Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Principle, a Position, and Part of a Plan: Sustainable Open-Source Pocket Neighborhoods

The principle is simple:

 The key to a sustainable society is recycled pee. 

Think about it. Well, if you'd rather not think about it, look for an authority figure: this morning's Tech Times quotes a "NASA plant physiologist" in Space Spuds: NASA Grows Potatoes On Mars-like Peruvian Soil:
If the soil on Mars cannot cultivate the spuds, Wheeler said that it could still be produced by hydroponics and aeroponics, with fertilizers coming from inedible plants and urine.

Okay, so that makes it a universal truth, right? So think about it --- still not ready to think about it? I admit there's a yuk-factor in the way. Okay, sing about it, to the tune of Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball":

You waste away your NPK - and I’m
about to do the same
My pee saved up for just 12 months could grow
600 pounds of grain

Now are you ready to think about it? Really it's kind of obvious: the stuff in soil that plants need, mostly put there in the form of fertilizer, can wash away downriver, or it can wind up in your kitchen garbage/compost, or it can get into your stomach. Once in your stomach, it's absorbed by your body -- or not. If it isn't absorbed, it comes out as poop, which certainly has a fairly high nutrient value for plants, just like cow or horse manure. That's worth saving, you may well want to grow more plants with the same nutrients, but the goal of the whole exercise is to have some nutrients get absorbed by you. All of those eventually come out as pee, unless you carry them with you to the cemetery. So....if you want a closed loop, if you want a sustainable society, you have to recycle that pee.

I admit that I was surprised by this when I first started seeing references to it a few weeks ago (I was Googling for material on topsoil and groundwater depletion). I found things like this: Fertilizing with human urine
Our urine contains significant levels of nitrogen, as well as phosphorous and potassium (typically an N-P-K ratio around 11 – 1 – 2.5, similar to commercial fertilizers). Americans produce about 90 million gallons of urine a day, containing about 7 million pounds of nitrogen. Studies conducted in Sweden (Sundberg, 1995; Drangert, 1997) show that an adult’s urine contains enough nutrients to fertilize 50-100% of the crops needed to feed one adult...
Peecycling will fertilize the green roofs of Amsterdam
Plants need phosphorus, and we are running out of the stuff; some say we will reach peak phosphorus by 2030. That's we should [be] recycling urine, to recover the phosphorus in it instead of flushing it away.
For more complete micronutrient content, maybe add wood ash to the urine: "P" is for plants: Human urine plus ash equals tomato fertilizer, study says - Scientific American Blog Network
both urine-based fertilizers roughly quadrupled fruit production when compared to unfertilized control plants. The researchers estimate that the product of a single individual's micturition could fertilize 6,300 tomato plants a year, yielding more than two tons of fruit.

The addition of ash did confer some benefits—those plants were larger and grew fruit with significantly higher magnesium and potassium content.
But mostly it's all about pee. Collection and Use of Urine:
When most people think of creating fertilizer from animal waste, they think of manure. Composted cow manure, for example, is widely sold in garden centers. But there are actually far more nutrients in urine than in fecal matter.

In human waste, 88% of the nitrogen is contained in the urine, along with 66% of the phosphorous, according to Swedish research (see table at end of blog), while nearly all of the hazards — including bacterial pathogens — are contained in the fecal matter.

The idea that the Rich Earth Institute has been advancing for the past several years is to collect human urine, sanitize that urine to kill any bacteria that may be in it (from urinary tract infections, for example, or fecal contamination), and then apply it on fields as a fertilizer.
 (The Rich Earth Institute is also reported here, and many other places.)

Sanitize? Bacteria? Do we have to boil the pee or something? No...urine is not reliably perfectly sterile, but it's not a poop kind of problem. Depending on context, recommendations vary between "don't worry about it" and "keep it in a sealed container, undiluted, for a while before using", as in Urine Storage:
Extended storage is the simplest, cheapest and most common method to treat urine with the aim of pathogen kill and nutrients recovery. Pathogen removal is achieved by a combination of the rise in pH and ammonium concentrations, high temperature and time. Recommended storage time at temperatures of 4 to 20°C varies between one to six months for large-scale systems depending on the risk for cross-contamination (e.g. user habits, maintenance) and the type of crop to be fertilised.....
...If a family uses its own urine, the risk of disease transmission via fertilisation and crops is very low — the risk that diseases are transmitted directly, e.g. by handshaking, coughing or by improper hygiene behaviours is much higher.

And in practical terms, How To Use Pee In Your Garden | Northwest Edible Life:
2. Dilution is The Solution
*Dilute fresh urine at a 4:1 ratio and apply to the root-zone of corn every two weeks or as needed....
*Dilute fresh urine at a 10:1 ratio and apply to the root-zone of fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, or to leafy crops like cabbage, broccoli, spinach and lettuce every two weeks or as needed.
*Dilute fresh urine at a 20:1 ratio and water in to the root zone of seedlings and new transplants.
In terms of sustainability, our current plumbing standards are insane: we take easy-to-process-and-use graywater from shower and sink, we take easy-to-process-and-use-pee, we take harder-to-process poop, we take very-hard-to-process contaminated (e.g. with heavy metals) water from street and factory, and then we mix them all together to make it almost impossible to process any of them and very hard to use the resulting "sewage sludge" safely. And of course when things go wrong, which they rather often do, the yuk factor enters into it anyway: "flush and forget" is then a failure.

