Sunday, June 29, 2008

The end of the North Pole - Transition Town musings

Transition Town musings

The weather’s beautiful here today. Blue skies, birds are singing, cool in the shade, warm in the sun… a typical lazy Sunday, mushrooms and eggs from the garden for breakfast, orange juice freshly picked from the orchard, home grown coffee in the plunger…

Then I made the mistake of turning on the telly to news that the North Pole is expected to be gone in three years because climate change is happening much, much faster than anyone expected or predicted.

They stated it was expected to be gone in three years - that the climate change positive feedback loop is happening a lot faster than anyone ever expected once it starts it's unstoppable, we're paying the price for decade of fossil fuel burning in industry and in our own daily lives.

The north pole will probably be gone in three years...

Gone in three years...

three years.

After an inane comment about "where will Santa Claus live", they then had to leave that interview for exclusive shots of Greg Norman's ‘celebrity’ wedding - as you do.

Three years people.

I often feel like I'm in a Dr Who episode. The masses are brainwashed into believing everything is hunky dory and only a few of us can see the giant meteor heading straight for earth. Sad thing is there's no Dr to save the day.

I remember David Suzuki saying how he often feels like he's in a dream where he's in a car full of people who are all having fun and laughing and celebrating while speeding along and he can see the brick wall they're going to hit, but he can't make any noise or sound and no-one is taking any notice of him...

I've been ferreting away in my own time on peak oil and climate change planning for 18 months now and because of the work I've been doing with Janet Millington, the Sunshine Coast was recognised as Australia's first Transition Region and the first outside the UK last September.

TTs are really taking off - we were recognised through the work we're doing on a regional level - matching the council boundaries of governance. We are now working on getting individual towns up and running – towns like Eudlo where I live.

TT ideas are really taking off and this afternoon I have a documentary film crew from Japan coming to our place to film our garden and to interview me about Transition Towns.

Very exciting - I urge you to consider TT as a solution - it really is an excellent umbrella approach to all the problems and allows you to pick n choose where your personal and regional strengths and weaknesses are and work on them.

I've had someone ask me a year about what is "pink oil"! Yes, there is a long way to go, but I don't see any alternative. Just sitting there and letting it happen to me isn't an option.As Ian Lowe said (years ago now) doing nothing is no longer an option.

I've just had a visitor from Totnes in the UK come and stay with us for a while and we in Australia need to put TT Totnes in perspective particularly re the community engagement thing.I really don't think we are going to get 400 people to a town meeting as they do in Totnes, hopefully in the future, but not in this current climate (pun intended).

Totnes is a small pre industrial era village - 8000 people and walkable one end to the other in about 10 minutes. Most of the shops are independent and were on the alternative, enlightened, informed side of things to begin with. They have a lot of independent goods and services already represented in their town.

We have several challenges to face in Australia.

Most of our towns were built and expanded using and because of the cheap energy of the industrialised era (oil) - we are now therefore heavily reliant on extensive personal car use to get us about and to move things (food, goods and services - also known as the economy) about.

Our towns have been designed to bring people into them via extensive and expensive road systems - count the number of trucks on our highways. Our towns are not designed to take the places to the people like pre industrial towns were (and evolved into out of necessity).

So don't feel too bad if you don't get overwhelmed with enthusiastic helpers or you don't fill a town hall with people seriously concerned about peak oil or climate change - we don't here either - yet.

We are working with a very small group of dedicated people - our biggest assets are a good link with council and more importantly good people in the community (strategic planners, people who can see the big picture).

Taking this on will take a lot of time and energy, it will drain you and you'll feel like chucking it in more times than you can count.

You'll encounter many, many people who would love to help you but they are too busy. Too busy moving deck chairs on the Titanic it seems. This is coming, it's happening in our lifetime and we need to do something.

Keeping busy with 'stuff' is a distraction from the reality of what's happening to the planet and to your community, to your neighbourhood, to your household, to you.

But then you will encounter someone who really appreciates what you're doing, or you'll attract someone who is a really great help and you'll keep going because you can see - there is no alternative.

