More Sustainable Stuff from Minnesota

Alrighty, folks.

My last post gave a handful of people, organizations, and businesses that are making some headway into the sustainability arena. Here’s some more:

Cascade Meadows Wetland and Environmental Science Center

I just found out about this awesome project this week! Anyone living in Southeastern MN who is interested in science or the environment should definitely check this place out. The site, located in Rochester, MN (home of the famous Mayo Clinic and St. Mary’s Hospital) is 100 acres, 90 of which are being restored to native wetlands. The other 10 acres are a showcase of the best management and design practices in the business. For example, the Science Center building is one of the first in MN to receive the highest LEED rating, Platinum. Inside the building is interactive exhibits and places to hold meetings, classes, and workshops. The area surrounding the building demonstrates best management practices for storm water runoff (including swales, permeable pavers, a green roof, and treatment ponds) and landscaping with native plants. By this time next year, there should also be trails winding through the 90 acres of wetlands to showcase this local ecological asset. Here’s a little ditty from their website:

“The core programming at Cascade Meadow will initially be centered around two main issues: water and energy resources. Increasingly, citizens of Southeast Minnesota are being asked to make consumer and political decisions on the issues of water and energy resource management. In order to make informed decisions, SE Minnesotans require a certain level of water and energy “literacy.” All of Cascade Meadow’s initial exhibits, physical features, education programming and the building itself will be aimed at increasing the energy and water literacy of the greater Rochester community.

Specifically, programming will focus on:

  1. The science of energy and water
  2. The ways in which societies use and interact with energy and water resources,
  3. How technology and behavior changes can help move us towards the sustainable use of our water and energy resources.”

Yeah, wow. Can we get a round of applause? Needless to say, I’ve already been in contact with them to volunteer working the front desk.

The Perennial Plate

This is the brain-child of local chef/activist Daniel Klein (hailing from the Twin Cities area). The Perennial Plate is a web series and blog that documents “socially responsible and sustainable eating”. Episodes are anywhere from 2 to 15 minutes long on topics ranging from backyard chickens to wild foraging to invasive species to gardening to hunting. The first season is all in Minnesota, and then (with the help of Kickstarter) the second season is a tour of the entire U.S. I’ve spent many hours watching his stuff. I highly recommend you do the same!

Sustainability in the Local News

Winona has this great website called Winona 360 that is a sort of news outlet, community organization, social network hybrid. Recently there was a great article about how different members of the Winona community have embraced sustainability. Here were some of my favorite tid-bits from the article:

1. I found out (one of) my chemistry professor’s home is completely powered by solar energy. (And she just went up 100,000 points on my radar.)

Xcel Energy claims to have over 100 customers contributing wind energy to their system, most of which lie in the farms of Southern Minnesota.” Woo-who! Go us!

“Our [older] generation has just made a big mess of everything. Now [younger generations] get to clean it up. Good luck.”

Haha…thanks, I think.

Holmgren’s Principles

Before I introduce the original 12 Permaculture Principles, I’d like to touch on a quick idea. Like good science, any sustainable design system must be able to change through time, it must be adaptive, and have the capacity to evolve within different contexts. Such is the nature of life, and so it must be the nature of successful design. This poses a minor issue: how can one define something that is dynamic, always changing, and a little different everywhere you go? To understand a holistic design with adaptive capacities, it is helpful to organize the necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, conditions upon which such a system is built.

The original philosophical model was articulated by a student-teacher pair (not unlike Aristotle and Plato, or Mozart and Bach, I’d like to think), Australians David Holmgren who was a student of Bill Mollison, the man usually thought of as the ‘father of permaculture’. From my understanding, Holmgren was more of an academic, the half more interested in ‘why’, while Mollison took a more applied approach, the half more interested in ‘how’. Most people associate permaculture with gardening or farming, but the idea is interdisciplinary; the main components are agriculture, horticulture, architecture and ecology, but also economic systems, land access strategies and legal systems for businesses and communities. Since the original idea was published around 1980, other permaculture enthusiasts have added to or slightly altered their interpretation of the principles.

According to Holmgren, “The 12 permaculture design principles are thinking tools, that when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behavior in a world of less energy and resources. These principles are seen as universal, although the methods used to express them will vary greatly according to the place and situation.” 

