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Sustainable Food & Financial Systems
Old 12-13-2009, 01:04 PM   #1
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Sustainable Food & Financial Systems

I just discovered a series of short videos on YouTube that relate to many of the topics we've touched on in the Cap & Trade and other threads. Briefly, it's an overview of relocalizing sustainable food and financial systems. The presenter is a sustainability engineer for Hermann Miller, the furniture manufacturer. The series starts here:



Thoughts? Comments?
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Old 12-13-2009, 09:54 PM   #2
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Grow your own food, generate your own electricity, print your own money.

Plant some loco weed for me, too, please.
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Old 12-14-2009, 12:30 PM   #3
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Well, I just thought some might find it interesting.
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Old 12-14-2009, 04:09 PM   #4
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Well, I just thought some might find it interesting.

I did.
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Old 12-14-2009, 04:46 PM   #5
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Well, I just thought some might find it interesting.
So did I, although I have only had time to watch the first three parts so far. I have the other two waiting for me when I get home. I have heard of Permaculture before and want to put the practices into effect on the land I plan to buy after retirement. Adding a financial aspect to it is something I hadn't heard of before, but sounds interesting. I wonder how it would affect the investments that most ERs rely on for income if any large segment of the population put financial permaculture into practice. Or maybe there would be an accompanying & compensating effect on our expenses. Makes me go hmmmm......

One thing I heard in the first three parts that gives me some concern was a statement along the lines of "...permaculture was in part based on the sustainable systems used by indigenous people..." I don't have exact figures but surely the earth's population is much larger now than when those indigenous systems were the dominant ones. For example, with a tiny, scattered population, slash & burn agriculture in a tropical rainforest is probably sustainable over the long haul, but doubt that the same is true today! I haven't taken a permaculture design course and maybe this factor is addressed in the two parts of the talk I haven't heard yet or when the principles are studied in detail.
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Old 12-14-2009, 06:03 PM   #6
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One thing I heard in the first three parts that gives me some concern was a statement along the lines of "...permaculture was in part based on the sustainable systems used by indigenous people..." I don't have exact figures but surely the earth's population is much larger now than when those indigenous systems were the dominant ones. For example, with a tiny, scattered population, slash & burn agriculture in a tropical rainforest is probably sustainable over the long haul, but doubt that the same is true today! I haven't taken a permaculture design course and maybe this factor is addressed in the two parts of the talk I haven't heard yet or when the principles are studied in detail.
I'm no permaculture expert (haven't taken a PDC yet) but I've got Gaia's Garden and Mollison's Intro to Permaculture. My take on it is that, when he talks about looking at indigenous systems they don't mean to copy it literally. For example, they'd study the slash and burn techniques - why was it done? How did it benefit the people? How did it benefit/alter their environment? How did it affect soil fertility? As a result, they learn a lot about ancient technique of biochar and now a lot of permaculture groups do biochar workshops, showing 'permies' how to make biochar in their backyard, under controlled conditions, from cleared dry weeds and tree/shrub trimmings - stuff that would normally be put out for municipal pickup. IOW, turning a waste product (weeds and brush) into a free soil fertility resource for food production in the garden (biochar). Permaculture's ethics are "Care of the earth, care for people, share the surplus". So I'm certain that no permaculturist would advocate actual slashing and burning of forests.
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Old 12-14-2009, 07:43 PM   #7
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I'm no permaculture expert (haven't taken a PDC yet) but I've got Gaia's Garden and Mollison's Intro to Permaculture. My take on it is that, when he talks about looking at indigenous systems they don't mean to copy it literally. For example, they'd study the slash and burn techniques - why was it done? How did it benefit the people? How did it benefit/alter their environment? How did it affect soil fertility? As a result, they learn a lot about ancient technique of biochar and now a lot of permaculture groups do biochar workshops, showing 'permies' how to make biochar in their backyard, under controlled conditions, from cleared dry weeds and tree/shrub trimmings - stuff that would normally be put out for municipal pickup. IOW, turning a waste product (weeds and brush) into a free soil fertility resource for food production in the garden (biochar). Permaculture's ethics are "Care of the earth, care for people, share the surplus". So I'm certain that no permaculturist would advocate actual slashing and burning of forests.
Some techniques (slash & burn) work well with small groups of semi-nomadic people.
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Old 12-16-2009, 10:18 AM   #8
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What I took away from the article is - "why should we care?" (about food miles). Not only is it extremely hard to calculate, but it seems largely irrelevant, and distracts from other bigger issues. It's a poor measure, but it is the one that gets the "gotcha" headline -- "OMG, that food traveled 1500 miles! The humanity!". And people responding to poor measurements make poor, and often counter-productive "solutions".
Perhaps we shouldn't care about food miles. But only in calculating them can we make that determination...either, "Oops, this isn't as useful as we'd hoped" or "With some tweaks, this really can be useful." Maybe we do need another yardstick. If we stay with food miles, highly refined, I can see where we might end up with a map similar to the ones you see for the efficacy of solar panels. If you live in the cold, snowy northern third of the US, I would think average food miles would be quite different than for warmer areas. (Or maybe not.)

