Windward’s Abiotic Focus

Fueling Community with Sunshine, Rainwater & Air

The field of sustainability research is huge. It’s way larger than any single mind can comprehend, so how can one go about engaging sustainability in a meaningful way?

One concept that guides our focus is that we want to work as close to the abiotic interface as we can, a path that’s not intuitively obvious. So, since the weather outside is wet and slushy, it’s a good time to hang out by the wood stove and write about what the abiotic interface is, and why we’re focused on the crucial role it plays in sustainable systems.

So, lets talk about how earthworms, wood chips and urea comprise key elements in our approach to sustainability at the village level.

Most people are aware of the biotic component of sustainability because we ourselves are biotic creatures, and the things we eat are biotic. As such, humans are part of a tightly-woven network of life feeding on life, a world in which herbivores eat plants, carnivores eat herbivores and omnivores eat most anything that’s slower than they are.

Humans play a variety of roles that influence the biotic world, and then like all creatures, we eventualy die. As our bodies decay, the nutrients are incorporated into other biological niches.

a drum of wood chips

a drum of wood chips

The biotic web appears to be seamless, but it’s not. It actually depends on the underlying abiotic world; i.e. the non-living parts of earth, river and sky. The transformation of lifeless materials into living organisms is the alchemy that all life is founded on. That understanding tells us that if we want to encourage long-term biotic growth, we need to build bridges between the abiotic world and the biosphere.

It’s easy to think of sustainable systems as perpetual motion machines, but they’re not like that at all. The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to plants and animals alike, and it “explains the phenomenon of irreversibility in nature.” Biotic systems extract energy and resources from their environment via processes which are inefficient at both the macro and micro levels. Windward is working on sustainable ways to make those processes more efficient, but it’s important to remember that no system is perfectly efficient; nature always takes its cut.


An example of macro inefficiency would be the way that plants are only able to capture a small amount of the solar energy they’re exposed to. Putting that in rough numbers, a square meter of grass receives about a kilowatt of solar energy. Assuming that the grass has a sufficient amount of the other abiotic resources it needs, it can convert that solar energy into about 20 watts worth of biomass per hour.

That adds up to about 200 watts of stored bioenergy per square meter per day. This very low conversion rate is a key limiting factor for all biotic life, which is why sustainable systems must focus on doing things that increase this conversion rate. The good news is that a system which is only 1% efficient offers a lot of room for improvement.

An acre is a bit more than 4,000 square meters. Operating at an efficiency of around 1%, grass daily converts macro-abiotic inputs such as sunshine, water and carbon dioxide into about 40 kilowatts of biomass per acre. This assumes that required micro-abiotics such as nitrogen, phosphorus and magnesium, to name just a few, are biologically available in sufficient quantities.

Much of the challenge in building sustainable biotic systems involves making sure that those vital micro-inputs are available in the right form, in the right amount, in the right place at the right time. Sustainability is a chain; break any link, and the system fails.


Edmund Ruffin (1794-1865)

Edmund Ruffin (1794-1865)

An example of biotic inefficiency at the micro level could be a leaf falling into a stream and being washed way to the sea. Each leaf embodies crucial micro-nutrients that the forest can’t replace on its own. The loss of a leaf may not seem like much, but nature is all about the long run. Any ongoing loss of an abiotic micro-nutrient steadily lessens the long-term viability of the biotic systems that depend on it.

An example: by the 1830’s, many Southern farms had fields that had been under cultivation for two centuries. Every bale of cotton or tobacco harvested and sold took with it the magnesium that lies at the center of the chlorophyll molecule. Chlorophyll is the biotic tool that plants use to turn sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates.

Eventually the fertility of thse long-worked fields fell so low that they were no longer able to grow merchantable crops, and had to be left fallow. Then a huge break-through came in 1832 when Edmund Ruffin published his book The Use of Calcigenous Manures.

What Ruffin had come to understand was that this progressive infertility was an example of what would later be known as Liebeg’s Law of the Minimum. Liebig discovered that growth in a system is constrained by the least available essential element. In the case of those worn-out fields and pastures, the constraining element was magnesium.

Putting Back the Green

Plants convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. This process happens in tiny, green chloroplasts, which are the cellular structures that contain a plant’s supply of chlorophyll. At the heart of every molecule of chlorophyll lies an atom of magnesium. Liebeg’s Law describes why a green plant’s ability to covert abiotic resources (sunshine, air and water) into biologically active compounds is limited by its supply of chlorophyll which, in turn, is limited by its access to biologically available magnesium.

