Saturday, December 31, 2011

Is Organic Agriculture Becoming Corrupted?

An article that's sure to receive a fair deal of attention:

Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals (New York Times)
But even as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming.

From now until spring, farms from Mexico to Chile to Argentina that grow organic food for the United States market are enjoying their busiest season.

“People are now buying from a global commodity market, and they have to be skeptical even when the label says ‘organic’ — that doesn’t tell people all they need to know,” said Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He said some large farms that have qualified as organic employed environmentally damaging practices, like planting only one crop, which is bad for soil health, or overtaxing local freshwater supplies.
My Permaculture took issue with the concept of 'small solutions' - he felt that Permaculture should be the way all agriculture is done. He's right, of course, but the problem is that bigness tends to corrupt everything. Once something gets big, the pressure to subvert it is overwhelming. Hence the emphasis on small-scale and local. That's one of the problems with modern society - everything is so big that it's out of control. No one feels in charge anymore, so these systems run on inertia and individuals feel powerless against the system. That's why corporations like Wal-Mart are inherently treated with skepticism and distrust, no matter what their 'green' claims.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Wealthy Chinese begin farming after food-safety scares

Americans aren't the only ones concerned about their food:
During the week, they are teachers, PR consultants, and computer programmers. But at the weekend, these city slickers return to the soil.

"We're worried about food safety," says He Liying, explaining why they grow vegetables.

They toil under the summer sun - not always efficiently - at a co-operative farm called Little Donkey on the outskirts of Beijing. It has about 700 fee-paying members.

It is one of dozens of farms which have cropped up across the country catering for China's middle classes, which are increasingly concerned about food safety.

From glow-in-the dark meat to dye injected into buns to make them look like a more expensive variety, there has been a rash of scandals in recent months.Whether it is exploding melons or pigs pumped full of steroids to produce lean meat, many in China simply do not trust what is put on their dinner tables.

This worries the authorities, anxious that people will lose trust in a government if it cannot ensure the safety of what they eat.

The Chinese authorities have enacted stricter policies to ensure food safety.

It includes a directive from the Supreme Court calling for the death penalty for cases in which people die as a result of poor food safety.

But regulations are often flouted in China. And with food price inflation rising, some producers will continue to cut corners in order to fatten up the bottom-line.

After a hard day's work, the group of young professionals at the Beijing co-operative farm retired to an upmarket apartment.

They cooked a meal using the fresh produce they had harvested.

"It definitely tastes better when you grow it yourself," says one of them.

But they are the lucky few, who have the time - and the money - to produce their own food.

Many others have little choice in what they eat.

If an economic system can't deliver safe, fresh, nutritious food, how can it be said to be an effective system? 

Natural Gas

Fracking: Is there really 100 years’ worth of natural gas beneath the United States? Slate Magazine
[...] But what is that estimate based upon? Those details haven’t been made freely available to the public, but their summary breaks it down as follows here and in the graph below: 273 tcf are "proved reserves," meaning that it is believed to exist, and to be commercially producible at a 10 percent discount rate. n additional 536.6 tcf are classified as "probable" from existing fields, meaning that they have some expectation that the gas exists in known formations, but it has not been proven to exist and is not certain to be technically recoverable. An additional 687.7 tcf is "possible" from new fields, meaning that the gas might exist in new fields that have not yet been discovered. A further 518.3 tcf are "speculative," which means exactly that. A final 176 tcf are claimed for coalbed gas, which is gas trapped in coal formations.

By the same logic, you can claim to be a multibillionaire, including all your "probable, possible, and speculative resources."

Assuming that the United States continues to use about 24 tcf per annum, then, only an 11-year supply of natural gas is certain. The other 89 years' worth has not yet been shown to exist or to be recoverable.

Even that comparably modest estimate of 11 years’ supply may be optimistic. Those 273 tcf are located in reserves that are undrilled, but are adjacent to drilled tracts where gas has been produced. Due to large lateral differences in the geology of shale plays, production can vary considerably from adjacent wells.

After mathematically modeling the actual production of thousands of wells in the Barnett, Fayetteville, and Haynesville Shales, Berman found that operators had significantly exaggerated their claims. Reserves appear to be overstated by more than 100 percent. Typically, the core 10 to 15 percent of a shale formation’s gas is commercially viable. The rest may or may not be—we don’t know at this point. Yet the industry has calculated the potentially recoverable gas as if 100 percent of the plays were equally productive.

We don't yet know how much of the estimated gas resources will be economically recoverable or whether the projected production rates for some wells might be off by a factor of 10. We might have a 100-year supply of gas, or we might have an 11-year supply. We might realize economic and environmental benefits by transitioning trucking and coal-fired power generation to natural gas, or we might do so only to find ourselves out on a limb far more economically dangerous than the current peak and impending decline of world oil supply. We simply don't know, and we may not know for years to come.
Excellent article throughout. The "100 years of natural gas" meme is so common nowadays, it's just got to be centrally controlled propaganda. The motivation to exaggerate the reserves to attract investment is intense.

Charts! Final Edition

Impressive collection. I may never need to write another economic post here again; I can just point to this series of charts and graphs from the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities (one of the only left-leaning think-tanks that exist):

The Best of CBPP Graphs: Guideposts on the Road Back to Factville

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Anybody Want To Buy A Used College - er, Car?

Read this first:
One fast-growing American industry has become a conspicuous beneficiary of the recession: for-profit colleges and trade schools.

At institutions that train students for careers in areas like health care, computers and food service, enrollments are soaring as people anxious about weak job prospects borrow aggressively to pay tuition that can exceed $30,000 a year.

But the profits have come at substantial taxpayer expense while often delivering dubious benefits to students, according to academics and advocates for greater oversight of financial aid. Critics say many schools exaggerate the value of their degree programs, selling young people on dreams of middle-class wages while setting them up for default on untenable debts, low-wage work and a struggle to avoid poverty. And the schools are harvesting growing federal student aid dollars, including Pell grants awarded to low-income students.

“If these programs keep growing, you’re going to wind up with more and more students who are graduating and can’t find meaningful employment,” said Rafael I. Pardo, a professor at Seattle University School of Law and an expert on educational finance. “They can’t generate income needed to pay back their loans, and they’re going to end up in financial distress.”

For-profit trade schools have long drawn accusations that they overpromise and underdeliver, but the woeful economy has added to the industry’s opportunities along with the risks to students, according to education experts. They say these schools have exploited the recession as a lucrative recruiting device while tapping a larger pool of federal student aid.

“They tell people, ‘If you don’t have a college degree, you won’t be able to get a job,’ ” said Amanda Wallace, who worked in the financial aid and admissions offices at the Knoxville, Tenn., branch of ITT Technical Institute, a chain of schools that charge roughly $40,000 for two-year associate degrees in computers and electronics. “They tell them, ‘You’ll be making beaucoup dollars afterward, and you’ll get all your financial aid covered.’ ”

Ms. Wallace left her job at ITT in 2008 after five years because she was uncomfortable with what she considered deceptive recruiting, which she said masked the likelihood that graduates would earn too little to repay their loans.

As a financial aid officer, Ms. Wallace was supposed to counsel students. But candid talk about job prospects and debt obligations risked the wrath of management, she said.

“If you said anything that went against what the recruiter said, they would threaten to fire you,” Ms. Wallace said. “The representatives would have already conned them into doing it, and you had to just keep your mouth shut.”

A spokeswoman for the school’s owner, ITT Educational Services, Lauren Littlefield, said the company had no comment.
For Profit Schools Cashing In On Recession and Federal Aid (New York Times)

Now read this:
WASHINGTON — Last year, the Obama administration vowed to stop for-profit colleges from luring students with false promises. In an opening volley that shook the $30 billion industry, officials proposed new restrictions to cut off the huge flow of federal aid to unfit programs.

But after a ferocious response that administration officials called one of the most intense they had seen, the Education Department produced a much-weakened final plan that almost certainly will have far less impact as it goes into effect next year.

