Category Archives: Sustainable Living

Water and Simple Living

The following us an updated version of an assignment submitted for my study in Writing the Zeitgeist at Curtin University.

Live simply so that others may simply live – Gandhi.

The other night, while watching the SBS program ’Go Back to Where You Came From’, I was struck by segment of the program about the woman in the Ethiopian UNHCR camp, who had to walk over one kilometre with containers to get her daily water supply. When she arrived at the water taps, with the film crew and show participants, there was no water. The camp had been in this location for over three years. In the background was a high, strong security fence, with rows of new four wheel drive vehicles and trucks for the UNHCR staff. Surely, after more than three years of existence, there would be a much better water supply, as well as better housing for the refugees.

This story segment which included all the tents, flapping in the desert wind, brought back to mind the quote from Gandhi. Where have we, as a species, gone wrong? Why do we have wars and conflicts? Is is just because of greed – of wanting more? By us wanting more, someone is going to have to miss out. Food supply experts have stated that there is enough food produced in the world to eliminate hunger, but that the problem is most of it is used for the production of livestock feed to produce meat.

One looming problem that mankind has to solve is the coming shortage of water. Peak oil is a problem already being widely discussed, but peak water is something that is being overlooked in many countries. It is estimated that by 2025, two out of three people will face water stress; that is, they will not have enough water for their daily need. An Australian example of this problem was experienced during the recent drought in the Murray-Darling Basin and the pressure on water supplies to Broken Hill, Adelaide and other towns in the basin. Water stress is also evident in places like Yemen, and in many other African countries. One of the problems with meat production is the amount of water that is required for each kilogram produced. With the growing world population, by 2050 experts have forecast that there will not be enough water to grow the animal feeds required .

So how much water do we consume each day, apart from what we drink from the tap? A 125ml glass of wine with dinner – 120l, a 250ml glass of orange juice – 170l, a hamburger – 2400l plus an egg which adds another 135l, the cotton t-shirt that I wore today – 4100l, and the shoes I’m wearing – 8000l, one sheet of the A4 paper that was used to print this essay – 10l, and between 16,000 to 100,000l per kilo of beef. Every country that exports food, is also exporting water .

I live a lifestyle that many people find hard to accept in the area where I have my home. I have no mains power, only solar with a backup diesel powered generator. All my water comes from either tanks collected from the buildings I built myself from local timber (well, I did buy new corrugated iron), or from run-off into a couple of dams. The dam water is used for toilet flushing and water the animals (chooks, dogs, macro-pods, and birds) orchard and plants around the house that provide nectar for the birds and insects, and something nice for us to look at, and a fire break of sorts. Our house is mostly constructed from mud bricks that we have made ourselves, with all the timber being cut by me from either the property or local native forests.

When we first moved here, we lived in a tent, and had to cart water. I can empathise with the refugees. It took a few years to get the shed built, the solar panels installed and tank attached because I was working full time. It was great to have 24×7 power again, as well as running hot and cold water. I put water into the house of my great aunt, who was born on January 1st 1900, in the late 1970’s. She had carried water into the house all of that time for washing clothes and dishes. She did have a flushing toilet and shower (hot water from a chip heater).

All of the doors, windows, shelving, kitchen cupboards and the like are recycled. I will admit to having a digital TV and a Blue-Ray player for entertainment. We did investigate installing a composting toilet, but after having used them in National Parks and roadside rest areas, decided that health and cleanliness was of greater importance. The water that does come out via a reed bed is used to water some trees and plants that provide shade and shelter, so I don’t consider the toilet to be a great water consumer.

I was raised in a family of six, with my paternal grandmother living with us as well. We had dams for the garden, but only a 15,000 gallon rainwater tank for the household and washing utensils in the dairy in a 25 inch rainfall area. As a result, the family was extremely careful in using the rainwater. We did run short on occasions. It still pains me to see taps dripping, water cisterns leaking, and lawns and gardens being irrigated. It also causes me angst to see farmers still using flood irrigation for low value crops and growing grass for cattle.

The future for the water in the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) is causing many problems for all people concerned: the people who live, and work there; politicians both federal and state; as well as those who depend on the water from it. The MDB is vitally important to the food production and export income of Australia, as it ’ generates 39% of … the agricultural income, 53% of Australia’s cereal production, 95% of the oranges, 54% of the apples, 28% of the cattle herd, 45% of the sheep herd, and 62% of pig herd’ . Only 4% of the rainfall in the basin is run-off for dams and rivers; the rest evaporates or drains into the ground. Over 35% of the runoff occurs from 12% of the basin area in catchments of the Murrumbidgee, Upper Murray, Goulburn, Broken and Lodden Rivers .

