mfioretti: resilience*

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  1. What are the limits to urban manufacturing? Surely not everything can be made/produced locally, so as a percentage of a city’s total consumption of resources, how much can we expect to shift?

    In theory, a city could make anything. It depends on factors such as whether we shift to safe, non-polluting products and production processes – one of the reasons for zoning in cities was to separate sensitive uses such as residential areas from the nuisance and potential danger of industrial areas (and there are environmental justice issues with who lives near dirty industry). What a city can produce also depends on what it wishes to prioritise, for example, does it want to invest a lot of land in car-dominated transport, or can it reclaim land for all kinds of productive purposes? Does it have the energy available to relocalise more of its production, or is it willing to invest in building such capacity?And governments and business love to talk about the circular economy, and recycling, but if you’re not making locally, if you’re not providing a way for things to be produced and materials to be remade locally, you don’t have a circular economy.

    Most cities could readily produce more of their own furniture, utensils, fixtures and fittings, appliances, equipment/tools, textiles and clothing – as cities once did anyway before cheap fossil fuels allowed production to sprawl across the globe. But not all cities can or would want to make more complex artefacts like aircraft, which require specialised skills and facilities. It is likely that some kinds of manufacturing will still require an economy of scale – regional, or national, but not necessarily international. It depends on the size of the city; the skills of the workforce; whether the city values local production and associated economic and social benefits over windfalls derived from property speculation; and what its policy and incentive frameworks prioritise, though these are often influenced by national policy.

    Each city will have its own unique way of addressing this, however here are some suggestions:

    Build the understanding and buy-in to get people invested in the idea. Determine how you can best communicate what cosmolocalism means, and articulate the benefits for different interest groups – why would they want to pursue this, what’s the story to engage them with?
    Make an inventory or map of what locally productive capacity already exists, both formal and informal.
    Know when and why local production might not be the best option for a certain activity.
    Keep the emphasis on people and culture first – and then appropriate technology. Give at least as much emphasis to the role of ownership and underlying economic DNA in local production as to the flow of physical materials.
    Appreciate that innovation occurs and is being practised by people who do not identify with the language of innovation, who might not see themselves as entrepreneurs or makers or agents of change. Recognise that remarkable, innovative activity occurs in unexpected places – outside the boundaries of ‘innovation districts’ where, all too often, business and government and the big end of town have determined ‘this is what innovation looks like, who does it, here’s where it happens’ because you will miss many voices, many ideas, and a big part of what’s going on in your city.
    Take some calculated risks – you can’t be innovative, or achieve anything audacious, without it!
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  2. “If everyone was to behave like us then the world would be a better place — we would be able to get rid of guilt, inequality, competition, greed and anger.”“If we all ate less and were less materialistic the world would be a better place.” “Only by changing ourselves can we change the world, by our living example.”

    This is the one foundational belief system of every intentional community that all members can agree on. This was also the justification that the hippies used for practically everything. The theory goes like this: Instead of acting in the world, all you have to do is become a peaceful, non-violent person — a model human, and others will follow your model. This is how you change the world, by focusing entirely upon yourself.

    The results of this experiment are, generations later, clear — changing yourself became a vast industry of self-help books and courses, dietary, fitness and personal “spiritual” planning regimes — a form of obsessive self-focusing and self-policing, which, it turns out, corporations are very happy to encourage.

    The Final Test of the Blank Slate: Children

    There is one other final and hard-to-face factor that is an unintended consequences of Utopian alternative parenting experiments. There is a reason that the average life of a Utopian project is the time to takes to settle and begin to raise children.

    Children are the authoritative test of the theory that humans are born a blank slate and that all behavior is conditioned “by society” — of Rousseau’s potent idea that man is “born free but is everywhere in chains.” Children of Utopians should behave very differently than “old world” children, because they have been brought as blank slates into an egalitarian environment, and have been raised with positivist behavioral conditioning.

    But the children of Utopians fail every test: they are selfish, they grab and steal, they fight, and love competitive sports, they bully and they lie — just like all other children. Lying, it turns out, is a necessary developmental stage in learning. These naturally dishonest, violent creatures disprove the theory of human mind as a blank slate upon which images of perfection can be drawn.

