In Part 3 of his how to build your own aquaponics greenhouse adventure, Root Cause Organic’s Pete Blunsdon covers the all important growing media, the plants and the fish.
The choice of growing media is between ‘cheap and heavy’ and ‘light and expensive’. A lot of people use gravel or granite stone chippings but this does add a lot to the weight and I was worried my frame wouldn’t take it. So I went for the expensive option – expanded clay pebbles. These are super lightweight spherical pebbles (a bit like Maltesers) that are made by super heating clay (apparently). Clay pebbles contain lots of tiny air bubbles which means a lot of surface area for the bacteria to cling to.
You can buy these by the pallet load or in 45 litre sacks like I did. They’re not cheap – I paid around £15 a sack – and needed 14 to get a reasonable depth in the grow beds. Next time, I’d get a 1,000 litre pallet load. The pebbles come covered in a thick red dust so there’s plenty of washing needed before they go in the grow beds.
Washing clay pebbles in the middle of winter isn’t fun, but eventually they went in and it was time to start cycling the system. I’ve read that the best way of doing this is to add some ammonia to kick-start the bacteria. In the end I just ran the pump for a couple of weeks. We also planted some tomatoes, peppers and lettuce to help them get established by the time the fish went in. Obviously at this point there were no nutrients in the system but the plants didn’t seem to mind for this short period.
The plants were just regular ‘plugs’ that came from the local garden centre that come in potted in compost and most likely some fertiliser. When using plants like this it’s important to remove all the soil from the roots – if left, the soil would clog up the system, and the fertiliser would probably be harmful to the fish. The soil washes off pretty easily in a bucket of water and the naked roots can then be buried in the clay pebbles.
After two weeks (and a bit more planting) the plants were looking good and not minding the absence of soil.
It felt the right time to add some fish… A friend had recommended Live Tilapia Supplier. They supply tilapia in a range of sizes to restaurants, commercial aquaponics businesses like Grow Up Urban Farms as well as hobbyists. They can deliver by post (!) but we chose to collect in person, partly as we were interested to see the place. Kawthar who runs this, is a delightful guy and gave us a tour of the facility – a small operation based under railway arches in Beckton, East London. This is certainly not where you’d expect to find a fish farm!
We were soon back on the M25 with a bin bag full of 40 tilapia in a range of sizes from 1-3 inches. After gradually acclimatising them to the fish tank water, they were released and happily exploring their new home.
With the introduction of fish waste to the system, the bacteria cycle was able to start properly. The plants seemed to appreciate having something to eat at last and the growth just two weeks after the fish were added was pretty impressive.
Three weeks on and we were self-sufficient in salad crops. The tomatoes, peppers and chillis were getting strong and we were starting to think we should have added more headroom for growth…
And the fish have grown up a bit too – the video below shows the tilapia after 6 months in the system.
Tilapia in the greenhouse aquaponics system - YouTube
That brings us almost up to date. In the next post I’ll reflect on what went well and what we’d do differently. And then it’ll be back into geek mode to cover the monitoring and control system!
Missed out on Part 1 or Part 2? You can catch up by following the links.
About the author
Pete runs Root Cause Organics, an experimental microholding in Buckinghamshire, alongside Ayesha. Having started out as a scientist and an engineer and despite selling their souls to IT, they haven’t lost their passion for learning and building. Together they aim to save the world, one over-engineered project at a time. You can read more about their work and find a link to their blog here.
On the NonCorporate blog, we’ll be interviewing people who are out there building a non-corporate economy on the ground right now. We’ll be finding out exactly what they’re doing, what they’ve achieved, what problems they face and what they’d like to see change – and we’ll be asking them how we might co-ordinate the non-corporate sector to punch above our weight.
First in line is Jon Halle of Sharenergy, a co-operative helping set up community energy schemes around the country.
NonCorporate: what do you do?
Jon: We’re helping people to set up, own and run their own community-owned energy societies. That’s generally a group of people, perhaps in a small town, who would like to own and run some wind turbines nearby, or a hydro-power plant nearby, or some solar panels in a field or on roofs, or some sort of low-carbon heating system for their village or town.
That’s usually how it starts. Then typically they bring in a wider group of people, sometimes all locals, and sometimes people from across the UK, who like the sound of the project, and want to put in some money or other forms of support. So a co-operative energy society is organised, under the banner of what’s come to be known as community energy.
There are community energy societies all over the UK – from Cornwall to the Shetlands, via Wales and lots of communities across England. é
The first generation of these projects were large wind turbines, and then there was a second phase, with the introduction of the ‘feed-in tariff’ – a government support scheme providing money that made the scheme work for solar, medium-scale wind and hyrdo projects too. That provided a real boost, and lots of local projects were developed. Now we’re involved with searching for the next phase – community energy 3.0 if you like, as government support is being withdrawn (see below).
NC: why do you do it?
The main reason is that it puts energy into the hands of normal people. Plus, like any community project, it tends to bring people together – and often people who might not already know each other, and who will be coming to the project for very different reasons. Some might be attracted to the community aspects, others to the engineering challenge, others for non-corporate reasons, or because they like co-ops, for energy security, for environmental reasons, or just for the investment opportunity. They can bring together Tory MPs, retired engineers and environmental activists in ways that not many projects can.
It also provides ordinary people with ownership of energy infrastructure. This isn’t even happening via the state now, and it’s down to the enormous scales involved. There’s very little in terms of energy infrastructure that we can put our hands on and say that it belongs to us. It’s happening, slowly, and people really want it – they want to be able to have some control over the core services that they depend on in their locality.
Then there are the investment opportunities. If energy companies are unpopular, then banks are even more unpopular, and so when people realise that they can get a better return from investing in a community energy scheme than putting their money in a bank, they’re very happy to do it.
And finally, of course, there’s carbon. I think that a lot of people, quite rightly, feel that not enough is being done to reduce carbon emissions, and so they want be part of something that’s happening, even if it’s relatively small.
There have been a lot of successes – some of them quite surprising. Some projects have failed, but the majority of projects that have been started by communities have actually come to fruition, and so there are wind turbines – mostly in Scotland and Wales, but some in England too – that are owned by co-operatives. Some have been running for a long time – some to the point that they have come to the end of their life and have been replaced.
There’s a huge range of community buildings (and also non-community buildings) that are now covered in solar panels that are owned by members of the local community. Brighton solar, for example (not one of our projects, but I’m talking about the whole movement now), are very interesting because they own solar panels that are on community buildings and some that are on commercial warehouses as well. They may well be the biggest owner of solar power in Brighton.
There are lots of innovative projects too – like community heat projects, or the Energy Local projects in Wales, where people can effectively buy electricity directly from their local hydro scheme (more below).
Talking about renewables generally, I always tell people that there’s a nearby country that produces over half of its electricity from renewables. People think I’m talking about Denmark, but I’m not – I’m talking about Scotland. But we’re still scratching the surface. There’s enough of a renewable resource out there to run the whole of Scotland, and ultimately, everywhere, on renewables, I’m sure. We just need to get out there and do it. There’s more of a challenge coming as vehicles switch to electric, but it still has to be done.
NC: what problems do you face?
Government support has now effectively (and literally) been withdrawn. The feed-in tariff is ending in March next year, and there’s no hint of a replacement – and we don’t think there will be one. So there will almost definitely be no form of subsidy for renewable energy at all, whether owned by a community energy group, a corporation or a household.
It’s going to be difficult for schemes using the current model to be financially viable. Hydro-power schemes will be the first casualty, in that hydro projects require quite a lot of subsidy in most locations in order to add up. They’re quite expensive, apart from the usual compliance with regulations – for example, if the National Grid needs an upgrade in a remote location to cope with the input from a new energy project, then the project will have to pay for that upgrade. This can often be a major part of the cost.
Then for hydro, there may be other costs. The Environment Agency might approve a hydro project, but require that a fish pass be built – a structure that lets fish swim up a weir. In some cases this might double the cost of the project.