I don't have children myself, but when I look in children's faces I don't see that we have any choice but to make these tough decisions and radical changes to move from oil dependency to local resilience and to do it urgently and with war like precision. Just looking at them and saying "tough, you we're just born too late, we've blown it all" isn't good enough for me.

We had a wonderful resource. We had a cheap source of energy and what did we do? We used it to create meaningless rubbish just to use it up. We had energy and we used it to go round and round in circles in the ocean on a jetski. How very, very clever of us.

Tonight when you're doing your dishes at the sink, with your electric lights on, tv, heater perhaps - imagine looking out into your backyard and seeing 50 people pedalling 50 bikes to generate the energy your using up - it's a good analogy of just what a great resource oil was.

But, at least we are trying to plan energy descent - peak oil and climate change - we're not leaving it up to 'them'.

They won't help - they don't know what to do and they are too scared to stick their necks out because they'll get the chop at the next election.

But they are just as concerned as you are about this - just constrained by bureaucracy.You have power as a community member and as a consumer - you're not beholden to any party policy - instead you are beholden to your family's quality of life, community life, health, safety and security - we can apply the TT model here in Australia, we just need to make it fit our unique circumstances - recognise our strengths and use them to our advantage, know our vulnerabilities and act on them to make them more resilient to the oil and climate shocks set to come our way.

Someone needs to do something - it might as well be you.

This is happening on our watch.[steps off soapbox now] - thanks for reading this far...

A few thoughts on Transition Initiatives

A Transition Town is a town that does as much and provides as much as it can from it's local area, but no, it is definitely not cut off from others - quite the contrary.

A TT does a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) of its local region (however that is defined). It then works on developing the opportunities and strengths and protecting itself in its vulnerable areas.

The solutions are in the community and Transition Initiatives act as a catalyst to bring those ideas and solution to fruition.

I envisage our TTs here on the Coast growing as much food as we can locally, local doctors, nurses and a lot of alternative health people living and working in the community, local craftspeople who make a lot of the day to day things we need, local businesses and service providers, local economies, localised and decentralised education (like Cuba going from three universities to 50 purely because they needed to take the places to the people, not the other way round), local public space used creatively and functionally by the community.

People helping people more.

This is a transition phase - not the end product - we won't see that for a couple of generations I'd imagine. This is to wean us (very quickly) off our dependency and reliance on oil and fossil fuels.

It's the end of globalisation and we need to start to rebuild and rediscover localisation.

The other main role of TT is to develop trade options beyond the local areas. So, for example, here on the Sunny Coast we can swap subtropical fruit and veg, plus the grains we can grow here, and our unique crafts for others further south and north via our train line.

One project that a student of our Time for an Oil Change course was involved in was lobbying and planning for the setting of land aside for market towns based around train stations along the coast. Rail is one of the most effective ways to transport things around and we should be developing those points of rail contact now for future trade.

We must use remaining oil supplies responsibly and ethically to prepare for energy descent.

'Mega' anything is out (except mega-community action that is!). Mega dams, mega road and tunnel systems in cities won't be able to be maintained and will become unsafe and useless in the future. (Although the tunnels under Brisbane could grow some awesome mushrooms).

As a side note - it will be interesting to see how many contracts for 'mega' govt projects fail in the future (some have already), because contractors are not factoring in the rapid and unstoppable increase in the price of oil. Any contract agreed to today will be unable to meet costs due to rising fuels costs.

The idea of getting food from overseas, food that has tens of thousands of food miles attached will stop - the cost will make it so prohibitive.

We need local systems to pick up the slack and put nutritious, high quality, safe food on our tables.

Feeding the community will be the most important thing we can do right now - aside from providing clean safe drinking water and shelter.

If the population is worried about where their next meal is coming from or what they are going to feed their children - you have the makings of social chaos.

We need to act quickly and use successful models - eg Cuba, Totnes and places in Denmark I've heard of where a new development has a market garden/organic farm right in the heart of it. All the housing water and putrescible waste goes back into the farm - returning waste to the system and reusing it to grow food.

We need to get smart quick.