I do think it's important to look at the hidden costs of how we live, which, until recently, no one gave much thought. It's a little like all the money tracking we on this forum do. If you don't know where it's going, how can you tighten things up and more wisely use this limited resource we have (our money)?

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When I do calculations like this, I generally see they agree with common sense. As samclem points out, if it didn't make sense to ship these things from where they grow, they wouldn't. If the stuff was so bad, fewer people would buy it. It just wouldn't be profitable. Sure, sometimes consumers make poor choices due to lack of information. But I think the average consumer can decide for themselves if that pineapple tastes good enough to pay the price (which includes shipping), or will look for alternatives to lettuce if it is always rotting before they can use it.
Actually, all of the above takes priority for me over "food miles". Particularly where fruit is concerned, I have completely given up on any "grocery store" fruit, except bananas. In particular, I look to make sure I'm not buying any fruit from California or South America. While the fruit looks beautifully ripe, when you go to take a bite it's hard as a rock. I've tried every trick in the book to then try to "ripen" this ripe-but-not-ripe fruit lookalike but all they do is rot from the center outward. So this past summer, I bought locally-grown strawberries, blueberries and regionally grown peaches and froze them. The whole goal was to have good fruit in the off season. Food miles had nothing to do with it. In fact, I opted for more food miles with the peaches - I've found Pennsylvania peaches are superior to NY peaches. I think this is because NY is pretty much the northern limit for peaches and the varieties that survive our winters just don't have the flavor.

It may be that the "locally grown movement" has settled on promoting "food miles" because it seems to be a more quantifiable than "tastes better", which is very subjective. There probably are a lot of people who can't discern enough difference between a PA and a NY peach to even care. Maybe they'd even find a CA peach just as acceptable. But for me, taste and freshness ranks higher and as plant geneticists do more and more fiddling so fruit can still look pretty even at 10 days off the tree, flavor seems to be last on the list of attributes to select for. At least, that's been my experience.

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But I'm not accepting that buying food produced 1500 miles from point of purchase is automatically more energy intensive than buying food produced 15 miles from point of purchase.
That may be true now, but I can see where this may not hold in a few more years. It seems we're moving in the direction of electric vehicles for local transport which may change the calculation dramatically. Depending on the source/price of the electricity to charge the farmer's pickup or van, vs. the fossil fuel that will most certainly required for large transport (solar-powered jumbo jets anyone?), local may become much economical. But we aren't there yet. What I like is that we're even starting to consider the hidden costs of what we do. That's progress.

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To loop this back to Cap & Trade, it is these hard to define, slippery numbers that make C&T a monster when applied to greenhouse gas, or carbon emissions, or fossil fuel use (have they even decided what they are capping?).-ERD50
I think this is true of the whole "going green" movement and is why "greenwashing" is a growing problem (aka green buyer beware). What, at first glance, seems like the greenest choice, often isn't. For example, is it greener for me to turn in my 10 year old minivan that only gets around 18mpg combined, in favor of a brand-new "green" vehicle like, say, a Prius? What about the embodied energy that went into the manufacture of my mini-van vs. the all-new resources in the Prius? If I want 8 bales of straw for my garden, I can get it in one trip with the minivan (seats out) vs. 3 or 4 trips with the Prius. I can put 2 dog crates side by side in my minivan so my dogs can travel safely. And yet, most of my driving is commuter type driving where cargo capacity isn't an issue, so the Prius would be the better choice. <sigh> It's not easy being green!
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Old 12-16-2009, 01:20 PM   #9
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Sounds like we are mostly in agreement on the big picture. I might find some time later to comment in detail on some of those items, but just thought I'd get that out there for now.