Professor Tim Lang introduced the concept of food miles in 1990, the aim of which was to ’highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production to consumers in a simple way, one which had objective reality but also connotations’. His article was important in raising awareness of the issues relating to where food is grown and the cost of transporting it to where it is consumed. A 2008 Choice report states that ’ a typical basket of groceries from the supermarket has “food miles” equivalent to two loops of the globe’ .

Another way, and it has been suggested a better way of analysing the true cost of food and our other requirements is via life-cycle analysis, which takes into account the inputs and outputs of energy involved in production, processing, packaging and transport of the food to the point of purchase, as well as air, water and waste pollution, and resource depletion.

We all need to be very conscious of our consumption patterns, choosing our foods very carefully. It’s very easy to buy the house labels at a low cost, when we all need to save money. Sometimes those foods are produced at a cost to the foreign countries farmers, who don’t have enough food or income for themselves, or they grow them in place of their own food for their own consumption. This is demonstrated by the clearing of Amazon rainforest to grow soy beans for export to Europe for cattle food and oil production, leaving the local people without food.

By growing our own foods as much as possible, even with a patio or balcony garden or small aquaponics system, and being aware of the water used to produce our foods, food miles and life cycle of the products, and by cooking and preserving our own foods, we can not only reduce our living costs, but also live more simply, and allow others in the world to simply live.

Mindfullness and Sustainable Living

Mindfulness can be the answer to many of the problems each one of us faces every day.

mindfulness
Mindfulness

So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the practice of living in the here and now.

Be.Here.Now.

Simple. For example, how often when you are washing your dishes are you thinking about something else? When you are washing dishes, you should be thinking just about washing dishes. When you are shopping for food, are you hungry and thinking about what you want to eat? Supermarkets like this, because you end up buying a lot of things you really don’t need.

By living in the present moment, and paying attention to the thoughts that float through our brain, you become more in control of your life. You can think about whether your actions and proposed purchases are sustainable, and do not use planetary scarce resources.

It takes practice to do this and a couple of daily meditation sessions are extremely beneficial to our health and controlling our feelings and desires. It is very important to be mindful because to think about sustainability takes a lot of effort to overcome old, ingrained habits. It is important to constantly ask yourself if this decision is going to have the least impact on the planet.

As you practice, and constantly remind yourself to be in the moment, you will gradually increase your freedom and your life will become more sustainable.

What do we mean by ‘sustainable’?

The dictionary provides lots of different definitions of this term. The meaning I am going to adopt is ” to supply with food and drink, or the necessities of life, as persons”. While this doesn’t match the meaning adopted by other authorities such as the United Nations, I think it defines my approach to sustainable living better.

While many businesses and organisations debate sustainability and how to define it, and the definition of “triple bottom line”, I am getting on with my approach to being sustainable living in providing food, shelter and energy to meet my life’s requirements.

Beyond the basic necessities (food, clothing and shelter) for sustaining our physical life, how much money and other possessions do we really need? These questions are often not investigated and pondered upon, but we spend our lives trading our time and skills for money. A life that is free and meaningful does not need the latest fashion or gadgets or expensive overseas holidays or the latest model car. Working long hours really doesn’t allow the time we need to look after our spiritual needs and for time to spend with family and friends – the things that make for an enjoyable life. Being rich is a state of mind, not a bank balance figure.

I’m not saying that money is not important – it is, up to a certain level. Once our basic needs are met, pursuing more money distracts us from the important things in life. It’s easy to become entangled in a consumerist society, and to think that consumerism provides freedom. Consumerism is destroying the very planet that we live on. Everything we consume is provided by our planet, and ultimately is returned back to it. Climate change and disappearing ecosystems are the indicators of our over consumption. How much longer can we persist with our consuming patterns before we go beyond the point of no return? Some scientists already think that we have gone beyond the tipping point with our production of carbon dioxide induced climate change. We need to remember past climatic climaxes that mean that all humans have come from an estimated 600 breeding pairs of homo sapiens. Is this going to happen again?

So what can we do? Are there alternatives? Much research is occurring in this area. Already research has shown that we are past peak oil production, but we are still not embracing renewable energy sources at the rate we should be. We are also at or past peak water consumption, with many countries populations experiencing water stress i.e. less water than they require each day to maintain a healthy life.