The story of how the for-profit colleges survived the threat of a major federal crackdown offers a case study in Washington power brokering. Rattled by the administration’s tough talk, the colleges spent more than $16 million on an all-star list of prominent figures, particularly Democrats with close ties to the White House, to plot strategy, mend their battered image and plead their case.
With Lobbying Blitz, For-Profit Colleges Diluted New Rules (The Dispatch)

College educations are now hyped with honesty and ethics that would make car dealers blush. College is an even easier scam, since the startup costs are low, and in the end you don't have any actual real-world object or guarantee to deal with - just a piece of paper and a pat on the back. And what's most reprehensible is that these hustlers are selling hope of a better life to desperate Americans, when all they really want is to take their money. They're selling hope and preying on people's optimism. What could be more craven?

Face it, every institution in America is just a way to rip you off.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reclaiming Nature in the Urban Context

In Madrid’s Heart, Park Blooms Where a Freeway Once Blighted (New York Times):
All around the world, highways are being torn down and waterfronts reclaimed; decades of thinking about cars and cities reversed; new public spaces created.

Most famously, in beauty-mad San Francisco, the 1989 earthquake overcame years of entrenched thinking: the Embarcadero Freeway was taken down, which reconnected the city with its now glorious waterfront. In Seoul, the removal of a stretch of highway along the now-revived Gaecheon stream has made room for a five-mile-long recreation area called Cheonggyecheon. In Milwaukee, the destruction of the Park East freeway spur has liberated acres of downtown for parks and neighborhood development. Even the nearly-30-year, bank-busting Big Dig fiasco made Boston a better place by tunneling a downtown highway, though it was obviously nobody’s idea of a stellar urban redevelopment project.

In New York, city and state officials are inching closer to tearing down the Sheridan Expressway, a mile-and-a-quarter-long gash in the South Bronx connecting the Bruckner and Cross Bronx Expressways, perhaps to replace it with homes, commercial spaces, playgrounds, swimming pools and soccer fields arrayed along the Bronx River.

But Madrid Río is a project whose audacity and scale, following the urban renewal successes of Barcelona, Spain’s civic trendsetter, can bring to a New Yorker’s mind the legacy of the street-grid plan, which this year celebrates its 200th anniversary. That’s because the park belongs to a larger transformation that includes the construction of dozens of new metro and light-rail stations that link far-flung, disconnected and often poor districts on Madrid’s outskirts to downtown.
One note from one who lives here - the Park East development has never lived up to its full potential. Nevertheless, the city functions fine without the freeway. Earlier we looked at a similar proposal for Mexico City.
WOULD it be unpatriotic to assert that the Big Dig in Boston was small potatoes compared with Madrid Rio? The pharaonically scaled waterfront revitalization that opened on April 15 is rapidly shifting Madrid’s recreational axis from Retiro Park to the once-forgotten western edge.

Who knew Madrid even had a river? Unlike Seville or Bilbao, whose early fortunes were inextricably linked to their waterways, Madrid began as a hilltop fortress that conveniently had a little river, the Manzanares, winding lazily through the plain below (to the west of the Royal Palace, which stands on the site of the fortress). But for decades, not even the royal family could claim a water view, as the river was choked by two ribbons of the M-30 freeway, which rings the city.

It took just seven years for the Madrid Rio project to go from conception to inauguration. Four miles of the six- to eight-lane M-30 were tunneled underground and the land above was reborn as a picturesque 300-acre riverside park. It cost 400 million euros (about $574 million), required the planting of 33,000 trees and 470,000 shrubs and plants, and took a lot of wrangling with environmental and neighborhood advocacy groups to create a sprawling esplanade that now runs through six municipal districts. Where traffic used to snake and snarl, people now stroll, jog, bike and splash.
The Madrid Waterfront: Who Knew? (New York Times)

Anyway, there seems to be a trend of transforming the post-industrial urban centers of Western cities into various eco-projects (the High-Line park in New York is one prominent example, formerly a railroad). My only problem with this is that it assumes we'll forever be shipping in all our manufactured goods from China. Either that, or we've permanently abandoned the industrial project altogether. Still, it's nice to see nature finally being integrated into urban planning in a deep way. Here's another proposal for Paris:

In 1929, Louis Renault set up shop on the Ile Seguin, a small island in the Seine River just southwest of Paris. At the end of the century, what was once the largest factory in France lay abandoned, its automobile production moved elsewhere. But if all goes according to plan, by 2017, the Ile Seguin will have been transformed into a near-utopian cultural hub, where the arts, business and residential life mix and sustainability is at the forefront.
Turning an Abandoned Industrial Island into a Green Cultural Center in Paris (Treehugger)

Something similar is planned for the Autobahn in Germany:
Germany's longest motorway is about to get one huge make-over; it will soon become a giant public park. When it is all said and done, the A7 will sport a 10-foot-thick canopy starting with Hamburg's Schnelsen district, down to Stellingen and ending in Bahrenfeld. This is no simple task considering the cover will need to be over a 100-feet wide in some areas.

The Guardian on Authoritarian Regimes

If there's one silver lining in the shadow of authoritarian capitalism now faling over the entire globe (a trans-national elite running governments, monopoly corporations, the banking & monetary system, the military and the media for their benefit rather than in the interests of their respective societies), it's the fact that such systems have a short shelf-life. That is, short in the scheme of history; relative to a human life-spand such regimes often last for an unbearably long time before they are overthrown. This past year we saw people stand up to the Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes after some forty years of servitude. Twenty years ago, we saw the dissolution of Communism in Eastern Europe. We've seen unrest everywhere on earth against the new authoritarian austerity capitalism being imposed by elites, but with relatively litle success. When the riots in the Middle East broke out, I was struck by the similarities to Europe's year of revolutions - 1848. In a recent interview, the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawn said the same thing.

Regarding authoritarian regimes, they are ruled by fear. Not only fear, but belief in the system. When those fade, the regime collapses. In this article in The Guardian, Marsha Gessen argues that the Putin regime is on the outs. Her description of the fall of the Soviet regime is very similar to Dmitry Orlov's:
The thing about harsh authoritarian regimes is it's not laws, or courts, or the rigid government hierarchy that makes them run. It is fear. And once the fear is taken out of the equation – suddenly, for the vanishing of fear is always sudden – it becomes clear that these courts, laws and hierarchies do not work. Everything just starts falling apart.

That is what happened here 20 years ago: institutions just stopped taking orders from the Kremlin. The media stopped fearing the censors who still sat in their offices at every media outlet. The police stopped applying absurd regulations, enabling the birth of private enterprise. Ultimately, the heads of the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics lost their fear – and the empire fell apart, in what by history's standards was the blink of an eye.

In August 1991, when Communist party hardliners tried to wrest back power, fear was the magic component they lacked. Some people got scared, to be sure – but enough did not. Radio journalists continued reporting on the coup and finding ways to broadcast even when their signal was repeatedly cut off and their offices were invaded by special forces. Print journalists from several newspapers that had been shut down got together to put out a joint publication they called the Common Newspaper. And ordinary people, including college students, professionals, and former army military men, flooded into the streets to protect the Moscow white house where Boris Yeltsin sat, personifying democracy.