Ruffin had discovered that the South’s farmed-out fields could be rejuvenated by applications of finely ground dolomite, a naturally occurring mix of calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate.

The broad application of this new understanding brought about a surge in the productivity of Southern farms, productivity which revitalized the Southern economy. Exports of agricultural products such as cotton and tobacco, wheat and rice soared, and the money rolled in. The South benefited directly by selling record amounts of goods—primarily to the English—and using that income to buy shiploads of manufactured goods from England.

It can be fairly argued that the revitalization of Southern agriculture set the stage for the Civil War. The Party that controlled the Federal government controlled the expenditure of the hundreds of millions of dollars brought in by taxes levied on Southern imports. When the Republican party took power in 1861, it quickly moved to triple the import tax by passing the Morrill Tariff. The South’s decision to quit the Union rather than pay the higher tax stripped the Federal government of some 80% of its income.

The current round of resource driven wars isn’t a new phenomenon; instead, it’s an ongoing historical process that is only going to get worse. As supplies of non-renewable resources are exhausted, governments will continue to use military force to ensure their political survival.

The Foundations of Sustainability

At the macro level, plants need abiotic resources such as sunlight, water and carbon dioxide in order to survive. At the micro level, plants also need biologically available nutrients such as nitrogen, iron and magnesium in order to build the structures that perform the abiotic conversions that the biotic world depends on.

That’s why a key part of Windward’s approach to creating sustainable biological systems focuses on facilitating the abiotic conversions that form the foundation of all sustainable systems.

lush plants growing in Vermadise

lush plants growing in Vermadise

An example would be the integrated greenhouse we call “Vermadise.” Most greenhouses are sealed up in winter in order to keep warm air in and cold air out. Eventually the growth of plants in a sealed greenhouse is curtailed because of a shortage of the carbon dioxide that plants need in order for photosynthesis to take place. Often, by noon, the plants in a sealed green house will have used up the available CO2 and have to shut down for the rest of the day. Over night, the plants take in oxygen and expire carbon dioxide, and then switch back over in the morning to being net-producers of oxygen.

By overwintering earthworms, rabbits and chickens in Vermadise, we accomplish a number of things that promote the conversion of water, sunlight and CO2 into biotic matter: the plants grow more rapidly since they get to draw on an elevated CO2 level, and each of the animals acts as a small heater helping to keep the space warmer than it would be if it contained only plants.

The plants provide oxygen for the animals, and the animals provide CO2 for the plants. One thing we do have to be careful of is the potential for the rabbit and chicken manure to give off ammonia; in the closed environment of the greenhouse, a build up of ammonia would put the rabbits at risk of pneumonia. We address that by keeping a good supply of wood chips under the rabbits and chickens to adsorb the nitrogen portion of their waste. The ammonia enables fungi to dine on the cellulose in the wood chips, and the fungi in turn provide food for the earthworms.

Blessed are the Detritivores

Most biological systems operate by breaking down and reassembling organic and inorganic materials that are already part of the biotic world. Composting is one way that gardeners improve productivity by facilitating the break down of organic matter so that new generations of plants can access the resources already embodied in biotic materials.

Since plants are stationary, gardeners help them grow by bringing compost to them. That’s good, but the hoped for benefits of composting can’t be fully realized without the role played by detritivores: earthworms, bacteria, fungi. etc. These organisms play a vital role in transforming embodied abiotic nutrients into chemical forms that plants can take up and use to create new growth. Without detritivores, the world would be an endless pile of dead things.

It’s fair to say that compost doesn’t directly feed plants since most of the nutrients it contains are not biologically available; rather compost helps by feeding the creatures that live in soil. In order to get earthworms, fungi and bacteria to do their essential work, they need to be fed, and the organic matter in the compost is what they eat.


Surprisingly, Darwin’s best selling work wasn’t On the Origin of Species or The Voyage of the Beagle. Instead, it was a volume with the less-than-snappy title of “The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits. Darwin estimated that an acre of earthworms brought some sixteen tons of subterranean material to the surface annually.

Bioturbation is the process by which earthworms physically transport subterranean resources to the surface thereby enabling new biotic activity on the surface. The process also creates subterranean passages which allow abiotic resources such as air, nitrogen and water to penetrate down into the soil where they can be utilized. It’s easy to forget that the roots of plants need oxygen in order to survive—earthworms create passageways that allow oxygen to reach a plant’s roots, and nitrogen to reach the nodules on the roots of legumes.

