25 February 2009

A conversation on ecological sustainability: Part 2

In my post A conversation on ecological sustainability, I made these statements: "I no longer believe that over-population is the dominant problem, or even the root cause of many of our ecological crises. I firmly believe there is more than enough for everyone alive right now on this earth to be nourished, clothed, housed and enabled with dignified work. This is not an utopian ideal, but an ethical principle." I am aware that overpopulation is one of those controversial hot-topics, which is why I feel it is so important to return to this issue and keep churning it.

First off, by simple mathematical equation, arriving at a concrete number for the carrying capacity of the earth, no matter how large or small, requires a calculated footprint for each human being. If we take the current available arable land on this earth as a base, in order to calculate how many human beings can live on that land mass, we need to know how much land each person requires. So which standard of living do we use? When we first began homesteading, one reason we moved into an underpopulated rural area was because we thought that we needed 100 acres to homestead on a largely self-reliant basis, and these depopulating areas held the best chances that we would be able to afford a piece of land that size. In the three years we have been on a 100 acre parcel (10 ac cleared pasture, 90 ac wooded), we have found, through practical experience and meeting the majority of our material needs, that we need a lot less land. Really, 10 acres would almost be too much. Even with wood as our sole source of heat and cooking fuel, and harvesting wood for building all of our barns, fencing and sheds, we have only begun to thin 4 to 5 acres of bush that was clear cut 20 years ago. The trees we harvest are primarily quick growing poplar and fir, and they are not large, average diameter of 6-8", and at least half of the trees we used were dry-rot because the regrowth was crowded and had not been managed. So if we were harvesting our wood out of a sustainably managed woodland, with hardwood for fuel, we need only 2-3 acres, at most. As we develop more solar hot water and solar cooking technologies, we need even less. And this sustainably forested area could also serve as a source of grazing for goats and rabbits, wildlife habitat to shelter natural beneficials in the garden, and food sources such as bramble fruits, orchards and nuts.

As for arable land for gardens, grazing, hay and grain, we first thought that we would run out of room on the 10 cleared acres. And these unamended, unimproved, tired pastures were just enough to carry one dairy cow, a horse and some pigs and poultry, so our first approach was to improve the pastures to increase the carrying capacity. The real revolution for us was to change the kinds of livestock we carry. One dairy cow provides enough milk and dairy products for a large extended family, and without a sustainable community approach to dairying in this area, this one cow was consuming most of the land resources as well as our time and energy, and even with my best effort to use up every drop of milk, in reality, we were producing too much. In switching to goats as dairy animals, and grazing animals such as rabbits and ducks instead of the grain intensive pigs and chickens, we are now able to meet our dairy, egg and meat needs (including growing the grains to raise them) on less than half the land. So as we continue to improve pastures and soil, we can grow all of our food (except coffee, tea and salt) on less than 3 acres, in Zone 4b. The carrying capacity of this zone is just about equivalent to the marginal lands surrounding deserts, we have a 3-4 month growing season, and 8-9 months dormancy, trees grow slowly and pastures do not provide more than one cut in a season. It is the same in a semi-arid climate where the growing season after the rains is only 3 months, with the dormant dry season extending throughout the rest of the year. So in a temperate zone, we could easily decrease our footprint by half or more. A large majority of the land mass of this earth is in the temperate band, if these lands are managed on a sustainable scale, using very low-tech methods and traditional fuels and foods, I would suggest that one acre is plenty to support one adult and a child. If we then continue to innovate, improve and build soils, push back the deserts, and use the types of methods Bishop's Homegrown detailed, the potential is endless.

We also thought that we would run into water issues, even here with a large snow pack and heavy precipitation, because we moved on here with a shallow, hand-drilled well. The well consists of a 2" diameter pipe drilled down to about 25 feet. The water table is usually between 10-15 feet below the surface, but it replenishes slowly because it is only ground water. We are not tapped into any water veins or the fossil water 100" below the surface that our neighbors access. We have to manage our water usage, both in the summer if we go 3-4 weeks without much rain, and in the winter when the ground water and precipitation is locked up as ice and snow. We have often thought of drilling a deeper well, or of using water catchment to meet our non-drinkable water needs. We cannot irrigate the garden on this scale, and even meeting the water needs of the dairy cow began to drain our well, especially in the winter. We mulch the garden and build up water-retaining humus in the soil, and only water tender transplants. On this level, even without rainwater catchment, we use about 10 gallons a day to meet all of our water needs, including livestock, garden, laundry, processing our canned food, etc. Our shallow well only taps the groundwater in a small diameter around it, I would guess that our water footprint, in an area with heavy precipitation to be only 10 cubic feet of ground water. Mr. Fritillary farmed on the edge of a desert, and using permaculture and water management techniques such as heavy mulch, shade houses, etc, he was able to catch enough water for 6-12 months with 5 inches of rain off of a 112 square foot roof. Most semi-arid zones receive 5-10" of rain a year, so with the appropriate rain catchment and storage techniques, water needs can easily be met on the land scale suggested above.