The Moscow mayor and many other local officials were not frightened by the hardliners, and so refused to obey their decrees. Instead of being paralysed by fear, institutions just kept marching on as usual: the airports worked, the phones did not get shut down, people could get from place to place and communicate with one another. Finally, key generals did not obey the hardliners' orders, forcing them to retreat in disgrace. In the end it was they who were scared.
Vladimir Putin's World Is Falling Apart (The Guardian)

I also wanted to note this nugget from earlier in the article:
A friend sent me a link to a programme broadcast on Russian national television recently (the link was to a YouTube clip, since most people I know do not have actual working television sets – the habit of watching TV has quietly died among the educated class here over the last 10 years).
One can only hope this happens in the U.S.A. You can't afford all the hamburgers and automobiles and cell phone plans and life insurance anyway. And TV has become unwatchable anyway (remember, programs are just delivery vehicles for commericals). The 800,000 or so people who cancelled Netflix is a good start. As John Michael Greer quipped recently, there's a reason it's called 'programming':
An effective response to this predicament, as I’ve proposed here, involves several unfamiliar steps. The first of them is to get out from under the collective thinking of our society and the manufactured popular pseudoculture that holds that collective thinking pinned firmly in place in the minds of most people, so you can make your own decisions about what goes into your mind, instead of letting huge corporations ante up millions of dollars to choose for you. (It still amazes me how many people never wonder why what appears on TV is called "programming.") This is a challenging task, made even more so by the blank incomprehension and active hostility of those who are still down there in the belly of the beast, but the payoff is worth it. The problem with thinking thoughts that you’re told to think by others, after all, is that the people who tell you what to think are doing it for their own advantage, not for yours; think your own thoughts, and doors open before you that the thoughts you’ve been told to think are meant to keep tightly shut.
Anyway, for a hopeful message, check this essay by Charles Hugh Smith - Why I Am Optimistic. A much-needed dose of hope in a system falling apart:

I know many smart, well-informed people expect the worst once the Status Quo (the Savior State and its corporatocracy partners) devolves, and there is abundant evidence of the ugliness of human nature under duress.

But we should temper this Id ugliness with the stronger impulses of community and compassion. If greed and rapaciousness were the dominant forces within human nature, then the species would have either died out at its own hand or been limited to small savage populations kept in check by the predation of neighboring groups, none of which could expand much because inner conflict would limit their ability to grow.

The remarkable success of humanity as a species is not simply the result of a big brain, opposable thumbs, year-round sex, innovation or even language; it is also the result of social and cultural associations that act as a "network" for storing knowledge and good will--what we call technical and social capital.

I often mention that the U.S. has much to learn from so-called Third World countries that are poorer in resources and credit. In many of these countries, the government is the police, the school and the infrastructure of roadways and energy. Many of these countries are systemically corrupt, and the State is the engine of enforcing that corruption.

Rather than something to be embraced and lobbied, involvement with the State is something to be avoided as a risk. In everyday life, people rarely encounter the government except in law enforcement or schooling.

As a result, people depend on their social capital and community for sustenance, support, work and connections.

This is not altruism, it is mutually beneficial.

Once a community dissolves into atomized individuals who each get a payment from the Central State, then they no longer need each other. Rather, other dependents on the State are viewed as competitors for the State's resources.

These atomized, isolated individuals have a perverse relationship with the State and what remains of the community around them: lacking the self-worth earned from work or engagement/investment in a community, then their only outlet for self-identity is consumption: what they wear, eat, drink, etc. as consumers.

Why I Am Optimistic (Of Two Minds)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


More Stats

Fully 1.6 million children in the United States — one in 45 kids — were homeless last year, living in shelters, cars, abandoned buildings and parks, a study released Monday found.

Nearly one in three people will be arrested by the time they are 23, a study published Monday in Pediatrics found.

One in Five American Families Have Medical Bill Problems

Recent reports suggest that almost 50% of Americans are in poverty or at a "low income" level. The claim is based on a new supplemental measure by the Census Bureau that includes health care, transportation, and other essential living expenses in the poverty calculation.

Another fact is that earnings have remained flat for most people while productivity has grown 80% since 1980. If a $50,000 family had received a fair share from their contribution to America's growth, they'd be making $90,000, and they wouldn't need a dime from government. (from the above article)

We can't do better than this, really?

The Bugs Are Back

Scary stuff, indeed: 
A deadly strain of bird flu with the potential to infect and kill millions of people has been created in a laboratory by European scientists – who now want to publish full details of how they did it.

The discovery has prompted fears within the US Government that the knowledge will fall into the hands of terrorists wanting to use it as a bio-weapon of mass destruction.

Some scientists are questioning whether the research should ever have been undertaken in a university laboratory, instead of at a military facility.

The US Government is now taking advice on whether the information is too dangerous to be published.
Alarm as Dutch lab creates highly contagious killer flu (The Independent)
Attempts to censor details of controversial influenza experiments that created a highly infectious form of bird-flu virus are unlikely to stop the information from leaking out, according to scientists familiar with the research.

The US Government has asked the editors of two scientific journals to refrain from publishing key parts of research on the H5N1 strain of bird-flu in order to prevent the information falling into the hands of terrorists intent on recreating the same flu strain for use as a bioweapon.

However, scientists yesterday condemned the move. Some said that the decision comes too late because the information has already been shared widely among flu researchers, while others argued that the move could obstruct attempts to find new vaccines and drugs against an infectious form of human H5N1 if it appeared naturally.
Too late to contain killer flu science, say experts (The Independent)

And if the virus doesn't get you, the bacteria might:
The world is being driven towards the "unthinkable scenario of untreatable infections", experts are warning, because of the growth of superbugs resistant to all antibiotics and the dwindling interest in developing new drugs to combat them.

Reports are increasing across Europe of patients with infections that are nearly impossible to treat. The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) said yesterday that in some countries up to 50 per cent of cases of blood poisoning caused by one bug – K. pneumoniae, a common cause of urinary and respiratory conditions – were resistant to carbapenems, the most powerful class of antibiotics.

Across Europe, the percentage of carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae has doubled from 7 per cent to 15 per cent. The ECDC said it is "particularly worrying" because carbapenems are the last-line antibiotics for treatment of multi-drug-resistant infections.

Marc Sprenger, the director, said: "The situation is critical. We need to declare a war against these bacteria."
Antibiotic resistant infections spread through Europe (The Independent)
Take the case of Klebsiella pneumonia, a hospital superbug, which can cause lethal infections. It is commonly treated using carbapenems, a powerful class of antibiotics.

But data released by the ECDC shows a rise in the percentage of carbapenem-resistant K. pneumonia.

Although it remains a limited threat in the UK, in some countries like Italy and Greece 15%-50% of K. pneumonia from bloodstream infections were resistant to carbapenems.

Writing in the Lancet, Professor Laura Piddock from the Antimicrobial Agents Research Group, University of Birmingham, warned of a crisis due to the lack of new antibiotics: "The demise of antibacterial drug discovery brings the spectre of untreatable infections."

The majority of antibiotics in use were discovered several decades ago. Professor Piddock pointed out that 16 new antibacterial agents were approved and brought to market between 1983-1987, compared with less than four agents since 2008.
Action on antibiotics (BBC)

Are we losing the fights against superbugs? (BBC)

Why are antibiotics being overused? (BBC)

Bird Flu Research Rattles Bioterrorism Field (NPR)

U.S. Says Details Of Flu Experiments Should Stay Secret (NPR)

So much for progress. Are we about to enter a post-antibiotic era? Are new strains of deadly viruses about to be engineered by man? Will the mainstream media bother reporting on any of it? Stay tuned...

Monday, December 26, 2011

French Market Gardens - La Culture Maraîchère

The Russian anarchist writer Prince Peter Kropotkin wrote several books outlining the philosophy of anarchism. Among the principles he espoused were local economies and self-determination. In his 1899 book, Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin looked extensively at how local communities could become thriving, self-sufficient communities with no coercive leaders or taxes, with voluntary associations and mutual aid providing the bonds of a functional society.

In that book, Kroptkin takes a close look at agriculture and industry at the end of the nineteenth century with the idea of creating such local communities. In Paris, he was especially impressed with how gardeners were able to produce enough vegetables for Paris in the city itself for much of the year:
The above examples are striking enough, and yet those afforded by the market-gardening culture are still more striking. I mean the culture carried on in the neighbourhood of big cities, and more especially the culture maraichere round Paris. In that culture each plant is treated according to its age. The seeds germinate and the seedlings develop their first four leaflets in especially favourable conditions of soil and temperature ; then the best seedlings are picked out and transplanted into a bed of fine loam, under a frame or in the open air, where they freely develop their rootlets and, gathered on a limited space, receive more than usual care ; and only after that preliminary training are they bedded in the open ground, where they grow till ripe. In such a culture the primitive condition of the soil is of little account, because loam is made out of the old forcing beds. The seeds are carefully tried, the seedlings receive proper attention, and there is no fear of drought, because of the variety of crops, the liberal watering with the help of a steam engine, and the stock of plants always kept ready to replace the weakest individuals. Almost each plant is treated individually.

