Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Back to the Future - The New Bio Economy

From Hydrocarbon to Carbohydrate Economy

The excitement continues to grow for building a new economy--an economy that as David Korten recently wrote in Yes Magazine “seeks to bring the way we live into alignment with the structure and dynamics of Earth’s biosphere.” This new economy acknowledges the need to move away from non-renewable hydrocarbons towards renewable carbohydrates. The idea of a carbohydrate economy is not a new one; industrialist Henry Ford first talked about it in the early 1930s: “Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making, and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the fields?”

A new carbohydrate-centred industrial design paradigm points to solutions to current environmental problems. For one, harvesting annual bio-material crops reduces the need to use old-growth forests for biomass, or petrochemicals for polymers. Of course, not all carbohydrate-based products are created equal. Consideration must be given to how crops were grown and harvested, whether pesticides and synthetic fertilizers were used, and if top soil was depleted or replenished. There are also legitimate concerns about using food crops for other industries (such as the “food for fuel” issue that has been presented with GMO-corn). Hemp and flax (organically-grown) are two crops that have been shown to have great potential for use in green building. Both crops can be grown quite sustainably in a crop-rotation, and both produce copious amounts of fibre, a by-product of seed production. Hemp is superior to other agricultural crops in terms of biomass; comparing it to wheat, for example, we find hemp yields triple the amount of fibre per hectare (and sequesters 22 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare as well).

Bio-material development is catching on everywhere---Europe has been at the forefront of research over the last 25 years and North America is starting to catch up. Batt insulation made from hemp and flax, Structurally Insulated Panels (SIP) made from straw, and hemp masonry materials are attracting interest and publicity. Studies have also been done on the use of mycelium or mushrooms to produce foam alternatives; one company, based in upstate New York, has produced a styrofoam packaging replacement now being test-marketed by the likes of Dell and Steelcase. The company also intends to produce a SIP for use in green building projects.

More and more attention is being given to the use of hemp masonry materials, produced from using processed hemp fibre and a mineral binder such as natural lime or magnesium cement. This form of construction has been advancing in France and more recently in Ireland and England as well; the technique of using hemp and lime in buildings is centuries old, however. Hemp buildings have been shown to be highly insulative, fire and mold resistant, extremely durable and carbon neutral. In Canada, where the hemp industry is now over 15 years old (growing hemp is still prohibited in the U.S.), several provinces have invested significant amounts of capital in secondary processing for bio-materials, one example being the Alberta Government’s decortication plant in Vegreville (decortication separates the two types of fibre). Other privately owned facilities exist in Manitoba and Ontario. Now pending in the province of British Columbia is a processing plant slated for construction near 100 Mile House, where there is keen interest in developing a hemp fibre industry.

Healthy Materials

Developing healthy materials is also a huge imperative for the green building industry. Bio-materials can be developed using non-toxic binders, but unfortunately not all manufacturers are currently choosing them. It is quite common to come across board or sheeting products that were produced using organically grown flax or hemp and subsequently combined with a binder containing formaldehyde. We need to get the word out about the toxic nature of chemical adhesives such as formaldehyde. As the green building industry becomes more transparent, stamping their products with ingredient fact boxes such as the new Declare system from the International Living Future Institute and the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Lens, more people will hopefully become aware of what is in products and whether or not they contain any toxic and/or carcinogenic compounds.

Luckily, lots of work has been done on developing bio-materials that meet high standards, such as the rigorous Living Building Challenge Red List Ready status. Binders such as magnesium oxide or natural lime pose no risk and have attributes such as fire resistance that are ideal when creating green materials.

Bio-Regional Model

The old economy largely abandoned local manufacturing in favour of exporting jobs overseas because of cheap labour, but now those jobs are starting to come back. Not enough attention has been given in the past to looking at where the materials are coming from and how they are made. The case of imported toxic drywall in 2008 is a perfect example of how something tragic can happen when the manufacturing is sub-contracted out and the company that distributes the product does not oversee what is going into that product---most houses made with the hydrogen-sulfide contaminated drywall had to be demolished. This was a real shame and something we just cannot afford to have happen again. By relocalizing manufacturing, we can have greater control over quality and can ensure the production of non-toxic, healthy building materials. An added bonus will be the creation of many meaningful green jobs. The bio-material industry is perfectly positioned to help bring this new paradigm into fruition. When we keep industries local, carbon emissions are reduced, local farmers are assured demand for their fibre crops and local economies start to emerge. What better way to “grow and build” a new economy, than by growing products we can build with?

