>by Peter Salonius
Culture Change (February 10 2008)
Editor’s note: The following essay by soil scientist Peter Salonius is Part One of his two-part series for Culture Change that bursts the delusion of agriculture’s providing for a large human population long-term. If after reading it you have doubt, read the scientific basis for it: the second part in the series, “Unsustainable soil mining, past, present and future”. (A version of the second part was published in the May/June 2007 issue of The Forestry Chronicle.) The author lives in New Brunswick, and he published in Culture Change in 2003 “Energy tax made easy: Modifying human excess with international non-renewable energy taxation” (see link at bottom). – JL
A growing number of media commentators, such as Allen Greer in The Australian, John Gray in the Guardian’s Observer and Alan Weisman in his book The World Without Us (2007), have begun to suggest that a world with fewer people would be far better placed to deal with climate change and the exhaustion of the dirty fuels of the industrial past. Many of them appear to think that high technologies such as nuclear energy and Genetically Modified crops in combination with curbs on population would begin dampen the environmental disruption that is becoming increasingly obvious.
However, the problem, as I have come to understand it, is even more serious than that visualized by these thoughtful individuals who are convinced that the neoclassical economic model of open-ended expansion and “so-called sustainable growth” is a recipe for disaster.
As we run up against all of the renewable and non-renewable resource depletons (Peak Oil, Peak Soil, Peak Minerals, et cetera) that will characterize the foreseeable future, we require an entire rethink as to how we do business, due to the fact that the human enterprise has been living on borrowed time for millennia.
After 44 years of research and thinking about agricultural cultivation and silviculture, I have reluctantly been forced (I am a passionate farmer/gardener) to conclude that:
Intensive Crop Culture is Unsustainable
Humanity has been in overshoot of the Earth’s carrying capacity since it abandoned hunting and gathering in favor of crop cultivation (circa 8,000 BC) and it has been running up its ecological debt since then.
William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel originated the idea of the Ecological Footprint and they appear to believe (lots of publications) that the global human family overshot global carrying capacity sometime in the 20th century. Trying to get a perfect measure of overshoot is tantamount to “fiddling as Rome burns”. We know we are in serious overshoot and we know that the total human footprint (whatever enormity it is) must get smaller.
I am convinced that we begin unsustainable resource depletion (overshoot) as soon as we use (and become dependent upon) the first unit of any non-renewable resource or renewable resource used unsustainably whose further use becomes essential to the functioning of society, such as:
The First Tonne of Coal
The First Litre of Oil
The First Kilogram of Fissionalbe Uranium
The First Barrel of Fossil Water for Irrigation – and
The First Hectare of Formerly Nutrient Conservative Native Forest, or Grassland/Praire Plowed
This last category of unsustainable renewable resource depletion (excessive leaching/export of plant nutrients from arable soils associated with most agricultural practice, and more recently also with harvesting of nutrient-rich forest biomass) has been looming over us, unseen, for 10,000 years. We can expect that it will catch up with us shortly because most of us are dependent on foodstuffs produced by unsustainable farming, and fiber produced by unsustainable forestry.
Recent visions, such as that put forward by the Post Carbon Institute’s Relocalization program, of a fabric of local food and biofuel systems, revitalization of local industry, and community cooperation are good first steps that recognize global trade will wane as fossil fuel depletion gains momentum. They are also an attempt to wean humanity off industrial food production that treats soil as a medium for fertilizer-dependent hydroponic agriculture, and simply a substrate to stand plants up in. These are people who are interested in popularizing organic agriculture, solar powered tractors et cetera that will make local economies more self-sufficient.
However, these alterations are still tied to Agriculture as a food production system – as they must be in the short term.
All agriculture depends on the replacement of complex, species diverse, self-managing, nutrient conservative, natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems with monocultures or “near monocultures” of food crop plants that rely on intensive management. The simple shallow rooting habit of food crops and the requirement for bare soil cultivation produces soil erosion and plant nutrient loss far above the levels that can be replaced by microbial nitrogen fixation, accumulation of volcanic dust, and the weathering of minerals (rocks and course fragments) into active soils and plant-available soluble nutrients such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium.
Under regimes dominated by complex, species-diverse, self-managing, nutrient- conservative, natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems, erosion rates of soil mass are minimal, and the diverse and deep structure of the below-ground rooting community, and its microbial associates, makes the escape of plant nutrients entrained in downward- moving drainage (leaching) water to the ocean very difficult.
Our ultimate goal, as we attempt to achieve a sustainable human culture on Earth, must be to move toward the sustainable exploitation of complex, species-diverse, self-managing, nutrient-conservative, natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems at rates that do not cause the loss of physical soil mass or plant nutrient capital any faster than they can be replaced by biological and weathering processes.
Obviously, as we move back toward a solar-energy dependent natural economy, we will no longer be able to run the massive ecological deficits that temporary fossil and nuclear fuel availability have allowed.
Just as obviously the “solar-energy dependent economy” will not support the human numbers that have been able to exponentially increase slowly as a result of agricultural mining of soil nutrient stores for the last 10,000 years, and rapidly because of the availability of non-renewable fossil and nuclear energy subsidies during the last 250 years.
In order to lower the human population to levels supportable by sustainable exploitation of complex, species-diverse, self-managing, nutrient-conservative, natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems we must begin to reestablish these natural ecosystems on lands that have historically been increasingly devoted to intensive cultivation during our agricultural past.
The best suggestion so far to produce Rapid Population Decline (RPD) is for the collective global human family to adopt a One Child Per Family (OCPF) “modus operandi / philosophy”. Even with general acceptance of RPD and OCPF, the human population decrease that is necessary to achieve a sustainable solar energy-dependent culture, will take several centuries.
As human numbers are contracting/shrinking under a OCPF/RPD scenario, the extant population will insist on being properly nourished – and the only way we can produce enough food for them is by agricultural means that will further deplete the arable soils on the planet.
During the centuries of transition, as we move toward a solar-dependent culture that again sustainably exploits complex, species-diverse, self-managing, nutrient-conservative, natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems, we should be exercising as responsible an agriculture as possible on the shrinking arable land-base upon which it is still practiced. During this transition, the growing portion of the arable land base that is abandoned will rapidly revert toward natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems as soon as we cease cultivating it.
Part Two in this series by Peter Salonius: “Unsustainable soil mining, past, present and future” culturechange.org/cms
Read Peter Salonius’s idea for cutting back on fossil energy consumption, using what he calls a market alternative to rationing Energy tax made easy: “Energy tax made easy: Modifying human excess with international non-renewable energy taxation”
Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/index.html
>A journey through the American cloaca
by Frederick Kaufman
Harper’s Magazine (February 2008)
In 1998, John Brunston bought a house in Yorktown Heights, a suburb of New York City. His wife decorated bedrooms for their three daughters, and Brunston planted a cherry tree and an American flag. Then-came the spring rains, and Brunston discovered a dark fountain of human waste bubbling up from his back yard.
He did everything he could to stop the sickening flow. He consulted engineers, installed a new septic tank, purchased sump pumps, dumped ton after ton of fresh soil over the ooze. He spent tens of thousands of dollars, but the evil-smelling gloop still percolated to the surface.
Brunston lives in a densely populated, well-established neighborhood. He should not have to use a septic tank. His waste should flow into the underground pipe that lies no more than thirty feet from his front door, and that pipe should carry the Brunston family waste far from the Brunston family home. But neither John Brunston nor anyone else on this lovely block of Yorktown Heights can hook up to a sewer, because the sewers of Yorktown Heights are already full. In feet, they are running at 100,000 gallons of waste per day beyond capacity. So Brunston’s back yard must absorb Brunston’s waste. And it cannot.
Every day, America must find a place to park five billion gallons of human waste, and our country appears increasingly unable to find the space. Not surprisingly, the effects have been dramatic: the Colorado Springs Gazette reports that one Jennifer McCowen discovered a geyser of raw sewage emerging from her toilet. “I couldn’t believe it”, McCowen told the newspaper. “It filled the bathtub until it overflowed”. In southern California, where surfer websites post hourly runoff warnings, a paltry two-million-gallon belch will not stop a dude from his appointed rounds in the bays of Santa Monica or Hermosa Beach. But when an aging main in Oahu discharged 48 million gallons of human waste into the placid waters of Waikiki, residents were not happy – particularly not the one who fell headlong into the fetid morass and died. In Durham, North Carolina, sewage has reared up from the depths and gurgled across the city sidewalks at an alarming rate of once every eleven days. North Carolina has notched up more than 2,000 such spills, both urban and suburban, and the state of Oregon fined Portland a half-million dollars for sixty-seven overflows. Local newspapers from Tulsa to Allentown describe the same nightmare: Reeking goo invades family basement and living room. Unclear who will pay for the mess.
