urban agriculture and space habitats

2015/12/09 deej 0

I’ve been thinking a lot about space, recently. As in, spaceships and stars and planets. I know, I know, that sounds like it has nothing to do with our fledgling smallholding – but in reality it has quite a lot to do with it.

When I say I’m thinking about space, I mean I’m thinking about humans going to space. Space habitats and the ecosystems we’ll need to support them, producing enough food not just for a few scientists but for entire villages of people living in colonies on the moon, or Mars, or Venus, or even in permanent space station habitats orbiting the Earth. Recycling water and air, nitrogen and carbon and all the micronutrients and elements that we need to survive.

I think that a lot of the techniques which are useful for urban agriculture and peri-urban (urban fringe) agrculture in the here-and-now are also applicable to setting up self-sufficient space habitats and extra-terrestrial colonies. And equally, a lot of the techniques that might be researched and developed for use in space are also applicable, with minor modifications, to urban agriculture. Aquaponics and aeroponics are the most obvious examples, recycling water and nutrients to produce fish and vegetables (in an aquaponics system) or to use minimal water for maximum vegetable production (in an aeroponics system). Insect farming is another example, everything from raising crickets as a food source for ourselves or for fish (fun fact: you can also include crickets in the diet of chickens, for the protein, and even in the food for your cat or dog) to composting with black soldier flies, the larvae of which again provide high quality fish and poultry feed. The main point is to have closed systems, or as closed as possible when we are removing nutrients by eating some of the produce.

Composting toilets are also a thing, since recycling those nutrients is going to be essential in space and is increasingly essential here on Earth. The amount of soil which is being lost to erosion each year means that we need to do absolutely everything we can to retain and enrich the soil we have. Of course that includes composting food waste and animal manure as well as humanure, since nutrients are nutrients.

Any sort of ecosystem that we were to set up in space – or in an urban environment, as a relatively closed or self-sufficient system – requires careful planning around the types of plants and animals that we raise. We need enough different foods to provide both the nutrition and the energy (calories or kilojoules) that we need to live, and if we keep animals at all then we need enough food to provide them with their nutritional and energy needs as well. And, as any biodynamic practitioner will tell you, we also need enough carbonaceous materials (e.g. the stems of cereals and grasses) to allow for effective composting. Unless we use only hydro-, aero-, or aquaponic (water based) systems, in which case we still need some way of recycling the nutrients in waste food, non-food plant parts, and manure.

What combinations of plants provide us with the minimum viable diversity of diet to live well? Which ones combine nutritional efficiency with high production – and what does that mean for our diet? Rice is far more productive than wheat or corn under ideal conditions (yields of 4 – 8, and up to 22 tonnes per hectare for rice, compared to 1 – 4.5 tonnes per hectare for wheat accoirding to google), so should we try to move away from our western, wheat-based diet? Or should we try to breed more productive wheat varieties? And what animals should we keep, to maximise production while minimising the space we need to use?

Fish seem to be an obvious choice, along with insects to feed them, but which species of fish? Trout, tilapia (illegal to keep in Australia) and carp have been raised in aquaculture systems very successfully, and both will breed in captivity without outside intervention. Barramundi are harder to raise because they are more inclined to cannibalism when crowded, and they do not breed naturally in captivity. Catfish grow well and will breed in captivity, but they do not like being crowded and will fight and injure one another.

Then you start down the road of poultry (chickens, pigeons, ducks, quail, ..) and small ruminants (miniature goats or sheep, or even miniature cattle). Smaller animals such as rabbits or guinea pigs are possible too. Or will we simply have vats to produce artificial meat instead? And what about pets? Do pets have a place in the system, even if the only work they do is to provide us humans with companionship and the associated psychological benefits? (We’ve decided that they do, that both cats and dogs have a place on our farm simply because we believe that we, as humans, are poorer and lonelier when we don’t have dogs and cats in our lives).

I don’t have answers, but I’m working on it. I want to go into space one day.



2014/10/21 deej 0

This is a nerdy post – because I am, fundamentally, a nerd. A plant-loving dirty-finger-nailed wannabe farmer nerd, but a nerd nonetheless. Or geek. Whichever the fashionable term is at the moment. Also, it’s kinda long. Sorry about that.

I believe that technology – computers, robots, spaceships and space travel – are awesome. I’m also aware that technology is a spectrum, ranging from more efficient shovels to bicycles, the idea of surgeons washing their hands before surgery through to vaccines against cancer-causing viruses, sailing ships to electric cars to rockets that can take a human to the moon and back safely, signal fires through to mobile phones. Technology is a set of tools. Really neat, amazing tools, but just tools. Not good or evil, just useful to further the desires and abilities of the people using them.

I look forward to having better technology available, to forming a true endosymbiosis with my phone or computer, having the extra memory and processing (thinking) speed that could give me. I look forward to being able to regrow a new organ from my own stem cells if one of mine fails, or replacing a limb or joint with a functional cybernetic one if I need to. I anticipate every person having these same benefits – technology is the antithesis of elitism and class division, because the technology gets cheaper and easier as we get better at making the tools we want or need.