Earthworms provide another, highly important service. They seek out and “eat” dirt containing organic matter. An earthworm is essentially a long, muscular tube, and as the dirt passes through its gut, the bits of rock and organic matter it contains are treated with strong digestive acids. Muscle contractions squeeze the mixture over and over again, a process which grinds the organic material down into the basic compounds that nourish the earthworm, and in the process free up the elements that plants need in order to grow.

This process is important because while that’s going on, the earthworm’s digestive juices, acting in concert with all that grinding, break down the abiotic components of dirt thereby making the micro-nutrients present biologically available to plants. Earthworm castings, and “tea” made from those castings, are highly effective fertilizers because the worms create the biological equivalent of predigested plant food.

In recognition of the fundamental importance of earthworms to Windward’s long term fertility, the first sustainable systems structure we built is a 20’x40′ greenhouse optimized for the production of earthworms. We call it Vermadise in their honor.

Essential Nitrates

Living organisms are made of proteins that are assembled from biologically available nitrogen. There’s no shortage of nitrogen per se in that 78% of the earth’s atmosphere is nitrogen, but that nitrogen is of no direct use to the biotic community. In its natural state, nitrogen is an inert gas. In order to become biologically active, it has to be converted from the abiotic N2 into a biologically useful form, that being the combination of nitrogen and oxygen known as a nitrate.

Up until 1909, biologically available nitrogen was created in one of two ways. The first happens high above us as bolts of lightning burn their way through the atmosphere to earth. A lighting bolt creates a tube of incredibly hot plasma—the state of matter in which molecules are broken up into atoms and stripped of their electrons. That makes plasma electrically conductive and able to convey electrical charges to the ground.

The energy in a lightning bolt rips the diatomic nitrogen molecule apart and leaves in its wake a swath of individual nitrogen ions. Then, as the plasma tube collapses in on itself, some of the nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen ions will combine to form ammonia, nitrites and nitrates. These compounds are highly water soluble and soon fall to the ground dissolved in rain water.

The second way that abiotic nitrogen enters the biotic world happens below ground and involves the action of Rhizobia bacteria living in nodules formed on the roots of plants known as legumes. Plants such as clover, alfalfa, lentils, chickpeas and beans are legumes. It’s an ancient partnership in which the plants provide the bacteria with sugars, and the bacteria provide the plant with nitrates. This symbiotic relationship is arguably the foundation for all complex life.


World Population 1800-2100 prepared by Loren Cobb from US Census Bureau historical estimates

World Population 1800-2100 prepared by Loren Cobb from US Census Bureau historical estimates

In order to appreciate Windward’s abiotic focus, it’s important to understand how the past unfolded into the present. To do that, I need to touch on some key points.

The amount of biologically available nitrogen is one of the biosphere’s primary limiting factors. The graph below plots human population over the past two hundred years, and offers some projections by the UN of where human population could be heading.

This graph shows a steady increase in the human portion of the biosphere. If you look at the graph, you’ll see two inflection points at which the rate of human population growth accelerated: one around 1920, and the other around 1950. The second inflection point is commonly attributed to “the Green Revolution,” but that growth was based on the break throughs that caused the first inflection. Without the abiotic conversion of fossil fuels into nitrates backed up by the use of fossil fuels to power agriculture and transport, the Green Revolution couldn’t have happened.

Cobb’s graph shows that at the start of the 1800’s, the Earth was home to almost a billion people. Substantial advances in productivity, such as the one that Ruffin triggered, were followed by developments such as the aggressive utilization of Chilean nitrate deposits.

And Then There Were Two (Billion)

Once people started using abiotic sources of nitrogen, there was no turning back. Soon there was a desperate grab for any island with guano deposits. If you think fighting resource wars over oil is strange, try and imagine fighting wars over bird poop!

A series of innovations, such as the aggressive development of steam power in manufacturing and transportation, and the advent of antiseptic medicine, enabled the earth’s population to grow to two billion in the years between 1810 and 1925. In six generations, humans doubled the load they were imposing on the biosphere.

Genetic archaeology studies of interons (the random genetic code that separates one gene from another) on the human Y-chromosome suggest that all of us are descended from a single man who lived approximately 50,000 years ago.

If we assume that’s true, then it took humans a thousand generations to expand to a population of one billion people. Then, in only six generations, steam technology and South American nitrate deposits enabled humans to add a second billion people to the biosphere.

>A Call to Action

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, humanity was running up against Liebeg’s Law as it pertained to biologically available nitrogen. In 1898, Sir Williams Crookes used his inaugural address as President of the British Academy of Sciences to sound the warning that the annual use of hundreds of thousands of tons of Chilean nitrates to maintain fertility could not be sustained much longer.

