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October 06, 2015
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Enriching the economic gene pool

A seemingly unrelated constellation of issues led us recently to a meditation on the value of diversity in human as well as ecological systems. The first, discussed in TRR’s February 23 article on Dairy Day, was the problem that, though growing switch grass as an energy crop seems like a good money-making idea for local farmers, high-quality switch grass may prove difficult to grow here. The second issue was the difficulty of managing manure, detailed in a recent series of TRR articles. The third was the concept of “bio-energy villages” in Germany, presented by Meta Brunzema at the SkyDog Supper Club (the same Brunzema mentioned in our February 16 editorial).

Bio-energy villages are communities that have created centralized biomass generators. These generators simultaneously provide heat and electricity for the village’s entire population, with enough electricity left over to sell to the grid. And they don’t use just one fuel, but a variety, of just the type that can be expected in a rural area—including manure.

Could biomass generators solve that pesky manure problem? Could the manure problem solve the need for fuel in local biomass generators? Could the whole thing be an environmental panacea?

Well, no. It’s not that simple. For instance, because of the need for pipes, the heat from the biomass generators is best used in a tightly massed group of houses, while most local hamlets seem to have a lot of stragglers. And while the slurry left over after a biomass generator has processed manure can be used for land application—meaning farmers who provide it for fuel could still use it as fertilizer—that slurry would still contain nutrients that create environmental runoff problems. Meanwhile, bringing in manure piecemeal from people who own one horse or a few chickens might prove carbon-negative when transportation is taken into account.

So bio-energy villages are not a cure-all for the manure and energy problems.

But should we be looking for cure-alls in the first place?

Maybe one reason modern civilization is currently in crisis mode is that it is based on giant, monolithic solutions—from Big Oil to a global financial system run by a handful of super-banks—whereas resilience and adaptability in human affairs, just as much as in ecosystems, rely on diversity and variety.

The problem with monolithic solutions is that when they break down, nothing is available to come in to fix or replace them. Just as a biological population with a small gene pool can easily be wiped out by a new disease or predator, so a civilization can collapse when one of its Big Solutions fails. We’re seeing it now in the global financial markets, where we seem to be stuck with “too big to fail” because the entire system is held up by only a handful of banks—and as a result the megaliths only get bigger, setting the stage for another and worse meltdown. And we are seeing it in our energy systems, where a combination of Peak Oil and climate change have given us notice that Big Oil must be abandoned, creating dislocations throughout our industrial and transportation systems.

Several recent studies have concluded that a switch from petroleum-based fuels to sustainable sources could be accomplished in 20 years or so. Yet there seems to be no political will for the all-out push needed to make this happen. And we think one reason for that lack of will is our addiction to Big Solutions. We hear arguments that solar can’t possibly replace fossil fuels, or that wind can’t possibly replace fossil fuels, or that biomass can’t possible replace fossil fuels, and so on. So we give up and fall into the arms of Big Gas as our next Big Solution.

But take all the little solutions together, and not only can they replace fossil fuels, but their very multiplicity is not a problem: it’s a feature. A civilization that depends on a variety of energy solutions will be immensely more resilient and adaptable than one that has piled all its eggs into one basket.

Which brings us back to biomass and manure. We’re not sure whether any of our local hamlets could become bio-energy villages, or to what extent biomass plants might ameliorate the manure problem. But there’s a lot of other biological waste produced locally, not only from farming but from timbering operations and the like, and it’s worth exploring further whether switch grass or other energy crops could be viable here. A bio-energy village or two wouldn’t solve all our problems. But they could help to enrich our economic gene pool, and that of the nation. Might be worth a try.