Another major problem is that it’s difficult for local groups to provide energy directly to their members. Groups have to sell the electricity they generate to the energy companies via the National Grid (for around 5p per unit), and their members have to buy it back via the National Grid (for over 15p per unit).
It’s important to understand that ultimately, it’s down to us. We can’t rely on government subsidies, or even regulation. We – as in everybody who’s interested – have to do it ourselves. That’s what NonCorporate is all about, isn’t it? And community energy groups have managed to do it too – albeit on a small scale, and very localised. But nevertheless, we’ve had people investing significant sums of money, because they believe in this, and it works. It would be nice if we had government support, but we can’t let it stop us if we don’t get it.
In terms of financial viability, we might have to start thinking a bit bigger. Instead of community energy co-ops covering a village, maybe we should be thinking in terms of community energy covering counties or regions, to compete with the big energy companies and get really good prices, to attract a bigger customer base, and to mobilise an army of volunteers to help get solar panels on as many roofs as possible. Volunteers could find the roofs locally, and convince their owners to get panels on them. We have to be careful not to take away the local responsibility and the pleasure of doing something in the community, so the key thing is to try to find the balance between the scale we need, and the local involvement. That’s what we’re trying to do at Sharenergy.
Hydro is problematic for the near future, as mentioned above (althought there may be exceptions in the Scottish Highlands or parts of Wales, but I don’t see new lowland schemes happening soon); and planning permission for large wind turbines seems only feasible in Scotland or Wales at the moment. There’s effectively a planning moratorium on wind across the whole of England. 10:10 are running a campaign on this – because most people don’t know about it, and wouldn’t agree with it.
The Energy Local model in North Wales is being used to solve the problem of not being able to provide electricity to members locally. In Bethesda, locals are using this model to obtain electricity directly from their local co-operatively-owned hydro scheme. This model is genuinely innovative – they’ve managed to persuade the electricity distribution authorities to allow them to tap into the network on the basis that they can reduce overall demand and provide energy security locally. They don’t have a mini-grid – they’re using the existing National Grid to do this. Now the National Grid is heavily, and understandably hedged around with regulation, but they’re managing to get in there and negotiate the delivery of the electricity that they generate to local homes.
But this problem is being overcome slowly I think, as new solutions come online. We’re moving very slowly to a system where, instead of having centralised power stations with electricity radiating from them, we’re building a system where electricity generation might happen at different points on the network – moving to more of a web structure rather than spokes coming out from a central point. Community energy schemes are very influential in this movement.
NC: overall, are you optimistic about community energy?
Yes. OK, progress is slow and difficult, but often, things that happen quickly then disappear quickly too. We don’t want to be a fad – we want solid, sustainable foundations.
But we know now that it works. It’s not a juggernaut that’s taking over the energy sector (yet), but lots of communities all over the country have now set up their own energy schemes, people have invested in it, and are getting healthy returns, and people have been involved with their time and their hearts. It works, which is very encouraging. The trick now is to scale it up.
Also, no-one is actually against community energy – no-one is saying that it’s a bad idea. You might even have people who work in the corporate energy sector, who also have shares in a community energy scheme, or are involved in setting one up. No-one is actually opposing us.
At the moment, the delivery of energy is dominated by thinking about power stations that are on all the time, but that’s not how renewables work, and it’s not how demand works. I think future energy delivery will be much more flexible and versatile, in ways that suit renewables and community energy.
We have Economy 7 at the moment for example, heating up storage heaters at night, cheaply – because of nuclear power stations, that are on all the time, including at night, when demand is low. So Economy 7 is a very simple idea for matching electricity demand and supply. But what I foresee is a grid over the next 30-50 years where those sorts of arrangements become much more subtle and much more responsive. The general term is the ‘smart grid’, where, instead of pumping loads of electricity in willy-nilly, when you can do it, and using electricity when you want it, we start to question whether we need to use the electricity right now, or could we switch this big appliance on when it’s windy, or sunny, rather than just when we feel like it. If the price is much lower, then this is a good incentive to change habits.
Small, local grids could be part of this, especially in more remote locations. But I think that a lot of people come from a ‘Small is Beautiful’ angle, and consider the National Grid to be a big, lumbering thing, and that we should federate into small networks. I’m not sure this is true. A big misconception about the National Grid is that there are huge losses in transmission. For example, people might say that the Grid is only 30% efficient, and this is true if you take the whole, end-to-end efficiency from a coal-fired power station – i.e. you put in 100 units of energy in coal, and by the time it comes out of your plug socket, there’s only 35% of it available.
But almost all of those losses happen in the coal-fired power station. The main transmission system – the pylons that run up and down the country – loses about 3%. It’s quite efficient. It’s in fossil fuel generation that the real problems arise. So I think that the way forward is for community energy schemes to generate energy, but distribute it via the National Grid, rather than focusing on building local distribution networks. It also allows renewable energy to be delivered from where it’s generated to where people are. So, for example, people in London who buy renewable energy from Co-op Energy, their nearest large sources of renewable energy are offshore off the Kent coast (the London Array), or on land – Westmill, near Swindon. The good places for wind and hydro are often a long way from cities.
NC: where can the public get non-corporate energy
Co-op Energy has an agreement with Bethesda community energy group (mentioned above), to buy the electricity produced locally, and sell it to members of the group. So local customers can sign up to a special tariff with Co-op Energy to get much cheaper electricity at the times that their hydro scheme is running. This is a pilot project, and Co-op Energy are doing a lot of work to enable this to happen, and Energy Local are doing more trials.
Co-op Energy also allows anyone to purchase electricity generated by community energy schemes, although you won’t get the discounts that local members of the schemes do. Co-op Energy is the place to go first, really, if you want non-corporate energy.
There’s also a new crop of local-authority-sponsored energy suppliers, like Bristol Energy, who are connected to existing community energy groups. Robin Hood Energy in Notts is another one, as is Our Power in Scotland.
NC: can we co-ordinate the non-corporate sector to punch above our weight?
I think co-ordination is important. We mustn’t rely too much on governments to do the right thing. If they want to help, great, but we mustn’t expect it. I wrote articles recently for Stir magazine, and found myself constantly fighting the urge just to sound off about the government’s terrible renewables policy, which of course means the government is still setting the agenda – and we have to move beyond that as well. It’s fine to say that we have to do things, but now it’s time to up the speed a bit. It’s all going too slowly. Any initiative that helps to bring more people in has to be a good idea.
One way that the non-corporate sector might be co-ordinated is through volunteering. We already have this for organic farming, with the WWOOF organisation. It’s almost part of the business plan of every organic smallholding to host WWOOF volunteers now. Maybe this could be the case for the non-corporate sector. For example, I’d like to get ten local people together in a town, who are interested in spreading renewables, and ask them to go to all the buildings in town with a big roof, to ask if they will host community energy solar panels. I’d like to train them up so that they can talk knowledgeably. People who know their local area would be by far the best people for this role.
I also think that we need to rebuild some sense of a movement. When I first got involved in the Green movement in the UK, there were really exciting initiatives like Reclaim the Streets, road protests etc. – quite rowdy and good fun for a young person. But there were older people involved too, coming from the peace movement, or just through personal interest. It felt like a continuum, but with a new edge. I don’t think we have this feeling in Britain today, because we haven’t found a way to knit things together for mass participation, and involving lots of different kinds of people – because climate change is going to affect everybody.
Spread the word – get friends and family doing these things too.
Help start a community energy scheme. There are so many aspects to attract lots of different kinds of people to this. There’s the engineering side, there’s the community side, there’s the finance side, there’s the sustainability aspect, the promotional aspect or the co-operative aspect. If you think you’d like to set up a local community energy scheme, get a group of local people together and let’s talk.
Roxy Piper tells us all about this year’s Off Grid Festival, taking place from 9-12th August in the historic Tapeley Park and Gardens in North Devon, with the theme of Seven Generation Stewardship.