How can you get involved?

- Help spread the word through social media about the emerging local living economies and buildings movements. Visit and and follow their Facebook groups, also check out this article by David Korten in Yes Magazine

- If you live in the United States, visit and lobby your congressperson to support industrial hemp legislation that has currently been put forth by Congressman Ron Paul.

- If you’re looking a building a new house or retrofitting an existing one, consider using materials made from local bio-material companies.

- Take a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) and learn how to live more sustainably.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Living Buildings, Living Economies, and a Living Future

David Korten: What we can learn from two of the most exciting emerging movements of our time.

At a recent conference, I saw the potential for blending two of the most exciting emerging movements of our time—the living building and the living economies movements. A vision of the combination of these two movements energized me with renewed hope that we humans can end our isolation from one another and from nature—that we can move forward to achieve a prosperous, secure, and creative human future for all.
The Living Building Challenge

The conference I attended was led by Jason McLennan of the Cascadia Green Building Council and the International Living Future Institute. Ambitiously titled “Living Future 2011,” the conference focused on the “Living Building Challenge,” which takes Green Building standards to a new level. As I listened to the conference presenters, I heard some of the brightest and most tech-savvy minds in architecture, construction, and urban planning spell out the practical possibilities for creating built spaces around integrated energy, water, and nutrition (food) systems. Some of the ideas are still theoretical. Most, however, are already in application or being incorporated into physical structures now under construction.

These innovative proposals eliminate waste, feature natural lighting, and provide for onsite capture of rainwater, energy (wind, solar, and thermal), and organic matter (food scraps and human waste) for recycling and reuse, including for urban gardens (edible roofs and walls and built in green houses).

Water is used in the first cycle for drinking, dish washing, and showering; recycled for laundry and micro-flush composting toilets; and directed from there to onsite gardens from which it filters into the aquifer. Hot water, cooking, and space heating are integrated to optimize overall energy efficiency.

Integrating multi-purpose buildings into a larger multi-building neighborhood or district system adds opportunities to develop public green spaces, community gardens, edible landscaping, and small-scale poultry and livestock production, as well as natural wetlands and living machine water purification to continuously recycle nutrients, water, and energy.

Integrative projects also create opportunities to balance the utility loads of businesses, which generally have greater energy needs during the day, and residences, which have greater needs during nonbusiness hours. Bringing residences, employment, shopping, and recreation together in close proximity minimizes transportation requirements and facilitates the sharing of autos, bicycles, appliances, and tools, and community connections to mass transit, bike trails, and other transportation alternatives.

The Living Economies Connection

The living building framework focuses attention on shelter and nutrition as the basic essentials of a human livelihood. It seeks to remedy the dysfunctions of current infrastructure designs that isolate us from one another and operate in opposition to the biosphere’s natural generative processes. The living economies framework focuses on networks of living enterprises and seeks to remedy the dysfunctions of an economic system that contributes to this same isolation and disconnect.

Both movements seek to bring the way we live into alignment with the structure and dynamics of Earth’s biosphere, which self-organizes locally everywhere to optimize the sustainable utilization of energy, water, and nutrients in support of life.

The corporate ruled global economy isolates people and communities from the sources of their food, energy, water, materials, and manufactured goods, leaving them dependent on corporate controlled global supply chains that are wasteful, unstable, unaccountable, and environmentally and social destructive. The underlying system structure and dynamics are in most every respect mirror opposites of those of the biosphere.

Working in opposition to the biosphere, the global economy is maintained only by unsustainable dependence on a non-renewable fossil fuels subsidy. It is already failing and its ultimate collapse is only a matter of time.

The living economies movement seeks to displace this failed economic system with a planetary system of resilient, self-reliant local economies comprised of human-scale, locally-owned enterprises that use local resources to meet local needs in cooperative alignment with the structure and dynamics of local ecosystems.

Up to this point in time, the living economies movement has focused on the enterprise as the primary unit of production. The living buildings movement brings in a focus on restoring the household as a unit of food, energy, and water production. Each is an essential contributor to household and community livelihoods in a living future, and each creates opportunities for the other.

Implementing the Living Building Challenge creates many opportunities for local businesses to supply and install locally sourced building materials and technologies for the construction of new buildings and for retrofitting existing ones.