This sounds like a problem. For thousands of years, Homo sapiens flocked across continents in pursuit of bird, beast, and fresh water, leaving behind him a trail of gnawed bones and steaming waste. The moment we stopped removing ourselves from that waste, it had to be removed from us. Thus the origins of civilization; thus the glories of Rome, Paris, and Philadelphia; thus the horror of John Brunston’s back yard. A civilization that cannot escape its own fecal matter is a civilization in trouble – unless, of course, the uneasy relationship between man and his effluents can evolve. Perhaps we could bridge the chasm, heal the rift, transform the untouchable into something rich and strange and marketable. Or so I hoped as I toured John Brunston’s back yard.
The soggy lawn squished beneath our shoes, and I surveyed the wet grass with suspicion and growing anxiety. We smushed beyond the cherry tree. I kneeled in the shade, tugged at a tuft of grass, and the earth peeled back like a scab, releasing the dreaded stink. I recalled a report from the National Research Council, entitled Biosolids Applied to Land, in which the authors noted that “odor perception has been shown to affect mood, including levels of tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion”. Brunston smiled vaguely and asked that I not include his real last name in the article. He told me he was embarrassed about his house.
I poked a stick into the lawn. A slick of clay lurked beneath the soft soil, then a smattering of damp stones, then the terrible stew, I turned away gasping, profoundly sorry I had made the trip. Since infancy we have been taught to stifle our curiosity, programmed not to look. Perhaps there were good reasons for the repression and denial.
“Want to see the septic tank?” asked Brunston. We made our way past the lilac bushes and the bird feeder, then he pushed aside a cedar rocking chair, removed four paving stones from the patio, and set about unscrewing the white plastic tank cover. Instead of watching him, I gazed at the nearest pine tree. A rope hung from a branch, and a well-battered baseball hung from the rope. “There”, he said. “It’s full. Can’t digest any more.”
The white van speeded through miles of concrete tunnel. “The first regulations with respect to waste go back to the code of Hammurabi”, said Steve Askew, superintendent of New York’s North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, one of the world’s largest. “You have to bury your waste far from where you sleep”. And he gave me the look. Steve Askew never finished college, but that look had seen to the bottom of things. It was both spooky and intimidating, that particular look of pity and loathing the wise bestow upon the ignorant. He knew something I wanted to know: the ultimate fate of our waste.
“People wake up in the morning, they brush their teeth, flush the toilet”, said Askew. “They think it goes to the center of the earth”.
If you happen to live within one particular 5,100-acre patch of the West Side of Manhattan, instead of going to the center of the earth, your waste flows to Askew’s extraordinary concrete cesspit: twenty-eight concrete acres suspended above more than two thousand concrete caissons sunk into the shallows between the West Side Highway and the Hudson River. Constructed in the 1970s, topped by three swimming pools, a skating rink, and a carousel, North River cost the city a billion dollars, 100 million of which went straight into odor control.
North River is just one of New York City’s fourteen wastewater treatment plants, the first of which opened in 1886, along with the Statue of Liberty. These plants handle every conceivable kind of sewerable waste from the city’s eight million permanent residents, not to mention anything a commuter or a tourist might care to add. They separate the material that comes their way into solid, liquid, and gaseous parts, which they further subdivide into that which must be discarded, that which may be consumed, and that which someone, somewhere, might eventually be able to sell.
The substance that enters North River is mostly water, and the vast majority of that water leaves the plant after not much more than six hours, disinfected to the extent that it can merge inoffensively with the Hudson River. One flush on the Upper West Side at seven in the morning, and by three in the afternoon the water is back on the street, so to speak. What’s left over is a half-million gallons of concentrated daily waste, now known as sludge.
The white van had reached the end of its journey, and I followed Askew into an enormous room of computers, controls, workstations, and switches. Behind us flashed a wall-size diagrammatic panel, the great computerized brain of waste. Next to us stood the oiler, who had been at North River twenty years.
“Right now we’re at 135 million gallons per day”, said the oiler.
The greatest increase occurs between eight and nine in the morning, when the city’s output swells from seventy million to 150 million gallons per day. This is known as the big flush. Now it was 11:00 am, and in a few hours the circadian flow of biology en masse would begin to diminish, eventually bottoming out around four in the morning, at 68 million gallons per day. The rhythm is as steady as the tides. “The Super Bowl halftime surge is a myth”, said Askew.
He led me across the concrete floor, through a concrete warehouse, and to the concrete screening room, where he began to extol the virtue and beauty of his eleven-mile-long sewage interceptor. By the time the morning flush finally rolls into North River, it has joined the downstream flow of all the other morning flushes from all the other sewage lines from Bank Street to the Upper West Side, and sunk fifty-four feet below sea level. It is here, at the extreme low point of this immense underground current, that North River gets to work. In the stygian depths, its mighty diameter swollen to sixteen feet, the dark torrent branches into six channels, each of which must be pumped to the top floor of the plant, where gravity can once again take hold and set the outcast on a new journey.
Askew gazed into the inky pool of untreated wastewater and began to describe some of the marvels the interceptor had disclosed. Aside from the daily take of leaves, sticks, cans, and paper, the great rake had brought up quite a few vials of cocaine. When cops bang on the door, the toilet is a drug dealer’s best friend. Ditto for the professional forger: a good deal of counterfeit money has floated into Steve Askew’s hands. Twenty years ago a dog showed up, a living dog that became the mascot of a Brooklyn plant.
“I never saw an alligator”, said Askew.
As we walked away from the pool, I asked about the wind. No matter what the weather is outside, no matter where we traveled inside, the thick concrete walls of North River generated bracing gusts. Askew explained that every minute, titanic blowing machines inhaled 600,000 cubic feet of fresh air and exhaled 750,000 cubic feet of carbon-filtered, bleach-scrubbed exhaust – six to twelve complete air changes per hour.
But the scouring of North River’s halitosis, while essential to community relations, has nothing to do with the plant’s core mission. The alchemy of purgative transformation starts in the warmth and humidity of the next chamber we visited, where submerged chemical mixers combine the waste with custom-made bacteria. “It’s volatizing off! ” Askew yelled above the din of engines and bubbling brown water. Undeterred by the general uproar, Askew detailed the technical intricacies of fecal breakdown and development, but I’m afraid the cacophony blunted the nuances. So Askew dumbed down the lecture. “This looks really good!” he hollered. “Tan water! Light brown froth! Small bubbles! Musty smell! If the foam looks like chocolate mousse, that’s an indication of a bacteriological process!”
We headed to a low-ceilinged room so huge it did not appear to have walls. Here were the settling tanks, the final stop before the water returned to the world. Peace held sway among these last lagoons, and indistinct reservoirs misted into a concrete vanishing point hundreds of yards away. “On a cold morning, you will see the water vaporing off”, Askew said. “And it will rain inside the plant”.
He gave me the look. “When it is really cold, it snows inside the plant”.
At that moment, two square football fields of submerged jets spumed into the shadows and the bronze liquid arced, more sublime and terrifying than the fountains of Trevi or Versailles. Soon these waters would sluice down concrete courses to mix with the mighty Hudson. As for the remaining sludge, it also would depart, but by an altogether different route.
When the froth finally settled back into silence, Steve Askew backtracked through the concrete dungeons until we arrived at a perfectly normal conference room and a nice surprise – someone had ordered pizza!
Despite the skating rink and swimming pool, despite the bleach, the carbon filters, the white hardhats and the spotless lab coats of the technicians, despite the banks of UNIX-computers and the sober talk of asymptotes and oxygen demand, despite the boardroom-size wood-veneer table and the well-upholstered ergonomic chairs and the rush of 20,000 cubic feet of air per second, and despite, to put it bluntly, one of the most extraordinary concealments in all of human history, North River still managed to evoke unappetizing associations. But as I gazed at the cheese and red sauce and blackened crust, I recalled the words of one of the many wastewater professionals I had met that morning: “One of the things about the job – you still have to eat”.
So I sat down to lunch and learned about the glorious future of waste. Now that biochemists could scour the particles on the atomic level, the plant could recover ibuprofen, acetaminophen, endocrine disrupters, DEET, Prozac, and Chanel No 5. Even caffeine could be extracted from the mix, and I had a hunch the citizens of New York excreted boatloads of stimulant. Perhaps Starbucks would be interested. The technology was there.
“Twenty years from now we will be removing things we have no idea about”, said Askew. “Penicillin, mercury, heroin. Will this be a pharm business? An energy business? An agribusiness?”
He took another bite and delivered the look.
“A bear goes in the woods and it takes two years to decompose. We do it in six hours. In six hours, we imitate all of nature – from the big bang to the big chill. We’re trying to put it back the way that God intended.”
Throughout its long history of denial, waste has lurked behind countless appellations: egesta, dejecta, sham, stale, skite, dynga, ordure, oriental sulfur, occidental sulfur, and carbon humanum, to name but a few. Witches’ potions called for etihs; alchemists’ elixirs required botryon, aureum, oletum, or zibethum.