Off Grid Festival 2018, 9-12th August, Tapeley Park, Instow, North Devon
War. Hatred. Murder. Displacement. Climate Change. Environmental destruction. Planetary collapse. These are the stories we hear all too often in the news and it’s not an exaggeration to say that many of us feel in a near perpetual state of despair. While the skills we offer leave us exhausted, according to the mainstream media we are still not working hard enough. However, we believe there is a solution. At Off Grid Festival, we’re telling new stories of collaborative systems and resilient living, stories where Another World is Possible.
While the establishment picture looks grim, those of us working towards a different paradigm see that all over the world, people are coming together in the service of lasting change. The Permaculture movement, Transition Towns, Ecovillages, Farmers’ Markets, Natural Builders, Local, independent traders and much, much more. At Off Grid Festival, we gather some of the most inspiring examples of these changes in a family-oriented weekend of learning, fun and celebration. As well as practical workshops like willow weaving, biochar-making, food growing and green woodworking, we create space for deep-dive thinking and progressive discussion, all organised using a contemporary, inclusive, collaborative leadership model.
Seven Generation Stewardship
This is the theme of this year’s Festival and our new site at Tapeley Park in North Devon is a great example of how land can be held for the common good. Tapeley is proud to have developed one of the country’s most long-standing permaculture gardens and their on-site cafe will be open during the Festival for nutritious, organic, pesticide-free meals and snacks.
OFF GRID FESTIVAL - YouTube
Resilience College – A 12 module course in practical sustainability and appropriate technology from the ‘Association of Resilient Living.
Wild Woods nature immersion experience for all the family. Carving, archery, foraging, painting and sculpting using natural materials.
Serenity Zone mental and physical well-being zone. Massage, yoga, one-to-one sessions and group workshops.
Live Music – Words, tunes, poets and musicians to soothe the soul and ignite the ideas.
NEW! Permaculture Hub – A space for connecting and networking. And for anyone curious about permaculture.
Whichever way you like to approach this new paradigm, you will come away inspired and revived. At Off Grid Festival 2018, Another World is Possible.
Pete Blunsdon of Root Cause Organics continues his series of guest posts about how to build your own aquaponics greenhouse. In Part 2, he gets to grips with the all important plumbing.
* Geekery warning * Apparently, this post is heavy on technical detail and somewhat light on comedic anecdotes. (Personally, I’m ok with that.)
After the assembly work described in Part 1 was complete it was time to get to work on the plumbing. This system uses a single submersible pump that’s permanently running 24 x 7. As it’s on all the time, power consumption was obviously a key factor and I was pleased to find this a Jebao Jecod super low wattage XOR-5000 garden pond pump for just under £60. This has a flow rate of 5,000 litres/hour and uses a mere 22w.
This is the process I went through to size the pump:
Assume the grow bed volume is around 300 litres (third of an IBC), but half of the volume is the growing media. So there’s about 150 litres in each grow bed
If this grow bed floods and drains every 15 minutes then that’s 600 litres per hour
There are two grow beds so that’s 1,200 litres an hour
Allow a 50% expansion factor (for vertical growing or an additional bed) which makes the total grow bed water supply at 1,800 litres per hour
The fish tank is 1,000 litres and the general recommendation is that all of this should be cycled once an hour
So that makes a total of 2,800 litres per hour
Driven by the need to over-engineer, the 5,000 litres / hour pump was the natural choice. The pump raises the sump water to a valve assembly where the flow to the grow beds and fish tank can be regulated. The pipework was 1.5″ PVC pressure pipe pictured at the top of this post (from koilogic.co.uk) – this is expensive but a joy to work with.
The outflow from the grow beds is through a 1″ standpipe which passes through the bottom of the IBC. This standpipe is part of the auto-siphon – more of this below. The hole through which the pipe passes is made water tight using a “uniseal” rubber bulkhead adapter. It’s pretty scary making a hole in your precious grow bed so it’s a good idea to practice on some offcuts first. The uniseal fit is incredibly tight but with a bit of wiggling it was eventually possible to get the pipe to pass through.
To make the auto-siphon I then made up a bell housing using 2″ PVC pipe, and the whole thing was kept free of the growing media using a gravel guard – in this case a section of 4″ plastic soil pipe with slots cut to allow the flow of water. Each of the components are shown in the photo below. To assemble, the bell housing is dropped over the standpipe and gravel guard placed around that.
Once the water level reaches the top of the standpipe it flows down the standpipe, so it’s the height of the standpipe that dictates the maximum height of water in the grow bed.
Auto siphons are awesome. They’re the vital components that make the grow beds flood and drain every 15-20 minutes. And they do this without power, switches or pumps, completely automatically. So why do we need a flood and drain system? Whilst some plants (like lettuce) can grow with their roots permanently submerged, others like to get a bit of air to them. Flooding the grow bed then letting the water drain out draws oxygen down to the roots and creates an environment for the bacteria to thrive in. The auto siphon consists of three main components:
The standpipe that pokes through the base of the grow bed
A bell housing that fits over it
A gravel guard that prevents the growing media from clogging things up
The height of the standpipe dictates the maximum level of the water in the grow bed. When the level reaches the top of the pipe, it overflows down the pipe and into the sump tank underneath. The water is drawn up through cut-outs at the base of the bell housing and flows down into the downpipe. As the flows down the standpipe, it creates a siphon effect, drawing more water up through the cut-outs. The siphon then goes into full flood mode, emptying the whole grow bed quickly, until air gets drawn into the tube, breaking the siphon. At this point the outflow ceases and the grow bed gradually fills up again. There’s an excellent paper on auto siphons at http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/bio-10.pdf – highly recommended.
I used a 1 inch tube for the standpipe with a uniseal through the base of the grow bed. A 2 inch tube with a glued-on end cap formed the bell housing. The gravel guard was a section of 4 inch soil pipe with slots cut in it using a table saw for the water to flow through. The bell housing also features a ‘snorkel’ – a piece of flexible tubing that helps to break the siphon went the water is emptied. There’s more on all of this in the design paper linked above. Once fitted it was time to test the auto siphons worked as expected before adding the the growing media. In this time lapse you can see the flood and drain process in action:
Testing the grow bed flood and drain system - YouTube
Next up is the swirl filter – made from a 60 litre blue plastic barrel (around £20). The idea here is that water comes into the barrel at an angle causing the water to swirl round. As it does so, solids (fish poo and any uneaten food granules) gradually sink to the bottom. The outflow is taken from the top centre of the barrel where the water is cleanest.
The final bit of plumbing is for the fish tank. The inflow is fed from the valve assembly and incorporates a spray bar to help break the surface tension and thereby oxygenate the water. The outflow pipe draws water up from the bottom of the IBC and feeds the swirl filter through a bulkhead seal (uniseal) near the top of the tank. This helps remove any solids that accumulate in the tank.
That’s the plumbing completed. Well done if you made it this far. In the next post I’ll cover the growing media, plants and (finally) fish!
About the author
Pete runs Root Cause Organics, an experimental microholding in Buckinghamshire, alongside Ayesha. Having started out as a scientist and an engineer and despite selling their souls to IT, they haven’t lost their passion for learning and building. Together they aim to save the world, one over-engineered project at a time. You can read more about their work and find a link to their blog here.
We’re pleased to announce the launch of NonCorporate.org – our sister site, dedicated to helping people move away from multinational corporations (MNCs) for everything they need.
We’ve simplified, and co-ordinated in one place, all the ways that you can switch to non-corporate institutions like co-ops, community energy, community-supported agriculture, mutual societies, and sole traders for the essentials of life.
We’re not about ‘greening’ MNCs, giving workers ‘a voice’ or making MNCs appear ‘socially responsible’ – we’re just about providing alternatives, so that you don’t have to use them at all.
The non-corporate economy includes credit unions…..
We’re not coming from a ‘left-wing’ perspective. This is nothing to do with the state, and it’s all about a free market – but a market consisting of businesses that are owned by the people who work in them. In fact, this is the only way that a market can be free, rather than rigged in favour of MNCs.
