Notes from Windward: #66


Aiming for Greatness

when good isn't good enough

     Windward has already accomplished a lot of good things in the quest for sustainability, and we're proud of our achievements thus far, but there's a new spirit driving Windward these days. We've recently been focusing a lot of effort on preparing this organization to do some great things -- to take the art and practice of sustainable living up to the next level.

     One part of that process involved a wholesale reassessment of our facility and site, and over the past six months we've aggressively worked at removing things that had accumulated over the years but didn't have a realistic role to play in creating a premier hands-on sustainable living center. One result is that our campus is now leaner and cleaner than it's been in many a year as we "set the stage" for what's to come.

     Another part of that process had to do with deciding just which parts of the sustainability puzzle we should address in order to best achieve our goal of taking sustainability up to the next level. Our goal is to achieve the establishment of a critical mass of sustainability such that the integrated systems come together and form a socially-stable, ecologically sound and financially viable model of sustainable living.

     That's a very big goal, but we've been working with the various components of sustainable systems for years, have most of the key assets in place and feel that we're ready for the challenge. To that end, we've decided to focus our energies on three things: hyper-integrated aquaponics, biomass to fuel conversion and sustainable social structure.

Hyper-integrated Aquaponics

     Aquaponics is already an integrated system in that it combines aquaculture (the growing of fish as a crop) with hydroponics (the growing of vegetables in an artificial growing media). Aquaponics' primary limitation comes from its use of commercial fish food products which are not only an expense, but are often produced using non-sustainable practices. We're not interested in creating sustainability in one place at the expense of another.

     The approach we're taking is to integrate aquaponics with vermiculture in order to produce our own organic, non-medicated high-protein fish food on site. By using a combination of earthworms and black soldier fly larva, we will convert organic waste into high-protein forms that will be mixed with alfalfa to produce feed for our ducks, fish and rabbits. This will allow us to produce the majority of the community's food on site year-round without having to rely on commercially purchased feed, an advantage which gives us control over the quality and cost of our food supply chain.

The Conversion of Biomass to Fuel

     The sustainability of any community, large or small, flows from its ability to meet the majority of its needs through local production -- the greater its dependency on external suppliers, the less sustainable the community -- and given the structure of most modern communities, perhaps their most un-sustainable aspect derives from their deep-seated reliance on fossil fuels.

     While solutions such as bio-diesel and ethanol appear to be green at first glance, they mostly serve as examples of how government and corporate solutions have a remarkable ability to create unintended consequences, some of which can be worse than the problem they were attempting to fix. This is yet another reason why solutions need to be local; people need to see first hand the overall consequences of the choices they make and the systems they rely on.

     People have been driving methanol-fueled automobiles for more than a hundred years, and in the 90's, there were hundreds of thousands of state-owned Californian vehicles running on M85 (a mixture of 85% methanol and 15% unleaded gas) so the viability of methanol as a car fuel is well established.

     And for more than a hundred years, methanol has been produced in massive industrial plants the size of basketball courts, from biomass and other materials that would otherwise go into landfills or just piled up and burned. What's changed in the past ten years is the development of new process technology which makes it possible to build methanol reactors so small that you can hold the heart of one in your hands.

     Windward is located in a small rural county which annually generates 15,000 tons of wood waste from commercial logging operations. Even assuming a low conversion rate of seven to one, imagine the economic and social impact of being able to turn that "waste" into 2,000 tons of automotive fuel. Imagine the impact on the local economy if the income derived from selling that fuel remained in county instead of going overseas to purchase fossil fuels? We're talking radical change here!

     So why isn't this being done? In part, because there's no corporate lobby for methanol like there is for farm-grown corn used to make ethanol -- it's similar to the way that there's corporate money available to develop and market new patentable drugs, but none for research into traditional medicines.

     It's also in part because the traditional sort of conversion plant has always been too large and too technically demanding for small communities to construct and operate, but that's where things have changed in recent years. Indeed, the internet has enabled the sharing of information in every field including this one. Over the past fifteen years there have been at least three major break throughs in this field, developments which now make it possible to build micro-plants that can convert wood waste (including leaves, junk mail and cardboard packaging) into a liquid fuel which can be poured into the tank of existing cars -- the ones that have been modified to use alcohol based fuels, and there are hundreds of thousands of them out there and more all the time.

     By bringing this new combination of technology on-line here at Windward, we will eliminate our need to generate dollars in order to purchase fossil-based fuel, and that's a very good thing to do, but our ambition goes well beyond that. Our goal is to bring this technology together on an open-source basis so that as we work out the kinks and solve the logistical details, others can learn from our work and duplicate the equipment in their neighborhood.

     The impact of one small methanol plant is insignificant, but the potential impact of thousands of rural communities setting up fuel producing co-ops that can utilize local materials to meet local needs and provide local jobs. In our view, that's a project with the potential for greatness.

Sustainable Social Structure

     We live in an age when everything is changing; some changes are obvious while others are subtle, and there's no way that we can know how these changes are going to affect us -- all we can do is pay attention and search out ways, some traditional, some novel, that have a reasonable chance of providing continuity and sustainability without sacrificing either the group's viability or our personal autonomy.

     Sustainability is a community level undertaking that has to be able to connect diverse people in ways that empower their potential to live wholesome, meaningful lives. The advent of new forms of communication such as cell phones and the internet are changing the ways that people connect, and that triggers changes in the nature of community. How do we use those changes to empower instead of divide?

     Now that people have the capacity to live longer, more vital lives, how do we integrate multiple generations into a sustainable social structure that gives young people meaningful access to programs that address their current goals and concerns?

     Sustainability is founded on continuity, but that's something that's becoming very hard to find in a time when the majority of marriages fail, when people job hop from company to company, and corporations are looking for ways to out-source as much of their work as they can.

     Sustainability also depends on fairness and the development of a "win-win" dynamic that preserves and promotes the welfare of all members of the community without regard to age or gender. As a result, sustainability depends on finding ways to lift each other up so that as a community we don't sink to some lowest common denominator.

     One area in which intentional community has traditionally led the way is in the empowerment of women within community, a tradition which we are committed to carrying on here at Windward. Simply rejecting patriarchy isn't enough; we have to study ways that successful communities have incorporated women into their power structure, and use that history as a basis for dealing effectively with the social context of today and the challenges we'll have to deal with tomorrow, because ready or not, change is coming at us hot and heavy.

     The study of sustainable community is a complex field that blends past and future into a series of choices; the better the choices we make, the more sustainable we become. It's said that the only thing new is the history you don't know, and that while the times may have changed a lot, human nature has changed very little -- with the result that those who fail to study their history have little hope of future success to look forward to.

     In short, the study of the historical record of sustainable community is an essential part of any community's sustainability program, and given Windward's commitment to modeling sustainable systems, even more so.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 66