We have some remaining resources, but we have less and less time - the clock is ticking everyday we spend not doing something is a day of action wasted.

We need to stop buying crap, being distracted by celeb weddings, celeb rehab, the latest blockbuster, the latest handbag, the latest fashion and all that other rubbish and focus on what needs to be done.

We need to rebuild communities, retrofit existing ones and only create new intelligent ones that acknowledge and operate within the limitations of the earth's resources.

Given the force and speed with which climate change is also happening we must also seriously consider where all the coastal population is going to move to - within I'd suggest our lifetimes.

We must map when and where climate change will affect our land and not set up food production or population relocation in those areas.

TT is a very broad, big idea - as is energy descent action planning. But it is the type of big visionary framework we need at all levels of govt to make things happen.

The community MUST drive this. Within this large framework are real and important community and individual actions that can happen today.

I've got a meeting with Penny Wong's office (Fed Minister for climate change) in coming weeks I'll be talking to them about energy descent action planning, Transition Towns and the need for ACTION - we need to keep the pressure on the pollies, but also start doing this ourselves, take responsibility for our actions.and try having fun and enjoying our lives!

From the Transition Handbook

Started by Rob Hopkins and Ben Brangwyn in Totnes UK, Transition Initiatives is ‘an emerging and evolving approach to community-level sustainability.’

Transition Initiatives are based on four key assumptions;

1. That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise

2. That our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil

3. That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now

4. That by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognise the biological limits of our planet

Transition Initiatives aim to act as catalysts for a community to explore and come up with its own answers.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The joy of composting

Ah composting... so easy to do, yet a mystery to many.

We have a few compost systems here on our 2 acres. We have the black bins (BMW brand with lots of holes in them, little doors on each side) and large three sided compost bins. We also have another system with four star pickets and chicken wire wrapped around it.

They all work and they all provide different types of organic matter for our garden.

The big systems are great for chunky prunings and large quantities of materials. They do need turning, which requires a strong back, but they can be left for months on end and you'll still have good quality material to put around fruit and nut trees. I find the end product of these systems doesn't break down as finely as the ones in the black bins, so it is more useful around trees where it can be left for six months to slowly break down even further.

These types of large systems need to be layered with carbon and nitrogen and some additives or activators will also accelerate the process.

We add large sticks throughout the layering process which can be pulled out later - these leaves tunnels in the compost that help aerate the system.

Carbon is material such as sawdust (make sure it doesn't contain any nasty chemicals and don't apply it too thickly - it will acts as a barrier to water and air), dry leaves, straw... things that are dry and crunchy

Nitrogen is material such as fresh cuttings, fresh manures, kitchen scraps

Lawn clippings are used as a nitrogen layer when fresh, as a carbon layer when the heats has gone out of them and they are dry and brown. Use them in thin layers - too thick and they will not allow air and water to pass through.

Permaculture design includes factoring in materials for composting. For example, here in the subtropics, we have a lot of Queensland Arrowroot growing - it is a great plant and one of its many uses is it needs to be cut down annually and it makes a great compost.

Gathering materials; take the time to gather all the materials you need to make a compost of one cubic metre. This gives you the critical mass to create the heat and process to start to break the materials down.

Gather what you have - these are the types of things we put in our compost
sawdust or straw out of the chook houses
mushroom tailings from a local mushroom farm
dry leaves
lawn clippings
kitchen scraps

Process the materials - cutting up the materials into small pieces, increasing the edge, breaking down the cellular 'skin' of the plants - all helps in allowing the microbes (who will be doing the work) to get to work quicker.

Cut up materials and keep them in their piles of carbon and nitrogen

Gather some activators - you need to 'activate' your compost - these means adding things to nitrogen layers that will really get the microbes active - worm castings, manure, humus, urine, Natrakelp, molasses - all these things will get your compost going.

Then make your compost - layer by layer - add an activator to the nitrogen layer, water down the carbon layers if they are too dry.

Include chunky cuttings to allow air flow

Build it all the way to the top - aim for that critical mass of one cubic metre - do it all in one hit - this will help your compost succeed.

