Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Hubris in chess leads to overly aggressive moves that expose pieces to insufficiently protected positions. The result is regularly a fatal counter-attack after the foray fails [p80, Depth of Field: Stanley Kubrick, Film, and the Uses of History]

Overreach occurs when a person becomes overextended and often ends up forfeiting position. It is possible that, had Napoleon not invaded Russia he could have consolidated Europe into a French empire. Instead, the French army could not maintain its supply lines and was defeated. This lead to the conquest of France and Napoleon's exile.

This is a general concept, and is not limited to chess or war. Consider the global financial crisis (2008). There were many anecdotes about people who had overextended themselves financially and lost their homes when they could no longer earn the money they had previously. It is sobering to think that in some cases, after 20 years of earning good money, and person could lose their home because of relatively-short-term unemployment.

To my mind, this relates to sustainability. It shows us how difficult it is to be sustainable, and how easy to overreach and expose ourselves.

This can, of course, occur at every level:
  • the individual living beyond their means (even if it requires a sudden illness or job loss to become apparent)
  • A wealthy family whose margin loan is called because of declining stock values
  • A company that hires staff anticipating growth, but hires more staff than it can maintain
  • Suburban sprawl in a city necessitating roads and other infrastructure that the city can't afford to maintain
  • A country arranging its economy around increasing levels of service-based jobs, whilst outsourcing all manufacturing, requiring the importation of all manufactured goods.
Along these lines, it is my opinion that we, as a civilisation, are overreaching ourselves in the services that we think we can provide. As an example, it is considered normal for people to drive their private cars where they want, when they want -- spending a quite small proportion of their income to do so. The problem is, that the technology we have to make private motorised transport "happen" are unsustainable. It's abundantly clear that the internal combustion engine is unsustainable: it burns petrol, which will run out. Electric cars, powered by solar photovoltaics are a technically-sustainable means to provide motorised transport. The problem is that they are also unsustainable -- or at least, we can not sustainably produce them, in sufficient numbers, to replace our current vehicle fleet at a reasonable economic cost.

In other words: we do not have the technology to sustainably provide people with private motorised transport (whether such technology is feasible, even in theory, is to me an open question)

So here is an example of overshoot in our society: we have come to expect a service that we can not sustainably deliver ourselves. Not only do we expect it -- the functioning of our entire society is predicated on it! This is a problem -- the disruption caused when we lose our ability to afford cars will be significant. As things tighten, the resources we waste on unsustainable transport are resources we won't have to build sustainable transport -- the end result being we end up with a much lower standard of transport than if we had accepted compromises earlier.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Planning for water scarcity

It is winter, the rainwater tanks are about 80% full, and I'm planning for summer. I know that, for our water to last through summer, we need to gather every drop possible, and then conserve it throughout the dry months. It can be dry from November to May some years, and when this is combined with hot weather, lack of water can be difficult. Wikipedia puts it well: "Nine of Adelaide's ten warmest years ever recorded have occurred in the last decade: from 2002 to 2014. Summer 2013-14 was the hottest summer on record, with a record number of 13 days exceeding 40 °C (104 °F), while Autumn 2014 was the warmest autumn ever recorded in Adelaide's history.[48 The following summer, in January 2015, bushfires burned out of control after days of extreme heat conditions in Sampson Flat, South Australia which then spread towards the outer northern suburbs of Adelaide, toward Greenwith and Golden Grove.[49] The heatwave and fires caused widespread destruction, health problems and fatalities. The number of heat-related deaths in Adelaide is expected to more than double by 2030."
In other words, summers are hot and dry, they are getting hotter and drier, and this trend will continue.

I've written other articles about our water collection and storage:
Rainwater modelling (assess sufficiency of storage against historical meteorological data for Adelaide)
Water at my house: rainwater
Progress report on water systems

Grey water

Last summer I caught our washing machine water in a wheelie bin and bucketed it onto the garden to reduce the watering load. That's a lot of work, and I don't think it's sustainable (for my body!) -- I get plenty of exercise, and don't need more. I wanted to set up a greywater system to save me work.

There are some good online resources about greywater systems:
Art Ludwig has fabulous diy info for greywater on his website. I spent quite a bit of time reading his site, and have understood that:
  • pumps are to be avoided
  • use gravity to get the water where it's wanted
  • keep the system simple
The basic principle is that the washing machine puts the water into a white bucket, from which it drains through a black pipe, to our front yard. That pipe finished underground (about 200 mm  deep) within an upside-down plastic plant pot with holes drilled in the sides. That water then falls on the ground there, and the whole thing is covered in mulch.

