

This principle applies equally well at the individual building level. For instance, even a terrifically conserving net-zero energy building
can have a large effective carbon footprint in operation if the building is built in a location of geographically high vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) - otherwise known as a sprawl location.

These important principles and simple strategies are outlined clearly every week, with discussions related to relevant topics in the news from many sources. It's part of the Architecture Week e-publication network (digital publications to save paper) which tries to "walk the talk" in not only building design, but also urban design approaches and natural systems.

Sustainability is about the whole systems view of things, and this publication approaches it in that way very well. A bit of a contrast to the BD&C angle that the construction side of the industry tends to focus on.

And to clarify matters now evolving in the State of California, this does not include overriding community guidelines by using this concept to force huge housing developments into cities and counties all over California for private profit and support for the banking industry shell game. That's an absolute sacrifice of any conservation or sustainability principles, reducing it to act as a "cover" for overdevelopment.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

BD&C White Paper - Water Performance

A building industry newsletter, Building Design and Construction, has come out with another white paper in its excellent series on sustainability in construction and development.

Prefacing the introduction to the water issue, the statement is made that "the U.S. will be adding another 100 million to its population over the next three decades, adding further to water stress". This kind of single-line projection is not substantiated or connected to public policy which will likely change with respect to immigration, the single biggest factor in US population change. Like California's RHNA numbers, these assumptions are generated by paid consultants based upon a pro-growth scenario which is unsustainable in the face of the directly related impact of the carbon dumped into the environment at this scale. This is what happens when financial equities are generated by construction growth for profit rather than need or actual integration within the allowable natural scale of the environment; the disconnect happens both financially and ecologically. That ubiquitous yardstick of profit, GDP growth, relies on the production of more and more "stuff" regardless of the systemic risks that approach creates, driving unsustainable consumption for the benefit of corporations.

California, especially, is construction-dependent for its own GDP, which informs all of its regulation. To cite John Mauldin's latest financial newsletter (pdf format) about the Dubai meltdown, "
Construction and real estate were as much as 25% of the economy. Let's see. Large leverage with maybe $5 billion in interest in a $50 billion economy that is 25% construction? A construction and real estate-driven economy. A real estate bubble. Sound like California, Florida, Spain? How can this be a surprise, except that everyone expected big brother Abu Dhabi to pick up the check?"

Having said that, here are the Principal Findings of the Water Performance White Paper:

1. Virtually every region of the U.S. and parts of most states likely will experience water shortages in the next 10 years. Some are already feeling the effects of water scarcity.
2. More water is consumed outside buildings and homes—for landscape irrigation and cooling towers—than is used inside for toilets, faucets, showers, and the like.
3. Somewhere between 15% and 20% of the nation’s water never makes it from the filtration plant to the property line, thanks to our decaying infrastructure.
4. Manufacturers have significantly improved the efficiency of plumbing, irrigation, and water reuse technologies in recent years, but long-term conservation also depends heavily on how people use these products.
5. There may be limits to water efficiency. In some cases, saving water can lead to “unintended consequences,” such as pipeline drainage problems, health and safety concerns, and negative impacts on the environment.
6. Improvements in water performance can have a bonus: reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
7. The reuse of water may be “the next big thing” in water conservation, efficiency, and performance.

The direction the building industry is taking at the moment is to capitalize on conservation and infrastructure reconstruction. As it stands right now, it's still a brute-force engineering approach that focuses on existing practices rather than taking a long view of watershed management and incorporation, the means of obtaining the water sources in each state, and the potential for the design of projects that create more energy and water than they consume.

I think if we were able put a man on the moon forty years ago within eight years of making the commitment, we can design urban environments that don't consume natural resources the old way. Industrial society needs to give way to a synergistic approach that includes population management and far more return of resources to the natural environment. That presupposition that the human race has a right to devour everything in sight will necessarily need to be reversed, since that only leads to a dead end.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Ecology by the Numbers

The global system that we define as "ecology" is a complex web that is fragile due to its complexity, since a more interdependent system - or web - is less able to withstand external shocks than simple systems. This kind of systems view used in mathematical ecology is the basis of analysis that has gone on for several decades, and shows that systems have tremendous feed back sensitivities as they become more complex. Thus a grassland or savannah is more robust than a tropical rainforest, which collapses more easily under external stress, human impact, increased temperature gradients, and so forth. This is why forests - a highly complex and evolved system of life - turn into deserts.