Cover it up - that way you control the water going in - too much rain is no good and allowing it to dry out is no good either.

Keep adding to your compost over coming weeks - include your kitchen scraps and have top up days when you get the pile up to the top again using the same alternating layering system.

Keep some carbon on hand near your compost pile to put over kitchen scraps - this helps keep flies out of it and the smell down.

You should have beautiful humus in a few months.

Recommended books.
The Rodale Book of Composting
Organic Guide to Composting (Jack Allan)
Soil Food - Jackie French
Recycle your garden - Tim Marshall

Thursday, June 5, 2008

...and then the grubs came out!

A couple of days of heavy rain meant we couldn't get out in the garden as much as we usually do. We couldn't do our grub patrol - which consists of getting all the green fat juicy grubs off the brassicas, taking them over to the chook pens and saying "grubs up!" - and the chook then turn those little grubs into yummy yellow yoked eggs for us.

My back is also playing up which means bending is pretty painful and pretty much out of the question.

So the brassicas are looking a little chewed and sad. But they are only eating the leaves, so for plants like broccoli that doesn't bother us as much. We have had this problem before and with some vigilant grub patrols, (nice weather), and a weekly feed of Natrakelp, the plants come through and produce lovely broccoli heads for us.

The cabbages are a little harder to manage, but we accept that we will get the odd grub or two in our cabbage - we just check it carefully before we eat it!

Some people would turn their noses up at a grub in their dinner or crawling over their food, but I think they are great. They tell me the food is clean, safe and healthy. It's supporting life and things are LIVING on it. Some people want sterile lifeless food that looks perfect and shiny yet although it often tastes of nothing and is actually very poor quality, they don't complain, as long as it looks nice.

I've heard horror stories of supermarket spraying their 'fresh' produce displays with fly spray after the shops close to keep the cockroaches off them. Imagine that - we are a species will happily accept that, yet we baulk at a living grub on our food.

I know what I'd rather have. Grubs up everyone!

Oh! PS - it's still overcast - seems installing a solar hot water system is a sure fire guarantee to cause cloud cover and rain! Still we haven't had to use the booster, so it is doing a good job in less than perfect conditions. Viva la solar!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

...and then it started raining!

Well, our solar hot water system is working, but the weather isn't. We've had about 300mm of rain over the past couple of days - local flooding, roads cut etc. (By the way, we also had to put off the delivery and installation of a second rain water tank until the weather cleared up! Our timing is out of sync at the moment).

The garden coped pretty well with the heavy rain, with the excess water quickly evacuating off the land or into our dams.

These recent heavy rains demonstrated why (here in Queensland) we need to plan our gardens so that nutrients are stored in the bio mass of the plants, rather than the soil. Our soils suffer from leaching due to the huge amount of rain we get in short bursts and then we get the strong sunlight which causes oxidation! So mulching our soils and constantly adding organic matter (compost and worm castings) are vital.

We also have thick plantings of Queensland Arrowroot on the lowest points of our property, this means these plants can collect and store the nutrients that run down the hills and we can then harvest them and either; feed them to the chooks, feed them to the worms, use them in compost or as a mulch - returning those precious nutrients back into the soil. Permaculture in action! The lush thick leaves of the Qld arrowroot hold plenty of moisture and are one of those useful plants we all love.

Mulch also prevents splashback on the underside of the leaves of the plants, which could otherwise contribute to disease. Plus it eventually breaks down adding even more organic matter to our soil.

So, hopefully we'll have a couple of days of sun to get things washed and dried, to give the garden a rest and time to absorb all that rain (do you know that soil that is high in organic matter acts as a dam holding a huge amount of water?) , and generally recover before we get the next bout.

Just heard on the news that they are predicting June to be very wet. So hopefully that new tank will soon be full too!

A lovely gift from all that rain has been bountiful daily harvests of field mushrooms from our mushroom compost!

It does show us how we are so vulnerable to the weather when we grow our own food. Something lost on those who shop exclusively at supermarkets.

That's why this Thursday I'm voluteering to pack organic vegie boxes at a local food co-op - you never know when you might need them!