    As the behaviorist J. B. Skinner (creator of Walden Two) realized, you can’t pass what you’ve learned on through your DNA so any achievements in equality achieved have to be repeated from scratch. Utopian behavioral engineering is an ongoing struggle against something that Utopians deny even exists — human nature. Not only are Utopian parents horrified by the little dictators that they have spawned, they find that they themselves have horrible anti-Utopian cravings to put their children above all the others. The maternal bond and the need for privacy also seem to be pan-cultural. Children brought up communally suffer neglect, as other adults find ways of refusing to care for children that are not their own. The lack of childcare and of constancy in who is “mother and father” leads to kids not being taken care of at all, falling between the cracks, leading to abuse and damaged children. People care a lot more for their own kids than they do for other kids as an obligation. One frequently hears Utopians complaining that someone else’s children are ruining everything.

    As for mothers — we discovered after the 1970s that “free love” communes turn into coercive systems in which women are forced to sleep with men they don’t want to. They also lead to male dominated harems. John Humphrey Noyes, the father of “perfectionism” and “complex marriage” fathered 58 children in his commune in the 1850s. Another Utopian collective in Holland was so radical that it’s male leader removed the age of consent and slept with his own daughters and those of other parents. While, the Friedrich’s Hoff Commune, led by Viennese performance art guru, Otto Muehl, collapsed with Muehl being given a “seven year prison sentence for widespread sexual abuse of minors.” Variations on this sickening story have been repeated with convicted sex offender and cult leader William Kamm and Warren Jeffs with his “50 brides.” When a charismatic leader takes control and demands that others de-condition themselves, exploitation is tolerated and then becomes the norm. All of this is done, with the coercive Utopian alibi that all capitalist and patriarchal behaviors and boundaries must be swept away. Auroville, which attempts to be government-free, and money-free, has been plagued with growing reports of the crimes of Sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and murder.

    No matter how much Utopian communities try to get rid of the idea of sexual ownership — the female desire to chose a mate may be a constant for our species. It does however ensure the continuation of competitive behaviors, which leads us once again to hierarchies. To get rid of this, female choice would have to be stopped, a process that we associate with cultures that are oppressive.

    The Shakers who were celibate and only adopted children became extinct after their adopted children refused to adopt the rules of Shakerism. The Harmony Society died out because it refused to reproduce. And the experiment in Fourierirsm known as Brook Farm ended after with many child related problems, one of which being when the children refused to be placed at the bottom of the Fourierist redistribution hierarchy and were forced to clean the toilets.

    So many intentional communities create trouble for themselves by trying to replace the nuclear and extended family structure with other forms of mating and child rearing, only to find that mothers and children simply want to leave.

    Intentions Are Not Enough

    One of the great mistakes we make in interpersonal behavior, is to judge people by their intentions and not by the real outcome of those intentions. To let them off with saying “we meant well.” The same is true for wider society and the many and repeated failures of applying Utopian ideas to reality are nearly always excused by the same means — people say “but we meant well” or “it’s still a good idea, it just hasn’t worked in practice yet.”

    It could be that the greatest failing of intentional communities is contained within this very formulation. A community that is based upon declaring intentions is apt to be fearful of outcomes that would disprove those good intentions and invalidate them. So, the burying of facts about failure (moral, practical, political) would appear to be one of the secret tasks of those who live by intentions alone, who, rather than trying to address problems as they arise would rather bury the results, hide the outcomes and continue as if good intentions were all that was required. It is precisely this denial of outcomes that leads intentional communities to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Good intentions are clearly not enough but we shall undoubtedly continue to witness the communities of those who live by the constant re-affirmation of good intentions alone, continuing to fail and to bury the evidence of their failure in order to “keep on believing.” A result of this is that intentional communities will not learn from their mistakes, and will keep on springing up, not as a force that will gather momentum or lead to progress as we move through history, but as a ceaseless eruption of the same good intentions beset by the same systemic problems and doomed by internal contradictions to fail, all over again.
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  3. the mirror combines high efficiency with minimal material requirements and therefore has the possibility to become a mass-produced economical workhorse for various applications such as around-the-clock cooking and operating as a decentralized multi-functional power source.

    We left the conference not only with appreciation for our work, but also with concrete proposals for further cooperation in developing the prototype to market-readiness.