A good discussion of mathematical ecosystems is here under "Science of Everyday Things: Ecosystems". It includes a discussion of Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel as an accessible narrative of how complex systems produce more varied and responsive opportunites for diverse evolutionary strategies and production of new advantages that can dominate the ecologies of simpler systems which are their precursors. At the same time, these more complex systems are not as stable as the simpler ones that they have emerged from.

An included excerpt on this page is from the Encyclopedia of Public Health: Ecosystems talks about systems stress:

Stress from human activity is a major factor in transforming healthy ecosystems to sick ecosystems. Chronic stress from human activity differs from natural disturbances. Natural disturbances (fires, floods, periodic insect infestations) are part of the dynamics of most ecosystems. These processes help to "reset" ecosystems by recycling nutrients and clearing space for recolonization by biota that may be better adapted to changing environments. Thus, natural perturbations help keep ecosystems healthy. In contrast, chronic and acute stress on ecosystems resulting from human activity (e.g., construction of large dams, release of nutrients and toxic substances into the air, water, and land) generally results in long-term ecological dysfunction. Five major sources of human-induced (anthropogenic) stresses have been identified by D. J. Rapport and A. M. Friend (1979): physical restructuring, overharvesting, waste residuals, introduction of exotic species, and global change.

A short review of Systems Ecology on Wikipedia outlines the nature of the study of ecological systems and how humanity is part of this living system and must work within the framework of its laws.

An example of simple and evolving ecologies is famously the Galapagos, which requires a pristine environment to maintain its balance. It's a fundamentally simple system that can't support the demands of mamillian or human life on the islands, but yet has a highly interactive marine and rocky shore which provided Darwin with his clearest resource for his argument for evolution. Most of the third world countries have populations that subsist within a very narrow range their local ecology, and subsequently are more balanced within the system, but not living anywhere near Western standards. In India, this is true of much of the rural subcontinent, with some very interesting eco-village developments being established that do not demand more resources for human habitation than the environment is capable of balancing. More on that in a later post.

Meantime, further resources on environmental monitoring and mathematical ecology are here.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Thanksgiving

Here in the United States we celebrate this holiday to be thankful to God, in principle, for the freedom and safe passage in the New World of the original Virginia colonists.

Here's what Wikipedia has to offer: Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving Day, presently celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, has been an annual tradition in the United States since 1863. It did not become a federal holiday until 1941. Thanksgiving was historically a religious observation to give thanks to God, but is now primarily identified as a secular holiday.

The First Thanksgiving was celebrated to give thanks to God for helping the pilgrims survive the brutal winter. The first Thanksgiving feast lasted three days providing enough food for 53 pilgrims and 90 Indians. The feast consisted of fowl, venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash. However, the traditional Thanksgiving menu often features turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.

And so we feast. But more interestingly, what meanings remain extant within nature, God and our current habitation of this country? The connection between man, nature, and contemporary spirituality informs our built cities, our commerce, our view of what the world should be and our role in shaping it. Or in effecting its disintegration. A paired article in the Wall Street Journal poses the question in the form of "Man vs. God", very intelligently argued by Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong.

But I think our world view is moving beyond this dialectical thinking and into an understanding of how the entire web of life and its critical biodiversity is linked, and informed with grace, leaving us with the large responsibilities of stewardship. Ironically, science and database analysis, the arts and religion are beginning to converge on a view of our lands and seas as things to be nurtured and worked with, not conquered. We're just beginning to see, and comprehend.

Such hubris.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Polar Ice

Flying back via Dubai from India recently over the polar route gave me an excellent chance to see the icebergs and glaciers from 40,000 feet. Emirates provides a great service and a bearable 16-hour flight which most folks use as a "sleeping car". But I had to follow the flight plan on the monitor and shoot a few glaciers and icebergs, the topic of some discussion on the change in the ice sheet in the polar region, particularly Greenland.

It's a marvel to see the world from this perspective, and hope that this will not be sacrificed to human encroachment. New studies and findings about the changes here present a real concern about the impact this will have on the global warming process. Ilulissat Icefjord, in northern Greenland, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the focus of studies on the impact of climate change in the arctic. President Obama has just decided to address the Copenhagen summit on Dec. 9, and provide US commitments to the climate change discussions, with the hope that this will spur global discussions and commitments to lowering carbon output immediately.

The monitor shot shows where the photos were taken, after a flyover of Iceland, approaching the eastern coastline of Greenland.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Whistling in the Wind

The Copenhagen meeting on global warming and carbon reduction is fast approaching in December, and the prospects grow dimmer for a deal. The world's top three carbon polluters — the United States, China and India — have not indicated whether their leaders will attend the meeting, and that could have a big impact on its chances of reaching a consensus on action, as this article warns.