It means that wealth stays in local communities, rather than being sucked out to pay shareholders. Shares do exist in the non-corporate sector, but they’re community shares, that give a reasonable but limited return on investments, can’t be sold for more than they were purchased for, and don’t give you more votes the more you have.
So non-corporate businesses are democratic, and they don’t have to continually grow to satisfy investors, so they’re sustainable too. And we don’t think a democratic, sustainable society is possible if the institutions that comprise it aren’t themselves democratic and sustainable.
…. and community-supported agriculture….
It’s not about left and right any more
We think that the battle between left and right is becoming less and less relevant in the 21st century, and we’re not interested in taking sides. We just want to support the hard-working, capable people who are building the non-corporate economy.
This isn’t a project to scare the right – it promotes the free market and hard work, and doesn’t include state enterprises. The corporate sector is the opposite – it rigs the market in favour of MNCs and banks, to the detriment of small, local businesses; it rewards those with money, not those who do useful work; and it works hand in glove with the state, providing money and jobs for politicians, and employing an army of lobbyists.
…. and community energy….
The left favours equality, compassion and strong communities; the right favours independence, responsibility … and strong communities. The corporate sector works against all of those things.
We’re promoting a non-corporate model in which there is a completely free market (i.e. you’re free to set up in business, to choose what you sell and at what price, and to choose what you buy depending on price), but where the rewards are down to your own work, not someone else’s.
We like self-employment, but if your business grows too big for one person, then form a partnership or a co-op and take people on as equal partners. Your entrepreneurship and hard work can be rewarded from the income of the co-op, but what it doesn’t mean is creaming off some of the value of the work of the other people in your company forever, with the option to pass that right on to your children, or to sell it to a stranger if they have enough money. We don’t think that’s morally right.
… and self-employment….
It’s all about ownership
Noncorporate.org is all about ownership. It’s not about giving workers ‘a voice’ or ‘benefits’. If a business (and in aggregate, society) is to be truly democratic, then people who do the work should own the business, either individually or collectively. Everything else is lip service. The same is true of housing and land. Let the people who live in the housing and work on the land own it, individually or collectively.
… and workers’ co-ops….
Corporate social responsibility?
We’re interested in replacing corporate institutions, not making MNCs more ethical, although we’re not against people who are – they’re obviously trying to do the right thing. However, we think that when a non-corporate option exists, it’s preferable to a corporate option in all cases. So if you have a community-supported agriculture scheme near you, for example, it’s better to get your vegetables from there, whatever corporate supermarkets do. And it’s better to be with Co-op Energy, the Phone Co-op, Nationwide and Linux than with E-on, EE, Barclays or Microsoft even though the infrastructure and the hardware may still be corporate – we can deal with that later. Let’s do what we can now.
Corporate social responsibility might buy us more time to transition to a truly democratic, sustainable society, or it might allow MNCs to hang on to, or grow their market share, making that transition more difficult. Time will tell, but we’re about providing alternatives to the corporate sector, so in our case it’s not relevant.
… including the Phone Co-op….
The NonCorporate blog will feature articles about non-corporate developments in the categories on the home page – food, energy, housing, banking etc.
We’ll be interviewing key people in community-supported agriculture, community energy, housing co-ops, workers’ co-ops, free & open source software, platform co-ops, mutual credit and other parts of the non-corporate economy to find out what they’re up to, what they’ve achieved, what barriers they face and how we might help them succeed.
The blog will also host opinion pieces, and we hope to stimulate debate on how to grow the non-corporate economy, and to prevent it from being consumed by the corporate sector.
We welcome your comments, and please let us know about any ideas you might have for articles.
… and free & open source software….
Help us spread the word
We believe that this is a very popular idea, and that most people would be happy to jettison MNCs, but are not sure how to do it.
We’ve made it very simple to understand – just go to the home page and follow the instructions.
Also on the home page are various ways that you can help us spread the word (if you agree with what we’re trying to do, that is), as well as sharing this post on social media. We’d be very grateful if you could help get the word out there if you like what we’re trying to do.
… and it can all scale up – Mondragon in the Basque Country is a federation of co-ops involving high-tech businesses, a university, a bank and around 75,000 people.
Rowland ran rammed earth building courses with us for years. He said then that a C-shaped, rammed earth house with straw-bales for external insulation, and as much glass on the south side and as little glass on the north side as possible, wouldn’t need any heating. We wanted to catch up with him to learn more about this, and why we’re not doing more of it. Here’s what we asked him:
What do you do?
I started out being an earth builder using just one technique – rammed earth building. I started doing it in Africa, did it there for quite a few years, then came back to the UK, where I still do the same thing, with occasional projects in Africa. I was a founder of Earth Building UK & Ireland, which is concerned with all types of earth building technology. So now I’m working with European partners to write training standards, and running a week-long annual event – a conference called ‘Clayfest’.
Why do you do it?
I was initially interested in developing economies. In Africa, I saw that cement costs the same wherever you are in the world, but in poorer countries, it means that cement is, relatively, a lot more expensive than in Europe. People were finding it difficult to afford houses made of cement, and of course there was a huge free resource – earth – that could be used instead.
Back in the UK, the cost of cement wasn’t so important as environmental considerations, and again, earth wins hands down. So the focus was cost in Africa and sustainability in Europe – but of course both of those things are important. When I started, back in the 80s, not so many people were talking about sustainability, even in Europe, but by the end of the 90s, sustainability was at the forefront of everybody’s thinking.
Ramming earth into formwork using simple tools in a remote location in Ethiopia.
So is it true that a C-shaped, rammed earth house with straw-bale insulation doesn’t need heating?
Yes. In fact, this is what the Passivhaus Trust has been talking about for a long time – homes that are so well insulated that they don’t require heating at all. Passivhaus thinking is more about science than materials though, so they don’t specify rammed earth or straw bales.
The rammed earth / straw-bale idea requires thick walls with even thicker insulation, but Passivhaus make all kinds of compensations for any crazy designs that people want – so if you decide that you want all your windows facing north, even though you’re in the northern hemisphere, then you’ll need that much more insulation to compensate for the fact you want to do that.
But conversely, they say that if the glazing is all on the south side, then there might have to be some shading so that it doesn’t get too hot in the summer.
The latest Passivhaus thinking is that the inclusion of mass (for example, a thick rammed earth or stone wall) in a building can significantly improve energy use and comfort. What I think they mean by that is instead of trying to shade the heat out, it might be better to capture the heat inside, and the only way to do that effectively is with the use of mass.
Now although I’m a rammed earth builder, I wouldn’t be prescriptive – so if you want to provide that mass with adobe, cob or stone – then go for it. The main thing is to produce a structure with very low emissions involved in its construction, and which can be used to assist in heating and cooling in the building.
Why doesn’t it need heating?
Let’s start with basic principles. In all houses, heat can come from the sun, even in the winter – but also it comes from body heat (humans produce 60-80W constantly), lighting, cooking, fridge, computers, pets etc.
On our rammed earth building courses, I used to describe four different styles of building to try to capture this heat:
1. Lots of insulation to trap the heat; if it gets too hot, you can remove heat using mechanical ventilation (which at its most basic might involve opening windows).
2. Just mass – thick walls that capture sunlight coming in; but it leaches away because there’s no insulation to trap it.
3. Bricks on the outside and insulation on the inside – the classic British house. This seems to be back-to-front when it comes to conserving heat, but comes from a culture that believes that houses should be made of bricks on the outside.
4. Mass walls internally, with insulation on the outside. This way, you can remove heat with mass. So if there are thick, heavy walls, they can absorb the heat when temperatures are high, and then leach it back out again when it gets cooler – e.g. at night.
Rammed earth / straw-bale building at Othona community, mostly glazed on the south side.
Can you describe this kind of building a bit more?
With insulation on the outside, you don’t have to puncture the insulation in order to fix things to the walls or work on the roof etc. The roof is held up by the mass that is on the inside of the building rather than the outside.
The mass absorbs the heat, and with the insulation on the outside, you then control where the heat is leached back out again – i.e. on the inside, where it’s needed.