The problem of “Peak Bird Poop” had arrived, and no one was laughing.

The nitrate deposits the world relied on, the Atacama Desert, were running out. People were having to acknowledge that nitrates were not actually being “produced” in Chile, but rather were being extracted from Chile, and that the deposits were finite. In a similar way, people today need to appreciate that coal, oil, natural gas, etc. are not being produced—rather, they too are being extracted from finite supplies.

And that the drawdown of these non-renewable resources is accelerating towards an abrupt conclusion.

Sir Crookes,

“called his fellow researchers to action. The only answer, he said, was to find a way to make synthetic fertilizers—fixed nitrogen—refining it from the earth’s greatest reservoir of nitrogen: the atmosphere. Other scientific discoveries might make life easier, might help build wealth, might add luxury or convenience to the lives of the wheat-eating peoples, but the necessary discovery, the vital discovery—the discovery of a way to fix atmospheric nitrogen—was a matter of life and death.”
— pg 10, The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager.

Dr. Fritz Haber (1868-1934)

Dr. Fritz Haber (1868-1934)

The search became chemistry’s version of the Quest for the Holy Grail. In the summer of 1909, in what is arguably the greatest discovery since humans began to transform their world with fire, Dr. Fritz Haber demonstrated an apparatus that converted air into ammonia. Drop by drop, Haber’s apparatus produced a half cup of ammonia per hour—and changed the world forever.

In 1918, Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.

How big a deal was Haber’s discovery? Ninety years later, the nitrogen compounds that make up at least half of the bodies of six billion people entered the biosphere by way of the process discovered by Fritz Haber.

Moreover, the second inflection point on the graph, the one generally attributed to the Green Revolution, could not have occurred had not Haber’s break through happened first.

Moving from the Lab to the Factory

Carl Bosch (1874-1940)

Carl Bosch (1874-1940)

Haber’s discovery was revolutionary, but credit for bringing it out of the laboratory and putting it into production goes to Carl Bosch. In 1931, Bosch and Friedrich Bergius were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry “in recognition of their contributions to the invention and development of chemical high pressure methods.”

It’s no accident that this crucial technology was developed in Germany, which was then the world leader in the manufacture of high-strength steel alloys. Haber’s process required pressures in excess of 3,000 pounds per square inch, and temperatures in excess of 1,100°F, and a suite of components such as valves and compressors capable of working under those extreme conditions. It was only in Germany that the necessary skills and materials could be found.

In the history of major innovations, it’s common for a moment of inspiration to be followed by years of dogged efforts at solving a series of engineering challenges presented by the invention. The story of Bosch’s tenacious work on ammonia synthesis is reminiscent of Thomas Edison’s observation that, “What it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Bosch’s work forged ahead into unknown realms of heat and pressure. In order to accelerate the pace of development,

“Bosch made a bunker of the catalyst test lab, putting up protective walls, armoring the test ovens in metal, and jacketing them in concrete. If they exploded, they exploded. The work could not be allowed to stop because of a little shrapnel.”
— pg 107, The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager.

Getting to The Point

This matters because there are three things that have to be taken into account by any program that wishes to effectively address the creation of a sustainable system that includes humans.

As things stand now,

  1. Humanity depends on the biotic nitrogen produced by the Haber-Bosch process.
  2. Humanity is doubly dependent in that fossil fuels provide both
    (1) the raw materials for, and
    (2) the energy that drives the Haber-Bosch process.
  3. Humanity has no large-scale ready substitute for fossil fuels.
  4. The supply of fossil fuels is finite.

Simply put, the survival of the next few generations of humans depends on finding another way to bridge that gap.

This is not a new understanding; a century ago, Thomas Edison observed that, “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy—sun, wind and tide.”

Fossil Fuels and Farming

The population graph’s first inflection point involved two fundamental changes; the first was the work of Haber and Bosch, and the second was the adoption of fossil fuels to replace the animal power used on farms and in local transportation. Back when farms depended on mules and oxen to do hard labor, as much as half of a farm’s tillable land was dedicated to growing the necessary animal feed.

While animals were only needed seasonally, they had to be fed and cared for year round. That’s very different from a tractor or farm truck that only consumes fuel when it is running. The switch over to mechanized farming ended the ancient reliance on animal power, allowing farmers to grow food for humans on land that up until then had grown food for work animals.

