I’m not alone (apparently)

An article on Worldchanging suggests that I’m not alone.

Alex Steffen, a famous guy who might model himself after me if he knew me, wrote a short piece for Worldchanging called ‘Deindustrialising the City’. Here is an extended excerpt below:

Fewer machines. Smart surroundings for people.

So much of the ecological destruction caused by contemporary prosperity is the by-product of crude, brute-force industrial solutions to fundamental urban problems (and magnified by the modernist glorification of those solutions).

Burning petroleum to drive pistons and turn wheels to move a big chunk of metal around the city is what you do when you haven’t yet figured out how to make the normal needs of daily life readily findable and accessible: it’s conquering space through BTUs, rather than data and design.

Building giant dams and piping rivers of water from those dams to distant cities, then piping away other rivers of polluted water to be treated in giant industrial vats with massive doses of chemicals before being dumped (semi-polluted) into the nearest river or ocean — well, that’s what you do when you are powerless to defeat bacteria with anything but brute force and petrochemicals. More complex, living systems (complete with rainwater harvesting, passive green infrastructure and graywater re-use) are already possible, and with lab-on-a-chip-level technologies, they can be made at least as safe as the 19th century water supplies most of us depend on now.

Hell, even manufacturing itself — with its tsunamis of product directed at retail shelves — is a brute-force, mechanized approach to providing the things we want. Much of what is manufactured is utterly transient in our lives: we use it, it breaks, we throw it out. Much of the stuff we buy is not used at all, or only a few times in a lifetime: its major purpose is to be stored as a symbol of wealth, safety or status (think outdoor gear, power tools, obscure kitchen devices). A lot of stuff is made, never touched, and thrown away (think of recent clothing store scandals). All of this stuff is industrial society’s answer to the problems of household needs and human aspiration; all of it will look ridiculous in the very near future, when people aim to have access to stuff that they actually like and use, avoiding accumulating stuff that merely impoverishes them and clutters their homes (already “stuff” is acquiring negative connotations). We sit in environments designed to hold and display credit-leveraged objects, rather than promote the highest possible quality of life.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. Want to see the city of the future? Start looking for machines to replace.
So what does this have to do with what I’ve been writing about?

Well, Rooftop Ecology is an attempt to have a retrofit on a building replace a heating unit, an air conditioning unit, a garbage truck, a fishing boat or two, an industrial farm, a morning commute, the truck that brings vegetables to the city,  freezers on those trucks,  water purification plants, a power plant.

All very well you might say, but how in God’s name do you pay for it all?

Good question.

I believe you have to start with something akin to import substitution.  Now Import Substitution has a bad reputation nowadays. It’s called anti-trade protectionism these days.

The funny thing is that’s how most advanced countries got the breathing space to develop their own industries.  In it’s early days US industry had no hope of competing with British factories on a level playing field. So what did the American’s do? They put up trade barriers.

Now, while I would certainly advocate protectionism (protection is a good thing isn’t it?) on a national level, it can’t be what I’m talking about here.

What I’m talking about here is taking services you get from outside and incorporating them into your daily life such that you become a producer and a customer.  Everything on the market has a transaction charge and in our world it invariably has a transport cost the can of coke that takes 1 year to complete and tots up enough miles to go halfway to the moon comes to mind.  Self reliance is a market beater. To those who say ‘maybe.. but it’s laborious and time consuming’ I would say this..  most plants grow themselves, there’s not a lot of work involved, and even if there was wouldn’t it be nice to head up to the roof to have a chat with a friend? Would you rather spend time in your Rooftop Ecology or strolling idly down the aisles of your local supermarket? Would you rather have zingy fresh fully organic produce from your own garden or GM adulterated rubbish from the supermarket? Would you rather have more choice or less choice? Would you like to know what a medlar tastes like? Sure as I’m writing here you’ll never know if you rely on supermarkets.

With Rooftop Ecology we hope to replace the brute force solutions that Alex Steffen is so railing against, for a plant provides insulation, reprocessing of air and water, food, medicine and by having it on your roof you dispense with the whole Army Corp of Engineers systems which presently provide these things.

What do you think the return (monetary and non-monetary) on your investment would be? I conjure the figure would make the Wall Street rats drool.



  1. Jim said,

    March 19, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Hi Ian!
    While not so extravagent as the concepts you have presented my backyard food production complex is coming along slowly and steadily.

    I’ve integrated Johnathan Woods simple aquaponics system into my greenhouse…an airlift pump powered by a 4 watt aquarium pump moves the water.. It has been running for days powered by two 45 watt Chinese solar panels. My mushroom logs are nestled beneath the aquaponics table providing an occasional mushroom.

    I’ve also integrated bucket drip irrigation into the system since the simple aquaponics system requires a 5 gallon water swapout on at least a weekly basis. My kumquat and meyers lemon trees enjoy the nutrient rich water as do the strawberries, radishes, flowers, lettuce etc that are thriving on the aquaponics grow table.

    I started a full time second career…maybe, in part to stress myself and explore concepts which require minimum input (time). So, like most folks I have a few minutes in the morning and then a little time in the evening to work on my complex with surges of effort on the weekends.

    Will keep you posted at http://www.redbayfarm.com where I continue to collect and make available tidbits of information which may be of interest to people who want to achieve at least a little bit of self sufficiency.

    • August 31, 2010 at 8:27 am

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’ve been really busy with my first baby (Kyle) and so haven’t been doing much on this front. I’d be interested in knowing more about simple aquaponics systems. A lot of what you are doing has been done by ZERI (Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives) in a similar fashion. A look at their website could yield valuable insights.


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