So a little thought experiment that we give our students is to ask them what would happen if you went to bed and lay on top of the duvet instead of underneath it. You represent the mass, and the duvet is the insulation. If you are on the outside, you lose heat and get cold very quickly. If you lie under the duvet, you stay warmer, because the duvet keeps the heat in. It’s exactly the same with buildings.
Rammed earth is superb for providing mass, and straw bales provide excellent insulation – it’s a match made in heaven. Also: a) the materials are natural, so they don’t need extra energy, factories etc. to process them; b) they can be found locally, so they don’t have to be transported great distances; c) they’re biodegradable, so there aren’t disposal problems at the end of the building’s life; d) they’re non-toxic, and don’t require glues (for example) that might contain formaldehyde etc.
Thinner natural walls – made from cob, adobe or wattle and daub for example – can be added indoors to create new rooms etc.
In the Passivhaus system, they don’t specify natural materials – they focus on the science of heat retention using insulation (plus draught-proofing).
Rammed earth buildings aren’t always cheaper in the UK because they’re made of earth, by the way. Labour is the biggest cost, and rammed earth houses require just as much labour, if not more.
What’s the maximum lag time for absorbing and releasing heat?
It’s all about managing the design. Nowadays there are building physicists who can model and calculate these things. It depends on the design of your house – how many bedrooms you want, for example, and where you want them – but the mass can certainly keep your house warm overnight with heat that it’s captured during the day; and the release time can actually spread over several days.
However, it’s not going to work over longer time periods – for example in colder climates, it’s not possible for the mass to heat up over the summer to then release that heat over the winter. I’d say the maximum lag time to think about is around a week.
During construction – a 300mm thick rammed earth interior wall with 450mm thick straw bale exterior insulation.
Any working examples?
We built earth mass / straw insulation houses for an off-grid community on the Essex coast called Othona. They aren’t occupied year-round, so they wanted buildings they could come back to in the middle of winter / summer, and they wouldn’t be too cold / hot. They wanted them to be comfortable to walk into – especially in the winter, where they didn’t want to be coming back to a freezing house that took ages to warm up.
The last time I saw someone from the community was about three or four years ago at an event, and he said that the buildings were working really well – but if you want to investigate in more detail, you might have to contact them directly.
Also, there’s a company called Terra Perma in Devon that builds mass / insulation buildings using Passivhaus principles, and they’ve got to the point now where they can say that their buildings don’t need heating. You might want to talk to them about what they’re up to.
Up to what latitude wouldn’t it need heating?
The weird thing is that the further north you go, the more sun you get, in the summer at least. And even in the winter, there’s less cloud cover, and the sun is lower in the sky, so it can get into the house and heat up the mass relatively easily.
Green roofs are very popular in places like Scandinavia too – and that’s a good addition to this kind of mass / insulated house – especially in higher latitudes. 150mm of soil above your house will work well to stop heat escaping, especially above some roof insulation. Green roofs work well to blunt the summer heat too.
So we’re wasting a lot of energy on heating – why aren’t more (or in fact, all) new houses built like this?
I think that bit-by-bit, things are changing, and the whole Passivhaus thing has been very interesting – at one point, I thought that this is never going to catch on in the UK, because we’re very much bricks-and-mortar people, and we can heat our houses with gas boilers, which is cleaner than using coal etc. But the Passivhaus Trust, and Passivhaus ideas are becoming very successful in the UK, in changing the terms of the conversation.
Of course the biggest challenge is retrofitting, because we have huge numbers of old, badly insulated properties in this country.
One factor working against all new houses being built like this is that the walls will necessarily be very thick. The rammed earth wall might be 300mm thick, and the straw bale 450mm thick – that’s 750mm or 2.5ft, which is quite a thick wall.
In urban areas there might not be the space for the thickness required. Having said that, when you think of the energy savings it might be a good idea to find that space somehow.
In rural areas, on smallholdings etc, this isn’t a problem.
Another factor is that most builders don’t understand the principles, so it’s going to need an awful lot of training before they do.
And finally – cost. We built a classroom for a local authority, and the person we were dealing with said that it was cheaper to build something with less mass and less insulation, and that required less planning or thinking about – because that’s the usual way of doing things. When we pointed out that it would work out much cheaper in the long run, because of lower (or no) heating bills, she explained that she was only involved with capital costs – another department dealt with paying the bills, and they didn’t really talk with each other. This kind of thinking needs to change too.
The rammed earth walls of this classroom can control heat and humidity, even when full of children.
How can we remove those barriers / what needs to be done?
We can get round the thick walls problem – when you think that no heating will be required, then we can surely work it out somehow.
But mainly, it’s down to education and training – homeowners, builders, local authority staff etc. That’s why I’m involved in Earth Building UK & Ireland (EBUKI) – we want to educate people. We’ve made national vocational qualifications that cover earth building. EBUKI looks after the NVQs and the national occcupational standards, all online for free – including all the European standards.
One way to draw in builders is the fact that if you’re doing conservation work, and the money for retrofit is linked to funding, then the builders need to have something called a CSCS card; and you can’t get a CSCS card for something like cob building for example, unless you’ve got a level 3 qualification. So they have to come and get that qualification if they want to get onto that kind of build.
And there are lots of old cob buildings around. We did a bit of research and found that in the last 12 years, 8000 cob buildings have sold in the geographical area between Hampshire and Cornwall. But that doesn’t include the ones that haven’t been sold – so there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of them – we don’t know exactly.
What can individuals do?
The most important thing is for homeowners and self-builders to realise that for a bit of extra money and thought up front, they can save on heating bills for years – and possibly forever.
See here for information and advice on a range of natural building / retrofitting methods, here for specific information on rammed earth, and here for straw-bale building.
You can find out more about Passivhaus principles from the AECB website.
Rowland Keable of Rammed Earth Consulting helped set up Earth Building UK & Ireland, to promote all kinds of earth building. He works on construction projects, consultancy and on developing and harmonising national standards for earth building.
We hear from Lauren Simpson about plans for the Ecological Land Cooperative Summer Gathering & AGM taking place on 14th July on the beautiful Gower Peninsula.It’s a fantastic opportunity for friends and supporters to meet the ELC team and learn more about their work. Over to Lauren from here.
Join us at the ELC Summer Gathering on 14th July!
With new land sites in development and new worker, steward and investor members joining us, the last 12 months has been a period of exciting growth and change for the Ecological Land Cooperative. To celebrate we’ve decided to organise a summer gathering of friends and supporters to coincide with our AGM on Saturday 14th July.
Expect a fun, informative and inspiring day on one of the most beautiful coastlines in Britain, the Gower Peninsula near Swansea in South Wales, eating good local food and spending time with likeminded folk. You don’t need to be an ELC member to come along, just someone who’s interested in our work, would like to meet our team and find out more about how the ELC is run.
Our third land site, Furzehill on the Gower Peninsula, is a short distance away from both the famous Three Cliffs Beach and local CSA Cae Tân, a brilliant community food growing project who are leasing our fields and helping us to host the event. The day will kick off with a tour of Cae Tân, continue with a delicious lunch before the AGM itself and conclude with a catered BBQ on Three Cliffs Beach. Camping on Saturday night is available but numbers are limited.
The event is free to members but for non-members we’re asking for £10 for lunch & dinner, and £10 for camping.
For more information and to book your place, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to seeing you there!
About the Ecological Land Cooperative
Our mission is to provide affordable opportunities for ecological land-based livelihoods in the UK. We support rural regeneration by developing affordable sites for farming, forestry and other rural enterprises which are viable and ecologically beneficial.
As we move into June and summer beckons, Jo Cartmell of NearbyWild shares Part 4 of her Mini Meadow journey, with Nature very much in charge.
“In the middle ages, a lawn was more like a meadow; it was a flowery mead, bursting with perfumed wildflowers and herbs and grasses.”