There prevails, however, with regard to market-gardening, a misunderstanding which it would be well to remove. It is generally supposed that what chiefly attracts market-gardening to the great centres of population is the market. It must have been so ; and so it may be still, but to some extent only. A great number of the Paris maraichers, even of those who have their gardens within the walls of the city and whose main crop consists of vegetables in season, export the whole of their produce to England. What chiefly attracts the gardener to the great cities is stable manure ; and this is not wanted so much for increasing the richness of the soil — one-tenth part of the manure used by the French gardeners would do for that purpose — but for keeping the soil at a certain temperature. Early vegetables pay best, and in order to obtain early produce not only the air but the soil as well must be warmed ; and that is done by putting great quantities of properly mixed manure into the soil ; its fermentation heats it. But it is evident that with the present development of industrial skill, the heating of the soil could be obtained more economically and more easily by hot-water pipes. Consequently, the French gardeners begin more and more to make use of portable pipes, or thermosifhons, provisionally established in the cool frames. This new improvement becomes of general use, and we have the authority of Barral's Dictionnaire d' Agriculture to affirm that it gives excellent results.

As to the different degrees of fertility of the soil — always the stumbling--block of those who write about agriculture — the fact is that in market-gardening the soil is always made, whatever it originally may have been. Consequently — we are told by Prof. Dybowski, in the article " Maraichers " in Barral's Dictionnaire d Agriculture — it is now a usual stipulation of the renting contracts of the Paris maraichers that the gardener may carry away his soil, down to a certain depth, when he quits his tenancy. He himself makes it, and when he moves to another plot he carts his soil away, together with his frames, his water-pipes, and his other belongings.

I could not relate here all the marvels achieved in market-gardening ; so that I must refer the reader to works — most interesting works — especially devoted to the subject, and give only a few illustrations.[1]
La culture maraîchère referred to the intensive methods of gardening developed in the urban areas of Paris from about 1850 to 1900, and often referred to in English as "French intensive gardening." It was a series of techniques developed over the years by experimentation for gardeners to produce large quantities of fresh vegetables for city dwellers. It also dealt with a major urban problem at the time - what to do with all the manure from the horses used for transportation. French intensive gardening was designed to grow the maximum amount of vegetables on the minimum area possible, since urban plots were invariably small and noncontinuous. Techniques of season-extension begun at the royal potager at Versailles under the celebrated head gardener La Quintiie in the 1670s and 80s were extended and enhanced such that urban gardens could provide fresh vegetables for much of the year in Paris.

The average Parisian market garden was between one and two acres in size, with plants grown on eighteen-inch beds of combined straw and horse manure from the stables. Although the plots were relatively small, the techniques used to attend to them were highly detail-oriented and labor intensive. In the words of one grower, "always tend the smallest amount of land possible, but tend it exceptionally well." In order to get the maximum amount of produce from a small area, many techniques were used in concert. Crops were planted so close together that when the plants were mature, their leaves would barely touch. The close spacing provided a mini-climate and a living mulch that reduced weed growth and helped hold moisture in the soil. Companion planting was used - growing certain plants together that enhance each other. For example, strawberries and green beans produce better when grown together; whereas onions stunt the growth of green beans. In addition to companion planting, gardeners developed an elaborate schedule of succession planting to get the most from the land throughout the growing season. Timing was key:
For example, an early spring hotbed would be sown with radish and carrot seed broadcast and then transplanted with lettuces at the same time. The radishes would be harvested first, making more room for the carrots growing between the lettuces. The carrot tops would stick out from around the lettuces until the lettuces were harvested, which gave the carrots enough light and space to complete their growth. But as soon as the lettuces were harvested, young cauliflower transplants would be set out among the carrots. Once the carrots were pulled the cauliflowers had the frame to themselves until they were harvested and the ground was prepared for the next crops. [2]
Gardeners grew up to nine crops each year and could even grow melon plants during the winter.

To extend the growing season as much as possible, glass-covered frames were placed over the plants which acted as mini-greenhouses. Heat for the cold frames was provided by the decomposing manure. Once the manure was thoroughly decomposed and no longer hot, it was shoveled out as compost and used as a soil amendment. Additional protection for cold nights was provided by one-inch thick mats made of rye straw rolled over the glass covers for extra insulation. One distinctive technique was to place bell-shaped jars 16-3/4" in diameter called cloches over the growing plants. Photographs of French urban gardens sometimes show hundreds of these bell-shaped jars. They were used to keep seedlings warm, as well as to protect mature plants like lettuce. On sunny days, a small notched stick was used to vent the cloche. The cloches could also be covered with straw mats during cold conditions. The microclimate of the city also helped protect from harsh weather. Decomposing manure was also used on the paths between the glass-covered hotbeds to help boost the heat. Paths were only ten inches wide to maximize growing space. Because these paths were too narrow for a wheelbarrow, gardeners wore woven willow backpacks called hottes. These were designed as a basket carried on the back with a spigot that extended over the head of the wearer so he or she could lean forward and deposit the merde onto the beds.

Pesticides and chemicals were avoided ("pompously labelled and unworthy drugs" in the words of Kropotkin). Large amounts of compost, crop rotation, diversity, companion planting and plant protection were enough to prevent most diseases and pest outbreaks. It was felt that pests attacked only sick and weak plants; healthy plants in healthy soil would not need extraordinary measures. Again, the fact that the gardens were in a city helped control pests, as well as the fact that small plots with diverse plantings did not allow for pests to multiply the way monocultures do.
Labour-intensive it was, most emphatically; yet it had outstanding merit in in calling for far less capital investment in glasshouses and heating systems, and the high productivity of small plots was barely credible. Delicate green vegetables were grown in winter, including a most successful cabbage lettuce; cauliflowers sewn under frames, and then moved under bell glasses at the end of February, were ready for market in six weeks; mustard and cress (for which there was great demand in London) was grown on bass mats and so cut clean. [3]
French intensive gardening methods was so effective that French master gardeners were able to supply nearly all the vegetable produce required for the city of Paris and its environs, and do it nearly year-round. They were even able to export greens to England even in fall and winter. Britain first began to take notice of the French methods as a way to help unemployed factory workers be more self-supporting on land. Market gardening was introduced to England by C. M. McKay, a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, who led an expedition to Paris to see the techniques in 1905. A number of how-to books were published for English audiences, including a popular one by McKay himself. The techniques became quite popular, although they never quite achieved the level of sophistication seen in Paris. In the 1920s and 1930s, English gardener and dramatist Alan Chadwick experimented extensively with the French intensive techniques, combining them with techniques from Austrian Rudolf Steiner's biodynamic method to form the French Intensive-Biodynamic method of gardening.