So now for manufactured goods, materials such as metals that require mining, electronics and technology such as solar panels and wind generators. We do our best to make either life-time purchases or buy used goods. We spend well under $1000 a year on purchases such as electronics, bicycle parts, solar panels, generators, tools, grain mills, cookware etc. And that number gets smaller each year. We could easily meet our fiber, clothing and leather needs on the footprint given above. We do not purchase things that are considered "consumables" or pure entertainment. Local theater, arts, artisan crafts and the like are sustainable ways to fulfill our desire to express and entertain one another.

Our power system is on the same micro-scale. We meet our power needs, including powering a laptop, radio, mp3 player, cell phone, household appliances (including a fan in the summer), small power tools, lights and electric fencing on 1200 Watts a month. On this scale, designing and building a power system to meet household or community power needs are easily achievable. Villages in Africa are building their own wind generators out of "scrap" and bicycle generators to power their cell phones, laptops, radios, lighting, etc. The more localized the power generation, the more efficient, because power is lost the further it is pushed down a line. Google is beginning to source renewable power to run the large server farms that provide the Internet. By locating these server farms in appropriate places where there is a consistent power source like tidal, geothermal or wind/sun, we can sustainably build up the global communication network that the Internet provides. Access to the internet can be broadcast over radio-waves, requiring only simple receivers, and data can be stored on-line at these renewably powered server farms, eliminating the need for fiber-optic lines, tele-communication satellites and power-sucking desktop computers.

Transportation is a pretty easy issue to resolve, it just takes a lot of reworking, and restructuring the way we live, but it is technologically and practically possible for us to transport ourselves and our goods without the use of fossil fuels, with low-impact mining and manufacturing. For ourselves, we use bicycles as local transportation, even through our winters, and carpool trips to town a few times a year. But we are working on an electric bicycle design, using a tandem and a trailer, powered by a compact marine wind generator to keep the battery charged. With this bicycle we can comfortably carry 100 lbs in the trailer and 50 lbs on the bike, and travel 100 miles a day at a maximum.

We do not usually "boast" of these facts about our life because we are typically met with a combination of pity and aversion. But we live this way, and are comfortable, nourished, healthy, happy, fulfilled, we have friends and a great marriage, so as far as standard of living, I think we are very well-off. We work hard, but we are not breaking our backs. We live within restrictions, but we are not stagnated by poverty. We are not Luddites by far, and use the latest innovations in technology when they improve our quality of life without harming another's. These are ethical choices, at heart, but they are also practical solutions. It has been a kind of experiment for us to live this way, and because of what we both have learned, we also have a high sense of security and confidence that we are able not only to survive, but to thrive and contribute to our community under incredibly adverse conditions, including the climate disasters to come. I looked into the definition of pragmatism, because I know that I am no longer an idealist, since we have been living by and redefining the ideals that we only held in theory when we lived in an urban environment. By the definition below, I believe, if these kinds of labels really matter, that my approach to this issue has been entirely pragmatic.

"The goal of pragmatist theorizing is not to solve abstract philosophical problems but to attain knowledge of a concrete, social reality and to focus on the problems of actual experience. This knowledge and experience will then direct political action and social change: theory and practice are interrelated. Based on this experiential and practical foundation, pragmatists hold, among other things, that there is a plurality of values and meanings, that human action can better the human condition, and that there is a relationality between the experiencing subject and the experienced object."

So to re-state our belief that overpopulation is not the problem, to us, it is not a question of whether the solutions are out there, the question is whether those of us who have been used to a higher material standard of living are willing to make these changes before it really is too late.

In doing a basic google search for concrete numbers on the arable land available on earth, I found this page:

Surface Area of the EarthEarth has a surface area of 196,940,400 square miles, slightly less than a perfect ball with a diameter of 7913.5 miles (which is the mean diameter of the Earth - see "Prove it" under 103).

The surface area of the seven continents and all the islands of the world is about 57 million miles, while the total area of the six habitable continents (Antarctica excluded) is around 52 million square miles.

Including Antarctica , over one fifth of the globe's land mass is under water (oceans, lakes, rivers, etc.) or ice. This leaves about 45 million square miles of exposed land.

The human population on earth has crossed six billion. If we distribute all the exposed land evenly among all mankind, 133 people would have to share one square mile. What that means is that every single person on Earth, man woman and child would have close to five acres of land for his or her use. More precisely, each person would get 209,000 square feet of land, or a square plot of land 457 feet on each side.

