Lifecycle Building Center Auction!

I’m super excited about the annual LBC silent auction!  It’s happening this Thursday, and I donated a landscape design service to the auction.

As much as I love data work, I try to intersperse it with outdoor projects to keep myself sane and not stuck in a permanent ‘hunched over the computer’ position.  I’ve taken on a few clients around Atlanta and near where my parents live in North Carolina since I got my PDC 18 months ago, and now I’m getting to design for my own land.

LBC is an awesome nonprofit that diverts usable building materials from the landfill, and they also happen to be one of my clients.  There’s several awesome items up for grabs, from unique art made from reclaimed materials to a 36 hour Tesla test drive.  Plus the event is in Ponce City Market with lots of local food, music, alcohol and fun!

Best thing that ever happened!

You know that moment when you realize that something that’s awful at face value has turned out to be a huge blessing?

In August, my landlady decided to sell the condo I’d been renting for 5 years and gave me 30 days to get out.

Then, in the midst of figuring out where I would live and attempting to buy a house, my employers decided I was too expensive and started pushing me out of the job I’d had for 2.5 years.

Now I own a home with land I can grow on, and I spend my days doing freelance data planning and analysis work for local food businesses and organizations!

Someone pinch me, please.

So here’s the current plan:  Start growing microgreens over the summer and begin the process of building networks of chefs.  This is small scale – I’ve got about 40 square feet in greenhouse space.   If I can build it to $500-1000 a month in sales, my roommate is interested in leaving her job to take the lead on a market garden scattered throughout the sunny front yards in our neighborhood.  We’d target starting that next spring and run with it for a few years.I’ll continue to consult throughout – I love it, make good money, and I can control how the time I spend with a fair amount of precision.   Then when I have the funds saved and the opportunity comes along to buy land for the Ecosystem, I’ll jump on it!

It may seem like a convoluted path, but it’s a path.  And more importantly, it’s a path I can take action on, one that doesn’t depend on me convincing donors, investors or grant makers that this idea deserves a chance.

Seriously, pinch me?

I Am Human, Therefore…

When I was managing a community garden right across the street from my condo, I loved gathering up all my compostable scraps and carrying them across the street to our compost pile.  I went out to the garden multiple times a day – which was good, because I often forgot that the compost bucket needed to go out!

But after the garden was evicted, my closest compost pile required driving.  My memory hasn’t improved at all – I’m quite capable of packing a lunch and leaving it, packed, on the counter when I leave for work.  But forgetting the compost bucket when the pile is across the street is simple; I just go back and get it.  Forgetting the bucket when I have to drive to the pile is a bigger deal.  I have to turn around, fight traffic back, take extra time out of my day… not worth it.  I tried, for a few months, but ended up with an infestation of fruit flies for my troubles.  My compost now goes into the garbage.

Why am I telling this story?  Because when my compost set up made it easy for me to compost, I composted.  When it was hard, I stopped.  And that is true for almost every human being on the planet.

When it comes to sustainability, there are very few human behavior problems.  Instead, there are design problems.  But the vast majority of the ‘solutions’ to make our world more sustainable focus on changing human behavior.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for someone to change their behavior.  What I am saying is that behavioral change is individual.  I can provide you with the information you need to make a behavioral change, but you are the only one who can make that change.  And you have to continue to take action to make that change every time the situation comes up.  You’ll likely be surrounded by examples of others who opt not to make that change and seem to be suffering no negative consequences.  Changing behavior is hard, and let’s face it, we’re all inherently lazy.

We need to change designs, not behavior.  People are not going to stop buying things, driving cars, watching TV or spending long, luxurious mornings in bed (like I happen to be doing right now).  Instead of telling people not to buy things, we need to adjust the system so that the things available to buy are designed with the triple top line that benefit everyone along the chains of supply and consumption.  Instead of regulating hazardous chemicals used by companies, we need to show them how it is to their benefit to design their products to use only positive components.  Instead of letting unwanted consumer goods and their valuable components be lost to the landfill, we need systems to recapture those components and upcycle them into newer and better products.

And that long, luxurious morning in bed?  I make no apologies for spending the ‘best hours of the day’ sleeping!

Triple Top Line

Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the ideas that influenced my thinking on the Ecosystem.  William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle was essential in giving me a vocabulary to speak about the amorphous ideas that had been oozing through my brain, so the first few posts in this series will be built around concepts from McDonough and Braungart’s books.

Companies that like to be seen as eco-friendly often point to their consideration of the triple bottom line of their business.  The triple bottom line – people, planet and profits – only comes into consideration at the end of the decision making process. 