The rich and variegated literature of waste has suffered the same repression as the language. The Secrets of Physicke appeared in London in 1633, and enumerated all uses of pedung, but nothing more was heard upon the subject until more than half a century later, when Frankfurt publishers issued Christian Franz Paullini’s scandalous Dreck Apothek, in which the esteemed German botanist guaranteed a successful cure for “even the most difficult, most poisonous diseases and bewitched injuries from head to feet, inside and out, with filth and urine”. Dreck became the undisputed authority on all stool-related matters for almost three decades, until Dresden publishers brought out M Schurig’s vast and ponderous Chylologia (only five short years after publication of his equally vast and ponderous Spermatologia). Chylologia contained citations from nearly seven hundred scholars of human excrescence, each more unknown than the next: Sclopetarius, Goclenius, Spagyria Microcosmi, and Zacutus Lusitanus. To write about the subject guaranteed obscurity.
The sole American to contribute to the literature was Captain John Bourke of the United States Army. After Bourke fought in the Civil War, he traveled west to fight the Apaches and, generally speaking, keep any and all natives in line. Bourke got hooked on waste after he witnessed a Zuni urine dance in which a great olla of urine provided a “strange and abominable refreshment”. He must have spent countless solitary hours thereafter in the fort library perusing the secret ingredients of ancient sterility cures and primitive love philters. After a decade of scholarship, he emerged with the most thorough study of excrement ever published in this country, the Scatalogic Rites of All Nations. Bourke described the fecal practices of the Hualapai and the Navajo, the Tartars and the Fiji Islanders, the Egyptians and the Hottentots, the Samoans and the Bongos of the upper Nile. His sources ranged from Martin Luther to Montaigne, Moses, Martial, Marco Polo, Ezekiel, Erasmus, and Shakespeare. Upon publication of. his work in 1891, Bourke’s editors stamped the frontispiece “Not for General Perusal”.
The North River Wastewater Treatment Plant creates sparkling fresh, nutrient-rich sludge. In the old days, the night soil collector would spread such promising young shite on village crops, but in these days of refinement and paranoia, sludge requires a few more alchemical interventions and changes of venue. Thus did I find myself on the bridge of a sludge boat next to a potbellied man who swiveled his chair and checked the radar.
“We’re the secret”, said Captain Jonas.
Captain Jonas is from Flushing, and he was quick to tell me about the story he had read the other day that said New York City has the fourth-largest navy in the world. “For a municipality to have its own fleet of tankers is virtually unheard of”, he said. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the New York City navy moves New York City waste.
The boat plowed past the United Nations, and not one diplomat who gazed out the window could have suspected his part in our journey to the heart of darkness. Half a nautical mile below Wall Street we would hang a right, then head up to Harlem’s western shore. Our mission: to pick up a single load of 700,000 gallons of waste from North River and carry it to Wards Island in the Bronx, where the sludge could be transformed into cake. Melville once wrote that a whaling ship had been his Harvard and his Yale, which made me consider the pedagogical value of our prospective cargo.
The sludge boat stretched longer than a football field and packed two massive propellers, two titanic cranes, three thousand horsepower, and one frighteningly distended black rubber Goodyear hose, the diameter of which matched the length of my leg. We all knew what would go through that hose.
Captain Jonas pulled back the throttle, and the sludge boat quaked, lurched, and churned past the Statue of Liberty. “It may be shit to you”, he said. “It’s bread and butter to me”.
I asked him about the future of human waste. “You can divert it, but you can’t stop it”, he said. “It’s a problem now, it’ll be a problem in the future”. We bulled past Governors Island, which is rumored to have no sewage system. I asked Captain Jonas what happened to Governors Island waste.
“It drops into the Upper Bay”, said Jonas.
“Straight into the water?” I asked.
Now Captain Jonas gave me the look. “The ban on ocean dumping was rammed down people’s throats”, he said. “Ocean dumping was not the big, monstrous evil”.
“It was the best fishing ground”, lamented the first mate.
“Fifty years from now we’ll probably be ocean dumping again”, said Jonas. “This is cyclical”.
The great concrete mass of North River loomed ahead; and plant staff donned their hard hats and work gloves and readied themselves for pumping. Captain Jonas marched outside. “Right twenty!” he roared to the first mate. “Right twenty! Back ten!”
One of the onboard cranes lifted the mighty black snake, and the plant workers grabbed the hose, wrestled it into position, and gave the ready signal. Someone turned a valve. The hose jumped and twitched, the ship trembled with the force, and a sour smell began to rise. “Gotta go!” cried Captain Jonas. “Gotta go! Gotta go!”
As the boat filled with waste I descended the stairway to the main deck. One of the hard hats was embracing the rank and monstrous intestine, trying to hold the writhing rubber steady, and I gave him plenty of leeway. But after a while I stepped toward the hose, touched my palm to the warmth, and felt the cosmic surge.
The veneration of human waste boasts a noble history. Among the verdant passes of the Himalayas, intrepid Jesuit missionaries discovered cult worship of multicolored powders and hand-fashioned pills produced from the dried and pulverized ejecta of the Grand Lama, which the Buddhists wore as amulets around their necks. Some of the Mongols painstakingly packed the holy relics within golden boxes. Others consumed it as sacred snuff, still others as a rare condiment. “When they feast their friends”, noted one witness, they “strew it upon their meat”.
In the Scatalogic Rites of All Nations, Captain John Bourke wrote that in the distant past, “all excretions, solid or fluid, were invested with mystic properties”, an assertion that might go far in explaining why the creation myths of the Australian aborigines avowed that the great Bund-jil filled the oceans with his urine and the obscure deity Mingarope molded men and women from her feces. Of course, modern religion has long sought to expunge the ancient gods and goddesses who touched and ate and even loved ejecta. Consider Saturn, most ancient of the Roman gods, who was also known by the epithet Sterculius – as in stercus, or dung – god of the magical transformation of death into life. The great spirit of this original, unexpurgated Saturn inhabited manure. Aurum de stercore.
What could be more magical, more godlike, than the metamorphosis of that which we abhor and expel into that which we desire, embrace, and ingest? On the far eastern peninsula of Russia lie the snow-blanketed mountains, shooting geysers, and hot springs of Kamchatka. Like many isolated folk, the Kamchatkans retained their own particular worldview far past the time when the “primitive” had been drummed out of most of Asia and Europe. Of all the Kamchatkan deities, Kutka was the greatest. Kutka created the world and every living being – then fell in love with his excrement and wooed it as his bride.
Black magic hexes could be undone only by the potent charms of human waste. The exorcism rites of the Abyssinians demanded waste, as did the oblations of the Ojibwa and the Huron, the Iroquois and the Eskimo, the Mojave and the Patagonians. Alloyed with musk and ambergris and set smoldering, the acrid smell would have been recognized across barbaric Europe as holy.
The most worshipped and praised of all ancient sewers was Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, whose spirit resided within the shrine of the goddess Cloacina, where warriors came to purge themselves after battle and young couples purified themselves before marriage. The lovely Cloacina was an emanation of Venus, and her statue overlooked the imperial city’s sewer pipes as they transported 100,000 pounds of ancient excrementum a day. Built in the sixth century BC by the two Tarquins, hailed as one of the three marvels of Rome, the Cloaca became one of the city’s great tourist traps. Agrippa rode a boat through it. Nero washed his hands in it. “Thus may the greatness of Rome be inferred”, declared Cassiodorus. “What other city can compare with her in her heights, when her depths are so incomparable?”
The ancient doctors Hippocrates, Xenocrates, and Dioscorides employed plasters and poultices and styptics and decoctions of waste to treat holy diseases, such as epilepsy and mania. Physicians paid close attention to filth remedies for the plague and boils, headache and insomnia, dementia and insanity, not to mention anorexia, cancer, cataracts, convulsions, constipation, and freckles. Proto-psychotherapists analyzed melancholy excrements.
Like the Romans and the Moabites and lovesick maidens in France, the alchemists of Europe believed in the spiritual powers of human waste, which ranked among the strongest of all magnetic medicines. The great Paracelsus, father of modern pharmacology, kept a store from which he hoped to conjure nothing less than the philosopher’s stone. “Man’s dung, or excrement, hath very great virtues”, he wrote, “because it contains in it all the noble essences”.
Here are the ABC’s of Frederick Kaufman’s waste: It flows into a sewage pipe, ferments and settles at North River, then splashes through a black rubber hose. It takes a trip around the southern tip of Manhattan and up to the Bronx in Captain Jonas’s tanker, disembarks on Wards Island, then falls into a giant blue centrifuge, where it begins to spin, faster and faster, until it has become an incomprehensible blur at two thousand revolutions per minute.