Such techniques were not unique to France. Similar techniques existed in Asia. Agronomist F.H. King noted Japanese techniques of growing produce urban areas in his book Farmers of Forty Centuries published in 1909:
How closely the ground itself may be crowded with plants is seen in Fig. 16, where a young peach orchard, whose tree tops were six feet through, planted in rows twenty-two feet apart, had also ten rows of cabbage, two rows of large windsor beans and a row of garden peas. Thirteen rows of vegetables in 22 feet, all luxuriant and strong, and note the judgment shown in placing the tallest plants, needing the most sun, in the center between the trees. But these old people, used to crowding and to being crowded, and long ago capable of making four blades of grass grow where Nature grew but one, have also learned how to double the acreage where a crop needs more elbow than it does standing room, as seen in Fig.17. This man's garden had an area of but 63 by 68 feet and two square rods of this was held sacred to the family grave mound, and yet his statement of yields, number of crops and prices made his earning $100 a year on less than one-tenth of an acre. [3]
After the First World War, la culture maraichere began to wane in France and England. Land values soared, and empty lots were developed or became too valuable for gardens. More importantly, cars replaced horses on city streets, and the straw and manure that had been so important disappeared. In the 1960s, Alan Chadwick brought his techniques to America on a 4-acre organic student garden at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. Starting with a hilly area of poor, clayey soil, Chadwick was able to eventually produce healthy topsoil and yields four times that of conventional agricultural methods. Chadwick grew his crops on rounded raised mounds and used the "double dig" method - removing the top soil layer, exposing the subsoil or hardpan beneath, breaking it up, adding organic matter, and replacing the topsoil that was initially removed. This provided greater drainage and aeration. The techniques were studied by John Jeavons of Ecology Action, who wrote a popular book promoting these methods under the name GROW-BIOINTENSIVE. Jeavons' book, How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine (usually abbreviated to just the first five words), first published in the 1974, helped to revive and extend the French Intensive Methods for a new generation in a new country. Others also wrote about the techniques. Many organic farmers and urban gardeners have been inspired by French Intesive Gardening, and there is hope that the culture of urban gardening which reached such heights at the end of the 1800's can be revived to put people to work and provide fresh local food for hungry cities for much of the year.


Today, history seems to repeat itself. After a manic century of economic growth, once again weed-filled empty lots are now common in urban areas, this time in the United States, and land that was once too valuable to garden now lies empty. Once again, unemployed factory workers are the vanguard of an crisis of unemployed and underutilized labor. Unlike the nineteenth century, however, the supplies of fossil fuels that engendered exponential economic growth and allowed local economies to wither in place of elaborate food supply systems are running out. It is generally recognized that food trucked in from miles away year-round is not only inefficient from a resource standpoint, it is increasingly questionable from a health standpoint, as such food is often grown in poor-quality degraded soils. At the same time, low-capital activities are needed to provide meaningful work for the legions of unemployed that haunt America's cities that the globalized, corporatized economy has abandoned.

This conflagration of circumstances - a surfeit of labor, a need to relocalize economic activity, vacant lots in cities, so-called food 'deserts' in urban areas, increasingly costly fossil fuels, and an awareness of the nutritional value of fresh local food - seem to make French intensive gardening to be an ideal answer to all these problems. The labor-intensive nature of French intensive gardening, a drawback in the corporate model of agriculture, is actually desirable under such circumstances. And, as is often the case in agriculture, labor intensive techniques are sustainable, healthy, and help enhance the environment. It also allows a degree of self-reliance that has been absent from the economy for a long time. Of course, the straw and manure that made French intensive gardening possible in cities are no longer available, horses having long ago been replaced by cars. In place, composting programs that transform agricultural waste into soil may be substituted.

Today, urban gardening is in the midst of a renaissance. The techniques that were so refined at the turn of the twentieth century should be revived and revitalized for the turn of the twenty-first. Increasingly, Pete Kropotkin's ideas of local economies centered around mutual aid is being embraced as a way out of an increasingly dire social and economic situation. French Market Gardening is just one way to help remake a more just and healthy urban economy.

[1] Peter Kropotkin. Fields, Factories and Workshops. p. 61-62
[1] Eliot Coleman. The Winter Harvest Handbook. p. 15.
[2] Joan Thirsk. Alternative Agriculture: A History. .p. 184
[3] F.H. King. Farmers of Forty Centuries.


An excellent article on urban gardening as distinct from agriculture by John Michael Greer:

Two Agricultures, Not One (Reality Sandwich)



AN urban farm off the East River. Artisanal food and crafts sold out of recycled shipping containers at the Dekalb Market. Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea on the Williamsburg waterfront.

Diners flocked to Smorgasburg on the Brooklyn waterfront last summer. It is to return in April.

They all share a hipper-than-thou aesthetic. They also share a pedigree: they were all set up to breathe some life into vacant lots.

In an unlikely convergence of interests, it is the real estate executives who have invited the vendors to set up shop on their stalled construction sites. The owners, after all, get what they want: foot traffic to their neighborhood, which they hope will translate into good business or quicker apartment sales when they finally put a building up on the lot. And the vendors get cheap, sometimes free, space.

Many of these popular spots are remaining open through the winter or are planning to return in the spring and summer. Other undeveloped lots have also been optioned for interim duty as a food-truck lot and a kind of time-share backyard; some will even play host to various art exhibits.

These are happy solutions to an economic problem. The sluggish market has effectively turned off the spigot for construction financing, so there are more than 600 stalled construction sites in New York City, according to a recent count by the city. 

Temporary Tenants Bring Life To Stalled Construction Sites (New York Times)

Across the street I have my strawberry lot. I try to plant by lot. I have a collard green lot, a kale lot, an okra lot, an eggplant lot, green bean lot. I had a corn lot, but it didn't work so well. Right now I have a garlic lot, I had a tomato lot, cucumber lot, squash, cabbage, broccoli, watermelon, cantaloupe. I like flowers, so I planted some of them. I had potatoes, mustard greens, turnip greens.

The New Agtivist: Edith Floyd is making a Detroit urban farm, empty lot by empty lot. (Grist)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas 2011

Lovely column about Charles Dickens from Maureen Dowd:
Douglas-Fairhurst points out that Dickens’s fiction teems with ifs, just-supposes and alternative scenarios, “what might have been and what was not.” He even wrote two different endings for “Great Expectations,” one where Estella and Pip don’t end up together and one where they seem to.

“Pause you,” Pip says, “and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

Dickens was rescued from the warehouse and sent back to school when his father got out of prison and wangled a Navy pension. But that year drove home to him how frighteningly random fate can be.

“I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond,” he once said.

Dickens — whose bicentenary will be celebrated on Feb. 7 — worked himself to death at 58, but he always feared obscurity was lurking.
A Victorian Christmas (NYT)

Some music for the day:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Why Reindeer Fly

Does Santa get stoned on 'shrooms?: The psychedelic secrets of Santa Claus. I think the article is a bit fanciful in its analogies. Still, I'm sure there are some legitimate connections in the article. I do know that the changing of people into animals in all those old folk tales has to do with shamanism.

No mention of krampus?

In that spirit, here's part one of the Russian/Finnish classic Morozko, aka Jack Frost (non MST3K version).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What's Wrong With Libertarianism

I once noted that whenever you see "economics" used in concert with words like "freedom or "liberty", look out--it's going to be some right-wing propaganda about no government, "free" trade (i.e. labor arbitrage), no regulations, etc. A classic example is The Library of Economics and Liberty at George Mason University. Then there's all those Orwellian-named think-tanks like FreedomWorks which shill for whatever policies the oligarchy wants in the name of "economic freedom" (except, of course, the freedom of labor to organize). As Abraham Lincoln so aptly put it:

"The perfect liberty they seek is the liberty of making slaves of other people."

How has "freedom" come to be a code word for economic oppression? George Monbiot askes the same question in a terrific and concise takedown of libertarian philosophy : How Freedom Became Tyranny.
Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws(1); big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

Right-wing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others. In the UK it is forcefully promoted by groups like the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange(2). Their conception of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms.
He describes the concepts of negative and positive freedom in the column, and why Libertarians are only interested in one kind: the freedom of the powerful to do whatever they want to the weak. Libertarianism is simply might makes right. He concludes:
Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned “freedom” into an instrument of oppression.
See also: What's Wrong With Libertarianism:
Libertarianism strikes me as if someone (let's call her "Ayn Rand") sat down to create the Un-Communism. Thus:

Communism                                          Libertarianism
Property is theft                                     Property is sacred
Totalitarianism                                        Any government is bad
Capitalists are baby-eating villains          Capitalists are noble Nietzchean heroes
Workers should rule                               Worker activism is evil
The poor are oppressed                         The poor are pampered good-for-nothings

Does this sound exaggerated? Let's listen to Murray Rothbard:

We contend here, however, that the model of government is akin, not to the business firm, but to the criminal organization, and indeed that the State is the organization of robbery systematized and writ large.