The beauty of a wildflower meadow is that it is constantly in a state of change. Nature teaches me to be patient: to wait and see what happens each year. It is beyond my control. Nature teaches me to let-go. Observing the wildflowers and the life that thrives there is a form of meditation, as self is forgotten and is immersed amidst endlessly fascinating beauty and a constantly changing scene. The wildflowers and life amongst them have become family and are regarded with loving-kindness. I care deeply about their well-being. Nature is sacred and is observed with awe and wonder. I cannot stress enough how beneficial a wildflower meadow’s beauty, wildlife and perfume is for your health. We need them to become the common, uncommonly beautiful sight that they were in the middle ages once again.
The Oxeye Daisies take over
In early summer, during the third year, the meadow was covered in Oxeye Daisies. I was alarmed! They had taken over and looked as though they were here to stay and the much longed for, increasing flower diversity lost. But, another three years on and the Oxeye Daisy distribution has changed to intermittent with some patches. They are no longer densely covering the whole meadow.
Yellow Rattle is now abundant, with Red Clover, Birdsfoot Trefoil and Cat’s Ear weaving through, here and there, like a beautiful tapestry, with some of the remaining Buttercups. There are also the sparkling, whorling small white flowers of Ribwort Plantain spread throughout.
Bumble bees and solitary bees are now constantly visiting to drink nectar and take pollen from the wildflowers whilst damselflies patrol for insects. The meadow is really buzzing and it is heart-gladdening to watch these small beings taking the sustenance they need.
A neighbour recently said ‘It really looks like a proper meadow now!’ as we were stood nearby. My heart sang, as this is the first year it really does look like a wildflower meadow. I enjoy each month for the changes they bring and look forward to visits from butterflies such as Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Small Skipper and hopefully, striking Marbled White. There may possibly even be some surprises, so watch this space!
As I looked out of the window on the 8th June I spotted some pink flowers. Musk Mallow, I wondered? It was difficult to be certain in the early morning light. But, much to my delighted surprise it was Ragged Robin which was in the original seed mix (listed in the first article in this series). My next surprise was due to my own laziness in not looking closely enough. I assumed that a plant was a Meadow Buttercup which had been growing in that spot in the meadow last year. But, it was not. It is a Musk Mallow which was in that area, too, but has out-competed the Meadow Buttercup and is now 3 feet high. Their distinctive flower heads had made me realise my error, but they have not opened yet. The third surprise of the day was finding a Speckled Bush Cricket nymph on an unopened Small Scabious flower head.
Speckled Bush Cricket nymph on Small Scabious. Credit: Jo Cartmell
Amazingly, crickets can shed limbs that are grasped by predators and regrow them. It is called autonomy and they are able to do this because they go through successive moults until the adult stage when this ability ceases. They feed on the leaves and flowers of a variety of plants. It was a wonderful morning and I felt a real sense of well-being and quiet joy on finding Nature’s surprises.
More urban wildflower meadows are needed for pollinators
I could not have been more delighted when I read the following research results recently. A wildflower meadow really is beneficial to pollinators, even a mini one.
“As urbanisation is expected to increase in Europe over this decade, managing urban environments as important habitat for pollinators will become ever more relevant. Although the researchers appreciate that attention has been directed towards benefiting pollinators in agricultural environments in recent years, they suggest that more should be done to improve the quality of urban spaces for pollinators as well — this could include such measures as more trees and wildflower meadows in cities, leaving grass areas uncut, and pesticide-free small-scale urban agriculture.” Baldock et al – University of Bristol
Why is Poldark so popular?
The latest series in the BBC television drama ‘Poldark’ took the country by storm and became very popular overnight. I am sure that viewers were not only spellbound by handsome Ross Poldark and beautiful Demelza. They were subconsciously drawn to the evocative images of wildflower meadows being scythed and the unmown, wild landscapes and rugged coastline. This normal landscape appeals to the innate hunter-gatherer within us, in contrast to the mown, abnormal landscape that we see just about everywhere nowadays. Manicured, tidy landscapes are accepted by mindsets conditioned into seeing them as the ‘norm’ due to successful advertisements showing pristine lawns being mown and routing out those ‘horrible’ weeds with weed-killers, making it the only acceptable landscape in our ‘enlightened’ age.
Yet the lawnmower was not invented until 1830 by Edwin Budding. Meadows used to be scythed and the grass needed to be tall enough to be able to scythe it. There was a traditional rhythm of allowing the grass to grow through spring and summer. Cutting the hay around mid-July or by Lammas Day (1st August) and then grazing the aftermath until November. As the hay was cut by farmers at different times between those dates, the mosaic of habitats meant that there was a diversity of wildflowers available for pollinators. What an amazing, vibrant, inspiring landscape it must have been.
We all need an intimate connection with natural landscapes for our mental and physical health and well-being. Not least for the planet’s. Ancient wildflower meadows are carbon sinks. So why not do your bit for the planet and wildlife by starting your own mini wildflower meadow in an unused lawn area? If you need advice there is a lot of information on the NearbyWild GET STARTED page. If you have already started one, do post your images on our Facebook and Twitter sites. We would love to see them!
This article is kindly reproduced with permission from an original post by Jo Cartmell at NearbyWild. Photos and text are the author’s own unless otherwise specified. You can find Part 1 of this guest series here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.
I like Jordan Peterson. He’s provocative, he’s interesting and he’s a formidable opponent in debates and interviews. He doesn’t interrupt, he thinks carefully about people’s points, he doesn’t run away from difficult arguments (or difficult people) and he’s helped a lot of people to rescue their damaged lives.
I think he’s right about identity politics, but I think he’s wrong about hierarchy – at least if we want democracy; and I think he’s dangerously wrong about ecology. He’s not an ecologist, and therefore his rejection of what ecologists are saying can only be based on ideology or vested interest. I don’t believe it’s because of vested interest – that’s too crass – which leaves ideology. But what ideology?
Who is he and what does he get right?
Come on, you must know Jordan Peterson by now. He’s a psychologist, but one with a huge following – mainly on the right, although I know people on the left who are enamoured by him too. He’s most famous, I guess, for his views on postmodernism and identity politics (anti-), and freedom of speech (pro-) – mainly in universities, which might seem a bit niche, until you think that that’s where all our future decision-makers are, right now.
This gives a flavour of where he’s coming from:
Jordan Peterson - Is it Game Over? - YouTube
At one point, the interviewer mentions gay marriage. Now the interviewer (possibly) and I (definitely) are not against gay marriage – that’s not the point. The point is whether people should be allowed to speak against it. The trend in universities is to shut down debate if viewpoints are outside predetermined ‘politically correct’ boundaries – and those boundaries are being pushed further and further all the time.
We can’t win debates if we’re not allowed to have them, and preventing them will only entrench reactionary views.
Also mentioned in the interview was Voltaire’s quote: ‘I disagree strongly with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.’ That is really important, but it’s gone out of fashion. In fact ‘free speech’ is becoming a dirty word – equated with racism, homophobia etc.
Universities are places to investigate ideas. It’s important to discuss what you think about those ideas, but it (surely) isn’t important how those ideas make you feel. Your physical safety should be guaranteed, but everything else should be fine in a university. More than fine – the more controversial and the more discomfort the better. That’s how we’re going to expand our understanding.
Peterson believes that egalitarianism and conflict avoidance should not be allowed to trump free speech, and I agree with him. If we lose the ability to articulate opinions, debate is finished – and, although you may be happy if someone you disagree with is silenced, how will you feel when you’re silenced too? It’s a very slippery slope towards book-burning and worse. We should welcome debate, even if we find the people opposing our position reprehensible (Peterson’s favourite word).
However, at the end of the video, the interviewer says that we should be wary of official state ideologies. He mentions communism, fascism, and also ……. climate change. This of course is not an ideology, it’s science, which Peterson apparently supports. Here is the beginning of my problem with JP – more below.
Implications for the left
The left seems to have lost its way when it comes to challenging the excesses of capitalism, and any discussions around system change seem to have been swamped by discussion around identity politics and political correctness. The left has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to the destruction of ecology and democracy due to perpetual growth and wealth concentration respectively.