I stood on the floor amid the roar of thirteen German-made Humboldts and watched as Joe Pace, a twenty-one-year Department of Environmental Protection veteran, turned one of them off and leaned down to scoop out a few tablespoons of black, carbony dust. The liquid sludge from North River had been dried and shrunk into fine gravel, and the smell was amazing. Overcome the repression, I told myself. Transcend it. Do not mind the pain.
Joe shined a flashlight on the cake, and it was blacker than black; the stink concentrated ten or fifteen times normal. Tears dripped down my cheeks. “It takes a while to get used to it”, said Joe.
He flipped the switch, and as the centrifuge started back up I touched the blue cast iron and felt the vibrations of the orbit, felt the warmth. Joe kept his cake at body temperature. He turned an orange knob, and clear fluid poured out the bottom of the tank and pooled on the floor, not too far from my loafers. He shined his flashlight on the discharge. “Not bad”, he said. “Pretty clean”.
A dark conveyor belt shuttled the black dust from the blue centrifuges to a weigh station. Every ounce of material had to be counted before it could be released to the hoppers. Somewhere, someone was keeping score. Joe led me to the giant, closed garage where we watched a fresh load drop into the back of an eighteen-wheeler.
“They carry twenty-five tons”, said Joe.
It did not take very long before the truck’s hold was filled, at which point a black hood automatically unfurled across the top. The truck pulled out, the eighteenth that day to nimble from the Wards Island dewatering plant and into the streets. No one would have suspected the nature of its contents.
I asked who ran the trucks.
“NYOFCO”, said Joe.
We left the garage and headed to the control room, where Joe explained the red and yellow lights of his mimic board and I nosed around until I found an old piece of stained paper Scotch-taped to the wall. NYOFCO, it said at the top.
Joe checked one of his screens and picked up the phone. “Be here in an hour”, he told me.
“Who will be here?”
“NYOFCO”, said Joe.
He turned back to the flashing mimic board and I to the stained memo on the wall. NYOFCO was the New York Organic Fertilizer Company, which was itself a wholly owned subsidiary of another company, called Synagro. And what was Synagro? In 2005, Synagro Technologies, Inc, somehow managed to sell nearly half a million tons of human waste for revenues of $338 million. The company did its business on a million acres of land in thirty-seven states, and had signed deals with six hundred colossal collectors for the drying, composting, incineration, and product marketing of human waste. The New York Organic Fertilizer Company was just one of many Synagro subsidiaries.
I asked Joe what NYOFCO did with my waste after they hauled it from Wards Island.
“They sell it to the Arabs”, he said. “It works in the desert”.
When I first set off on the trail of waste from the sewer to wherever it finally ended up, no matter how close or far away, I had believed I was Kurtz heading into the heart of darkness; but somewhere along the way I had morphed into Woodward and Bernstein, following the money.
As it turns out, the transformation of human waste into articles of commerce dates back to ancient Egypt. In the New World, Hernan Cortes reported that human excrement was collected in Aztec sludge rafts, then sold in the marketplace of Tenochtitlan. A seventeenth-century physician named Rosinus Lentilius recounted that the Chinese and Javanese exchanged human waste for tobacco and nuts.
Contrary to its name, waste can be useful. Human tyrd has polished gold, bleached wool, and helped produce salt and cheese. Innumerable tradesmen have used it to tan leather, adulterate opium, eradicate dandruff, ink tattoos, promote hair growth, and brush their teeth. Much to the delight of professional bakers, the General Homoeopathic Journal in 1886 reported that “chemists have evidently no difficulty in demonstrating that water impregnated with ‘extract of water-closet’, has the peculiar property of causing dough to rise particularly fine”.
In the early 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency began a campaign to acclimate US consumers to the commercial use of human waste. Touted as superior to cow manure and commercial fertilizers, ton after ton of EPA-subsidized sludge and cake arrived in low-income rural areas, distributed free of charge to cash-strapped farmers. The EPA knew the ocean-dumping days would soon be gone, knew that the future of waste would lie much closer to home. In fact, the Ocean Disposal Ban Act of 1988 specifically barred human waste from the sea, which meant a sudden need for more holding tanks, more solid-waste treatment plants, more monstrous black hoses, more blue Humboldt centrifuges, and entirely new industries.
Synagro Technologies calls itself the largest recycler of biosolids in America, the only national corporation focused exclusively on what has come to be known as the “organic residuals industry”, a market Synagro hopes will generate $8 billion annually. But it turns out that as the waste revolves, commercial opportunities abound. You may have given it away, but if you want it back you’ll have to pay for Granulite, Milorganite, Soil Rich, Vital Cycle, or many of the other wonder soils available from Agway, Home Depot, Kmart, Target, Wal-Mart, or your local purveyor of organic fertilizer. And that’s just the beginning. Some of the new breed of waste and pollution entrepreneurs do possess rather sinister names – Controlotron, MicroSepTec, Toxalert, and SICK, Inc – or even terrifying names, such as American Pulverizer and Annihilator. Not to worry. You can trust your investment in these little guys, because the big guys are in on it, too: Dow, Honeywell, Monsanto, Siemens, and Toshiba.
Now consider that the twenty-first-century waste-management purchase order will have to enumerate innumerable widgets, from mist eliminators to ozonators and vortex meters. How else to defoam, degrease, degrit, demineralize, desalinate, and deionize? We will have to purchase rotocages and rotoscoops, grit chambers and chopper pumps, microbubbles and floating sludge blankets. We will need plastic tubs of next year’s coliforms and designer slimes, floes, fungi, hightech bacilli, and superdeluxe electrochemical bacteria ready to power tomorrow’s superdeluxe microbial fuel cells.
The economic potential of human waste has driven new research agendas for toxicogenomics, odor streams, and vapor media. An industrial chemistry of coagulation and flume has arisen, a new biology of micronutrients, microspores, putrescible organics, and “the human receptor”, which is waste-speak for you and me. Will waste become an agribusiness? A biopolymer business? A pharm business? An energy business? Once everyone gets over the mental hump of cadaverine and putrescine, why not consider futures and options trading on the transcontinental waste exchange?
Just as the esoteric mysteries of Bund-jil, Saturn, and Cloacina have been vanquished by biocriteria, particle indices, and risk-management flowcharts, so waste itself has been monetized into anthropogenic input and the allochthonous organic matter source. The all-waste society masquerades as the zero-waste society, an antiseptic land where death itself has been transformed into biocide.
I stopped at the guard gate of the New York Organic Fertilizer Company, then pulled into a parking spot a yard or two from the murky waters of the East River. I got out of the car and took a deep breath. In order to grasp the future of waste, I needed to get past the middle managers I was about to meet here in the Bronx. In the next few hours I would have to make fast friends, then talk my way into an appointment with the big guy in Houston, Synagro’s chief executive officer. And that was far from a done deal.
A barbershop-striped smokestack towered above NYOFCO’s seven-acre property, and railroad tracks ran close by eight tremendous human-waste storage silos, each capable of holding half of New York City’s daily concentrated output. Before I pushed through the glass doors of the main building, I stopped to consider the corporate logo. Beneath smooth swirls and abstract arcs worthy of AT&T or Chevron glowed the Synagro motto: “A Residuals Management Company”.
I walked into the lobby and the now familiar stink of rotten cabbage, dead mouse, and feces. I stepped across the old linoleum to examine a wood-paneled wall plastered with the covenants that allowed NYOFCO to do what it did: chemical-bulk-storage certificates, sewer-use regulation amendments, wastewater-discharge authorizations, and a permit for a 10,000-gallon tank of sulfuric acid. I met John Kopec, fifty-nine, Army veteran and Yankees fan. Before he began at NYOFCO, Kopec worked at a cement plant for twenty-nine years.
“A process is a process”, said Kopec. “Both have to do with heat”.
As usual, the first stop on the visit was a plush chair in the conference room. A cut-glass ashtray sat between us, a Deer Park water cooler stood off to the side. Behind us the shelves groaned with white plastic loose-leaf notebooks, rubber gloves, and gas masks. John Kopec pulled out some samples of Granulite, the product he manufactured from New York City sludge. He asked me to open a vial of the pellets, which I did. He asked me to smell it. I did. Then he told me that the New York Organic Fertilizer Company could produce up to 2,100 tons of these kibble-size nutrient-rich human fertilizer pellets each week.
I nodded as Kopec reviewed all that had happened at North River and at Wards Island, and I smiled as he explained his own system of pin mixers, rotary dryers, purge cycling, and 1,000-degree waste-baking ovens. Kopec described air streams and gas streams, nodalization and cyclones, separators and regenerative thermal oxidizers, and the tale reached it’s climax when out of the last screener dropped the pellet I now held in my hand.
“The final product is pathogen free”, said Kopec, by which he meant no traces of meningitis, hepatitis, or malignant protozoa. No tapeworms, no whipworms, no oocysts, and no streptococci. “There’s nothing in this material”. said Kopec.