And Then There were Three Billion

The extraction of fossil fuels did two things that together made it possible to increase the number of humans from two to three billion:

  • they eliminated the need for animal power, and
  • provided the raw materials for making nitrogen based fertilizers.

Since then agriculture has devolved to the point where it’s become little more than the process by which fossil fuels are converted into food.

Originally, the ammonia produced by the Haber-Bosch process was converted into ammonium nitrate—NH4NO3—a material that, in the dry form, is explosive. In April of 1947, a ship containing 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in what became known as the Texas City Disaster killing at least 581 people.

Today, most ammonia-based fertilizer is used in the non-explosive form made from mixing equal parts of water and urea—(NH2)2CO—a compound made from ammonia and carbon dioxide, both of which are derived from natural gas. Since natural gas is a finite resource which will eventually run out, humans need to develop alternative and sustainable ways to convert abiotic nitrogen into biologically active forms. The alternative is a profound drop in biotic production, which is a polite of saying that the majority of people will starve to death and take much of the biosphere with them.

As natural gas deposits are exhausted, the huge plants that produce biologically active forms of nitrogen will shut down if for no other reason that a lack of the necessary raw materials. That’s not something that’s going to happen today, but it will happen soon whether we want it to or not. What is in question is whether humans will use the time remaining to develop alternative means of transforming abiotic nitrogen into something that can grow food.

Creating Local Scale Alternatives

The route we’re taking in this specific area involves reversing the long-term trend of building ever larger chemical plants. Building huge plants made sense in the past because of the economies of scale, corporate finance and cheap transportation costs. To counter that trend, we’re researching ways to create micro-plants capable of producing village-scale amounts of nitrates for use on-site.

Bosch and his staff did incredible work scaling up Haber’s laboratory scale ammonia synthesizer into a plant capable of producing tons per day. We intend to go in the opposite direction.

Haber’s lab-scale reactor made a half-cup of ammonia an hour; that isn’t much, but it adds up. If such a reactor was run around the clock, it could produce more than fifteen hundred pounds of ammonia a year. In wheat country, fields treated with twenty pounds of ammonia per acre can be expected to yield better than thirty bushels per acre. Factor in recent US per capita consumption of wheat, and that half a cup an hour’s worth of ammonia could grow enough wheat to feed almost a thousand people.

Here’s that in a bit more detail:

  • 1/2 a cup an hour => 3 quarts/day
  • 3 quarts/day => 0.1 cubic feet/day
  • at 42.57 pounds/cubic foot, that => 4.25 pounds/day
  • which => 1550 pounds of ammonia per year
  • which is enough to treat 77 acres of wheat
  • local wheat fields that are treated with 20 pounds of ammonia per acre yield around 30 bushels of wheat per acre [1]
  • at 60 pounds/bushel that equals 139,500 pounds of wheat
  • US consumption of wheat in 1997 was 147 pounds per person[2]
  • at that rate, 139,500 pounds of wheat would feed 948 people
    Note: the farmer we buy our alfalfa from also grows wheat, so I checked with him to see what his experience was as to the relationship between wheat yields and ammonia application rates. He said he goes by the rule of thumb that injecting a pound of ammonia per acre can increase yields by up to two bushels, which, given the variables involved, is reasonably consistent with the more conservative information from Auburn referenced above.

Feeding Seven Billion Plus

Today, ammonia is synthesized in huge plants that suck up incredible amounts of natural gas. The fertilizer produced is then transported in diesel powered trucks and applied with diesel powered mega-tractors. As the supply of fossil fuels runs out, the relative cost of getting biologically available nitrogen delivered to the roots of wheat plants will continue to rise.

By “relative cost” I’m referring to cost as being the intersection of the value of land, labor and energy. When the relative value of energy goes up—and it necessarily must as non-renewable resources are drawn down—the relative value of land and labor will fall.

An example would be the way that the increased cost of gasoline is decreasing people’s ability to commute to work. People who used to commute into the city to work are giving up and moving into the city in order to avoid the cost of commuting. That in turn causes a drop in land values in deep country as fewer people can afford to live away from city centers.

One way to circumvent that dependency on fossil fuels is to build micro-plants that can convert locally available woody biomass into fuels and fertilizers. Doing this will go along way towards breaking the chain of dependency that is bankrupting rural communities.

a modern bread factory

a modern bread factory

Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch; all we have to do is make the existing technology smaller, something which is already being done in other key areas. A modest example would be bread baking. It wasn’t that long ago that home baked bread was the primary food that people ate. In 1900, more than 90% of the flour produced in the US was sold to households. By 2000, that figure had fallen to less than ten percent.