To illustrate this, I’ve created a hypothetical scenario involving a carpet manufacturer.

The company has a strong product line with a reputation for quality.  These are carpets that can last 10-15 years, and the company’s customers are willing to pay a bit more.  However, the company has been getting an increasing number of questions about the sustainability of its products and the low wages it pays to workers in its factories overseas.  The company board decides that it’s time to address these concerns.

The board visits one of the company’s factories, and notices that the chemicals used to glue the carpet together are causing respiratory issues in some workers.  The entire production process is pretty toxic, if they’re honest, but it’s something of a necessary evil.  After all, all their competitors use the same materials.

To reduce harm that their process causes, the company decides to offer health care to the factory workers and asks an engineer to redesign the portions of the assembly that cause the most health issues.  While those decisions are being implemented, the company diverts a day’s worth of production and provides free carpet to the workers.  They make sure a photographer is on hand to document their generosity.

A staff scientist is tasked to find a way to decrease the carpet’s environmental impact.  While the carpet does last for a good amount of time, the production process mixes wool with plastics and toxic chemicals, meaning that the carpet doesn’t degrade cleanly in a biological system.  It doesn’t release much in the way of toxic chemicals during normal use, but when it is incinerated or sent to a landfill, the chemicals will be released into the environment and cause problems for the local biological cycles.  The staff scientist – who has seen several great ideas emerge from research to be squashed by leadership for being too different and dangerous – notices that he can use up to 10% recycled water bottles in the carpet without a loss of quality or feel.  It takes a few additional chemicals and adds several extra steps to the supply chain for the manufacturer.

The scientist writes up a report on his findings and is surprised when his idea is hailed as the next green breakthrough in carpets.  The company rushes to put his process in practice, rolling out the carpets in stores with a green themed advertising campaign.  Since the new process requires additional steps and suppliers, the company leverages lines of credit to open up new accounts.  And, under the new worker safety rules, the new chemicals added to the process must be stored separately and worked with under tightly controlled conditions.  The new carpet is $2 more expensive per square foot when compared to the company’s other lines, but it plays to the customer’s desire to feel ‘green’ and sells well enough to justify the debt the company took on.

Good situation, right?  The customer is happy, the company is profitable, and the carpet now requires more energy and toxic chemicals to create while still ending up in a landfill after 10-15 years.

Less bad, but miles away from good.

What else could have happened in this scenario?

Instead of trying to improve upon a bad product, the staff scientist could have gone back to the drawing board.  By starting with a list of all the carpet’s inputs, the scientist could have eliminated all materials that were negative or questionable, and built a carpet that performed just as well using only materials that were neutral or beneficial to the health and well being of the factory workers, the consumers, and the environment.

Think that’s not possible?  In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart describe working with the Swiss textile company Rohner.  The company created upholstery fabric, and had just been told that the fabric trimmings were classified as hazardous waste that had to be disposed of outside the country.  McDonough and Braungart started with a list of 38 materials with only positive qualities, and created a fabric that could be produced safely, performed as well as or better than its chemical laden counterpart, and could be composted at the end of its use.  In fact, the factory manager reported that, after the fabric went into production, the water flowing out of the factory was actually cleaner than the city-treated water flowing in!

But, let’s say that it’s not possible to eliminate all the chemicals or materials that would cause problems in a landfill.  There are still ways to prevent the hypothetical company’s carpet from ending up in a landfill.  What if the company could pick up the carpet after a consumer tired of it, and cycle the contents into new carpet?  This could take the form of a carpet lease, a rebate or security deposit returned to the consumer when the carpet is returned, or a buy back program.  The consumer gets new carpet (which face it, new stuff is fun) and the company retains a customer and retains use of materials which they would otherwise lose.  All it would take are a few design tweaks to allow the carpet components to be easily separated to recycle like materials with like.

The triple top line offers an opportunity to build benefits into every aspect of a product.  Instead of trying to improve upon an inherently flawed process, it allows for the creation of flawless processes from every angle – sustainability, total health of the worker, consumer, company and environment, and increased profitability.

The Problem with Recycling

Note: This is the second in a series of posts on the ideas that influenced my thinking on the Ecosystem.  William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle was essential in giving me a vocabulary to speak about the amorphous ideas that had been oozing through my brain, so the first few posts in this series will be built around concepts from McDonough and Braungart’s books.

Recycling, at least as it’s practiced today, decreases the quality of the material.  Recycled items are typically created from a mix of materials, and little or no effort is made to separate those materials before processing.  When you mix steel with copper, aluminum with paint or fiber with ink, the resulting mix is inherently weaker than the original.