The first part of our interview had come to an end, and a tour of the storage silos was next. “Want to go inside?” he asked, and gave me the long-expected, long-awaited look.
I stood up, put on a hard hat, and adjusted the plastic goggles. We left the building and walked across the dirt straight into Silo 5. We stood in the middle of the great steel cylinder and stared at the steel walls, craning our necks to examine the steel ceiling. The vast silo was empty, washed, and sparkling clean, but its penetrating ammonia scent held us in thrall, as though the waste had permeated the steel. We reeled to the sweet-smelling Bronx outdoors and inspected some railroad freight cars, each of which could hold one hundred tons. Next to the tracks stood a ten-foot tank of frozen nitrogen that pumped gas inside the silos to keep the atmosphere inert. Waste is the stuff munitions are made of, every pile a potential explosion. The first World Trade Center attack used a fertilizer bomb.
A sixteen-wheel NYOFCO truck of incoming now approached Kopec’s plant, and we walked over to watch its reception. Of course, we could not see the freight, shrouded as it was beneath tightly battened tarps. An automatic door rose as the truck hissed and beeped its way inside the dark garage; then the door descended and Kopec explained that at that moment, out of sight, product was streaming into his plant. Then the door rose, and dripping from its hose-down the empty truck emerged and rumbled off. The process had taken two minutes.
As we headed back to Kopec’s office, I complimented him on his spotless grounds, and he beamed. A bright red apple shined on his desk, the fruit perfectly aligned with his cup of Starbucks and the pack of Utz potato chips. Pictures of the family stood between shiny model trucks and a box of Kleenex. Kopec explained that a new duct system was on its way, which meant the interior of the building would in a short time be untainted by the slightest aroma. It occurred to me the guy was a clean freak.
Where did the pellets go when they left NYOFCO?
Kopec explained that after the railroad cars pulled up beneath the silos and the dehydrated buckshot tumbled down, the waste headed to Florida, to fertilize our morning orange juice. But that was not all. Kopec described the Lehigh Cement Company’s Maryland plant, which used some of Kopec’s pellets – my pellets – for fuel. Burning waste did create a fair bit of ash, so Lehigh dumped the detritus of the detritus into the concrete mix. The foundation for tomorrow’s skyscraper.
“This is an amazing industry”, said Kopec. “We’re still in infancy. We’re exploring possibilities.”
The conversation had reached the usual endpoint, the dreamy future of waste. As if we just sat there long enough and thought about it, we would know. Would pellets heat houses? Light buildings? Fuel cars?
“They’re actually exploring it”, said Kopec. “Anything is possible”.
Finally, I told him about my wish to visit Synagro world headquarters in Houston. I told him I wanted to interview the CEO. I knew his name was Robert Boucher and he was forty-one years old, but that was it.
“He’s accessible”, said John Kopec. “If I need to talk to him, I can talk to him”. I looked at the phone.
I had vowed not to stop until I reached the end of the line and saw the circle close, the beginning in the end, but the closer I came to the redemptive moment, the more I came to realize that not everyone had been convinced of the miraculous future of human waste. From the Bronx to Temescal Canyon, complaints have arisen about a grave threat to nature and humanity. The citizens of Kern County, California, fought to ban the dumping of human waste, which the local Green Acres farm had eagerly adopted to fertilize the wheat, alfalfa, and corn they sold as feed to nearby dairy farms. No one in Kern County wanted to drink the milk that flowed from cows that ate the feed that grew from pellets that arrived from NYOFCO that came from Wards Island that emerged from North River. That had come from me.
Human waste is, of course, one of the oldest fertilizers known to human beings. But the future of waste must take into account a few salient facts: You and your next-door neighbor may be hooked up to a sewer, but so are DuPont, Monsanto, 3M, and your local hospital, which can make for some far-ranging effluvial consequences. Content surveys have uncovered dioxins, furans, and coplanar polychlorinated biphenyls, not to mention the germs of pneumonia and encephalitis. In 1993, the EPA assessed 126 “priority pollutants” in solid waste. Arsenic, lead, and mercury led the way.
And so the reported incidents of disease near fields of waste and the growing roster of men, women, and children suffering from blisters, boils, nose scabs, pleurisy, and fungus in the lungs. So the reports of hundreds of cows wasting away and dying on farms outside of Augusta, Georgia – cows fed from hay fields fertilized with the sewage of the residents of Augusta, Georgia. So the opposition to composting and pellet farming from such groups as the National Sludge Alliance and Citizens Against Toxic Sludge. So the Sludgewatch email Listserv.
Every year, America processes more than five million dry tons of sewage sludge. Much of it is slingshot into forests or injected beneath the surface of the earth, and the remainder fills strip mines and gravel pits or rumbles off to turf farms, aquafarms, tree nurseries, or state parks. Some of the waste creates the rolling greens of your local golf course, the fresh soil of your cemetery, the fertilizer on your front lawn.
Cows graze on treated pasture, as well as on field corn and sweet corn grown on human waste. And when a cow eats pasture, she also eats the dirt from which it springs. Sheep may ingest up to a third of their diet as straight dirt. Then we eat the meat.
The best and the brightest and the most intensively treated human waste meets EPA criteria for “exceptional quality”. EQ waste may be used to nurture such human-food-chain crops as beans, carrots, melons, potatoes, and squash. Heinz and Del Monte have taken a cautious approach and decided not to accept ingredients grown on land treated with biosolids. Then again, some organic farmers have reported that human fertilizer raised the protein content of their wheat.
It was eighty degrees outside and pouring rain as I took JFK Boulevard south to the beltway and headed toward the Galleria. I drove through the deluge until I came to Capital One and Texas American Title and the Bering Drive Church of Christ. I pulled into a concrete garage and approached a sinister monolith of a building, the top floor shrouded in mist. This was Synagro, home to the future of waste, and the tinted-curtain wall reflected storm clouds.
I stood in the silent, spotless lobby and admired the stainless-steel columns and the black granite floors. Absolutely no one else was there. I caught an elevator to the top and pushed through the double glass doors.
On the walls, Synagro displayed beautiful images of its product. One glossy color photograph featured the barbershop chimney of NYOFCO; another particularly strong composition centered a quaint red barn behind a massive Synagro composter. A framed certificate announced that Houston Business Journal had declared Synagro number 93 among Houston’s “Top 100 Public Companies”.
A secretary led me past a bowl of mints to the boardroom and told me to wait for Mr Boucher. The conference table here was bigger than any other I had witnessed in my travels through wasteland, and a wooden podium branded with the Synagro logo stood at one end of the long room, flanked by an American flag and a Texas flag. A large oil painting of seven horses presided over the opposite wall: not the faces of the horses, but their rear ends. Next to the painting, Lucite tombstones memorialized mergers and acquisitions, the corporate nuggets Synagro had digested with the help of such investment bankers as Lehman Brothers and Donald-son, Lufkin & Jenrette.
I sat surrounded by gleaming trophies, freshly cut flowers, a crystal vase of potpourri, and a good deal of human waste. Strewn across the table lay Ziplocs of contractor’s compost, soil conditioner, seed cover, landscape mulch, All-Gro, and Biogran. On the floor near the podium reclined a huge paper sack of “Hou-Actinite – 100% natural organic fertilizer”, with its logo of a golf ball perched on the edge of a flagged hole. My eyes lingered over a jar of pellets labeled NYOFCO. From New York City. My pellets.
About this time, Robert Boucher walked into the room – no suit, no tie, clear blue eyes, and a Starbucks of iced green tea. We shook hands, then sat in silence. I had less than an hour and a long list of topics to cover, but before we could get to my questions we needed Alvin Thomas, Synagro’s chief legal counsel, Boucher had insisted we have a lawyer present for the interview, and I had some suspicion why: aside from a variety of human-waste-related litigation, Standard & Poor’s had recently downgraded Synagro’s corporate credit rating on $287 million of outstanding debt. There was plenty to be paranoid about and, as it turned out, a great deal to keep under wraps. A few months after I left Houston, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, The Carlyle Group, purchased Synagro Technologies for $776 million.
Robert Boucher grew up in Dover, New Hampshire – “117 miles of sewer lines and one wastewater treatment plant”, he said. His father sold garbage trucks, containers, and equipment, and Bob worked summers for Dad, cleaning out used cans and repainting them. He went to Northeastern to play offensive guard but soon dropped out and went to work in the family business.
A company called American Waste gave him his first stab at management, and Boucher began to ascend the corporate ladder. He eventually landed a job at Allied Waste, one of the largest general waste companies in America. This was big-money garbage, and Boucher found himself in charge of $1.5 billion in revenues. After he’d spent a number of years at Allied, bankers came knocking on his door. They recognized a man they could trust with the future, and they made Boucher chief operating officer of Synagro. In 2003, he became CEO.