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Old 12-27-2009, 07:06 PM   #10
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Just ran across this on PBS Video. E2|Transport: Food Miles. It's the full 25 minute episode, very well done IMO.
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Old 12-27-2009, 11:05 PM   #11
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Just ran across this on PBS Video. E2|Transport: Food Miles. It's the full 25 minute episode, very well done IMO.
Thanks for posting. I just watched it - interesting I guess, but not convincing. Just struck me as "preaching to the choir". And I do like Micheal Pollan's books - I don't agree with everything, but he gets you thinking.

Time and time again, it just seemed to repeat "local is better" (with no backup) - which seems obvious at first in some ways, but just looking at the numbers we posted in another thread, it really isn't so obvious, and might be just the opposite in many cases.

They did touch on how they need to mimic large scale distribution, but never touched on just how inefficient the current distribution is. And I just don't get these figures they spout out, like "it takes 10 calories of energy to produce a calorie of food". What does that mean? Does that make lard a better food choice than lettuce, since lettuce has almost no calories? We coould have a real efficient number for lard. It just seems so meaningless, so why use it as any sort of argument?

And "food is too cheap" - "you get what you pay for"? Not buying that one either. Farmers are using technology to be more efficient. They have GPS on their tractors, and localized soil tests to spread the right amounts of fertilizer. Things like that make food less expensive. It's like saying that today's $300 flat screen TV is worse than a $400 TV from 20 years ago because "you get what you pay for".

I totally agree that the govt should get out of the subsidy business. That distorts markets, and I want the best, most productive market to win. In some cases that probably will be a local market. I don't want the govt subsidizing the other guy.

I had to laugh, because I wonder the same thing every year when I see those "Danish Butter Cookies" imported from Denmark, around Christmas time. What, we can't make cookies here in the US? But obviously, the shipping costs don't make them prohibitively expensive (or I would not see them for sale) - so I guess people should be free to choose.

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Old 12-28-2009, 10:25 AM   #12
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And I just don't get these figures they spout out, like "it takes 10 calories of energy to produce a calorie of food". What does that mean? Does that make lard a better food choice than lettuce, since lettuce has almost no calories? We coould have a real efficient number for lard. It just seems so meaningless, so why use it as any sort of argument?
Well, what Pollen actually said is, "Today, it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to grow one calorie of food energy." What does it mean? It seems fairly obvious to me - over the long haul it's unsustainable, despite other modern "efficiencies" you point to like GPS and soil testing. Common sense dictates that pouring 10 times more energy into any system (whether it's lard production or lettuce) than you're able to harvest from it in the end, just can't go on forever, especially as input supplies dwindle.

Actually, Cuba has already seen what happens as an end result of such an inefficient system when fuel and food imports dried up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Can't find the exact source right now, but I recall reading that the average Cuban lost something like 15 - 20 lbs. during the switch to local organic agriculture.

Here's some additional information:

Fossil Fuels and Industrial Farming
Conventional food production and distribution requires a tremendous amount of energyóone study conducted in 2000 estimated that ten percent of the energy used annually in the United States was consumed by the food industry.ix Yet for all the energy we put into our food system, we donít get very much out. A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that, using our current system, three calories of energy were needed to create one calorie of edible food. And that was on average. Some foods take far more, for instance grain-fed beef, which requires thirty-five calories for every calorie of beef produced. x Whatís more, the John Hopkins study didnít include the energy used in processing and transporting food. Studies that do estimate that it takes an average of seven to ten calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food.xi
Accounting for most of this wasteful equation are the industrial practices upon which our food system is built. These include inefficient growing practices, food processing, and storage, as well as our system of transporting foodstuffs thousands of miles between the field and the end consumer.

Growing Practices
The biggest culprit of fossil fuel usage in industrial farming is not transporting food or fueling machinery; itís chemicals. As much as forty percent of energy used in the food system goes towards the production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. xii Fertilizers are synthesized from atmospheric nitrogen and natural gas, a process that takes a significant amount of energy. Producing and distributing them requires an average of 5.5 gallons of fossil fuels per acre. xiii

Heller, Martin C., and Gregory A. Keoleian. Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, 2000: 42.
Horrigan, Leo, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker. "How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture." Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. 5 (May 5, 2002) (accessed August 29, 2006).
Heller, Martin C., and Gregory A. Keoleian. Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, 2000: 42.
Ibid:40.
Manning, Richard. "The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq." Harperís, July 23, 2004.

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And "food is too cheap" - "you get what you pay for"? Not buying that one either. Farmers are using technology to be more efficient. They have GPS on their tractors, and localized soil tests to spread the right amounts of fertilizer. Things like that make food less expensive. It's like saying that today's $300 flat screen TV is worse than a $400 TV from 20 years ago because "you get what you pay for".