Let’s look at one of the most ubiquitous machines of our time – the laptop.  It’s a complex mix of metals, plastics, and valuable elements.  But when a laptop reaches the end of its useful life, what do we do with it?

It depends on the individual – personally, I’ve got three old computers hanging around until I find the time to wipe them and put them on Craigslist for parts.  But given that it’s 2015 and they date to 2008, 2010 and 2011 respectively, I can’t say there’s likely to be much demand.  Eventually they’ll end up in a landfill or in some recycling program; I may opt to take them to a recycler myself depending on my mood when I do finally get around to disposing of them.

Since the components of a computer are valuable, you’d think that they would be disassembled and recycled with like materials.  Some manufacturers are starting down this path.  But in most cases, recycled electronics are pulverized, melted down, and the resulting weakened material is used in a lower quality product.

People tend to approach recycled items as automatically good – after all, isn’t the motto supposed to be reduce, reuse and recycle?  But if a product isn’t designed to be recycled, the process of turning it in to something else requires so many chemicals that the resulting product isn’t all that safe or pleasant.  Paper is often down cycled into insulation, and sold at a premium as a ‘green product’.  But turning paper into insulation requires fungicides to combat mildew, formaldehyde to prevent the natural process of decay, and doesn’t do anything to address the often toxic components of colored inks.  The resulting insulation isn’t stable in the new green home, and can off gas noxious chemicals into the rooms it keeps warm.

The world is full of recycled products that mask major problems under a green exterior.

If products are designed from the beginning to be recycled, the components can be recycled with like components and the quality can be maintained.  The aluminum alloy body of an Apple computer can be melted down and shaped into the equally strong body of a new Apple computer.  The plastic water bottle can be easily separated from its top and label and become another water bottle.  Any material could be  shaped into something equally valuable – or decompose to provide nutrients for biological systems.

The book Cradle to Cradle refers to materials as either being technological or biological in nature.  Technological nutrients can be recycled with like materials, as described earlier, and biological materials can be returned to biological cycles as nutrients – or at the very least, return without doing any harm.

Note: This is the first in a series of posts on the ideas that influenced my thinking on the Ecosystem.  William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle was essential in giving me a vocabulary to speak about the amorphous ideas that had been oozing through my brain, so the first few posts in this series will be built around concepts from McDonough and Braungart’s books.

Let us consider, for a moment, a cherry tree.

It’s branches reach high above the ground and in the spring time are festooned with delicate flowers that buzz with pollinator activity and send a delectable scent wafting through the air. Over time, the flowers loosen and drift towards the ground, forming a deep litter that blankets the space under the tree’s canopy.
They become bruised and torn as animals walk through, the wind and rain reshape the space, and the insects turn what was once something beautiful into battered trash. Then the ants and earthworms and underground crawlers gather up the remnants of the cherry’s show, pulling the scraps down into the soil to digest and decompose. This action releases the last nutrients from the petals, and those nutrients become available to the soil organisms, the bacteria, the fungi, and – once again – to the tree itself.
Up above the surface, the blossoms have been replaced by green leaves that collect the solar energy and pass it throughout the tree and the organisms that depend on it. Root bacteria drink up sugars from photosynthesis and excrete substances that make other nutrients available to the tree. The tree moves those nutrients up into the budding fruit, which grows by the hour in the sunlight.
When the cherries are ready, perhaps humans will come to pick some. So will birds and squirrels and countless other woodland creatures. Some fruit will simply fall to the earth to follow the way of the blossoms. Other fruit will pass through various digestive systems and lead to new seedlings, conveniently deposited in a small packet of fertilizer.
After the weather gets colder, the leaves will change color and fall, once again littering the ground and providing food for the system that the tree inhabits.
In nature, nothing is wasted.
Now let us take another moment to consider something just as beautiful as a cherry tree – a cut crystal pitcher.

Unlike the cherry tree, a cut crystal pitcher must be created before it can be beautiful. Silica sand, sodium carbonate, calcium oxide and lead oxide are most commonly combined in a kiln and heated to liquid at anywhere between 1500 and 2500F. Each of the raw materials must be extracted and shipped to that kiln, and the kiln itself requires large energy inputs to reach the required temperature. Once formed, the pitcher must be cut on a powered cutting wheel and annealed in the kiln again, this time at 750 to 1000 degrees.
Unless you, the end user, happen to live within walking distance of where the pitcher is made, additional energy must be used to get it into your hands. Some sort of padding must be manufactured and shipped to the factory, and wood pulp must similarly be fashioned into a box to hold the padded pitcher. Then said box must be shipped to your door.
In use, the pitcher requires little energy – a fraction of the manufacturing needs of the soap and clean water which are used to wash it. But the pitcher is fragile, and in all likelihood, the first crack or chip will render it unusable and send it to the dump. Once there, the pieces will take 1 million years to decompose – until then, the components of the glass are unavailable for further use.
And, for a third moment, let’s consider something somewhat less beautiful, but nevertheless used daily by a good portion of western civilization – the electric coffee pot.