This, in the face of documentation that this phenomenon has occurred three times faster than predicted, much worse than anticipated back during Kyoto which the Bush administration refused to attend. In fact, it's deteriorated so rapidly that some scientists are taking the position that it's now unstoppable.

Because these negotiations are driven for the need to protect economies and cash flows, they are not able to focus on the real issue of simply taking large-scale, effective action which would reverse our human environmental impact in time. If the global leadership is in denial, then the whole ship goes down with the captain when the inevitable takes place.

I wouldn't have wished this for the world, but now things will play out in a way that must necessarily restore these unbalanced systems.

Monday, November 23, 2009

UNpave the City

Our predilection in US cities for spreading asphalt and concrete everywhere is taking its toll. The New York Times talks today about how the decrease in unpaved surfaces - due to development - has led to dangerous sewage overflows during rainy periods.

But New York’s system — like those in hundreds of others cities — combines rainwater runoff with sewage. Over the last three decades, as thousands of acres of trees, bushes and other vegetation in New York have been paved over, the land’s ability to absorb rain has declined significantly. When treatment plants are swamped, the excess spills from 490 overflow pipes throughout the city’s five boroughs."

What this means for many older urban areas is a massive rebuild and configuration of existing infrastructure, transportation and public areas that is most likely beyond the budget capabilities of the old-fashioned industrial model of development.

This would then leave it to a new model of development that uses the arcology concept to build a completely self-sufficient project that incorporates its own waste processing and water conservation and reuse, and including landscape and natural terrain restoration. This keeps the load off of an aging municipal system and restores the ability of the natural systems to respond to weather and provide oxygen. This is beyond "Zero Carbon" models and part of the "Energy plus" model that is appropriate for large projects and development.

Urban reforestation and watershed restoration that brings the natural environment back into existing cities, such as UNpave, is another path that can balance human needs with the carrying capacity of the planet. For example in the picture above, the brick paving is perforated in several places with round green 'pockets', planted with pine trees and seasonal flowers. The trees, which can stand the extreme temperatures of Moscow, are reminiscent of its surrounding birch-pine forest. The designer, West 8, is based out of Netherlands, and is an urban design & landscape architecture firm established since 1987.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Glorious shot of Everest in the ancient Himalayas, clear and warm weather showing the pristine flanks of the peaks. Except - take a look closer. Down in the trekking and climbing trails, lots of refuse: discarded plastic bottles, sleeping mats, foil packets, the usual human refuse which marks the eons-old habits of instant disposal that informs many an archeological dig. Unfortunately this refuse is made of plastic and nondegradable materials that should be carried out under a policy of zero tolerance for refuse and waste, much as is done in the USA's Grand Canyon in order to preserve what natural properties remain of the ecosystem.

The roads and trails of Nepal and India are littered with refuse, particularly since the products of Western societies have invaded a continent that is not prepared for the onslaught of non-biodegradable or burnable materials. The enzymes and the micro organisms responsible for breaking down organic materials that occur naturally such as plants, dead animals, rocks and minerals, don’t recognise plastics and polymers. What formerly broke down quickly now lasts for hundreds of years, eventually breaking down into polymers that contaminate the biosphere by introducing hormone-disrupting compounds into the environment.

In a society where refuse (and corpses!) are burned out in the open, this creates serious problems of not just pollution, but a cycle of disruption of the food chain, ultimately concentrating at the top of it, where the predators (human, mammal and fish) concentrate these chemical disruptors and experience the effects on the endocrine system that create systemic disorders. With the understanding that cultural shifts are not desirable throughout the globe, and that local cultures should be presereved, it's imperative to respect the indigenous practices and not contaminate their environment with oil-based polymers. This plastic pollution eventually ends up in the Pacific oceanic landfills known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches; huge accumulations of plastic that ultimately end up on the shores of many countries and destroys life in the ocean and on the ocean floor. Banning the worldwide production of plastic bags and containers would be a very constructive first step.

One hopeful development is the production of biodegradable packages and products, using corn, soy, and possibly hemp-based materials so that these materials break down quickly and are beneficial to recycle or burn in the traditional fashion. Implementing a recycling system into a culture that is still living very rurally without any infrastructure is not a viable solution, so it becomes the responsiblity of the global manufacturers and the government to make certain that this problem doesn't continue.

It's disheartening to see this beautiful country begin to resemble the dirty highways full of trash that are endemic to Western culture, and to see that its environment is becoming irreversibly contaminated.