Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Closing the loop

There have been quite a few stories recently about shortages - food, water, and fertilizer. While population and consumption are driving us to ruin, we shoot ourselves in both feet with how we manage - or mismanage - the flow of the inputs and outputs to our most basic systems, such as agriculture. Even the organic farming model often ignores one of the fundamental sustainability principles - closing the loop. The crux of this principle is "No waste".

Sidebar: In no way am I claiming to have closed the loop in my own life. I buy things. I throw things away. I flush toilets. I use fossil fuel energy. Yep, I'm as guilty as anyone. I am trying to reduce all of those wastes, though.

So, what would a sustainable small-scale agriculture look like? To me, sustainable means "capable of being sustained for hundreds, maybe thousands of years". It means using naturally available, local inputs to grow the food and instead of throwing away the outputs, reusing them.

First, let's list the inputs and outputs of organically grown food.

Inputs:
Fertilizer
Compost
Mulch
Seeds
Transplants
Labor (Digging, weeding, etc)
Organic pest sprays
Water
Sunshine
Tools
Pollination

Outputs:
Food
Herbs
Flowers
Shade
Non-food plant material
Feces
Urine

The question, in a post-peak world is, how am I going to get the seeds, compost, mulch, and fertilizer that I now get from the store? What happens if strict water rationing occurs? What am I going to do with the feces and urine I produce if the sewer system has become unreliable? The massive amounts of fossil fuels that are required to run the trucking economy, that run our water and sewage systems, our electric grid, as well as the agriculture of the world.... cannot be sustained.

So, here are some of the answers I have picked up from here and there. Some I have tried, some I have not. Be aware that some of the answers could shock or offend you.

Seeds: Saving seeds from the previous year's plants. Growing more perennials where possible to avoid having to re-seed every year. Letting volunteers spring up from last year's crops. Taking cuttings from plants before they die out in the fall and re-starting them.

Mulch: Leaf mold. Old newspapers and cardboard laying around (scavenging). Grass clippings. Straw. Comfrey cuttings.

Compost: Composting humanure and weed, plant material and kitchen scraps.

Fertilizer: Diluted human urine (which is sterile enough to drink). Worm, chicken and rabbit excrement.

Water: Rainwater harvesting, storing water in the soil with plenty of compost and mulch, and greywater recycling.

And how to get rid of the "waste"? The answer to the outputs is in the inputs. Feces and urine can be composted with any material high in carbon, ideally sawdust. Urine can be diluted and used as fertilizer.

I know that most people aren't going to be comfortable with these ideas. There's a significant Eww factor. But if people are serious about growing their own food, and need a way to get inputs and deal with ouputs, the answer lies in closing the loop. Right now, I'm not talking about using these ideas on an industrial level - just on a personal level, where everyone knows everyone involved.

Most people may not start using these ideas right away. They'll be handy, though, if TSHTF. The more these ideas are used now, the less carbon is used, the less waste generated, the less waste of water and fossil fuels. And the better prepared you will be to survive without the formal economy - and to show others how to survive as well.

I'm tired of people dancing around the true concept of sustainability! Let's get the details out in the open where the light of day can show us that they are not dangerous. If Bear Grylls can drink his own urine on TV, we can use it to fertilize our plants. Let's knock down the superficial barriers in our minds that are keeping us from saving the planet and saving ourselves.

2 comments:

Lewru said...

Hear! Hear!

When will the humanure composting toilet be up and running? :)

HausFrau said...

I wish! Unfortunately, the compost toilet costs upwards of $1 - 2K. The other option is a little straw bale composting bin + improvised bucket and sawdust deal. That's not going to happen until things get a little more serious. But, at least I have taken the first step - accepting it as a viable and vital option.

I AM saving my humanurine to fertilize the lawn, flowers and trees a few times a week (in combo with my rainwater, using my watering can). Then I only have to flush once or twice a day!