Possibly the most important principle we can adhere to is that of not assuming evil of people who disagree with us. We should be able to have conversations about race, sexuality, gender etc., and really listen to opposing arguments without trying to label others as bad or stupid. This is perhaps the biggest failing of the left today. Here is an article featuring George Lakoff, who explains the roots of left / right thinking in terms of upringing, rather than intelligence or ethics.
The vitriol spewed against anyone who dares to veer from the official PC line is excessive, and appears absurd or horrific to anyone outside academia. I guess you must have seen this video of Yale students verbally abusing a professor.
Public Shaming MOB demand groveling apology from Yale Professor - YouTube
It’s where political correctness leads if unchecked – privileged Yale students claiming to be oppressed, screaming abuse and ending academics’ careers if they dare to merely defend someone else’s suggestion that students should maybe not get too upset about halloween costumes.
It incensed most people who saw it, and this kind of behaviour has been, I believe, a contributing factor in Trump’s victory.
However, for JP to say, as he did, that the left hate competence is also absurd. Maybe he hasn’t noticed how China fulfils its five-year plans; or that the Soviets were the first into space. I dislike the idea of living under those regimes as much as he does, but it’s not about competence.
What he gets wrong 1: ecology
Where I strongly disagree with him is about the environment, about nature. He is inconsistent, and his intellectual rigour is abandoned when it comes to ecology.
I haven’t heard him discuss the possibility of near-term human extinction – something I think is quite likely. In this video, he comes closest, but here he also makes it clear that he doesn’t understand the subject.
Jordan Peterson on Overpopulation - YouTube
It’s not about what ‘Malthusians’ say will happen if we don’t control human population growth, it’s about what actually is happening now, due to the size of the human economy (sure, let the population grow to 11 billion – as long as we don’t all expect to have cars or to fly; it’s the economy that’s the problem. The world could support perhaps 20 billion consuming as much as Ugandans, but fewer than two billion consuming as much as Americans).
And ecologists are telling us very clearly what’s happening now. Never mind the large mammals that Peterson thinks we’re going to lose – we’re already losing tens of thousands of species per year – mainly creeply crawlies. These are extremely important when it comes to soil creation and pollination, and they constitute the bottom of the food chain on which all other life depends.
To continue losing species at this rate is suicidal, and it’s irresponsible and juvenile for Peterson to assume that human ingenuity and technology are going to solve this problem. The Romans were ingenious, the Mayans were ingenious, and where are they now? But this time the problem is global, and it’s criminal for an academic not to take it seriously.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The triple peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America considers that we’re currently headed for ‘biological annihilation’.
If he’s so fond of science, of rational thought and intellectual rigour, why doesn’t he believe ecologists?
What he gets wrong 2: hierarchy
Now JP really doesn’t have a problem with hierarchies. His first justification is that we’ve always had them – it’s part of the human condition. Does he feel the same way about war, or slavery? Or did he think it was wrong to get rid of smallpox? We’d always had it, after all.
I’d like to make a distinction between democratic and forced hierarchies. In the former, you need to appeal to the people that you will be above in the hierarchy, and ask them to elect you to that position, with the ability to remove you if you don’t satisfy them. Although there are problems with this kind of system, they are dwarfed by the problems caused by a hierarchy that is forced on people by others who have a lot more money than them.
There are various problems with hierarchies based on the ability to make money. JP says that we need a system that rewards hard-working, clever people, because that will reward the rest of us too. But his main, and perhaps his only definition of ‘reward’ is money.
Firstly, what if the hierarchies are so extreme as to prevent democracy? Wealth is so concentrated in the corporate sector that it easily spills into our political system to corrupt it – political donations, jobs for politicians, the lobby industry. Corruption, pure and simple, normalised by the corporate media (including the corporate BBC).
Secondly, what kind of leadership will we get from a money hierarchy? Peterson thinks we should rely on wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates. But Gates won’t challenge the system that provided him with so much wealth.
The wealthy will get to decide what the important problems are, and what gets funded. Just because someone is rich, it doesn’t mean they’re wise. Wealth is not the best indicator of wisdom – it may indicate a minimum level of cunning intelligence, but it is no indicator at all of compassion or integrity, and often it is an indicator of their absence.
The things that Microsoft has done to deter competition – even free and open source competition – plus the ubiquitous corporate harvesting of data, indicate that Gates doesn’t have the qualities we require in our leaders.
Yes, of course there will always be hierarchies in terms of ability or beauty, and we can appreciate those – in fact it would be impossible to ignore them – but we can still have political (and economic) systems in which no-one gets to tell anyone else what to do arbitrarily.
Paradoxically, JP sees inequality as a problem. It makes society unstable, produces a high murder rate etc. But what does he expect in societies based on money hierarchies? Yes, the best-looking people are going to get more sex, and the most athletic are going to win more medals, but what qualities do you think are required for some people to claim more of the world’s resources than tens of millions of their fellow humans? Intelligence? Sure. Compassion? Integrity? Maybe not.
Why he gets it wrong
He says that he’s neither left nor right, and that his arguments don’t come from ideology, but they seem suspiciously geared towards supporting the status quo; and the status quo is capitalist and corporate – so whatever his stated position, his stance on hierarchy and ecology can only ultimately benefit the corporate sector.
He supports science when it suits him, unless he doesn’t consider ecology a science, which is stupid – and he’s not stupid. So the only other explanation that I can see is that he ignores ecologists for ideological reasons.
He’s not an ecologist – so of course he shouldn’t be consulted on ecology (and yet his huge fanbase does just that). We should listen to ecologists about ecology, in the same way that we should listen to psychologists about psychology, and dentists about dentistry.
He believes that most people accept carbon-based, anthropogenic climate change because of an anti-capitalist stance, rather than an understanding of science and peer-review. He says that there is evidence that global warming isn’t real, but fails to mention that the only people saying that are saying it for ideological reasons.
Isn’t the logical position, really, that the people who are denying the science are the ones choosing their beliefs because of ideology rather than peer-reviewed research?
He said that we’ll sort out ecological problems as long as more and more people start to act responsibly. But that’s not the direction we’re moving in, and within a constantly-growing economy, individual actions will only make a superficial difference.
He seems happy to risk damage to his reputation by pronouncing on topics that he doesn’t know much about. But then again, when your reputation is built via a huge YouTube fanbase, it’s much less of a risk. Those fans found him and stuck with him not because of a love of truth – but because of ideology. That ideology is based on a hatred of identity politics, but because of his views on hierarchy and ecology, it will be enough to sway his loyal fans, and will shore up support for the status quo, and therefore for the corporate sector.
The fanatacism of a lot of his followers suggests that very few of them will, like me, support his position on identity politics or postmodernism but reject his position on hierarchy and ecology. And that, for me, means that overall, his effect will be negative.
JP is not a fan of centralised, state control – and neither am I. But that doesn’t mean that we need to support the status quo, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we have to ignore the science when it comes to environmental damage.
Socialist governments don’t have a good record on ecology or hierarchy either, but there is more than one way to change the status quo. Building the non-corporate / solidarity economy, with a mutual credit exhange system is the answer, not state socialism.
Implications for all of us
JP is slandering ecologists, for no good reason. If he’s as logical as he likes to think he is, he would recognise the enormity of the coming ecological collapse.
It’s a huge mistake to allow ideology to trump rationality – and that’s exactly what he seems to be doing. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, because he’s so entertaining, and I agree with him about so much. But to support rationality and science, and to oppose inequality, apart from when it threatens the status quo, smacks of pro-corporate ideology.
‘We don’t know how to make societies more equal’, says JP. Yes we do – we make their component parts more equal. Societies built on sutainable, democratic institutions and businesses can’t help but be sustainable and democratic.
He says that attempting to achieve equality might mean moving wealth from the competent to the incompetent – but that doesn’t hold true for the non-corporate economy. Very competent people indeed are building co-operative, mutualist, community-owned/supported businesses, often in very difficult circumstances. Competence and a desire to gain huge personal wealth are very, very different things.