    The knowledge and certainty gained by working with the technology and seeing it functioning – melting metal, cooking for 15 people long after sunset, resisting wind and rain – confirms the importance of creating a working demonstration model of the mirror.
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  4. “I’ve also met a mayor who is determined to revitalize his small town and bring in new businesses.”

    This can’t work. There are thousands of small towns that are losing population. If they are all competing to attract new businesses, be prepared for massive abuses by Business. None of them will pay taxes.

    The guy moving back after MIT and Microsoft sounds nice but certainly isn’t scalable. The more education people get, the less likely they are to move to a rural area. This is one of the reasons why there is a doctor shortage in rural America even though doctors make more is absolute dollars, not to mention after cost of living in rural areas. They have to work non-stop in rural places, send their kids to mediocre schools, have nothing to do socially and be isolated from others with their education level. You can’t get many immigrant doctors out there either because they risk getting treated like crap.
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  5. There has been a lot of debate about the real benefits of local production, especially that last-mile delivery is more harmful to the environment than the benefits it brings. In your experience, what is the ecological footprint of a product that has been globally designed and locally manufactured?

    Any production that is not hyperlocal ie. from materials sourced within a very short supply chain, has to find its way to the consumer somehow. With respect to environmental concern, the ‘last mile’ is a question of the existing production paradigm finding the most efficient and low carbon way to achieve its objective. I’m not sure that the last mile debate concerning the most carbon-efficient delivery by a globalised supply system can be compared to local production. Local production will have ‘last miles’ (and more energy used in transportation, depending on where the materials were sourced for the production), but in general, I’d be less worried about lots of last miles from local production, than many more tens of thousands of miles of transportation required with ‘remote’ production.

    It’s also worth noting that shipping is responsible for 17% of global emissions, but neither shipping and aviation are accounted for in international climate change negotiations due to the difficulty in allocating emissions ie. do they belong to the producing or consuming country? In general, local has many benefits, but it’s simplistic to assume local always equals ‘good’. It depends on so many things, for example, is the activity occurring in a water-scarce environment? How intensive is the production? Is the power source for the products generated from renewable energy?

    Life-cycle analysis (LCA) is one way of assessing the ecological cost-benefit of different methods of production, but it can get quite complicated. Descriptions can offer a sense of the impacts, however, measuring these and making the trade-offs is less clear and requires not only a lot of data but a lot of consideration and interpretation.

    Before even considering ecological footprints of production, one of the first things cities could do is look into ‘boomerang trade’ – the new economics foundation produced a report on this activity in the UK, where similar goods are being traded and transported across continents, or across the globe. There are also ridiculous examples, such as what I have dubbed ‘frequent flyer prawns’ – shrimp being flown to Thailand from Scotland, and then back because the labour needed to shell them is cheaper in Thailand.

    Trade used to be about genuine comparative advantage. If economics is supposed to be about the efficient allocation of resources, and this is what our systems of economics are incentivising, then we need new economics.

    Cosmo localism, or ‘design global, manufacture local’, certainly has some overlap with ‘glocalisation’, or the adaptation of globally marketed products to local culture, in that a shared global design can be replicated (or adapted then produced) locally. But by whom, and how?

    Glocalisation is about the top-down marketing of consumer products designed remotely, in a centralised way and then tweaked for local culture. Cosmolocalism, or Design Global Manufacture Local (DG-ML) is based on a different production logic, as explained by Jose Ramos and Chris Giotitsas in ‘A New Model of Production for a New Economy’:

    Traditionally corporate enterprises have solely owned the intellectual property (IP) they employ in the production of goods. They source the materials for the goods through national or global supply chains. They manufacture those goods using economies of scale in a set number of manufacturing centres, whereupon those finished goods are delivered nationally or globally.

    DG-ML is an inversion of this production logic. First of all, the IP is open, whether open source or creative commons or copy fair, so it can be used by anyone. Secondly, manufacturing and production can be done independently of the IP, by any community or enterprise around the world that wants to.
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  6. The business model is unusually communal. The field is “open” in the sense that he sells his produce to 320 people in the immediate neighborhood, who each pay between €220 and €320 per year, depending on their income, for the right to come and harvest food on his land.