  An illustration of a flower can help organize the ideas surrounding permaculture:

The ethical foundation lies in the center, and guides the use of the design tools, ensuring that they are used in appropriate ways. Remember, the ethics are:

1. Take care of the People

2. Take care of the Planet

3. Redistribute Profits

From these ethics stem the various principles. In the flower, the principles lie at any and all points along the red spiral, applying to any one of the “petals” or domains. The 12 original Permaculture Principles are:

1. Observe and Interact

2. Catch and Store Energy

3. Obtain a Yeild

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept/Respond to Feedback

5. Use/Value Renewable Resources

6. Produce No Waste

7. Design from Pattern to Detail

8. Integrate Rather than Segragate

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

10. Use and Value Diversity

11. Use the Edges and Value the Marginal

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

By having these goals in mind when designing, we can begin along the path to sustainability. It is good to note, however, that not all people who are working on sustainability identify with permaculture, or have even heard of the concept. Sometimes it is unnecessary to identify with a movement if that person or organization has the same goals and operates under similar principles. A famous example of this phenomenon is author, farmer, and designer Sepp Holzer from Austria. It wasn’t until long after Holzer had begun implementing ecological farming practices that he begun to identify with the concept, eventually publishing his own book about his experience with the local ecological niche (“Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture”). Whether the systems are called by name or not, permaculture systems commonly include diverse, multifunctional polycultures, edible forest gardens, an emphasis on perennials, rainwater catchment, nutrient recycling, integrated pest management, and non-linear borders. The idea also commonly embraces urban farming, rooftop farming, aquaculture, habitat conservation, and natural building.

In my next few posts, I’ll be highlighting different people/places from around the globe that are identifying with permaculture and using it to inform the design of their environments.

“A human being is part o…


“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty…We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”
Albert Einstein

Taken Under Wing

This weekend was notably exciting in my little life! I recently had the opportunity to go out and work with two professional ecological designers, Daniel Halsey and Wayne Weiseman. I had previously met Dan through his educational programs he offers through his permaculture business Southwoods Forest Gardens in Prior Lake, MN. (Previous posts go into the details of the coursework and experience I had there.) I had been aware of Wayne’s permaculture work through social networks, especially facebook. But this weekend was the first time I had the pleasure of meeting Wayne in person. He runs The Permaculture Project, LLC in Illinois, which is an organization that educates individuals about ecology and permaculture, implements ecological designs, consults with business owners and home owners, and hosts workshops for the construction of green architecture. I felt very honored to be presented with an opportunity to get a glimpse of professional ecological design work, and I am so excited about the possibility of continuing to work with them in the future.

Dan and Wayne were in the area this weekend to work on a project they have been contracted to design and implement. Out of respect for the site owner’s wishes, I will not reveal too much about the project until she releases information to the local press. What I will say is that there is some inspiring, groundbreaking work happening in our local area. Permaculture and sustainability are going to be coming to the valley in a big way! If you are interested in helping to build a more sustainable Winona area, may I direct you again toward The Permaculture Project, LLC to register for a week long natural building workshop in Buffalo County, WI (see right side margin “2012 Course Schedule”). Stayed tuned for more information about this exciting development in local sustainability!


Ok, so now that I’ve spent far too many posts trying to set the stage, it is time for the main event: What is permaculture?

According to the world’s largest open source encyclopedia, permaculture is an ecological design theory that seeks to develop a sustainable society by attempting to model built systems on nature while also integrating the land, plants, animals, people, buildings, and communities within natural patterns. The movement aims to empower the stability, resilience, and self-reliance of the local individual by drawing from other disciplines, especially applied ecology, conservation biology, organic farming, agroecology, agroforestry, biomimicry, alternative energy, ecological engineering, and sustainable design. What is unique about this design system is that the practice is rooted in three equally important ethical goals: care of the people, care of the Earth, and redistributing surplus to further invest in creation. From these ethics stem many principles in varying form. I’ll go over the specifics of some variations of these principles in a future post. Although the idea is still evolving, permaculture systems will commonly include diverse, multifunctional polycultures (more than one plant that serves more than one purpose all occupying the same space), edible forest gardens, an emphasis on perennials, rainwater catchment, renewable energy, nutrient recycling, and non-linear borders. The philosophy acknowledges the interconnectedness of the biosphere, and also the status of the human as a moral agent. Thus, the role of the “wise one”, the most sentient, autonomous, moral, rational homo sapien is to identify the relationships between organisms and maximize the beneficial relationships (equilibrium, cooperation, symbiosis, etc.) and to minimize or eliminate the harmful ones (parasitic, disease, wasteful, etc.). In the immortal words of Aldo Leopold, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