That's the Principle. What's the Position? Do we really have to worry about this? Really, I'm not sure. We live in a world of exponential growth, more and more people with more and more Stuff per person, and it's a finite world so that growth will end. QED, sure, but that doesn't mean it will end by bumping into a resource limit. Consider:

   We may run out of topsoil or groundwater or oil or copper or phosphate, yup, all of these are resources which we're depleting: they are input limits. Or...
  We may drown in our own sewage, smother in our air pollution or be crushed by toppling towers of overloaded landfills: those are output limits. Or...
  We may not reach that point: we may all die in a nuclear war or from CRISPR-based bioterrorism or from a "natural" global pandemic or a Carrington Event (a solar disturbance that could have hit in 2012 but the Sun wasn't aiming for us that time, but it might wipe out the power grid to the extent that we can no longer distribute fossil fuels or food or ourselves, as the cities turn into charnel houses)...there are lots of possible ends to exponential growth. The one I think most about is that

  We may develop self-reproducing robotic factories, with or without more-than-human intelligence, which will offer us a chance for immense wealth for everybody..but which may simply wipe out the human race, instead. If I start in about that, which (apart from nuclear war) has been the primary driver for most of my thinking about the future since, umm, junior high school fifty years ago, I won't write about anything else, so I'll stop that one right here. There's still one left, a big one:

  We may find that exponential growth ends as per conventional economics, simply because we are in a "post-scarcity economy" where people have more Stuff than they really want and Stuff ceases to be an ego boost. An economy where for the first time in history (and pre-history), more people are obese than emaciated -- hey, didn't I just read ... yeah.. A world in which population has been levelling off, not because of the Four Horsemen but because more-educated women with more life choices are choosing ... "not yet". Or not at all, or at least not many. A world in which the "Sharing Economy" has been taking off -- more and more people don't want more Stuff. They'd like to travel abroad and play videogames (or read on their Kindles, without piles of physical books) at home, and in between they don't even want to own cars--better to take Uber or Lyft to the latest movie or concert. If I'm right about this (please remember the name of this blog) then we are not really faced with an exponential growth situation, not if we don't get recursive robotics. We're just faced with a transition to be managed, over the next several decades. And if the Sun spits our way or if we all get sick and die or if we blow each other to bits or if we do find that somebody adds a Superintelligence to the mix, then no other factors really matter, but if not -- it would be good to have a plan.

So, I claimed in the title to have Part of a Plan, and I gave it a complicated name: "Sustainable Open-Source Pocket Neighborhoods." Pocket Neighborhoods? Yes, Pocket neighborhoods:
a grouping of smaller residences, often around a courtyard or common garden...reducing or segregating parking and roadways, the use of shared communal areas ... homes with smaller square footage built in close proximity...
The idea is that we can reduce resource usage, reduce waste, reduce Stuff, all by designing neighborhoods that will make it easier to share the Stuff that's actually needed, so that houses can shrink -- it's not rocket science. We need sustainable individual houses, but they don't Share so well. We really need sustainable cities, but we don't yet know how to begin. Pocket neighborhoods are at a scale where sharing/shrinkage can have environmental impact, and we can experiment. Different groups can do it different ways, each making their own mistakes from which other groups learn. And this will appeal to
  • people who worry about resource usage on principle, and also to
  • people who worry about waste in principle (often the same people), and to
  • people who just like the idea of sharing more, and also to
  • people who just don't like having Stuff dominate their lives, and want to live simply at home (and perhaps travel more, maybe Airbnb-style to other connected pocket neighborhoods), and finally to
  • people who need to live on less -- e.g., retirees badly hurt by the 2008--9 "Great Recession" and our far-from-complete recovery.
A few months back I went to the local library, where a few friends and a couple of architects were talking about their plan to construct and live in a pocket neighborhood around here; it ended up being a very crowded meeting room because representatives of all those groups heard about the idea and thought -- hey, is there room for me in there? And the answer was "no", of course; this is a small project for a few people. But the markets are there: all these groups of people exist. Or so it seems to me.
  If  I were more concerned about sustainability than superintelligence (I'm not, but I'm glad some people are) and if I had a few hundred million to put into the problem (sigh)... then I'd be trying to construct a network of clusters of pocket neighborhoods. A pocket neighborhood is 10-20 small (or tiny) houses on a few acres; a cluster is 10-20 such neighborhoods on 100 acres or so. I'd be paying a bunch of architects, furniture designers, and even appliance designers for designs, to be open-sourced with a GPL-style license (you can use it, you can experiment with it, you can change it, but if you change it you have to put the new design back into the pool on the same terms). The basic parameters of the designs would of course be about sharing, local food production, peecycling... but also about low-resource-use = low-budget, and (as keeps mentioning in the tiny-house context) about the potential use of our immense shipping-container infrastructure to enable particular unit sizes to be designed around, e.g. by the furniture designers. And I'd be paying other people to try to design organizational frameworks to help people avoid stepping on each other's toes -- it's very easy for sharing to end in mutual annoyance. And I'd be paying other people to start out some actual clusters...

And I was going to write an even longer post about a specific sample design that I had fun thinking through, but somehow that sort of post never works out for me. Not sure why, but it might be because they grow exponentially and my energy is a very finite resource. I'll stop here.

Or then again, maybe not....

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