For several years I lived in a tent in woodland and I never really readjusted to this business of flushing poo away with clean drinking water. Besides, I have always liked to feel I am dealing with my own… stuff, both figuratively and literally. So when we moved into our current house a composting toilet was first project on the list.
Initially I imagined installing an underfloor twin vault system with urine separation. Even going DIY, installing this system was going to be expensive, and either way would involve disruptive house alterations. Then I read The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins. Jenkins advocates a very simple low-cost system which requires no house alterations and takes up relatively little space. He also strongly, and convincingly, argues that the compost produced in a thermophilic (hot) compost heap is safe enough to use on your vegetable patch. Here’s how it works:
The simple compost toilet
A 20 litre bucket sits inside a plywood box with a toilet seat on it. Next to it is a bin filled with sawdust, ideally hardwood, this is your ‘soak’. The sawdust should be a little damp as this makes it more effective at filtering odours. Do your normal thing, no urine separation, add the sawdust and that’s it.
Believe it or not, it doesn’t smell, provided you add a good layer of damp sawdust. Once the bucket is full, replace the tight-fitting lid and add a new bucket. You need at least three identical buckets, so two can be full and one can be the current receptacle.
Here’s the catch: you need to empty the bucket. I realise for some people this is a pretty big catch, but it’s probably not as bad as you think. The bucket full of sawdust doesn’t smell bad and your well maintained composting heap doesn’t smell bad. You can quickly rinse the bucket using a hose with high pressure attachment and tip the water onto the heap. I then dry my bucket with a rag, which goes straight in the washing machine, then spray the bucket with vinegar. As a family of three we empty two buckets at a time once a week and it only takes 10 minutes.
Constructing the compost bins
This is the important bit, your compost heap is the key to success. Jenkins recommends a container 1.6m2 and 1.3m high. I have found 1.1m2 is big enough, you should be able to go even smaller if you insulate your heap. You need at least two containers, one is resting while the other is filling up. Jenkins also recommends a third central bay, for storing soak and covering material. We don’t have that much space so we make do with two.
Once you have constructed your bins, place a thick bed of organic matter, such as straw or cardboard, in the bottom of your bin and begin to fill it. Keep the heap covered with a layer of straw or cardboard. Every time you add a bucket of waste make a hole in the middle of the heap with the fork (used only for that purpose), add the waste, pull the older waste back over and cover the heap with straw.
The structure and stages of a thermophilic compost heap
There are a number of things you do to keep your heap hot and healthy:
1. Flatten the top of your heap, think ‘cube’ rather than ‘pyramid’. The reduced surface area minimises heat loss, and the shape prevents fresh material from rolling down to the base of the heap, where it won’t become hot.
2. Bury new material in the centre of the heap where it is hottest and do not mix or turn the heap. The fresh material heats up quickly, then gradually cools as it becomes the lower layers. The cooler material at the base is maturing: becoming more stable and being colonised by a wide range of insects, worms, fungi and microorganisms. If we mix the heap we disturb this process and we cause the fresh material -the stuff we really want to heat up- to cool down.
3. Add both urine and faeces. In vault systems there are good arguments for separating urine but hot compost heaps are thirsty. Without the urine they will become too dry and the process will slow down. You also need the high nitrogen content of the urine to balance the carbon of the wood.
4. Cover the heap with straw or cardboard, this provides some insulation, prevents smells and can help soak up excess liquid, should your heap become too wet. Your heap should never smell: if it smells, add some cover material, if it still smells, add some more.
You can add all your kitchen and soft garden waste to the heap as well. After a year start a new heap, leaving the old one to mature for a year. Once the first heap has rested a year it will be beautiful compost, ready to add to your garden.
Soak and cover material
The ideal combination is damp hardwood sawdust for soak and straw for covering. The cover material is less critical, ideally it will be biodegradable, capable of absorbing excess moisture and able to let rain through, but its most important job is to block any smell. If I can’t get straw I use cardboard or dead leaves, if I am out of cardboard and leaves I might use weeds and grass clippings, or an old rug or black plastic as a last resort.
One bin resting, one bin just emptied and ready to start again
The ideal soak is damp hardwood sawdust. Soft wood sawdust will be slower to break down but in my experience still works ok. If you have a local sawmill or firewood supplier this is the place to ask. I have also used hardwood shavings from a wood-turner; they come in beautiful curls and spirals and are pleasant to handle. Unfortunately they do not block smells as well as the denser sawdust. They do cause the heap to heat up very quickly, as they are less dense and trap more air. In some cases you may be able to obtain only kiln dried sawdust, this will still work, but won’t be as effective at blocking smells. In this case, you can leave the sawdust out in the rain to at least get wet and, even better, begin to break down a little.
This bin was initially insulated with sheep’s wool. after the first year it became apparent this was not necessary for a bin this size
If you cannot obtain sawdust it may be worth experimenting with shredded paper, straw or leaf litter. These may not filter odours as effectively so an extra tight lid on the toilet may be required. In the case of paper or leaves, you may find it hard to maintain a hot heap, you could try insulating your container and finding ways to introduce more air into your heap.
James Chapman of Willowburn Lea uses spruce needles, of which there are a plentiful supply on his land, as both a soak and a cover material. These do work well and are effective at filtering smells, although, again, make it difficult to maintain a hot heap.
Compost bin at Willowburn Lea, using spruce needles as soak and cover material
Health and hygiene
This is a huge topic and one I can only skim over here. If you are particularly interested, or particularly concerned, I suggest you read the Humanure Handbook, which is packed with data and references. The important points are:
You are unlikely to become ill through handling your own fresh toilet waste; if it’s in there it came out of you, so you have it already! Most of us are pretty confident we can change a toddler’s nappy without dire health consequences and personally I find this a rather messier problem than emptying my toilet bucket.
Heat kills bacteria and parasites. Many people who plan to use their compost for food growing use a thermometer to monitor the temperature of their heap to make sure it heats up sufficiently to destroy disease-causing organisms. Your heap doesn’t even need to be that hot, just hot enough, for long enough. See the graph below.
But not just heat. We cannot guarantee that all parts of the waste are heated sufficiently to destroy all the bacteria and parasites, but it doesn’t need to be. The composting process, time, exposure to sunlight and competition with other microorganisms all take their toll.
It works and soil isn’t sterile The response to all of the above is often, ‘but how can you be sure it’s all gone?’ We are not looking for the compost to be sterile, just for it to have the same level of pathogens as your normal garden soil. Jenkins has been growing food in his garden using his humanure compost for over 30 years with no health problems. He has even had his own faeces tested on a couple of occasions to prove the point.
A graph from The Humanure Handbook showing temperature and time combinations needed to kill common disease-causing organisms (Jenkins, 2005)
Most importantly you choose how to use the resulting compost. You may not be convinced by Jenkins’s argument, or perhaps your heap did not get hot enough, or you have a lot of visitors and are not comfortable using compost from the waste of the wider population. You might choose to leave your heap an extra year to mature, then you might use it only to mulch around your fruit trees, or even only around ornamental plants.
I don’t want to empty a bucket!
I realise this system isn’t for everyone. You have to love your compost toilet, if you hate the whole process it’s never going to be sustainable. The most tried and tested DIY alternative is the twin vault with urine separation. These systems usually involve a cool composting process, which may not as reliably destroy bacteria, but it is generally considered safe to use the resulting compost on fruit trees, for example. I recommend the book ‘Lifting the Lid’ by Harper and Halestrap if this is something you are interested in.
If a vault is not an option, you might want to explore the possibility of hot composting in insulated containers which can act both as a receptacle and composting vat, at least for the initial part of the process. I would love to hear from anyone who has experimented with this. There are also commercially available compact systems, which I believe are becoming more reliable. Again, please share your experience of these in the comments.
Whatever you choose to do I hope you gain the satisfaction of knowing you are dealing with your own…stuff.