Or here's Lew Rockwell on Rothbard (emphasis mine):

He was also the architect of the body of thought known around the world as libertarianism. This radically anti-state political philosophy unites free-market economics, a no-exceptions attachment to private property rights, a profound concern for human liberty, and a love of peace, with the conclusion that society should be completely free to develop absent any interference from the state, which can and should be eliminated.

Thomas DiLorenzo on worker activism: "[L]abor unions [pursue] policies which impede the very institutions of capitalism that are the cause of their own prosperity." Or Ludwig von Mises: "What is today euphemistically called the right to strike is in fact the right of striking workers, by recourse to violence, to prevent people who want to work from working." (Employer violence is apparently acceptable.) The Libertarian Party platform explains that workers have no right to protest drug tests, and supports the return of child labor.
See also: How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the U.S. Into a Selfish, Greedy Nation

Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society....To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.— Gore Vidal, 1961

Like the Communists, they are close to making their warped vision of the world into a reality. But unlike the Communists, they have managed to take over the entire world!

Signs of the End Times?

Giant Tsunami-Shaped Clouds Roll Across Alabama Sky

In pictures: Rare lenticular clouds over West Yorkshire

Healthy two-headed baby born in Brazil

Population Implosion

Future Santa will have less trips to make:

The population of the United States grew this year at its slowest rate since the 1940s, the Census Bureau reported on Wednesday, as the gloomy economy continued to depress births and immigration fell to its lowest level since 1991.

The population grew by 2.8 million people from April 2010 to July 2011, according to the bureau’s new estimates. The annual increase, about 0.7 percent when calculated for the year that ended in July 2011, was the smallest since 1945, when the population fell by 0.3 percent in the last year of World War II.

The sluggish pace puts the country “in a place we haven’t been in a very long time,” said William H. Frey, senior demographer at the Brookings Institution. “We don’t have that vibrancy that fuels the economy and people’s sense of mobility,” he said. “People are a bit aimless right now.”

Underlying the modest growth was an immigration level that was the lowest in 20 years. The net increase of immigrants to the United States for the year that ended in July was an estimated 703,000, the smallest since 1991, Mr. Frey said, when the immigrant wave that dates to the 1970s began to pick up pace. It peaked in 2001, when the net increase of immigrants was 1.2 million, and was still above 1 million in 2006. But it slowed substantially when the housing market collapsed, and the jobs associated with its boom that were popular among immigrants disappeared.

Mr. Passel said that the bulk of the reduction in recent years had been among illegal immigrants, adding that apprehensions at the border are just 20 percent of what they were a decade ago. (The Census Bureau does not ask foreign-born residents their status, but Mr. Passel believes the count includes most people here illegally. )

A lagging birth rate also contributed. Births in the United States declined precipitously during the recession and its aftermath, down by 7.3 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to Kenneth M. Johnson, the senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. There were slightly over four million births in the year that ended in July, the lowest since 1999.

Economic trauma tends to depress births. In the Great Depression, the birth rate fell by a third, Mr. Johnson said. It is unclear whether the current dip means that births are being delayed or that they are foregone, as they were in the Depression, he said.

In a particularly striking measure of economic distress, birth rates among Hispanics, who are concentrated in states hardest hit by the economic downturn, like Florida and Arizona, declined by 17 percent from 2007 to 2010, Mr. Johnson said. That is compared with a 3.8 percent decline for whites and a 6.7 percent decline for blacks. Rates dropped most sharply among young Hispanics, down by 23 percent for women ages 20 to 24 between 2007 and 2010.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sustainable Architecture: Lloyd Alter Gets It

I have been working on a long post critiquing what passes for “green” building. I always run into trouble, because there’s so much bad stuff out there, I don’t know where to begin. You can go to all the popular Web sites and see that “green” architecture is all too often used as a justification to roll out all sorts of fancy new products and high-tech systems. It’s become just another way to make money. Putting solar panels and high-tech movable sunshades on an inherently wasteful design is not green. All too often “green” building is additive rather than subtractive. The latest trend is wrapping a facade in metal mesh screens and calling it “green” because the mesh supposedly “filters” sunlight, despite the fact that there’s enough metal hanging off your building to manufacture a reasonably large sum of automobiles. Is that really necessary? Adding PV panels to a building that wastes electricity because it is made of glass is not green. Similarly, ideas of siting and appropriate fenestration are tossed out in favor of plopping a vegetated roof on top of the building in some renderings and calling it “green”. It’s pathetic. In other words, expensive, high-tech stuff gets tossed in the mix to allow architects to do whatever they want – elaborate, attention-seeking forms, walls of sheer glass, towers of steel and concrete, with all sorts of noxious petroleum-based products required to keep them dry and sealed. Expensive, high-tech gizmos and petroleum-based products are made from finite materials. They break down. Depending on them to make your buildings sustainable is a losing proposition.

The biggest influence on my thinking has been working in a section of town where buildings built over a century ago have been preserved and repurposed for the “new” economy. Buildings built as factories and warehouses have seamlessly transitioned to office spaces, shops, restaurants, bars, exercise studios, apartments and classrooms. Rooms that once held seamstresses or manufacturing equipment now hold rooms full of "knowledge workers" clicking away on computers or people doing yoga. These buildings have successfully served the needs of an economy that was totally unknown when they were built with few if any alterations, and without any high-tech gizmos. Their simple yet functional design is what allows this. The fabric of the city was preserved, nothing was torn down, and people’s needs were met. That is true green building. And these parts of town are more beautiful and desirable than our disposable suburbs. That kind of reuse is not going to be possible with modern architectures’ obsession with elaborate, ad-hoc forms sitting independent of their surroundings. These buildings, aside from being ugly, will simply be unusable.

The subject deserves more treatment than I can give it now. Thankfully, Lloyd Alter is a voice of sanity in all this. He is a blogger at Treehugger, and his posts are just about the most intelligent stuff you’ll find on true environmentally-friendly architecture anywhere. He writes about learning from old-buildings and getting the basics right before stuffing a design full of high-tech doodads and calling it “green.” He also talks about the importance of context – it matters whether buildings are built in walkable neighborhoods with public transportation or twenty miles outside of town in a cornfield. He recently published an omnibus article covering a lot of his thinking, and it’s well worth a read:

Building Green Is No Longer Enough, It’s Time To Build Resilient.
Green living has often been about technology; about smart grids and hybrid cars and solar panels. But it is also about simplicity and low tech, about walkable communities and bicycles. I go on about learning from old buildings designed before the age of oil and electricity, so that we will know how to live after the oil is gone. One feature I often talk about is how our walkable communities and older buildings are resilient; they can cope better when the power goes out, and you can walk to the store when the car is out of gas.

In fact the resilience movement is growing, as is the dissatisfaction with the high tech green gizmo approach to sustainable design. You see it in houses with the Passivhaus movement, where one trades active systems for insulation and sunlight; you see it in the streets with the cycling phenomenon. It is a conscious choice to use simpler, repairable, resilient systems.
I had once noted that no architects seem to be stepping up to the challenge of energy and resource scarcity. Apparently, I was wrong; Alter cites an architect named Craig Applegath who has a site called Resilient City. His principles are a good statement of true “green” architecture – buildings we will be able to still use another hundred years from now. What it means is that we architects will have to stop stroking our egos, go back to basics, and stop reinventing the wheel. The techniques to make buildings long-lasting, efficient and adaptable have been to known to us for centuries, we just discarded them in favor of the elaborate form-finding that structural engineering and modern materials allowed, even though there was no real reason to do so. Let’s go back to basics. And as I wrote earlier this year – computer fabrication means that ornamentation is once again affordable. My fellow architects: let's go back to first principles.