I asked how he perceived human waste in terms of the US economy.
“I think of it from the service aspect”, said Boucher. “Running my business as efficiently as possible keeps our shareholders happy. Our customers are happy. Our bankers are happy.”
But what about the actual substance?
“The material we handle is tougher than garbage”, he said. “People don’t want to think about it. When you flush your toilet, you take it for granted – until the day it comes back at you. Then you have to deal with it. When you go to the commode, that’s the end of the process for you but the beginning for us. We make it go away.”
I told him that Roman and Saxon soothsayers believed they could prophesy through the art of scatomancie. Like those ancient adepts, could Boucher analyze the shape of human waste and predict the future?
“We handle material that not a lot of people are interested in today”, he said. “It’s a blocking-and-tackling-type business, a plug-along. Very utilitylike. It’s not sexy.”
Clearly, Boucher was evading the question. He did not want to let on about the car fuel and cement.
“How about energy?” I asked. “When would waste emerge as an alternative to gasoline?”
He told me that in Europe they burn it, which produces the same amount of energy as slag coal. Maybe 5,000 British thermal units per cubic pound. Then he lifted the glass of NYOFCO pellets. My pellets.
“Let’s get our arms around this”, he said. “I can’t tell you this is an energy business, from the standpoint of reusable fuel. There’s not enough volume.”
Not enough volume?
Boucher shook his head.
That took a while to sink in. Not enough volume meant no filling up the tank. No lightbulbs, “No lightbulbs”, said Boucher.
But what about big pharma? What about DEET and Chanel?
He shook his head.
No penicillin recovery? No decaffeinated sludge?
He shook his head.
What about metal reclamation”? Wasn’t this pellet some sort of renewable source of aluminum and chromium?
“It’s almost a non-detect”, said Boucher.
Clearly, he took me for a fool. He had plenty of reasons to conceal what he and his cronies were up to. He was playing dumb, and I was falling for it. His lawyer looked up from his notes and waited for my next question. What was my next question? I checked the list. What about building materials?
“It turned out not to be so cost-effective”, he said. “Land applications have been done forever because they make sense”.
I demanded that he prophesy.
“How far into the future?”
“Twenty years”, I said.
“Everyone wants the black box to make it disappear”, he said. “But that’s not what happens. One hundred years from now will they have iPods that make pellets? Sure. Apple will have bought us. They’ll have tie vapor box”. Then his voice dipped beneath sarcasm. “Twenty years is not enough. Twenty years is nothing.”
And he gave me the look. Perhaps he was appalled by my ignorance, perhaps he didn’t care, but he understood his product and knew the notion of its glorious future was but another symptom of our desire to deny. Despite the primitive and absurd fantasy that we might refine what lay dark within ourselves and reform it into something fabulous, there was no glorious future of waste. There was only this world of shit.
I had no more questions but could not bring myself to leave. So we sat without saying anything for a long time. Eventually, Boucher began to reminisce about first-class travel across America. He flew a lot, and whenever he took his seat on a plane the small talk would begin, and the question would arise: What do you do for a living?
“I tell them”, recalled Boucher. “And inevitably they say, ‘Wow. What a great business.'”
Frederick Kaufman is the author of A Short History of the American Stomach (Harcourt, 2008). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Debbie Does Salad”, appeared in the October 2005 issue.
Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/index.html
>by John Michael Greer
The Archdruid Report (February 21 2008)
Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society
The Druid order I head hosts an email list for its members and friends, and the conversations there cover a dizzying range of topics. Some months ago, as I recall, composting became the subject du jour. In the course of the discussion, one listmember reminisced about the day she decided to marry the man who is now her husband. It was Valentine’s day, romantically enough, and he arrived with a very special gift: a new compost bin. Anyone might have brought flowers or chocolates, she explained, but the fact that he realized how much a compost bin would mean to her defined him, in her eyes, as Mr Right.
Nobody on the list laughed, because it made perfect sense to the rest of us, too. Composting is a curious thing; people get very passionate about it. In one of its dimensions, of course, it’s a simple, practical, and ecologically elegant way of boosting and maintaining soil fertility. Still, as I suggested toward the end of last week’s Archdruid Report post, it has other dimensions that go well beyond that comfortably pragmatic focus. I’d like to explore a few of those in this week’s post, because they offer a useful guide to some of the core elements of the ecotechnic society that could well be our species’ best bet in the postpetroleum future.
What makes composting such a useful template for an ecotechnic society is precisely that it highlights the ways such a society would have to differ from the way things are done in today’s industrial civilization. Some of the crucial points of difference that come to mind are these:
First, where industrial civilization converts resources into waste, composting converts waste into resources. The core dynamic of today’s industrial economies is a one-way process in which fossil fuels, other energy sources, mineral deposits, soil, water, air, and human beings, among many other things, are transformed into waste products – directly, in the form of pollution, or indirectly, in the form of goods and services that go into the waste stream after the briefest possible useful life. This same dynamic drives the emerging crisis of industrial civilization; no matter how much lipstick you put on this particular pig, a society that burns through its supply of necessary resources while heaping up progressively larger volumes of toxic wastes is going to run into trouble sooner or later. Composting reverses the equation by turning waste into a resource and meeting crucial needs – and there are few needs more crucial to a human society than food production – using wastes that would otherwise be part of the problem.
Second, where industrial civilization works against natural processes, composting works with them. At the center of contemporary Western ideology is the vision of progress as the conquest of nature, and this way of thinking has backed industrial societies into an approach to natural processes that sees them as obstacles to be overcome – or even enemies to be crushed. The result is the sort of massive misuse of resources visible in, say, modern agriculture, where conventional farming methods convert soil into something approaching a sterile mineral medium, and farmers then have to buy and apply an ever-increasing volume of fertilizers and soil additives to make up for the fertility that natural cycles in healthy soil provide all by themselves. Composting, by contrast, works because it fosters the natural processes that break down organic matter into healthy humus. There’s no need to add anything extra, or to go shopping for the lively mix of bacteria, fungi, and soil fauna that makes the miracle of compost happen. To borrow a Hollywood slogan, if you build it, they will come.
Third, where industrial civilization requires complex, delicate, and expensive technologies to function at all, composting – because it relies on natural processes that have evolved over countless millions of years – thrives on a much simpler and sturdier technological basis. Once again, industrial agriculture is the poster child for this comparison. Set the factory complexes, energy inputs, and resource flows needed to manufacture NPK fertilizer using conventional methods with the simple bin and shovel needed to produce compost from kitchen and garden waste, and the difference is hard to miss. Imagine that your small town or urban neighborhood had to build and provide energy and raw materials for one or the other from scratch, using the resources available locally right now, and the difference becomes even more noticeable.
Fourth, where industrial civilization is inherently centralized, and thus can only function on a geographic and political scale large enough to make its infrastructure economically viable, composting is inherently decentralized and can function on any scale from a backyard to a continent. Among the many reasons why a small town or an urban neighborhood would be stark staring nuts to try to build a factory to produce NPK fertilizer is that the investment demanded by the factory equipment, energy supply, and raw materials would be far greater than the return. A backyard fertilizer factory for every home would be even more absurd, but a backyard compost bin for every home is arguably the most efficient way to put composting technology to use.
Fifth, where industrial civilization degrades exactly those factors in its environment that support its existence, composting increases the factors in its environment that support its existence. In a finite environment, the more of a nonrenewable resource you extract, the more energy and raw materials you have to invest in order to extract the remaining resource, and the more of a persistent pollutant you dump into the environment, the more energy and raw materials you have to invest in order to keep the pollutant from interfering with economic activities. Thus industrial civilization, in the course of its history, has to climb a steepening slope of its own making, until it finally falls off and crashes back to earth. By contrast, the closed loop that runs from composting bin to garden plot to kitchen and back around to composting bin again becomes more effective, not less, as the cycle turns: rising nutrient levels and soil biota in the garden plot lead to increased harvest, and thus to increased input to the compost bin.
Finally, all these factors mean that where industrial civilization is brittle, composting – and future ecotechnic societies modeled on the composting process – are resilient. One of the lessons of deep time opened up by geologists and paleontologists over the last decade or two is that the Earth is not a safe place. One of the lessons that historians have been pointing out for centuries, usually in vain, is that history is not particularly safe, either. It’s a common lesson taught by all these fields of study, and more, that the intricate arrangements made possible by periods of stability tend to shred like cobwebs in a gale once stability breaks down and the environment (natural, social, or both) lurches its way unsteadily to a new equilibrium. In a time of turbulence, systems that are dependent on uninterrupted access to concentrated resources, unimpeded maintenance of intricate technologies, and undisturbed control over geographical areas of the necessary scale to make them economical face a much higher risk of collapse than systems that have none of these vulnerabilities.
