Water Footprint (Fin Print?)

Water-wise “Hugelkulture” terraces planted with a Poluculture including Strawberries

This year, members of our household used an average of 26.5 gallons of water per day each.

Just imagine emptying 25 gallon jugs of water, or transporting them from the store in the car!

And yet, several sources, including the EPA, tell me that the average American uses 100 gallons of water per day at home (including outdoor water use, like lawn/garden.) Ironically, Michigan, a relatively wet state with plentiful rain fall, is one of the heaviest water users per capita. Yet another proof of Jevon’s Paradox, that Michigan’s plentiful supply produces plentiful waste, and that a reduction in demand does not create a reduction in use.

So, for Americans, our baseline starting point is “ok.” Especially when you consider that we maintain a very large organic garden with that water use.

But it’s hard to imagine that 26 gallons a day is “good.” We could use a challenge… and a goal to set. I’m certain we’ll reduce our water use over this next year, but I would like to know what “good” actually is. Our current use puts us in line with averages in the UK, Germany or the Philippines.

Does anyone know of any homes that are beating us? Or projections of what our aquifer can sustain? What would be a “good” rate of water use?

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The Zen of Permaculture.

Risa Bear, a Blogger I’ve read for a while now, has started an interesting new blog on “Buddhism and Permaculture.” It’s basically an effort towards cross-referencing the tenants of the two systems.

Risa’s thoughts have inspired me to post a brief series on the topic here. 

I think it may yield some very practical results that can be used in our lives and our gardens.  Think about all the great books on a wide range of topics with titles like “the inner game of this,” or “the Zen of that,” or “the Dao of this, that and the other.”

I look forward to exploring “the Zen of Permaculture.”

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One step on the 8-fold path, “right desire,” mingles dangerously with the Permaculture principle of “obtain a yield.”

In Buddhism, “right desire” means wanting things that will lead to true, lasting happiness, instead of false, fleeting happiness.  One element of this is to shift one’s desires for health, joy, etc. to include the same for other people, or even “all beings.”

First, this points out that we’re all connected.

If we pursue happiness in a way that makes a mess out of the community we live in, then we (and our children) get stuck living in a messed-up community! Alternately, a rising tide lifts all boats, including your own. 

And there’s an internal benefit, too. As Swift put it in his versus on his death:

What Poet would not grieve to see,
His Brethren write as well as he?
But rather than they should excel,
He’d wish his Rivals all in Hell.

To which I can add:

A Gardener winces when he’s seen
Another’s yard more lush and green,
He’d rather see their garden rows 
be plagued by horn worms, drought and crows.

It’s only natural. But it’s nice to find sincere “sympathetic joy” in other people’s happiness instead. For me, the more I focus on my work being to benefit others, the easier it is to get over myself and start finding that sympathetic joy.

Permaculture takes the exact opposite route to the same place. For those of us who want to help heal the planet, it’s important to remember that our efforts can only be sustainable when we “obtain a yield” for the energy we’re expending. We’re usually the types who give pretty selflessly. But if we only give energy without getting anything in return, we will overdraw our wells. However, when we can “obtain a yield” from our good deeds, of money, of food, of shelter, of energy, then we can re-invest that back into our efforts. If we’re skillful, we can plan our efforts so that they produce a “positive feedback loop” where increasing yields and increasing abundance can be put to work “for the good of all beings” as Buddhists say.

Keeping both sides in mind can help us find balance and can have some interesting practical applications in our Permaculture designs that I will get to in a new essay soon.

Kalamazoo Food Sovereignty and Security.

Just hypothetically…

The city of Kalamazoo, with a population density of 3,009/Sq. Mile, breaks down to more than 1/5th an acre, or more accurately, over 8,600 square feet of city space per person. Give each of us the average American home space of around 1,000 sq feet. Then Give each of us double that for work, school, parking… and perhaps there’s 5,000 sq feet per person left.  And there are many plantable windows, porches, balconies, roof-tops, etc.

Grow-Bio-intesive research has found it possible to grow a complete (though possibly “boring”) diet for one person, plus all of the fertility inputs for the garden, in just 1,000 square feet. So, if just 1/5th of Kalamazoo’s land could be utilized for gardens, the city could have complete food sovereignty.