Although many are included in the post and the sidebar, here are some of my favorite articles from Lloyd:

Building the Green Modern Home: Looking at Windows:

..Because, in fact, they don't build them like they used to. As I learned from Romas Bubelis at the Landmarks Not Landfill conference, nothing on a traditional window is there for looks, it is all there to serve a purpose. The cornice on top acts as an overhang to keep water away from the window; the casing to the side of the window covers the joint between the siding and the side jamb. The high double hung window, when open at the top and bottom, creates a convection current within the room that brings fresh air in deeper. The sloping sill drains water away from the siding below. The operable shutters provide security while permitting ventilation and protection during storms.

The windows of the Jessup House were put together without the benefit of caulks and foams and any products made from fossil fuels; all they had to work with were wood and nails, yet it had to be designed so that it wouldn't leak and so that they could be maintained. When these photographs and drawings were done in 1930 the windows were already hundreds of years old.

Imagine dealing with windows like those in Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, where even the glass stops are steel and welded in place, where the only thing keeping out the water is a petrochemical gasket and caulk.

There is No Such Thing As Caulk (Or at Least That is What I was Taught):

When I was back in architecture school, there was a professor who put forth the proposition that we should design our buildings as if there was no such thing as caulk; that everything should have solid flashings, drainage layers, channels to carry away the water. Yet this building's top floor was essentially held together with caulk, with butt jointed double glazed windows sealed with an inch wide caulk joint.

Professor Sees Red Over ‘Green’ Building:

“There's no way you can make an all-glass building green. There's no such thing as a green SUV. You shouldn't be building SUVs in the first place; you shouldn't be building all-glass buildings in the first place. And no amount of high-tech or fancy stuff can turn an inherently bad design into a green building.”

Can an All-Glass Office Building Really Be Considered Green?:

For decades, modern office buildings have been pretty much covered in glass curtain walls. Some are high performance and very expensive, like the super-green LEED Platinum Bank of America Building at 1 Bryant Park in New York, or they can be the standard crappy suburban office building thrown up across North America, looking the same in California or Calgary.

But as Steve Mouzon points out, even the very best glazing has an R-value that is equivalent to a 2x4 wall with fiberglass insulation, something that nobody has built for years. Most office buildings don't even approach a third of that. So why do architects design buildings this way?

Terry Thomas Building By Weber Thompson:

A year ago I wrote about this Seattle building under the title "Smart Architect Builds Dumb Building." I meant it as a compliment; we need more dumb buildings that work like buildings used to, with natural light and ventilation, and without what Donovan Rypkema calls "green thingies"- expensive new technologies when older, simpler methods are more appropriate.

Architects: Go Back To The ABCs and Design Buildings Like Letters Again:

Julia Gersovitz of Montreal's FGMAA Architects made the point: Buildings used to look like alphabets, to minimize the distance to an exterior wall and maximize natural light and ventilation. We have all seen many Cs, Os and a few Es (I forgot to draw probably the most common, the Ls).

Minus Oil: Forget Hybrids And Solar Panels, We Need Active, Exciting and Vibrant Cities:

Matt has noted that almost three quarters of our oil goes for transportation, and concludes that we have to create "more communities where the average person's daily needs are met on foot, on non-motorized vehicle and via public transportation." But is there proof that this actually works? Does it mean that we have to turn all of our cities into Manhattan or Copenhagen? No, we don't. We don't have to create new communities and put everybody in a passivhaus. Our existing cities and buildings can work just fine; You just have to chose the right place in it.

The Greenest Brick Is The One That's Already In The Wall:

TreeHugger is full of photovoltaic glass and ground source heat pumps, but ultimately all of those "green gizmos", as Donovan Rypkema called them, cost a lot of money to buy and to maintain. But he is just one of a growing movement of architects who are making the case that people have known for hundreds, maybe thousands of years how to build in ways that save energy and adapt to climate instead of trying to bludgeon it into submission. Steve Mouzon is another. He writes: "Originally, before the Thermostat Age, the places we built had no choice but to be green, otherwise people would freeze to death in the winter, die of heat strokes by summer, or other really bad things would happen to them."

For Saving Energy, Like Real Estate, The Three Most Important Things Are Location, Location and Location:

Now, more and more tools and studies are making it very clear that just like in real estate, when it comes to energy consumption and climate change, the three most important things to consider are location, location and location. This is not a new idea to TreeHugger readers; we have been talking about it for years. David Owen wrote about it in the New Yorker in 2004 and turned it into a book last year. But we mostly looked at large cities, the Hong Kong vs Houston equation shown on this chart from UNEP. In fact, while dense urban cities like New York and London do well, smaller towns and cities turn out to be rather efficient as well. The critical factor is, in my opinion, not necessarily just density; Australian cities and Toronto are not that dense, and yet they use way less energy per capita than Phoenix or Denver. The key indicator is what I will call Urbanity, a mix of transit-oriented development, walkability, and historicity.

Nice Shades: Tips From The Pros On How To Keep The Heat Out:

It is one of the lunacies of housing in America that builders pay no attention to orientation or window placement, then have to oversize the air conditioning unit to compensate, forcing the homeowner to pay more up front and higher operating costs through the life of the house.

Why Are North American Toilets So Crappy?:

In Paris, even a cheap restaurant had an expensive toilet. It just seems to be the standard. So why do we not have these in North America? Why not install toilets that take up less space, use less water and make less noise?

Re-Thinking the Bathroom: Who Needs It?:

One of the interesting design challenges is figuring out how to design an efficient, but practical bathroom. We shouldn't limit ourselves to cramming the shower, tub, sink and toilet all in the same space.

Is It Time To Rethink the Built-In Kitchen?

There is something appealing about a kitchen design that just folds up when you don't need it, and doesn't take up a lot of space. Until a hundred years ago, nobody really had fitted kitchens as we know them; they had stoves and iceboxes, but everything else was kept in pantries or cupboards, and work was done on a table in the middle; this is a Poggenpohl kitchen from 1892. Enough already. As Mark Bittman has noted, all you really need is "A stove, a sink, a refrigerator, some pots and pans, a knife and some serving spoons. All else is optional." And he cooks a lot.

Steampunk Shower Tower Demonstrates The Next Big Green Building Trend, "Mechanical Expressionism"

I don't know why architects bury plumbing behind walls when it can look so shiny and high-tech. And why separate a sink and a shower when you can combine them both in this single unit that you can put anywhere. It is produced by Emme Group, an Italian company that mostly makes Bongos Barbeques for Bunga-Bunga parties, but also offers the Totem Shower.

I think that it is a style that is about to make a comeback, as being a greener way to build. Designers are beginning to think about how you put buildings together so that you can maintain and upgrade them, and others are thinking about how you deconstruct them at the end of their useful life.

Open Building

Philip introduces us to the concept of "open building", where "The principle is to maintain a separation between the different aspects of the building in order to be able to make repairs and do upgrades with a minimum of interference with other elements of the building. Open building stipulates separate zones or chases for different functions and services. This will, for example, make it easier to change plumbing systems without needing to repair other systems that cross or interfere with access to the necessary parts of the plumbing system."

Interlocking Cross Laminated Timber Could Use Up Square Miles Of Beetle-Killed Lumber, and Look Gorgeous, Too

Instead of using expensive and possibly VOC-heavy glues or expensive stainless steel fasteners, they use tongue and groove joints, shown above on the end-to-end pieces or dovetail joints, on the crossing pieces, to hold it all together. They don't need fancy presses like they do for the glued CLT either, and it can be "disassembled at end of life to be repurposed in the building material supply chain." It is evidently simple enough to do that "standard mills and timber fabricators looking to diversify their product offering may produce ICLT with existing infrastructure and equipment. I would not have thought that it would be as strong as conventional CLT, but it was. In fact it was stronger that CLT and even insulated concrete form walls.