David Holmgren's Permaculture Flower: At the center lie the 3 core ethics. The petals are aspects of permaculture, including land stewardship, the built environment, tools/technology, culture/education, health/well-being, economics, law and community governance.

Sophia Novak hailing from the Czech Republic is my perma-idol. Her permaculture blogs and social media sites are *the* go to source for news, free e-books, open source databases, worldwide projects, classes, finding opportunities for political activism, and is a general information archive for topics like peak oil, climate change, natural building, ecology, alternative energy, and community organization. Anything and everything the internet knows about permaculture can probably be found somewhere in her midst. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d suggest you start there.

Local, off-the-grid home of green architect Roald Gunderson (Whole Trees Architecture) near LaCrosse, WI. Complete with reused windows, waste metal, photo voltaic panels, sustainably harvested lumber, expansive greenhouse and organic CSA to boot.


Next week I’ll do a quick history of the idea, say a bit more about the three core ethics, and go over some variations of permaculture principles.

Ecological Footprint

An ecological footprint is defined as the total area of biologically productive land and water required by an entity to sustain its current consumption levels. An entity could be something as small as a person, or as large as entire business, city, or nation. The units for an ecological footprint measurement are usually reported in hectares per person. In 2003, the data revealed humanity’s ecological footprint exceeded Earth’s biological capacity to regenerate resources by about 25% (according to the Global Footprint Network). The latest data (from 2010) shows that if current trends continue, we would need 2 Earths to absorb humanity’s waste and regenerate biological resources. Here’s some great GIS maps to help visualize the data from the Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint Atlas (pdf available to download for free on their website, previously hyper-linked).

The biological capacity (amount of land and water resources a country has) per person in 2007. The U.S. has 3 - 4.5 units available per person.

Ecological Footprint of consumption per person in 2007. The U.S. consumes more than 10.5 units per person, which is at best a 6 unit difference. This is not good; it implies an ethically uncomfortable inequality within society.

This map visually compares the numbers from the previous two maps, showing ecological credit (green) and debtor (red) countries. The U.S. has an ecological footprint that is 100% - 150% larger than our biocapacity.

So what does this data suggest about the merit of each different environmental worldview (introduced in the previous post)?

Recall the Techno-fantasy worldview. This view believes that with technology and imagination, humanity can continue to grow and increase our consumption, affluence, and waste by efficiently managing our resources. Clearly this view is not going to measure up to reality. The fact of the matter is that Earth is a finite resource with a carrying capacity which we have already exceeded. It is true, there may be some very clever innovations in technology, organization, and industry in the future. But come on, since the scientific revolution, it took us (homo sapiens) 350 years to figure out that washing your hands is good for a person’s overall well-being, and that was just 165 years ago. So, while it is appropriate to become impressed by the cleverness of modern-day societies, to live, build, and act upon something that does not exist yet is not responsible conduct for present-day behavior.

Alright, so maybe indefinite growth is out of the picture, but what about just maintaining the status-quo, sustaining modern-day levels of affluence. This is the Green-Tech worldview. Well, let’s look at the numbers: If everyone on the planet lived like the statistically typical American, we would need at least 5 Earths to support the current population. Well, what if we just ‘met in the middle’ so to speak? As in, the first world (most burdensome) cultures lower their living standards, while the poorest third world (or most locally sustainable) cultures raise their living standards. Even if this orchestrated equality were successfully executed, we would still need at least 2 Earths. So while this view is more plausible than the first, it is still not enough to sustain humanity at current population levels.