Now of course many other sustainable technologies embrace one or more of these same factors. As yet, however, not many of them embrace all of them. Even technologies as promising as metal recycling – a crucial ingredient in any ecotechnic society, especially now that current industrial societies have extracted most of the world’s easily accessible metal ores from within the Earth – have a long way to go before they become as scalable, self-sustaining, and resilient as composting. Comparisons of this sort point up the way that such highly sustainable techniques as composting can be used as touchstones and sources of inspiration for a much wider range of approaches. Equally, of course, other technologies that achieve particular types of ecological harmony composting can’t yet manage – and some of those will be explored here later on – can become a resource for refining the composting process as well.
Still, as ecotechnic methods go, composting deserves a distinguished place, and as a source of inspiration and fruitful comparison, its uses are by no means limited to the purely technical. In Druid circles, at least, talk about composting almost always seems to blend practicalities with deeper issues. So far, at least, the romantic dimension of composting seems to be limited to stories like the one with which I began this post, but the philosophical dimension is always close by – as is the theological.
From the contrast between the monumental absurdity of industrial society’s linear transformation of resource to waste, on the one hand, and the elegant cycle of resource to resource manifested in the humble compost bin on the other, it’s hard to avoid moving on to challenging questions about the nature of human existence, the shape of history, the meaning of the cycles of life and death, and the relationship of humanity to the source of its existence, however that may be defined. The practicalities of composting can’t be neglected in any sense – nor, of course, should the romantic dimension, when that shows up! – but the insights made available by a philosophy and a theology of compost may yet turn out to be at least as valuable as either.
The Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books, including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.
Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/index.html
>In aboriginal languages, there are no possessive pronouns.
by Barbara Nussbaum
from Resurgence issue 221
In African culture, ubuntu is the capacity to express compassion, justice, reciprocity, dignity, harmony and humanity in the interests of building, maintaining and strengthening community. An Nguni word from South Africa, ubuntu speaks to our interconnectedness and the responsibility to each other that flows from our connection. It’s about mutual affirmation and communal responsiveness. It is about the self being so rooted in the community, that your personal identity is defined by what you give to the community.
‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am’ is a good example of the ‘self-in-community’ foundation that gives rise to sayings in Zulu, such as umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – ‘It is through others that one attains selfhood’.
Ubuntu is not a concept easily distilled into a methodological procedure. It is rather the bedrock of a specific lifestyle or culture that seeks to honour human relationships as primary in any social, communal or corporate activity. Ubuntu begins with simply knowing how to greet someone. Examples of Shona greetings (from Zimbabwe) in the morning and lunchtime would be:
“Mangwani. Marara sei?”
(Good morning. Did you sleep well?)
“Ndarara, kana mararawo”.
(I slept well, if you slept well.)
(How has your day been?)
“Ndaswera, kana maswerawo”.
(My day has been good if your day has been good.)
In other words, we are all so connected to each other, that if you did not sleep well, or if you were not having a good day, how could I sleep well or have a good day? This kind of greeting would apply equally well to a stranger one met on the road as to close family.
Ubuntu also translates into attitudes towards profit and wealth. In an ubuntu-based economy, the more communal person is prepared to give and share. The more that person does, the more she or he is respected. Africans believe that the only wealth is that which is shared and rendered visible to the community. The criterion for respect in a world that embodies ubuntu values would be how much wealth is shared with others and not how full one’s personal bank balance is.
Work in the African sense is not just a simple contractual relationship. The Nguni word for work is umsebenzi, which literally means ‘service’. Joining a company is seen as a commitment to a new community. Workplaces that embrace ubuntu ensure that every person is valued and included in decision making.
Compassion is a central part of ubuntu. Africans are known for ukwenana, an act of giving or sharing without expecting returns. Another practice called ukusisa is a ‘yin’, a form of investment that does not require collateral and also maintains the dignity of a poor person who has no assets.
According to the custom of ukusisa, those who have cattle or sheep give a cow or ewe to those who do not, to give the family an opportunity to acquire their own cattle and sheep over time. This is how newcomers in villages are helped. And this is how poorer communities and poorer countries could be helped.
African values have a great deal to contribute to world consciousness, but Africa is greatly misunderstood in the West. Our world must embrace a sense of interconnectedness as a global community if we are to survive. Perhaps ubuntu is a framework that could inform our thinking in the twenty-first century.
Barbara Nussbaum is co-author of Sawubona Africa (Zebra Press, 1996), which looks at the management implications of African culture and values.
Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/index.html
>Most environmentalists are indeed leftists who support the redistribution of wealth and believe in a simpler lifestyle
by Mark Lynas
New Statesman (February 14 2008)
I’m in a darkened room, my face plastered with make-up, somewhere in Manhattan. With powerful lights on all sides, all I can see is the camera lens. My earpiece crackles and the first interviewer comes through, from a TV station in Minnesota. First the pleasantries, then the lead-in to the question: “Some scientists say this global warming is just another natural cycle . . .”
Welcome to the US climate-change debate. I was a guest of National Geographic, which has produced a ninety-minute documentary film based on my book Six Degrees. Certainly, there was interest: I spent an exhausting twelve hours a day on the phone and on camera in a wide variety of radio and TV stations nationwide. I fielded callers on West Coast phone-ins, spoke to drivetime DJs in Midwestern cities and spent an hour webchatting on a social networking site. Every time, the same question came up: “Some scientists say . . .”
The answer is easy, but that is not the point. While scepticism about climate change is now a minority view – and in most interviews, once the obligatory question was out of the way, we had fascinating discussions – it is clearly a deep-seated social and political phenomenon, tapping in to a complex well of psychological fears and anxieties. One of the most persistent seems to be the identification of climate-change concerns with a “liberal” political viewpoint. You can see how this happened. Most environmentalists are indeed leftists who support the redistribution of wealth and think a simpler lifestyle would be better for all. Conservatives had nowhere to go. For them, global warming could not exist. The divide became rigid under the Bush administration, whose rejectionist approach to climate change confirmed that you could be either an environmentalist or a conservative, but not both.
This may come to be seen as a grave strategic error by the right. By spending years in anti-scientific denial, this lobby has lost the chance to set the international negotiating agenda and advance free-market proposals for tackling greenhouse-gas emissions. Instead of wasting time arguing that nothing need be done about global warming, conservative economists should have been using their expertise to design trading systems to manage the problem efficiently and in a growth-oriented way. In the meantime, the general public got used to the idea that tackling carbon emissions was about piety and self-sacrifice rather than about being successful or aspirational.
This is why John McCain has been important. Despite being an out-and-out conservative on economic and social issues, he has a track record of advancing efforts to promote global warm- ing mitigation. In 2003, he and the Democratic senator Joe Lieberman introduced the first ever climate bill in the Senate. The legislation was voted down, but helped set the agenda for the great shift in US public opinion that has taken place since.
This is why the virtual coronation of John McCain as Republican presidential candidate is so important. Whoever wins the election (both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have policies on climate that are tougher than McCain’s), there will be a decisive shift in US policy. Business is already preparing for a mandatory, US-wide “cap and trade” system; states such as California are competing to be the first to design it.
With Bush history, a new administration will be in place by the time the negotiating process launched in Bali completes in December 2009 in Copenhagen. Scientifically speaking, this is probably the world’s last chance to set a long-term emissions-reduction path that will keep the planet within the target of a two degrees Celsius increase in warming. With the Americans onside, it will be possible to get that deal.
For the first time in years, I am optimistic.
by Jim Kunstler
Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005)
http://www.kunstler.com (February 25 2008)
The maneuvers that the big banks are making nowadays, along with their enablers at the Federal Reserve and elsewhere in Washington, really amount to little more than the old Polish blanket joke – in which (excuse my concision) the proverbial Polack wants to make his blanket longer, so he scissors twelve inches off the top and sews it onto the bottom. Only in this case, the banks are shearing x-billions of losses off the top of their blankets and re-attaching x-billions of new debt onto the bottom. This new debt, of course, goes to cover the old losses and only represents further losses-to-be-reported-later, since the banks are basically insolvent. Borrowing more money when you’re broke doesn’t make you less insolvent.
The banks can probably keep this gag running a little longer, but not without consequences. My guess is that it spins out of control in March sometime when some more hedge funds blow up and at least one big bank, perhaps Citi, rolls belly up like a harpooned whale. The game is really over, and all the playerz know it. The consequence of continuing to pretend the meta-fiasco of Ponzi endgame is fixable will be an even more shattering depression than the one we’re already in for.
We are a much poorer nation than we thought we were and the reality is just too hard to face. Nobody from the most august banker (Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson) to the lowliest wanker (the WalMart inventory clerk who “bought” a house outside Phoenix with a no-money-down, payment-option, adjustable rate mortgage) can believe that this is happening. The candidates for president are pretty much assuming that vast financial resources will exist to be deployed against a range of problems. Everybody is going to be hugely disappointed.