10 Overlooked Low-Tech Ways of Keeping Your Home Cool:

There is a reason our ancestors built summer kitchens; those stoves put out a lot of heat and you didn't want them in your house in summer. Outside summer kitchens are all the rage in the luxury house/ mcmansion set as well. It really makes no sense to run a stove inside, just to then spend money to run air conditioning to remove the heat again. So get a gas barbecue and grill your vegetables, take advantage of farmers markets to get fresh stuff, and eat lots of salad.

The Shape of things To come: Simple and Boxy:

Ann complains about the typical production home or McMansion, which are often a mess of gables and jogs and design clichés. She suggests an alternative: "Appeal more readily emanates from careful proportioning and quality materials, paired with simple, efficient building geometry."

He has also done a great series on reconsidering the bathroom here:

The History of the Bathroom Part 1: Before the Flush.
The History of the Bathroom Part 2: Awash In Water and Waste.
The History of the Bathroom Part 3: Putting Plumbing Before People.
The History of the Bathroom Part 4: The Perils of Prefabrication
The History of the Bathroom Part 5: Alexander Kira and Designing For People, Not Plumbing
The History and Design of the Bathroom Part 6: Learning from the Japanese
The History and Design of the Bathroom Part 7: Putting A Price on Poop and Pee
The History and Design of the Bathroom Part 8: Pulling It All Together

What are some of the lessons historic buildings have to teach us? And how can they be integrated with modern buildings? That's a topic I hope to explore in much more detail over the next year.

Will the Capitalists Question Capitalism?

There are a handful of good end-of-year posts by Sami Grover over on Treehugger that have been considering the same topics we’ve looked at over the past month – is it possible to reform capitalism into a sustainable form, and is it possible to have capitalism without growth? While no conclusions are arrived at, there are some interesting thoughts:
But one prediction caught my eye in particular. Corporations will, says the Forum, begin to question capitalism as we know it:

Paul Polman, CEO at Unilever, has publicly said he wants an equitable, sustainable capitalism. Iain Cheshire of Kingfisher is talking about a paradigm shift. Even the Harvard Business Review has called on CEOs to “fix the system”. From our own conversations with business leaders, we know that some are privately questioning the basic model of individualistic consumption. The Occupy movement is the popular version. They have been painted as anti-capitalist but really they are anti-this capitalism. If companies are not careful, they could get stuck as the defenders of a broken status quo. If they are smart, sustainability leaders can show what a better capitalism might look like.

It's a fascinating prospect, and not entirely unrealistic. Very few corporations have an interest in a system set to self-destruct, so as the urge to rethink our basic economic assumptions becomes louder, those who will continue to prosper will be those who adapt to the times. Resilience will become increasingly important as sustainability becomes more about covering your ass than simply doing the right thing.
Will Corporations Really Question Capitalism? (Treehugger)
Among the fascinating questions and discussion, Rob posed a rather interesting question—can we have capitalism without economic growth? Victor's response is illuminating not just in what it tells us about the viability of no growth economics, but the nature of change itself. We get so fixated on what we should replace the current system with, it can be hard to remember that both the status quo and whatever comes next are as much emergent systems as they are deliberately designed creations:

These are questions that I and some others are investigating right now and whether we end up with a view of an economy that we’d say doesn’t look anything like capitalism, we don’t really know yet. My own sense at the moment is that if we do effectively come to terms with these limits on how we interact with the biosphere, we’ll be looking back maybe half a century or a century from now and saying well, there was no one time when the economic system was transformed but it has evolved into something which we may or may not chose to call capitalism at that time.

Whether or not what emerges is still known as capitalism seems almost academic at this point. What does matter is that we tool it to reflect that happiness is real, that there is more to economics than money, and that resource extraction has astounding economic and environmental consequences.
Is Capitalism Possible Without Growth? (Treehugger)
Yesterday I posted on George Monbiot's lament that international banking bail outs are agreed in days, while a planetary fix has been decades in the making (and is still nowhere in sight). And I also noted that some pundits predict an increasingly vocal critique of capitalism as we know it from corporations themselves. So as the pressure to fundamentally rethink our monetary economy and how it works grows, it's good to note that Caroline Lucas—Britain's first Green member of the European Parliament—is also adding her voice to redesign our economy as if people and planet mattered:

Occupy Wall St protesters at St. Paul's are exploring alternatives to this failed system of financial liberalisation. Even the Bank of England, in papers published this week, is considering a transformation away from deregulation towards a rules-based system, that constrains capital mobility and secures stability and "internal balance" for countries like Britain.

Our politicians should be debating these profoundly important issues. They should be leading us out of this global financial morass, towards a more just, stable and sustainable future. But they are not
What Would A Sane Economy Look Like? (Treehugger)

I do think there are corporations and wealthy individuals who can see the writing on the wall. They can see that what’s going on is not working, and an economic system that makes most people poorer and poorer over time, while a small minority has more money than it can spend in 1000 lifetimes is not one that will command broad public support. It’s also not very effective or efficient.

Then there is the other side – the cubicle-penned Wall Street Journal Readers, the suburban Ayn Rand acolytes, the Republican party reactionaries – who will do anything, and I mean anything, to keep the system going exactly as it is. They are in complete denial. The redistribution of the world’s wealth to a small oligarchy must continue, they believe, for reasons of either malice or ideology. Here’s Mitt Romney on the campaign trail:
"Just a couple of weeks ago in Kansas, President Obama lectured us about Teddy Roosevelt’s philosophy of government. But he failed to mention the important difference between Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Roosevelt believed that government should level the playing field to create equal opportunities. President Obama believes that government should create equal outcomes."

"In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people who truly enjoy any real rewards are those who do the redistributing—the government. The truth is that everyone may get the same rewards, but virtually everyone will be worse off."
Does it sound like there’s any soul-searching on the current system of capitalism from the wealthy corporate raider running for president? No, I didn’t think so. And it is the reactionary elements that have the power. The article above says something wise. It says: “Very few corporations have an interest in a system set to self-destruct.” Yes, it is hard to believe an economic system would consciously choose to self-destruct. Nonetheless, it’s happened time and time again. From the Long Depression to the Panic of 1909 to the Great Depression, and more recently Argentina, Iceland, and Greece, collapse seems to be more the rule than the exception. Our problems are built into the institutions themselves. Systems of incentives and feedback loops keep the system operating as it is, resistant to any attempts at change or reform, especially from the top down.

Let’s pause for a minute and consider some undeniable facts.

1. All capitalist economies are gainfully employing an ever-smaller percentage of their workforce.
2. Youth employment is endemic all over the world. No country on earth is finding enough jobs for its increasingly educated youth.
3. Automation is accelerating at an exponential rate. The market provides every incentive to lay-off workers rather than hire them.
4. Wages and living standards relative to costs-of-living are plummeting in all mature capitalist economies.
5. In the wealthiest country on earth, half of the population is considered low-income. Just 400 Individuals control as much wealth as half the workforce.
6. Many key resources are being exhausted (copper, phosphorous, rare earth metals). Peak Oil occurred in 2006. Cost of fuels is rising, getting fossil fuels is increasingly risky and expensive.
7. The financial system is totally corrupt. The only force that can regulate the market has been captured. There is a revolving door between government and business (and the media) – they are all populated by the same elites. No force exists to undo this.
8. Speculative housing bubbles have inflated and burst, first in Japan, then the United States and Western Europe, and now China. These have undermined interest-lending banking systems in every country.
9. The rate of innovation seems to be slowing down.
10. The number of failed states is increasing every year.
11. Climate change is causing ever more failed harvests, droughts, natural disasters, and destroyed property. It is already impossible to halt this cycle, and it will almost certainly worsen.

Unfortunately, at this time I am forced to concur with this quote from Morris Berman:

"To put it bluntly, the scale of change required cannot happen without a massive implosion of the system. This was true at the end of the Roman Empire, at the end of the Middle Ages, and it is true today."

One thing I am sure of is that this form of capitalism is dying. Whether we call its successor capitalism or not is largely a matter of semantics. And how far society has to fall to make that happen is anybody’s guess.