Next, lets use the Permaculture rule of thumb that 100% of a settlement’s needs can be produced in a 50-foot radius around the settlement. With that, a great amount of variety could be added to our diets, as well as recreation, beauty, and crops for business–all within a small strip around the city. Sustainable community coppice wood lots could fuel a low-carbon rocket mass heater or russian oven in every home, moving us a huge leap towards energy sovereignty and sequestering massive amounts of carbon at the same time. Mature wood lots could provide building material to maintain our beautiful historic city homes….

Consider that “day dream” one end of a spectrum of what kind of sovereignty/autarchy is possible. In that direction, we have a truly ecological and sustainable vision of human society with true food security, full employment, and the potential to keep and accumulate wealth for all.

Finally, the basic necessities of life would become RIGHTS available to all, not privileges to be distributed for the benefit of a few.

But we need not be purists about it. It’s just one end of a spectrum of options available to us, within our current economic and political system.

And unlike other “solutions” we don’t have to wait for a “savior” to implement it or politicians to impose it. it is a future that can be built and planted by each and every one of us, not “forced” upon others through coercive politics and law. We build that future as we build our own personal food sovereignty, show that it’s valuable, desirable, and beautiful to do so.

Ah… aren’t daydreams nice.

Matching the Investment to the Neighborhood for Better Cities

I’d like to share a “tool” we use when making spending choices for our home. 

We usually know what kind of house we want to live in. And we know the kind of neighborhood we want, too. But we don’t often think about how the investment choices we make for our house can either work for or against the kind of neighborhood we’d like to live in.

And sometimes the impacts can be counter-intuitive. Here’s an example of well-meaning investment with a negative community impact that can be observed in my neighborhood, and other neighborhoods in the Kalamazoo core:

Over-investing. The most common problem caused by over-investing is “displacement.”

“Gentrification” is a buzz-word with very controversial implications. Some people blame neighborhood investment for destroying communities and making housing scarce for the poor. But I like to separate the idea of investing in a neighborhood from the idea of displacement, because investment CAN build stronger, more diverse and resilient communities without displacement–when it’s done the right way.

There are many who actually value diversity and believe in the benefits of a diverse neighborhood. We don’t want to live isolated lives, disconnected from the supposed “problems” (but also the richness) of diversity.

But the same people, by over-investing in such a neighborhood can end up “pricing out” the diversity they valued in the first place.

But displacement caused by gentrification isn’t the only problem caused by over-investing in a home. It is just as likely to cause neighborhood destabilization and decline.

Down the street from us is the finest example of an urban micro farm I’ve ever seen and it’s attached to one of the most beautifully restored Victorian homes I’ve seen, too. This couple lovingly and tastefully restored the walls, floors, trim and many period touches, without “remuddling” or adding inappropriate, cheap “updates.” At first, this seems like a great “gift to the neighborhood.” And it is… for now.

But everyone moves.

In fact, this couple just moved out of state to be with their children. And they discovered the problem here: they can’t sell their beautiful home because they have too much money locked up in it and no one will buy it for that price in our neighborhood. Now they’re renting it out to a group of college guys and they’re worried that all the loving touches and careful restoration will be ruined.

And, if you look around our neighborhood, they’re right to be worried. Because you can see the negative impact of this pattern repeated over and over again.

These over-invested homes that can’t be sold get passed on to future generations who live far from the neighborhood. Out of sight, out of mind–this is the pattern that has turned many beautiful homes into slums as children inherit homes they can’t sell and start milking any value out of them as rental properties. 

Homes that were once the pride of the block slowly become the homes that tear down values on surrounding properties, foster crime, and cause other home owners to move out.

The solution: Match your home investment to your neighborhood. Basically:
The highest home sale price in your neighborhood – what you bought your house for =
how much you can invest.

You don’t want to own the most expensive house on your block because nobody will want to buy it at that price. So look at the highest recent sale in your neighborhood. Hopefully, you bought your house for less than that, because that’s the highest price you could feasibly sell your house for some day.

If a house on your street sold for $120K, and you bought yours for $80K, then you know you that the MAX you could put into your house and easily get a return is likely to be $40k.

If you put in more than that, expect to lose it. But more importantly, understand that while you may be making your “dream home,” you may be paying to create a “nightmare neighborhood.”