I totally agree that the govt should get out of the subsidy business. That distorts markets, and I want the best, most productive market to win. In some cases that probably will be a local market. I don't want the govt subsidizing the other guy.
I thought they made a fairly good case (as much as 25 minutes would allow) for the fact that food is cheaper than it should be, precisely because of distortions in the system - including heavy reliance on cheap fossil fuels to obtain a yield. Quite honestly though, I don't quite see how GPS and soil testing would be more than a minor factor in this. Of course, soil testing saves applying excessive amounts of fertilizer. That saves a little money - and also prevents a crop failure due to over- or under-fertilization. The point is, with soils as depleted as they are, nothing grows without the annual input of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, made predominantly from fossil fuels. That's the crux of the matter - the "efficiency" (if you consider 7-10:1 in/out to be efficient) of our present food system is due almost entirely to a near total reliance on a finite resource.

Fossil fuels are still relatively cheap, so we can afford to have an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate on what "food miles" really means at this point. But in the future, with fuel supplies dwindling and corresponding price increases...I think all bets will be off.
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Old 12-28-2009, 11:57 AM   #13
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Yes, I understood it to be 10:1 measured by fossil fuel energy in, food calories out. It is still a totally meaningless metric. As I said, that makes lard measure better than lettuce, simply because lard has more calories. Not a good metric at all.

It is a process of converting one form (fossil fuel) to another form (food) that is useful to us in different ways. So the comparison just isn't apples:apples. Let's make some other comparisons:

Let's say a potato takes 10x (or whatever) the water to produce it than it contains. Is that "bad"? Sometimes we need a potato, not water.

A solar PV panel is about 10% efficient in converting sunlight to energy. Does that make PV "bad"? No, because sometimes we need electricity, not sunlight.

How many calories of sunlight does a lettuce plant absorb for each calorie of food energy it provides? Is it a useful measure if we want lettuce and not sunlight?

We don't eat fossil fuel, but if it is cost effective, we can use it (convert it) to food that we do need. That can be a good thing.


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Fossil fuels are still relatively cheap, so we can afford to have an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate on what "food miles" really means at this point. But in the future, with fuel supplies dwindling and corresponding price increases...I think all bets will be off.
But presentations like this don't seem to discuss it, they seem to just say "food miles is bad". And I don't see it as an "angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate", it is a very pragmatic debate. If it was cheaper to grow the food locally, I bet that "greedy capitalists" would choose that path.

And when fossil fuel makes it impractical, then producers will adapt and seek alternatives. But it just seems silly to me to say, "prices are going up in the future, so stop using it now". BTW, my GPS and soil test example was just the first to pop in my head regarding technology - I didn't mean it as a major contributor, but one of thousands of contributions that together lower the price of food.

Let me end on a positive note: We are probably more in agreement than you think. Sustainability is important, and there are probably some great cases to be made for some local products/processes. I think it is counterproductive to use bad metrics and "feel good" talking points to push an agenda. Think about ethanol as fuel, for an example - "We grow it here in the midwest, it comes from corn, blah,blah, blah. And ethanol is an economic and environmental disaster - but a lot of people felt good about it.

If this "sustainability" agenda is going to have legs, they need some real-world positives that are clear wins and are economical. They won't need to "sell" it, people will buy it because it is the best choice. I suggest they focus on those and drop the useless numbers and "feel good" prattle and accentuate the pragmatic positives.

-ERD50
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Old 12-28-2009, 12:11 PM   #14
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Whatís more, the John Hopkins study didnít include the energy used in processing and transporting food. Studies that do estimate that it takes an average of seven to ten calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food.xi
So let me comment specifically on that one.

How does that number look when you use a "sustainable" practice? Anyone have a number for that (is it in the links you provided, I have not read them yet)? I'll bet there are lots of hidden costs in the inefficiencies there. It takes a tractor to spread manure on a field. Manure is far less concentrated than "chemical" fertilizers - I bet those extra trips add up. Plus the distribution problems that they gloss over in that video. So they point out a "problem", but do they really have a solution?

Here is another one I came across - When the big industrial places are harvesting crops, they sort the best looking ones for restaurants and grocery stores. But the poorer ones go right to the canning plant (think diced tomatoes, or apple sauce - who cares what it looked like before processing), and are used, not wasted. These local farmers just don't have the economy of scale for things like that.

Bottom line - if these techniques were so great, no one would be trying to "sell us" on the technique - we would just be buying the product, because it would be a better value. I don't buy one TV over another by analyzing their manufacturing technique - I look at the value of the product.