The bucket. The washing machine outlet is visible behind (grey corrogated pipe), and the exiting black pipe goes to the front yard. This bucket exists to protect the washing machine pump -- if it was connected directly to the black pipe and there was a blockage, it could burn out the pump. The white bucket has an overflow hole on the other side (below the grey water inlet). If the water is not draining, it will exit through that hole (to protect the pump)

The side of the house, showing the pipe. I have tried to make the pipe gently slope down right along the length of the house so that there are no "local minima" in the pipe (places for crud to accumulate and block the pipe). You can also see a heap of broken concrete. This is concrete that I've dug up elsewhere, but I don't want to put it in landfill, so am looking for another use for it -- maybe shoved down the sides of a hole to hold in a post...

Here's where it terminates in the front yard. I've put the bamboo on top, because I don't want someone walking on it and breaking it.
The idea is that there is a large mulch pit where the pipe terminates, so that the grey water can diffuse through the mulch and generally wet the area. Plants will get their roots into the mulch, but because the water falls from the pipe and there is an air gap, plants won't get their roots into the pipe and block it. (fingers crossed).
Instead of digging a circular bed, I've dug a spade-width trench over to a couple of other trees. I've filled this trench with mulch. Probably the trench is currently too small to accept all the grey water, so I'll need to dig some more -- other trees can then access the water which will be good. I've got two citrus and a white sapote near here, so the water will be appreciated.

I've used 1 inch pipe, which is narrower than recommended (from memory, Art Ludwig recommended 40 mm pipe), so I expect it will get blocked from time to time. My plan is to put the hose in at the white-bucket end, and just blast it through. I hope it works!

Salt build-up

This is always a concern with grey water. Adelaide town water is very salty, so we're ahead here (because we run on rainwater), but we use low-salt soap in the washing machine, and we use it very sparingly.

The front garden

I thought I'd include a few photos of the front garden. We've been here about 18 months and the entire garden was couch grass when we moved in. All the grass is now gone, and there is an average of 150 mm of mulch across the yard with about 12 trees planted.

Mandarin -- this tree has been in the ground for ~21 months, and seems very happy

Almond tree -- this tree has grown amazingly (~21 months in the ground) -- we even had some almonds in April! You can also see the rainwater tank (top left). We had a few discussions about whether it was aesthetically ok to put a rainwater tank in the front yard. I've wrapped wire around the tank and we're growing a passionfruit vine up it. I see us as trailblazing a new garden aesthetic! ;-)

Orange tree -- has a few oranges on it (also in the ground for ~21 months)
I was a bit hesitant as to whether I should let the citrus trees fruit, but I decided to just let them. I guess it's possible they won't fruit next year (because of the stress). Time will tell...

There's lots more work to do here. I want to plant at least another 6 trees this winter. I'm thinking another lemon, and some more nut trees, an avocado (our last one died). Any other suggestions? Out the back we've got apples, pears, nectarines, peaches, plums, walnut, fig...

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Environmentalists should live in the Real World

Many times, I have seen someone arguing for reduced ecological damage, a carbon tax, a transition to renewables, etc. A response I regularly see goes something like "environmentalists should get out in the REAL WORLD" or "this sounds nice in theory, but it won't work in the REAL WORLD" or "in the REAL WORLD, people don't have time for this"

I think the underlying thinking behind these blanket statements is that the human world of the economy, jobs and politics (referred to as the real world) places hard limits on what is possible for us to do as a society. For example, we can't transition to renewables because of the needs of industry for cheap power. People can't ride bicycles to work because they don't have time. A carbon tax is bad because it is a burden on the economy.

The interesting thing to me, is that this thinking is precisely backwards.

In actuality, all of our prosperity comes from natural systems:
  • food
  • water
  • fuel (including fossil fuels)
  • air
  • materials (eg. plant fibres, mineral ores, chemical feedstocks, animal skins)
The natural systems that provide these services to us are the real world.  Conversely, the worlds of
  • money 
  • economy 
  • finance 
  • politics
are actually completely dispensable. If you doubt this, reflect on the fact that for most of history (say until 5000 years ago) no human society had these things. Even today, some human societies lack one or more. Money, by itself, has no inherent value, meaning or worth -- it is merely a token of exchange. The only reason people see money as valuable is because it can be exchanged for goods and services (all of which eventually come from the natural systems that support us).

So, when someone says "this sounds nice in theory, but it won't work in the REAL WORLD", what they area really saying is "forget about the biophysics of our natural support systems, we must at all costs maintain our arbitrary system of exchange tokens -- that is what is really important"

When put this way, it sounds stupid. That is because it is stupid. It is like the Easter Islanders chopping down their last tree to put up another stone statue (so that they couldn't build more fishing boats and starved). In fact, the similarities are very troubling.
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