Nowadays, most people eat bread that is manufactured in huge factories. Labyrinths of conveyors move the dough through the many steps that convert raw ingredients into pre-sliced loaves ready for shipment to local grocery stores.

a countertop bread machine

a countertop bread machine

People who want to control the ingredients and freshness of the bread they eat can now buy counter-top bread machines that will turn themselves on in the middle of the night and produce a fresh loaf in time for breakfast.

These small machines contain an imbedded microprocessor that controls a display, a motor, a heating element and a variety of sensors. A micro chemical plant would function in an analogous way as it converted woody biomass from household trash into liquid car fuel.

Simply stated, a key goal of our research is to do for the neighborhood production of liquid fuels and fertilizers what these bread machines have done for households. Fortunately, the chemistry of compressed gases is a field that’s especially well suited to miniaturization.

Local use is the key

Windward stewards a forest, so our work is focused on the woody biomass our forest generates each year. Moreover, our goal is to use carbon gathered on site instead of carbon trucked in from somewhere else. The use of fossil fuels to transport biomass is a key input for biomass-to-energy projects such as the work being done at Middlebury College. They’re generating electricity and hot water using biomass that’s trucked in from up to 75 miles away. And after the biomass is burned, more fossil fuels are needed to haul the ash to the land fill. It’s certainly a better system than one that burns coal, but by not returning the micro-nutrients to the land that grew the biomass, they are using a potentially sustainable resource in an unsustainable way.

The sort of micro-plant we’re developing can be located wherever biomass is grown, and the ash—which contains vital micro-nutrients—can be returned directly to the land to support future growth. A forest’s excess biomass is referred to as its “fuel load.” In the past, lightning would ignite surface fires every few years, thereby consuming the fuel load and liberating the abiotic resources bound up in the biomass—elements such as magnesium, phosphorus and boron. Our goal as Stewards is to restore a natural function that humans have disrupted.

While our work is forestry based, the concept of building biomass conversion micro-plants would work just as well in other places with other forms of biomass such as rice husks and switch grass.All of which are products of rural biological systems that use sunlight to extract carbon dioxide from the air. In extreme locals, it is even possible for a micro-plant to produce fuel by extracting carbon from the ocean because the concentration of CO2 in water is more than sixty times greater than its concentration in air.

Why is this important?

One immediate reason why this is important involves the steadily decreasing ability of rural people to live on their land base. As land is over-farmed, it’s ability to sustain a given number of people is diminished, often permanently. People caught between dwindling resources and increased conflicts over what remains are giving up their relationship with their land base and moving into the slums that ring the world’s largest cities.

People who live in cities become psychologially disconnected from the landbase that supports them. As of 2008, for the first time in human history, the majority of people live in cities and lack any meaningful connection to the landbase that meets their core needs.

More than a billion of those people live in slums and lack title to land, sewage facilities, and access to potable water—conditions which directly contribute to the deaths of more than thirty thousand people a day. The majority of the people living in those over-crowded and degrading conditions are young, uneducated females without access to basic health services or birth control.

The great cities were built during the age of cheap resources. As those resources are exhausted, the world will be unable to build the housing and infrastructures needed to adequately house the billion people already living in the world’s slums. The only hope for those people will be to find a way to return to the land base they left behind, something which can only happen if sustainable solutions are found to the ecological problems that drove them off their landbase.

The impact of any one organization is necessarily small. Fortunately, the Internet makes it possible for solutions created in one place to be copied and used world wide. That’s how the creation of a working model of a better way can trigger systemic change.

Time is Not On Our Side

The historical evidence implies that our biosphere’s carrying capacity for humans is somewhere below a billion. By drawing down non-renewable resources, the human population has exceeded six billion and continues to grow at the rate of an additional 20,000 people a day.

Considered from an ecological perspective, humanity has overshot the biosphere’s carrying capacity—by about a factor of seven. If this were a purely mathematical situation, restoring the balance between humans and the biosphere would require the elimination of 86% of the human population.

But the situation humanity has worked its way into isn’t likely to play itself out along purely mathematical lines. When a species has overshot its carrying capacity, the resultant collapse doesn’t involve a regression to the landbase’s original carrying capacity. An overshoot does profound damage to carrying capacity, degrading it to the point where the new carrying capacity falls well below the old.

As the dynamics of a growing population consuming a finite food supply plays out, vitality is compromised, often to the point where very few of the animals can survive. Those who aren’t permanently damaged by starvation often succumb to disease.