When you introduce perversities into an economic system, they invariably end up expressing themselves as distortions. The economy that evolved the past two decades, driven by the perverse securitization of wishes and frauds, will now express itself in a stark cratering of American living standards. Incomes and jobs will vanish, massive quantities of stuff will collect dust on the WalMart shelves, the fragile infrastructures of daily life will go to shit, and there will be political hell to pay. Every attempt to avoid a straight-up workout of our massive losses, will represent another layer of perversity and more consequent destructive distortions.
I feel sorry for the next president. Even as he takes his oath of office, the nation will be flying apart like a seized-up engine. Since the fiasco in finance is happening in lock-step with Peak Oil (and very likely because of it at a fundamental level) we can expect one of the distortions to take the form of oil shortages. These shortages will come not just from demand bottlenecks in a stressed-out world oil allocation system, but because exporting nations will start demanding payment in Euros or something besides the depreciating currency that reflects our disintegration, and we’ll have a problem coming up with payments that amount to at least fifty percent more than we’re used to shelling out.
Once the US gets into serious difficulties with our oil supplies, every other sector of the economy wobbles, including especially the food-growing sector, which cannot function without copious amounts of diesel fuel and hydrocarbon-based soil “inputs”. Americans will go hungry, and not just the “underclasses”.
Along in this process somewhere, there is huge potential for armed conflict with other nations. If the unraveling gets traction while George W Bush remains in charge, the US may answer bellicosity from oil-exporting nations, or energy-hungry rivals, with truculence of our own. Things can get out of control very fast in such a situation. Nations that were happily selling us salad shooters six months earlier may be targeting our naval vessels with a different sort of shooter, say a Sunburn missile. In any case, we will be acting with a bankrupt, exhausted, and over-extended military, and the best case outcome would leave us merely isolated and marooned geopolitically on our own continent, with dwindling energy and mineral resources and an angry, demoralized population.
This time around we have more to fear than fear itself. The banking executives, government officials, and candidates for president are not doing the nation a service by concealing and ignoring our losses. Finance, as the driver of an economy, is finished, but the deployment of capital is still an indispensable arm of a real economy. Sooner or later we’ll get back to money that stands for something and banks that function as credible repositories of wealth. But we haven’t even started down the path to that place, and the longer we pretend that we don’t have to go there, the worse the journey will be.
Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/index.html
>by Allen Schill, reply by Bill McKibben
In response to Can Anyone Stop It? (October 11 2007)
The New York Review of Books (December 20 2007)
To the Editors:
Once again a highly informative, well-written, and lively article by Bill McKibben on books with an environmental theme [“Can Anyone Stop It?”, NYR, October 11]. Even enjoyable, notwithstanding the frightening prospects in store for the planet, even in some of the better scenarios. But it seems a crucial element has been largely overlooked in the review (not the fault of McKibben, I am sure), as in most of the recent public discussion of global warming and the growing scarcity of natural resources: population.
In the early 1970s, toward the beginning of the modern environmentalist movement, one often heard about ZPG, zero population growth, or (more ambitious yet) NPG, negative population growth. At the time there were, I think, barely four billion people on the planet, at a level of resource consumption considerably lower than today’s. I recall thinking then, bad enough already the environmental impact of the developed world; how much worse will it be when the average Indian or Chinese also has an automobile, a refrigerator, and air-conditioning? (Nothing against the Indians and the Chinese as such, of course.)
I don’t know where the political will might ever be found, in any country, to suppress unrestrained consumption. By themselves, higher prices for energy (and water, and food) won’t do it, I’m afraid. I see little inclination, even on the part of environmentally enlightened people, to make any lifestyle choices that would entail personal sacrifice or any significant reduction in living standard (as measured by resource consumption). We’ll heat the house a bit less and wear sweaters indoors in winter. We’ll buy smaller cars. Seems we’re all betting on technology and public policy to save our planetary butt. But is this such a good bet? Should we feel optimistic, given the worldwide political climate today?
Prudent gamblers and investors all know about hedging. Any attempt to curtail global warming or to provide renewable resources (and to make the nonrenewable ones last a little longer) will be at a grave disadvantage without a serious initiative to bring population growth under control – or even reduce it over the decades to come. Population acts (I suppose) pretty much as a simple multiplier in this massive and otherwise complex calculation whose product may well be a multifaceted global calamity (which would be a very unpleasant way to correct our overpopulation). All other factors being whatever they will be, we can only gain by having n billions of people instead of 1.2n or 1.5n or 2n. Is this really a hotter potato than the one that would ask us to give up our cars? Bill, why aren’t we all talking more about this?
Bill McKibben replies:
Many thanks to Mr Schill for his letter. It raises a common and important point, and one I have tried to address in the past (see my book Maybe One). In general terms, population is one of the few major environmental trends heading in the right direction. Partly as a result of the Earth Day–era alarms that Mr Schill describes, people in this country and then, more importantly, in the developing world itself began searching for ways to slow population growth, which was foreseen to involve an almost infinite series of doublings. The best contraceptive turned out to be education and, to one degree or another, giving women more control of their lives (though a supply of actual contraceptives was also necessary).
Despite, in recent times, ham-handed efforts by American administrations to interfere, those efforts have met with measurable success. Worldwide, the average woman in the early 1970s had close to six children, a number that has now fallen below three. World population, now over six billion, will continue to increase – to not much more than nine billion by many estimates. Most of that increase is built into the age structure of the population; that is, the growing number of couples now coming into their childbearing years. Nine billion will be harder to support than six billion, but the momentum of population increase has been broken.
No such break has yet occurred in the consumption curve, which is bad news because, more than sheer numbers, that rising level of consumption among an ever larger portion of the world’s population is what drives global warming. In fact, fossil fuel use is so low in the regions where population growth remains high (parts of Africa, for instance) that, with regard to climate change, Mr Schill’s assumption that it serves as a “simple multiplier” is happily mistaken. I must say that I’ve always found the contrast between these two curves odd. Intuitively, I would have expected human fertility to be hardwired in some Darwinian fashion, and consumption to be much more pliable. So far that seems not to be true – even in our country, where the effects of too much consumption are almost comically visible in oversized houses, cars, and waistlines, growth remains our credo.
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The Biggest Menace?
by Paul R Ehrlich and Anne H Ehrlich, reply by Bill McKibben
In response to Will Slower Population Growth Stop Global Warming? (December 20 2007)
The New York Review of Books (February 14 2008)
To the Editors:
Bill McKibben’s reply to Allen Schill [Letters, December 20 2007] is not inaccurate, but it fails to get to the essence of the issue. The projected 2.5 billion further increase in the human population will almost certainly have a much greater environmental impact than the last 2.5 billion added since 1975. Our species has already plucked the low-hanging resource fruit and converted the richest lands to human uses. To support the newcomers, metals will have to be won from ever-poorer ores, while oil, natural gas, and water will need to be obtained from ever-deeper wells and transported further. So-called “marginal” lands, often the last strongholds of the biodiversity on which we all depend for essential ecosystem services, increasingly will be converted into yet more crops to feed people, livestock, or (as biofuels) SUVs. These changes, plus the alterations that will be needed to cope with fossil fuel problems and new geographic patterns of drought and precipitation, will require accelerating energy use with its attendant destructive consequences for the global environment in general and climate stability in particular.
Climate change is a major threat, even if it may not be the greatest environmental problem. Land-use change, toxification of the planet, increased probability of vast epidemics, or conflicts over scarce resources, involving, possibly, use of nuclear weapons – all population-related – may prove more menacing. To ameliorate any of these threats there are no panaceas; a portfolio approach is required. And any truly effective portfolio must contain measures to slow and eventually reverse human population growth. McKibben is certainly correct that curbing overall consumption is critical. The world’s poorest need more, yet the world’s most affluent should use considerably less. But consumption too has a tight population connection, as McKibben himself is certainly aware. No matter how you slice it, we’re living beyond Earth’s long-term ability to support even the present population. It is not enough to break the momentum of population increase, we’ve got to move more rapidly toward population reduction.
Paul R Ehrlich
Bing Professor of Population Studies President, Center for Conservation Biology
Anne H Ehrlich
Associate Director/Policy Coordinator, Center for Conservation Biology
Bill McKibben replies:
Many thanks to the Ehrlichs, not only for their useful letter but for their long work on this question.
The point I was trying to make in response to Allen Schill is that the connection between population growth and fossil fuel use is actually quite weak – that is, heavy population growth is expected to occur in the areas where fossil fuel use is extremely low and likely to remain so. Thus, in the fight against climate change, which was the question he asked about, consumption is the first imperative. This does not change the fact that a world that strains to supply six billion with everything from water to food to school desks and hospital beds will have a harder time with nine billion.
Copyright (c) 1963-2008, NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved. Nothing in this publication may be reproduced without the permission of the publisher. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about this site. The cover date of the next issue will be February 28, 2008.
Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/index.html