None of that means I don’t care about the environment, though. I’ve been a gardener even longer than I’ve been amazed and intrigued by computers (I planted seeds and helped harvest fresh peas very shortly after I could walk on my own, and I was a precocious child). I care passionately about sustainability and species diversity and the inherent value of the natural world. I also care passionately about the efficiency and effectiveness that methods such as permaculture and holistic management allow. I’m a technodruid, if you like.

I’m not talking about actual druids or neopagan religion here – and no offence to any practicing druids or neopagans. The kind of druids I’m thinking of are the sort in Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying games. The druid is the caretaker of the wilderness, a character who uses nature-based magic and has a deep connection with plants and animals (and sometimes with the landscape itself).

So, all of that said, posts like this one (The Dawn of Cybernetic Civilisation) on PermacultureNews.org make me sad. So many people in the environmentalist and permaculture communities talk about technology as an evil thing. Many of them don’t really understand it, and they seem to view it as a thing separate from us humans. It’s not. Technology is as close to us, now, as our skin and our breath. We are our technology, just like a honeybee is her hive. We create tools only because we want to use them to make our lives and our childrens’ lives better.

I notice very few of these people refusing to use buses, or bicycles, or even computers and the internet. Do you know why that is? because these things are useful. Maybe even essential. The internet, that source of terror and surveillance, brings us closer together across distances that our ancestors couldn’t even imagine. The petrol engine, even with all the harm it’s done to the environment through emissions we didn’t realise until fairly recently were a problem (two or three or five decades is recent in the scale of an entire culture and species realising something), also made it possible for us to look at the planet from outside. If we had never gone into space, never seen for ourselves the fragile bubble that is our life-support system, we might never have realised that we are responsible for protecting it both for its own sake and also for our survival.

I think we should remember that change happens no matter what we do; we can ride the wave and change along with it, or we can go under. Technology exists not to make us into unthinking cogs in some great machine but because we built it and used it. if we become unthinking cogs it is because we chose to do that.

Everything is a choice. Technology can only oppress us if we choose to be oppressed by it, or to ignore it, or to allow ourselves to be oppressed by other people using that technology. If we choose to be enabled by it, just think what we could do.


Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

the fall of advertising

2013/03/14 deej 0

I don’t know what the crossover is between permaculture and plant nerds (and gardeners, farmers, sustainability seekers, etc.) and technology nerds, but I fall into that demographic.

And, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I hate online advertising. I despise uutoplay video and audio on websites (even non-advertising video and audio, to be fair). Ads prepended to my video feeds so that in order to watch <cool new music video> I have to sit through <boring and irrelevant advert for something I don’t want or need> are obnoxious. Even the banner ads on most sites irritate me, with their blaringly loud colours and inclination to use up to 60% of the screen. So I use ad-blocker software. Lots of people do – increasing numbers of us in fact, 50% or more of the users on some sites.

A story linked on Slashdot a few days ago highlighted the problems that ad blockers cause for a lot of journalists and news sites – if they don’t get any revenue from ads, where will they get enough revenue to survive? Advertisers are becoming disillusioned with the whole web advertising thing as a way to target potential customers, because even if some people do still allow ads, at least non-invasive ads, enough people disable them completely to make the advertising not really financially viable.

It puts  journalists in the same boat as visual artists, authors of fiction, animators and musicians. How do you get paid to do what you do? The traditional ways for artists to get paid were patronage (which, these days includes distributed patronage – e.g. Kickstarter) and busking, i.e. donations.

Paywalls are a dead-end alley, in that there is so much information and entertainment available online for free that asking for payment to even visit a news site in case there’s something interesting or important there just sends a lot of users to another site. Patronage is an option, but most direct patrons these days are corporations and we all know what happens when journalists or scientists have their salaries paid by corporations. Distrubuted patronage works best for one-of things – a documentary, an album, an invention going to market, a specific novel or graphic novel. It isn’t such a good model for ongoing work like day to day journalism and reporting.

It is possible that a journalist could ask for payments for individual articles, paywalling the articles rather than the entire site on which they reside. I think that’s a good model – let us read the first paragraph or a summary, and then ask for a micropayment to read the full article. But doing that requires a reputation for high quality content, and a niche in which the free content is not as high quality as the content you provide. In other words, it’s hard, especially for news organisations which would then have to deal with how much of the micropayment went to the writer, how much to the photographer or videographer, and how much to the site itself, not to mention the less visible employees like administrators, proofreaders, and typesetters.

Which leaves you with donations. The poor cousin of income generation schemes.

Donations are hard, but they might work. A lot of sites now include ‘Donate’ or ‘Flattr‘ buttons to allow micropayments from users. But it’s tough to know how well it works – are those webcomic authors making a decent living on donations and merchandising, or are they subsidised bya  day job or a partner with a day job? Without knowing how viable it is, journalists and news sites are unlikely to try it.

Which brings us to the actual, original point of this post: someone is running an experiment with voluntary micropayments, which is linked on Slashdot. No actual money is involved, it’s just theoretical. You add an app to your bookmarks toolbar, and then when you find content you enjoy you click on one of those links (1 to 3 cents), depending on how amazing you thought the content was. Your “tip” is recorded, and that’s it. There’s a summary page that tells you how much you would have spent, and the experimenter will be releasing anonymized analyses of the data to see if this sort of system is viable in the wild. I think it’s a pretty neat experiment. If you’re game, go sign up.