Not all this land can be used beneficially however. A significant portion of the Earth's exposed land is unhabitable or cannot be used for any agricultural purpose. Large portions lie in the far north. Large portions are extremely arid. Large portions are very mountainous. In sum, only about one fourth of all the land on earth, or somewhat more than 12 million square miles, is arable.

Today, over half of the arable land in the world is in fact not under cultivation. Bringing the unused land into service in many cases would require huge investments of money and effort, and would do considerable damage to the environment. For example, only about 28% of the arable land on the African continent is used for growing crops. Immense tracts of forests or jungles would have to be cleared to bring the rest of the arable land on that continent to productive use.

Thus, only about one eighth of each imaginary plot of land distributed to each person is land which is under cultivation. In effect, each person has a piece of land about 26,000 square feet (a square 161 feet on each side or just a bit more than ½ an acre) at his or her disposal on which to grow all that he or she needs.

I believe that this is possible, and if our earth were being tended on an ecologically sustainable scale, we would be building soil and increasing the amount of arable land. By this I do not mean huge agro-tracts of monocrops, because these farms contribute to the loss of soil and arable land. I am starting to digress into another branch of this issue, so I will save the rest of this discussion for the next blog.


d.a. said...

Wow, fantastic post! I've added you to my RSS reader. And thanks for stopping by the Farm Natters blog, good to meet you as well! Have fun with Linux - it's the best :-).

EJ said...

This works well as long as you have two willing and able workers with complementary skills. Add a few children, an elderly person or two, some one with disabilities, or a long flu season and it becomes harder. I think there is a reason that stable farms often had several generations with a wider skill set living close together.

That said, I think your mention below of making a wiki with tutorials and practical information is great. So many people need help getting started.

Anonymous said...

There exists an extensive collection of vital agricultural and basic off-grid/traditional solutions material at:


I think the vision of the near future concerning 'information banks' and serviceable, ultra-low energy access, you brush up to in this post is spot on.

3 years from now you will have an 'under 2 watt' internet access devise expressly for sharing information and staying connected to people. And then sustainably powered servers and radio connection.

Concerning the topic of this post, your calculations seem sound, but we must remember that each of those 1/2 acre parcels of arable land, per person, available at present will be further cut down with each successive generation. Japan and Hawaii (both islands mind you) had this problem hundreds of years ago in feudal times. So either we start to let the old die again, or we stop reproducing beyond replacement.

Seeing as capitalism has allowed for the collection and concentration of material possessions and wealth, old people are now the ones with the resources to keep death at bay for increasing periods of time (its just a factor of money now). This is a problem as these old people are healthy enough to live, but not healthy enough to farm, but are rich enough to buy resources and medicine. Mean while there children are having children, and their childrens, children are having children.

We must consider both sides of the equals sign regarding this problem.


Anonymous said...

other virtual ag info:



Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

d.a. Thanks. Yes Linux has opened up a whole world for us in how to use computer technology. When the harddrive in our laptop crashed, while we were in the market for a new/used one, we were able to run a small debian operating system booting up from a 4GB USB drive. Amazingly it worked just fine! We've got your blog on our list too.

EJ, very true, we do not boast of our lifestyle because it is not for everyone, it was just an exercise in the possible. With that said, we would be able to care for elderly parents or children on this scale. In reality, it takes communities to provide for the material needs of everyone, so that each person can contribute on the level of their ability and skill, whether that is physical labor or any number of necessary and vibrant skills.
I am not advocating that each person get their half acre allotment and have at it, there should be dense areas of habitation, whether villages or cities, and wide tracts of ecology or agriculture for watersheds, foodsheds, etc.

Derek, we have just barely scratched the surface of the information available on the journeytofreedom site. Great resource. I find a lot of the agriculture books from the late 1800's on soil science and breeding to be surprisingly informative and insightful.

It is exciting to see so many low-impact high-tech solutions coming into play to maintain our ability to communicate globally. Check out these One Laptop per Child laptops. http://laptop.org/en/ And just imagine if these kids could log onto the internet over radio signals.

I'm not advocating an increase in population, in fact I believe that we are at the tipping point, especially with climate instability reaking havoc. It seems reasonable and healthy for population to remain on a static level. It is just that I do not believe that the earth is overpopulated by 80%. I find it kind of interesting that in the west, long life expectancy is equated with affluence, without the consideration of the level of health or quality of life. There are examples of agrarian societies like the Hunzas who not only live a long time, but are healthy and able to contribute to the maintenance of their community well into their 80's and 90's. This sounds more like affluence to me.

Eva, wow these look like great resources, thanks for the links.

ChristyACB said...

I see a couple of our comments got removed. Is this because they didn't necessarily agree in full with your statements?

mos6507 said...

If only a half acre is available per person then I think everyone would have to make serious dietary changes. Dropping beef or in most cases just going vegan. Also, in your calculations are you factoring in the land taken up by buildings? It really seems like we're cutting it too close here.