The Legacy of St. Matthew’s Island

During WWII, a long range navigation transmitter was built on St. Matthew Island, one of the Aleutian Islands off the southwest coast of Alaska. To help ensure a food supply for the technicians running the base, two dozen reindeer were transported to the island. Covered with lichen four inches thick in places, St. Matthew proved the reindeer with an ideal home.

As the focus of the war shifted, the technicians were withdrawn leaving the reindeer behind. With a well established food supply and no predators to keep them in check, the reindeer population grew quickly. Biologists later visited the island and estimated that the reindeer population had exceeded six thousand. When they returned a decade later, all they found were bleached white bones—the reindeer population had crashed into extinction.

from <a href="">Overshoot</a> by William Catton

from Overshoot by William Catton

This graph is from William Catton’s seminal work on the subject of overshoot. It describes in chilling detail how the process of overshoot impacts carrying capacity and population. The dashed line in the lower part of the graph represents a land base’s long-term carrying capacity for a given species. The dot and dash line represents an increase in the temporary carrying capacity, and the solid line represents population.

A temporary increase in carrying capacity could result, for example, from a series of warm and wet years that triggers a burst in biotic production. That temporary abundance would first trigger a population surge in the animals that grazed on the vegetation, and then a surge in the predators that feed on the grazers.

Then, when the weather changes back to its normal pattern and biotic growth decreases, the population of grazers falls. Shortly thereafter the population of predators crashes.

Carrying Capacity is Fragile

A key point to note from Catton’s graph is that the overshoot draws down carrying capacity to well below previous levels. This drop in carrying capacity causes a collapse in the grazer population to numbers significantly below the population level that the land base was able to support prior to the overshoot.

Applying what we know about ecological overshoot and collapse to humans is not so straightforward. Humans have the capacity to understand the long-term impact of our actions, and so we are not bound to this process in the way that field mice and coyotes are. On the other hand, our intelligence also enables us to wrap ourselves in a shroud of denial so that we can continue to aggressively draw down the non-renewable resources that have temporarily increased the biosphere’s carrying capacity.

To make matters worse, one of that ways that humanity has increased its effective carrying capacity has been by expropriating portions of the biosphere which previously supported other species. Not only are humans drawing down the resources that humans need in order to survive, we have also been aggressively drawing down the resources that the survival of other species depends on.

If humanity rises to the challenge, it may be able to moderate the collapse to the point where only half of the earth’s population dies in each of three subsequent generations. That would return human numbers to the levels which the Earth has carried in the past, but with incalculable cultural effects. And that’s a best case scenario.

What Comes Next?

In time, carrying capacity will return to the level that can be sustained by nature’s abiotic processes, but there are phases which humankind will transition through along the way. We’re currently living at the transition between an age of abundance and an age of scarcity. As supplies of non-renewables become ever more difficult to acquire, people will learn to do more with less. Non-essential expenditures will be cut back as the virtues of thrift reassert themselves. People will learn to make do, or learn to do without. That will buy more time, but not much.

Hubbert's Net from <a href="">The Oil Drum</a> by David Murphy

Hubbert’s Net from The Oil Drum by David Murphy

Those who follow the issue of resource depletion know that the most critical non-renewable resource for humans is oil. As with most other resources, global oil reserves can be graphed as a bell-shaped curve; in the case of oil, the top of that graph is known as Hubbert’s Peak.

There’s lots of debate as to whether we’re coming up on the peak, or we’re past the peak and starting the slide down the other side. What is not widely discussed is that the two sides of the graph, while equal in shape, are very different in effect.

In the early years, oil was easy to find and extract–for every barrel of oil invested, a hundred barrels could be withdrawn from those non-renewable deposits.

Usually that point is expressed differently; something more along the lines of “for every barrel invested, a hundred barrels were produced.” I believe that it’s important to avoid that sort of language because oil companies don’t “produce” oil—they extract it.

The same goes for coal in that coal companies don’t produce coal, they extract it from non-renewable deposits. The same reality exists for iron ore, top soil, natural gas, helium and a hundred other resources that the Age of Abundance depends on.

So too for the resources that the Age of Scarcity will depend on such as neodymium (think wind turbines) and lanthanum (think hybrid car batteries).

On the right side of the yield curve, there’s a rapid increase in the amount of oil that must be invested to extract a barrel of oil. This increases so rapidly that by the time half of the oil has been extracted, three-quarters of the net energy is gone. The result is that the net energy yield doesn’t taper off—it falls off a cliff.