So from this data, it looks like if we are to move into a sustainable world where all of humanity shares an equal standard of living, we will have to drastically lower the consumption and waste (and population?) of first world countries while also increasing basic standards (shelter, clean water, food, basic health care) for the poorest people on the Earth. In order to be sustainable, we must only use 1 Earth, and since in reality, resources are not distributed equally, it would be wise for humans adapt to learn to be a part of the community network of life and live within the biocapacity of our various ecological processes that occur in our local habitats. Earth is the only planet in the entire universe that we know will sustain life, and thus it is our responsibility to become a part of the ecological systems that operate here.

And if we don’t, well, we do so at our own peril. Then we crash.

And that about does it for covering word views in light of the ecological footprint. Next post I’ll be introducing permaculture and its history.

Environmental World Views

In my last post I discussed some new technologies that have the potential to significantly change our scientific perspective on nature that will most probably have revolutionary consequences when coupled with creativity, innovation, and time. Many factors like peak oil, decreasing biodiversity, ecosystem pollution, atmospheric destabilization, failing economies, exponentially increasing population, and resource degradation will continue to push humanity to adopt new strategies for interacting with the world. Not everyone has the same idea regarding strategy, though; we know we need to change fundamentally, but how we go about changing is still yet to be determined. Conflicts arise mostly from differing worldviews, or how a person thinks the world works and what they believe their role in the world should be. The perspective a person takes regarding the world is partly determined by an individual’s level of education and partly by a personal sense of environmental morality.

All perspectives lie within a continuum that can be represented with nested circles, or growth rings. The inner most circle represents a self-centered worldview, the next, human centered, then life centered, ecosystem centered, and finally Earth centered. You could blur the lines even more and start the continuum at self, move to family, then friends, then community, nation, religion, all people, all individuals in your species, some other species, all other species, ecosystems, biodiversity, and then finally the all-encompassing biosphere.

The graphical representation below describes some possible scenarios for the future (graph by David Holmgren in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability; analysis coupled with information from the 16th edition of Living in the Environment: Concepts, Connections, and Solutions science textbook by Miller and Spoolman).

On the x-axis is time, on the y-axis is energy use, resource use, population, pollution, and waste. The 4 models shown are Techno-Fantasy, Green Tech, Descent Culture, and Crash.

‘Techno-Fantasy’ aka Planetary Management is the perspective that through technological innovation and human ingenuity, the population and it’s economy can continue to grow, use more energy and more resources to support more affluent lifestyles. This is usually coupled with a sense that we are apart from nature and are capable of managing and engineering nature to meet our needs and wants. Any success of future generations will depend largely on how we manage Earth’s systems to our benefit. This worldview would fall in the human-centered circle.

‘Green-Tech Stability’ or Stewardship is the idea that the goal of sustainability is to sustain the lifestyles that are currently in place in first world nations. By embracing strategies like clean renewable energy, we can maintain society’s level of consumption but in regenerative, recyclable ways. Usually this idea comes with the notion that it is our ethical responsibility as moral agents to protect the life systems on Earth, and future success depends on management of globalized, high-tech systems. On the continuum, this would fall under a Biocentric, or life-centered worldview.

Descent Culture’ aka Environmental Wisdom is the idea that future societies will have to ethically, creatively, and gracefully reduce their energy use, consumption, waste, and populations to be successful. This view usually goes along with the idea that we are not separate from nature, but rather we are a functionally interdependent species within a natural network, just as susceptible to the finite limit of resources as the other life forms on the planet. Therefore, it is in our best interest to work within nature, not attempt to manage nature. This view also suggests that the Earth does not need our management to sustain it; it is not about saving the planet because the planet does not need saving. (A point hilariously elaborated on by George Carlin, although, his view in its entirety would probably fall under “Crash”). The Descent Culture perspective suggests that we are highly adaptable creatures, and it is within human nature to attain symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationships with other organisms on Earth. This view may fall under the ecosystem centered or Earth centered worldview upon the continuum. This is also where Deep Ecology and Permaculture stem from.

‘Crash’ is a pessimistic point of view, predicting that humans will not be able to adapt to their rapidly changing environmental conditions. This view suggests our prospects for future success on planet Earth is dismal, and considering strategies is futile. This worldview doesn’t lie on the continuum; it’s in its own Apathetic worldview class that would have humans join the ranks of the noble Dodo bird, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the Irish Deer.

In my next post, I’ll introduce the ecological footprint, and see how these worldviews measure up to some hard numbers.