Monday, December 15, 2008

Dear Friends,
The images: the first one is of me at a beautiful karst forest over the ‘marble mountain’ (Takaka Hill) from here. When my niece Sky visited recently, we wandered through this extraordinary place.
The second one is of Sydney Harbour from my mother’s house, taken when I visited to help with her rehabilitation after a fall recently.
And the third is to do with the subject of this blog – our friend Gil Claus installing a second rainwater tank at our place.

Some personal stuff:My main ‘work’ over this period has been with Transition Town Motueka. We’ve held a public meeting and workshop on analysis of problems with the current financial system, and the alternative of local currencies, Christoph Hensch visited from Christchurch to speak on these issues. Soon after this the Motueka Skill Swap or MO$$ was resurrected. It’s a local currency system. I’ve yet to familiarize myself with its workings. I’ve been trying to educate myself in this area however. I’ve read Margrit Kennedy’s ‘Interest and Inflation-Free Money’ and have taken an excellent ‘Crash Course on Economics’ by Chris Martenson on line. Now I’m reading Thomas Greco’s ‘Money’. Jack finds it most amusing to see me reading a book with this title, as I’ve been so entirely uninterested in the topic heretofore.
Now I need to resume work on the Reconciliation book with Johan Galtung.
I’ve learned to operate enough of the technology of the local radio station to do interviews for a fortnightly ‘Transition Town Show’. This is fun, and I’m very grateful to the young producer, Duncan Eddy for teaching me. I’ve done sessions on Biocapacity, Energy, Sustainable Business and Complementary Currency, as well as the one I’m drawing from to write the main part of this blog. It also amuses Jack to see me with headphones on, pushing buttons and lights on the control board of the studio – an unlikely scene, he’d have thought.
Jack and I have gone on some good day hikes around here. I’m eager to go further afield. We’ll do that next week, the other side of the ‘marble mountain’, by camping in the wilderness and hiking out from there.

TechnologyI’ll write a little about technology in this blog. Curiously, its etymology has to do with study of arts and crafts, but the meaning for my purposes is more like the study of the tools we use to accomplish our goals. Last week I interviewed engineer Gil Claus for my Transition Town Show on local radio. Gil is French Tahitian in origin, and beyond engineering, he studied graphic arts and information technology. He works for Sustainable Villages on IT issues and on assessing technology for the village. If you want to know what’s the best kind of composting toilet or solar hot water heater to use here, ask Gil; he has researched the issue. Gil also does some hands-on engineering work. He dug, or rather sculpted our irrigation ponds with a big digger, and recently he installed our second rainwater tank, as you can see in the photo. Gil has lived for 20 years in a very beautiful off-grid house he built himself. He is passionate about sustainability issues and has a spiritual orientation to living in harmony with the Earth.
Recently, having brought our electricity use down to a sufficiently low level, we bought photovoltaic panels. It’s necessary to have a back-up generator to cope with a run of sunless days. Gil’s research suggested that the best one for the purpose was an old design from 1929, called the Lister engine. It has few parts, is slow revving, doesn’t make a lot of noise, can be maintained with standard tools, adapts easily to many fuels, including biofuels, and is known to last 40-50 years. It is made only in India now. It is not very expensive. We have one on order.
Some of the principles that Gil applies to assessing technology are:
Durability, ease of maintenance, using renewable energy source (preferably gravity, sun, wind, water height), affordability, easily understandable principles of operation, low carbon footprint from its point of origin, waste can either be used for another purpose or disposed of in a way that isn’t ecologically damaging, social acceptability, aesthetic acceptability, made from local resources, efficient, ethical in all its aspects, integrates with its surrounding systems, fits the skills of the existing society, consequences of use are understood and not harmful.
It would be an unusual tool that met all of these criteria. The Lister engine, for example, meets most, but is made far away in India.
There is the idea of ‘life cycle analysis’ applied to technology. We have a wry smile about this. In Canada we had replaced our car with a Prius hybrid, believing its energy use made it an ethical choice (if one had to have a car at all). Later on, a life cycle analysis became available. The energy and materials used in making the Prius make its impact on the Earth anything but benign, and comparable to many of the gas guzzlers we deride.
There is also the concept of ‘layered technology’ from our colleague in the project, Jurgen Heissner. This is the idea that while high tech solutions to problems exist, if they meet many of the criteria above, they should be used, but that it’s most unwise to depend on technology that may be hard to recreate or maintain in an energy- and materials-constrained world. Essential services, like food, water, shelter, sanitation should be able to be maintained without vulnerable technology. So, in the planned village, there will be ‘intra-net’ computer connexions between houses. Booking a car, for example, will be done on this system, but computers will not run essential services like water supply.
According to Gil, Third World farmers and villagers invent some of the most appropriate technology.
The solar oven fits many of the above criteria. They’re not available in NZ. Of course, I could make one, but haven’t yet. Recently we disconnected from our electrically heated hot water system and installed an ‘on demand’ gas heater. This doesn’t keep a quantity of water hot for instant use. The high intensity heater turns on when the water does, and delivers just the amount of hot water you want after a short delay. This is an old technology, common in Europe.
We dispensed with a certain amount of technology in our experiment in living – dishwasher, freezer, drier, TV and video player. I miss the freezer a bit, not the others.
Water comes from the roof into tanks. We installed the second tank to be able to water kitchen gardens, and in rainless times we use a lot of our grey water on the trees.
Technology is an issue in an entirely other way in my life. In the range of responses to climate change and peak oil, many believe that the answer to these problems is to be found in technological developments. They cite the remarkable record of human adaptation to straitened circumstances over the aeons. The party currently in power in NZ affirms the reality of climate change, but is ready to renege on Bali climate change commitments. The Environment Minister believes that technology will save the day. I do not. I believe we will benefit greatly from further technological developments in our adaptation to the difficulties we’ve brought on ourselves, but that, at least in the coming decades, we will have to learn to live more lightly on our seriously damaged and overly full Earth.
Worse still, in my opinion, are those who look for a geo-engineering solutions to the mess we’ve created – wanting to release millions of floating mirrors to reflect the sun, or create a gigantic infrastructure of artificial trees to absorb carbon dioxide, or seed the oceans to grow more algae to absorb more carbon. To their credit, some of the advocates of these solutions are folk who have an appropriate sense of urgency about climate change. But their blindness to the ecological integrity of the web of life frightens me. We haven’t known what we were doing so far, as we wrecked coastlines to create fish farms, extinguished species, desertified huge areas, exhausted soils and continue to deforest the Earth. We learned about the ozone hole almost accidentally, and perhaps just in time. We still have only the barest understanding of some parts of this ultra-intricate system of Earth. To presume to disturb it further on a massive scale with no way of knowing the consequences seems very arrogant to me.
Finally, here’s another piece of technology some people here are ready to dispense with: consider that carefully engineered article using advanced materials of many kinds that is wrapped around our babies’ bottoms – the disposable diaper. There’s a move among young mothers I know to have their babies ‘diaper-free’. The mums say they learn the babies’ signals and either take them outside or hold them over a pot. They say they miss at times, but find the whole thing acceptable, a lot cheaper than the several alternatives, and very easy on the Earth. I’ve been told that the health authority has even paid to have seminars given to expectant mothers on how to do it.
That’s it for technology for today, folks.
Warmest wishes to all,