    “The important thing is that everyone can join and the strongest can bear the heaviest weight,” Troonbeeckx said, recounting that part of the motivation behind his socially supportive model came from seeing his mother left far worse off after his parents divorced.

    “Since I’m not into international markets or the multinational economic system, I can create my own economy,” he said, looking out over a field of pumpkins and winter salad leaves.

    Troonbeeckx’s farm, though nowhere near as big, follows a similar ethic.

    He employs complex rotational methods that allow his cows to eat the grass, fertilize the soil and then change location to a new pasture so that vegetables can be planted using his newly-enriched soil. But getting such projects off the ground is much harder than it looks — in his first years of farming, he had to work in a restaurant just to makes ends meet.

    “Only people who have dreamt of being a farmer since a child should do it. It’s something that burns deep insides,” Troonbeeckx said. “If that fire does not burn then do not do it.”
    Tags: , , , by M. Fioretti (2018-01-04)
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  7. This report examines using human waste as feedstock in a small-scale bioreactor to produce methane gas for cooking and heating. While the use of biogas produced from livestock manure is commonplace, I am interested in the feasibility of building a household reactor that instead utilizes human waste as its primary input.
    Tags: , , by M. Fioretti (2017-11-20)
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  8. Biogas from human waste, safely obtained under controlled circumstances using innovative technologies, is a potential fuel source great enough in theory to generate electricity for up to 138 million households – the number of households in Indonesia, Brazil, and Ethiopia combined.

    A report today from UN University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health estimates that biogas potentially available from human waste worldwide would have a value of up to US$ 9.5 billion in natural gas equivalent.

    And the residue, dried and charred, could produce 2 million tonnes of charcoal-equivalent fuel, curbing the destruction of trees.

    Finally, experts say, the large energy value would prove small relative to that of the global health and environmental benefits that would accrue from the proper universal treatment of human waste.

    “Rather than treating our waste as a major liability, with proper controls in place we can use it in several circumstances to build innovative and sustained financing for development while protecting health and improving our environment in the process,” according to the report, “Valuing Human Waste as an Energy Resource.”

    The report uses average waste volume statistics, high and low assumptions for the percentage of concentrated combustable solids contained (25 – 45%), its conversion into biogas and charcoal-like fuel and their thermal equivalents (natural gas and charcoal), to calculate the potential energy value of human waste.

    Biogas, approximately 60% methane by volume, is generated through the bacterial breakdown of faecal matter, and any other organic matter, in an oxygen free (anaerobic) system.

    Dried and charred faecal sludge, meanwhile, has energy content similar to coal and charcoal.

    UN figures show that 2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation facilities and almost 1 billion people (about 60% of them in India) don’t use toilets at all, defecating instead in the open.

    If the waste of only those practicing open defecation was targeted, the financial value of biogas potentially generated exceeds US$ 200 million per year and could reach as high as $376 million. The energy value would equal that of the fuel needed to generate electricity for 10 million to 18 million local households. Processing the residual faecal sludge, meanwhile, would yield the equivalent of 4.8 million to 8.5 million tonnes of charcoal to help power industrial furnaces, for example.
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  9. How far do you have to go to get water? If you simply have to walk into the bathroom or kitchen, you’re one of the luckiest people in the world. In developing countries, getting water involves walking an average of three miles round trip, carrying a jug weighing about 40 pounds on the way back. In areas suffering from drought, the walk can be 15 miles or more. That’s hard to imagine, but for people living in these regions, there’s no other way. The job of collecting water often falls to women and children, taking up large portions of their time and keeping them away from other pursuits, like education.
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  10. Although the analysis above has much room for refinement and development in context and household specific ways, it has been demonstrated that what we have called low-tech options have the potential to significantly reduce the energy intensity (and water intensity) of our ways of living. Our personal experience practising all of these low-tech options at times, many of them often, and some of them always, also gives us confidence that the results above are broadly correct. Indeed, when low-tech ‘demand side’ strategies are applied in conjunction with hi-tech ‘supply side’ strategies (e.g. solar PV), our personal experience confirms that people can be net-producers of renewable electricity, provided ordinary consumption of electricity is significantly reduced. Moreover, we know that this can be done without diminishing quality of life, although low-tech practices do often demand a greater time investment than their conventional alternatives, which can call for broader lifestyle changes to accommodate this increased time commitment.
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