While home production will reduce demand for conventional food, water, and energy services, it will create new opportunities for local businesses to provide relevant expertise and inputs. There will be needs for local food processing and market facilities, as well as for businesses that specialize in creating and maintaining edible walls, roofs, and backyard gardens for households that lack the skills or inclination to do their own planting and maintenance.

Many of these activities require financing from community banks, mutual savings and loans, and credit unions that understand and support the unconventional technologies and ownership arrangements involved. Rebuilding community financial institutions that support all elements of the local living economy is a top priority of the living economies movement.

A Natural Alliance

The leaders of the living economies movement are predominantly entrepreneurs who view the world through the lens of marketing, finance, supply chains, and business value propositions. They are natural doers and risk takers eager to test new ideas, disinclined to spend a lot of time on planning, and impatient with drawn-out conceptual conversations.

The leaders of the living building movement are predominantly architects, with a sprinkling of urban planners, developers, engineers, and contractors. The architects and urban planners view the world through the lens of design and structure, think in terms of systems, and are drawn to conceptual frameworks that deepen understanding of what is required to bring the human species into alignment with the structure and dynamics of Earth’s biosphere.

The living economies movement stands to benefit from the living building movement’s conceptual grounding in ecological systems thinking. The living buildings movement stands to benefit from the living economies movement’s skills in linking local businesses into mutually supportive networks of business relationships. The living building developers and contractors mix easily with the living economy entrepreneurs and are a natural bridge between the two movements. Both movements stand to reap significant benefit from this natural alliance.

The Connected Life

We humans, in a fit of adolescent hubris, have sought to liberate ourselves from the responsibilities of life in community. We are in denial of our fundamental nature as living beings—forgetting that because of the way life manages energy, living beings exist only in active relationships to other living beings.

We have so confused individual autonomy with personal liberty that we have created economies that reduce caring human relationships to soulless financial exchange and structured our physical space around buildings and auto-dependent transportation systems that wall us off from one another and nature. In isolation from nature we have sought to dominate and control rather than work with nature’s natural generative processes. We have paid a terrible price.

As we restructure our physical and economic relationships to achieve true economic efficiency and reduce the human burden on the biosphere, we will see even more clearly our interdependence with one another and the place we live. We will know where our food, water, and energy come from. We will know where our wastes go. And most of all we will be constantly reminded of the extent to which our happiness and well-being depend on our active engagement with the generative living community of which we are a part.

The challenges we face in making the transition are enormous. But so too is the opportunity to create and secure a living future for ourselves and our children for generations to come.

(David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, president of the Living Economies Forum, and a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). His books include Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Challenge

This short teaser is part of a larger documentary project that the Cascadia Green Building Council/Living Future Institute is hoping to put out in the near future. The International Living Future Institute is leading the way for a bright green living future, but we all need to lend our support and help connect more people to the movement; to support the people and initiatives that are working and successful in articulating the problem with the right solutions. ILFI is one of those many organizations. Check them out!

The Challenge Teaser 2 from FILMTHROPIC on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Living Future unConference spawns Living Future Institute

This past Friday, the 5th annual Cascadia Green Building Council's Living Future unConference wrapped up in Vancouver. The amazing three day event, attended by delegates from multiple countries worldwide, featured keynote plenaries by Eco-Entrepreneur Majora Carter who discussed some truly inspiring community-based urban environmental recovery projects she has been involved in (in the Bronx);; Cascadia CEO Jason McLennan & Systems Organizational Consultant Margaret J. Wheatley who spoke about her new book "Walk Out, Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now". Thursday night's Big Bang Dinner featured an awesome music set by folk singer Sarah Harmer and a brilliant presentation by the Jasper Sustainability Club on educational reform. In addition, the winners of the Living City Design Competition were announced. A major theme of the conference was moving beyond thinking about designing green buildings and communities, to enlarging the vision to take in a broader range of initiatives. Thus Cascadia has decided to change the name of their recently launched Living Building Institute to the International Living Future Institute. CEO Jason McLennan said in a press release, "As our pioneering project teams have discovered, 'green buildings' don't exist in a vacuum, they are part of a web of influences moving from the materials we build with, to the structures we create and maintain, and on to the communities we inhabit." David Korten from the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) was on hand in and around the conference and spoke to the need to connect two movements as well. Expect some "big stuff" from Living Future coming soon to a community near you!