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Old 12-28-2009, 12:36 PM   #15
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I've heard about the excess fossil fuel energy required to produce food. I remember thinking the number quoted was excessive, although I've forgotten whether it was the same number quoted here. I also currently have misplaced my spreadsheet where I did the calculation.
From what I remember, the total nutritional energy content in the wheat produced in the US was greater than the total energy in all the oil pumped in a year. I concluded that their accounting was slanted in some way. I haven't had time to think about it since then, but wondered whether anyone here had looked at how they figured their numbers.
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Old 12-28-2009, 08:52 PM   #16
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From what I remember, the total nutritional energy content in the wheat produced in the US was greater than the total energy in all the oil pumped in a year. I concluded that their accounting was slanted in some way. I haven't had time to think about it since then, but wondered whether anyone here had looked at how they figured their numbers.
Interesting.... it got me thinking. One complication would be that it takes ~ 10# of grain to produce 1# of beef, so that would throw things off. So, a bit of googling and I tried this approach (fewer conversions if we stick to joules)....

~ 300M people in the US. Assume 9MJ average food energy consumption per day. That is 2.7EE15 J/day.

But hguyw contends that we throw out 40% of our food, so 1.667x that must be produced, shipped, etc. That is 4.5EE15 J of food energy used each day.

OK, that's food energy consumption, now on to oil...


U.S. Petroleum Consumption = 19,498,000 barrels/day, a barrel of crude = 6.119GJ, so that is 1.19EE17 J of oil used each day.

If the food energy relates to 10x the oil energy, that means that 4.5EE16 J of oil energy must go to food production, use, etc.

4.5EE16/1.19EE17 = 38%. Wow - that would mean that 38% of our oil would need to go to food! Pretty amazing considering that 46% goes to refined motor gasoline, and little of that would be used for food (think diesel tractors, trucks, irrigation engines). That only leaves 16% for the rest of everything we do and need (heating our homes, buildings, transporting non-food products, etc).

I also did some cost numbers, won't bore you with the details, but at $100/bbl, ~ 46% of the cost of food would be petroleum based. Wow, that would make food super-sensitive to oil prices, rather than just affected to the level they are.

Yep, just not adding up - I'd be curious how they came to those numbers....

-ERD50

links:

Food energy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Recommended daily energy intake values for young adults and men are: 2500 kcal/day (10 MJ/day) and 2000 kcal/day (8 MJ/day) for women.
U.S. Product Supplied for Crude Oil and Petroleum Products

EIA Energy Kids - Energy Calculators
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Old 12-28-2009, 10:54 PM   #17
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I don't think anything is sustainable in the long run, anyway. Entropy, anyone? I haven't heard of a single situation (outside of a sci fi novel) where you can produce more energy on less energy expenditure. Not to say we shouldn't attempt to minimize waste, but I don't think any of these smart guys have the answer. Either they all have their own ox to gore, or possibly the problem is too complex for us to figger out. Le sens commun n'est pas si commun.
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Old 12-29-2009, 12:55 AM   #18
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I don't think this has to be a closed - zero energy input system. Any input of natural solar energy, or wind/thermal power or anything which is renewal is still sustainable (at least for thousands, if not millions, of years).
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Old 12-29-2009, 07:32 PM   #19
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I know, and agree. I just think the science of sustainablility is questionable. I haven't seen anything that gives me a warm fuzzy about takin all aspects into account. I worry that we're doing the equivalent of the bio fuels subsidies or 1950s Middle East policy. Sounds good on first glance, but needs MUCH more thought before putting it into effect. Measure twice, cut once.
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Old 01-01-2010, 11:22 AM   #20
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I came across this article and thought it was an interesting sidebar to this thread - this guy is looking to turn large parts of empty Detroit into urban farms....

Farming: One way to try and save Detroit - Dec. 29, 2009
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Yes, a farm. A large-scale, for-profit agricultural enterprise, wholly contained within the city limits of Detroit. Hantz thinks farming could do his city a lot of good: restore big chunks of tax-delinquent, resource-draining urban blight to pastoral productivity; provide decent jobs with benefits; supply local markets and restaurants with fresh produce; attract tourists from all over the world; and -- most important of all -- stimulate development around the edges as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in. Hantz is willing to commit $30 million to the project. He'll start with a pilot program this spring involving up to 50 acres on Detroit's east side. "Out of the gates," he says, "it'll be the largest urban farm in the world."

-ERD50
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