An Abrupt Transition

If what we’re facing was simply a matter of the depletion of a key resource, that would be bad enough, but the depletion of oil—the “keystone” resource—will impact the availability of almost all other resources because the fall off in the net returns for oil extraction will entail a similar, derivative and compounded fall off in the availability of almost all other non-renewable resources. For example, a huge amount of diesel fuel is required to power the heavy equipment used to mine coal, as well as the locomotives that haul that coal to the power plants.

Even the growth of renewable resources such as wind power will be severly impacted by the drop in net productivity because of the significant amounts of petroleum that are needed to create and transport wind power’s huge towers and turbines.

The next stage of human culture will be one of contraction as scarcity affects every aspect of modern life. But even as the increasing scarcity of non-renewable resources makes itself felt, efforts to “turn back the tide” will intensify the search for recoverable resources. The key word there is “recoverable” in that by then most of the world’s remaining non-renewable resources will exist in such dilute concentrations that mining them with petroleum power equipment will have become impractical.

As the age of Scarcity draws to a close, the focus will shift to Salvage. The climbing energy cost of mining and refining ores will compel humans to scramble to reclaim the energy that’s already embedded in products such as steel and glass. It will only be after humankind passes through economies based on scarcity and then on salvage that the era of sustainable living will come into its own.

The process of transitioning from where we are to a sustainable future involves passing through four social phases:

  1. Abundance,
  2. Scarcity,
  3. Salvage, and ultimately
  4. Sustainability.

It’s important to note that this is not a discrete, sequential process; right now aspects of all four systems can be identified in the social and economic activities happening around us. People flying away for a vacation are manifesting the Age of Abundance. When they lower their thermostat to reduce their heating bill, they are manifesting the Age of Scarcity. When they recycle bottles and tin cans, they are manifesting the Age of Salvage, and when they convert their lawn into a permaculture garden, they are manifesting the beginnings of the Age of Sustainability.

Windward’s long term work is focused on adapting small communities to the demands of the age of sustainability, but as you look around Windward, you can see aspects of the three prior stages in play. We’re working on sustainabity projects such as ways to use sun-based energy sources to convert abiotic resources into biotic materials, but we also:

  • encourage our people to fly home for the holidays (Abundance),
  • work to conserve non-renewable resources (Scarcity), and
  • re-purpose things that contain embedded energy (Salvage).

As the options of the Age of Abundance run out because of the exhaustion of readily available, non-renewable resources, society will learn to depend on a mix of the remaining three systems. Then, when there’s little in the way of non-renewable resources left to conserve, people will focus on the remaining two until eventually the only systems that will continue to work will be the ones based on various forms of solar energy.

The process humanity is undergoing, whether we’re ready for it or not, is irreversible; our best hope as a species involves preparing ourselves, as best we can, for the changes to come. The longer we delay, the more will be lost.

In some ways, the consequences of having overshot the biosphere’s carrying capacity are already here. Even at the height of the Age of Abundance, tens of thousands of people—mostly children—die each day because of a lack of access to clean water, sewage treatment and basic food. As humankind slips from the Age of Abundance into the Age of Scarcity, the status quo will be maintained for a while by rethinking non-essential activities such as tourism.

But no matter how many nifty work-arounds humans come up with in the short run, fundamental change is inevitable because slowing the consumption of non-renewable resources only postpones the day of reckoning; it doesn’t prevent it. Still, there’s a world of difference in how those changes will affect humans and the rest of the biosphere, differences which depend on the rate at which systemic change comes about. The longer the transition is delayed, the more abrupt and violent it will be when it eventually does come.

Humanity has demonstrated an impressive ability to muddle through, often by importing resources and exporting problems. That “solution” doesn’t work any more for the simple reason that we’ve run out of “away” as a place to send our waste and our surplus people.

Actions have consequences, and the circle of causation is rounding back on itself. The trap is closing, but how quickly? At this point it is unclear whether the process of transitioning to a sustainable future will happen within a few, chaotic years, or whether it will drag out for generations?

What is clear is that the more quickly groups of people embrace a comprehensive set of sustainable practices, the greater the likelihood of their being able to weather the storm of unintended consequences that will never, ever clear.

That storm will be humanity’s Rite of Passage. If we rise to the challenge, we will earn a place as part of the biosphere. If we do not, then humanity will go the way of the dinosaur. The generation coming of age right now has the best chance of facilitating a positive transition, but they need certain key tools—some technical, some social and some conceptual—with which to build a viable future.

It is to the challenge of manifesting those tools that Windward is dedicated.

Walt Patrick, Senior Steward