The raw materials in the coffee pot are start off with a similar list to the crystal pitcher, but continue on to include oil, copper, rubber, and the chemicals needed to turn the raw oil into the various types of plastics used in the body of the coffee pot. There are the die used to create the pieces of the pot, the screws that hold it all together, and computer chips that let you customize your brew. The heating mechanism of the pot is typically aluminum or stainless steel, and the filters that most of us use in our pots are typically some form of paper fiber.
Each of these components requires energy for extraction, purification and molding, and then there’s the energy used in the actual construction of the unit. The pot is then packaged in styrofoam and cardboard, shipped to a store using oil, and in all likelihood driven to your house using gas.
When you use the pot, you’re probably using the aforementioned coffee filters with coffee that has been grown halfway around the world and shipped to you using additional oil. The coffee may or may not have been grown on rainforest land cleared for coffee plantations, resulting in loss of biodiversity and all the services provided by the forest. Running the pot requires electricity, as does the dishwasher that you likely use to clean it out at the end of the day. The dish soap that you use to clean it with has its own embodied environmental and energy costs too.
And then what happens when the pot breaks? Let’s say you drop the carafe one morning when you’re not quite awake. Perhaps you purchase another carafe and continue to use the rest of the unit, patting yourself on the back for being sustainable and sending the broken glass pieces to sit in a landfill. Perhaps you use it as an excuse to toss the whole unit. What if the wiring in the pot becomes faulty and the timer no longer goes off to provide you with hot coffee in the morning? Chances are, you’ll chuck the whole thing in the trash, though you may attempt to take it apart or put it up on Freecycle. But depending on the design, you may need to be a rocket scientist to get into the unit to fix it – leaving you little practical choice but the trash can.
This post isn’t intended to make you feel guilty as a consumer. We all are – just today, I bought two paint samples in little plastic jars to test out in my spare bedroom, followed by a box of gluten free macaroni and cheese and three bags of Snapeas. I don’t want to stop buying paint samples or boxes/bags of food. Instead, I want the things I buy to be designed in such a way that they could be taken apart at the end of their natural use cycles, and the constituent pieces formed into something else of equally high quality.
Isn’t that recycling?
Not exactly.
I’ll go into the distinction in the next post.

Municipal Permaculture and Micro-Enterprise

It’s official! Last weekend we presented our microenterprise design for Pine Lake, GA, and earned a permaculture design certification in the process.

We made a decision, as a group, not to let the presentation turn into “Kirsten pitches the Ecosystem”. I didn’t mention the Ecosystem by name, and the concept was just one visual of 12. Instead, we took our audience on a journey into the future and traced the path of Pine Lake from the vantage point of 2040.

Each of the groups in our class did designs on a municipal level in Pine Lake, something which appears to be a first in the permaculture world. There certainly have been municipal level designs, but we may well have participated in the first PDC course which partnered with a city for student projects.

There’s a long way to go before the Ecosystem could land in Pine Lake, but it is a real possibility. There’s an 11 acre vacant space that anchors a future commercial district on Rockbridge Rd, and interest from the folks in the audience in discussing the options further. If I knew that I’d have support from the city, I could approach the land owners and try to negotiate a 5-10 year lease with an option to buy. That would let me establish proof of concept, and from there I can line up investment to permanently secure land and expand.

I’ve got another possibility brewing, and I’ve started planting some test guilds in the land I do have access to so I can hopefully begin document yields. More on both of those to come soon… I’ve also been working on a series of more informational posts to begin filling in some of the foundation for the stories I hope to be telling in the very near future. 🙂


You know how in that last post I mentioned how I was still pursuing every opportunity, because I knew how quickly the number could dwindle?

Yeah.  They dwindled.  I’m not quite back to square one because I learned a lot.  For example:

  • If a partnership appears to come out of thin air and sounds too good to be true, it can disappear just as quickly.
  • I’m unlikely to get grant money for this project.  Foundations are too conservative to fund something without a track record or pilot location.
  • That means the funding to get this off the ground, realistically, is gonna have to come from me.  Either I have to save up the money to buy a space, or I have to figure out how to get some cash flow running for this business so that I can either parlay that into a loan or a land purchase.
  • The latter isn’t entirely out of the question – I do have one land owner open to letting me use his land, though there are some major drawbacks to the space in the sense of using it for an Ecosystem prototype.  But the obvious income source for bootstrapping would be produce sales, and that may actually work in his space short term.  It would take a lot of work, but it’s do-able.  Getting some of my annual guilds growing would give me production numbers, cash flow, and a foundation to build from.
  • I may be able to get other urban farmers in Atlanta to test out these guilds as well, which would give me even more data with which to hit the ground running when the pilot location becomes available.

Sigh.  It’s not a failure unless I fail to learn from it and move forward.  I just need to keep moving, keep learning, keep trying and keep giving 10x as much as I get in return.


Waiting for a domino

(I was just going to grab a picture of a cool domino toppling event, and then discovered that there’s an entire company devoted to routinely breaking the Guinness record for domino toppling. o.O)

I am not, for the record spending my time building massive domino trains to topple, though it does feel like it some days.  Instead, I’m lining up the pieces of the Ecosystem to begin toppling once that first push comes along.  And I’m seeking out that push.  At last count, the Ecosystem had the following irons in the fire:

  • Five potential locations
  • Two potential nonprofit partners
  • Two ongoing grant applications
  • Two potential for-profit partners
  • One person willing to move onsite and spearhead initial infrastructure creation
    • Additional folks may be added to that individual if either of the nonprofit partnerships become more solid.

It feels like an embarrassment of riches on some levels, but I’m still pursuing everything because I know just how quickly that list can dwindle.  If, by some miracle, we end up with more than one location it will allow us to run tests on different variations of the core ideas to see which are the most viable.  The concept of failing fast takes on a whole new meaning when applied to agriculture, and test plots are the most practical way to speed up that process.

At this point, the Ecosystem is just me – Tony took an awesome opportunity to lead adventure tours across southeast Asia, and Ali is aiming for Fiji.  She may join the Ecosystem for a short initial period, but I’m looking to others to take on that leadership role that Tony and Ali were to play.  I feel incredibly blessed to have others to look to for that capacity.

I have about 50,000 words worth of blog posts in various stages of draft that I’m planning to get onto the site at some point.  Not sure when that point will be, but I’d be surprised if it’s in the next month.  Life would be busy with just the Ecosystem irons in the fire, but it’s shaping up to be a hectic month at work, and there’s another potential opportunity on the horizon.  That said, it will all come together in some way, shape or form – and ideally I’ll sleep at some point along the way as well!

Why I’m ‘Canceling’ the Ecosystem Kickstarter

When I created this campaign, I had two objectives:

First, I wanted to announce that this was real – that instead of it being an idea rattling around in abstract, it was something real that we were working towards.

And second, I wanted the campaign to drive outreach.  I wanted the reason to go to every networking event and tell people about the awesome vision we were working towards, to ask for their thoughts, introductions and support.

Raising the money, honestly, was secondary.

Today, I can say that The Community Ecosystem, Inc is formally registered as a corporation in the state of Georgia!  We have our own federal employer identification number, a separate bank account, and a basic, functional website.  (You have no idea how many times I’ve told myself to keep it simple with regards to that!)

Plus, I can also say that we’ve connected with some serious movers in Atlanta’s food security scene!  We’re in the running for the food challenge fellowship at the Center for Civic Innovation; we’ve gotten offers of help with branding, publicity and strategy; and – most exciting – we have two very promising leads for land!!

So today, I’m canceling the Kickstarter campaign.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s been a huge success, and has more than Kickstarted this idea into reality.

I would like to invite all of you to keep up with the Ecosystem by signing up for our email list.  This idea is going big places, and as its first backers you are entitled to watch as we build this into reality.  Click here to make sure you can follow the story:

In fact, we’ll be honoring Kickstarter rewards for everyone who supported us – though you will have to transfer your backing info and pledge over to our website instead of having it deducted automatically.  Click here to transfer your pledge:

Your funds will go towards preparing our eventual location for planting – which, given the spaces we’re looking at, will probably involve goats, chickens, a livestock guardian dog and some electric fencing.  Pictures, stories and learning guaranteed!

Finally, we would like to thank all of you for your support!  It means a lot that you see the vision and are willing to put your name towards making it a reality.  As the Kickstarter comes to a close, let’s raise a glass to what we’ve accomplished and to what will come in the new year!