I think that we all have a responsibility to minimise our use of resources. Sure, I still have a phone, TV and many other ‘things’, but I am constantly reducing the ‘stuff’ that I have. I am building my own home from timber sourced from local native forests in a sustainable way, I have solar power with a backup diesel generator, a solar hot water system, chooks, and will soon add some cattle, as well as aquaponics providing fish and vegetables and an orchard (replanted this year, as most of our trees died off during the drought).

I am not self-sufficient by any means, but I am slowly requiring less resource inputs from

Twisted Savonius Wind Turbine
Twisted Savonius Wind Turbine

outside of my property. We use about 20l of diesel per month to cover our power requirements from the backup generator each month. When it is overcast, solar cells do not work very well, and I only have enough battery capacity for about 3 days. I will be making some vertical wind turbines to reduce our diesel requirements.

We harvest all of our water from rain – some stored in dams for the gardens, orchard and aquaponics (doesn’t use very much), with household water for drinking, washing, cooking and showering coming from a 27,500 litre tank. Once I have the verandahs on the house completed, I intend to install a 250,000 litre tank to store the water from a combined catchment of 350 square metres. Each millimetre of rain provides 1 litre of water per square metre of roof area (350 square metres by 660 mm = 231,000).

Future posts are going to expand on what we can do and what I am doing in particular to reduce my impact on the planet’s resources.

 

 

Energy

It has been said that energy is the lifeblood of our civilisation. The rise of energy production has propelled our civilisation forward. As stated in another post, our civilisation is already past peak oil and probably even past peak water. We must urgently reduce our energy consumption as it produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide which is a large component of climate change and the destruction of ecosystems. Energy costs are rising steadily, and will increase much more over the coming years due to scarcity.

So what can you do?

Power Line Addition
Power Line Addition

You can encourage the production of “green energy” by buying it on your electricity. I live off-grid by choice. It was going to cost over $100,000 ten years ago to be connected to mains power. We decided to install a solar energy system, that provides enough for our simple lifestyle, even with 3 to 4 days of heavily overcast weather. Yes, we do have a backup diesel generator for those periods with not enough sunshine, and to run the welder and other high energy consuming appliances. I generally use less that $20 per month on diesel. In the near future, I will be constructing some vertical wind turbines to provide power during windy and normally overcast weather to supplement the solar panels (8 off 125 watts at 24 volts).

You can also install your own solar panels and sell the power generated back into the grid. Many thousands of people do this, and many even receive a cheque at the end of each billing period. You can reduce your energy consumption in your house be turning off appliances at the power point, not just by putting onto standby with the remote control. Sure, they take a little longer to start up, and you need to actually go the power point to switch them (more exercise). You can choose to set your thermostat to 23 or 24C which will generally lower your energy consumption by at least 10%.

Run On Sun Solar Hot Water System
Run On Sun Solar Hot Water System from http://www.runonsun.com.au/www.runonsun.com.au/SHW-evacuated_tube_solar_hot_water..html

Installation of a solar hot water heater with either gas or wood fire backup is also a great money saver. Before installing our current hot water system, we were using a 9kg gas bottle every three weeks for cooking and water heating. Now the same gas bottle is lasting over 2 months. The solar hot water system installed will tolerate down to -15C, and here has to be covered up over summer with shade cloth to prevent the water boiling!

It has been suggested that using electric vehicles is a good idea, and many manufacturers are now providing them. Research has shown, that in many instances, they actually make more pollution and use more energy than traditionally powered vehicles.

The article at http://newmatilda.com/2012/10/04/renewables-will-win-ballot-box demonstrates how important alternative energy sources are now and will be into the future. For me it is disappointing that so many of our great ideas about alternative energy have been swallowed up by oil companies and bureaucracy. White Cliffs in western NSW had one of the first solar powered generating plants in Australia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Cliffs_Solar_Power_Station), but is now grid connected. Australia should be a world leader in alternative energy, but California is, with is super saline systems and salt energy storage systems.

Breamlea Wind Generator
Breamlea Wind Generator

The sun is a great nuclear power station, that in turn creates light and weather systems here on our planet. All alternative energy systems make use of the energy that originates from the sun. I believe that we do not need more nuclear or coal or gas powered generator systems. We have enough sources already, and all that is required is people power and government direction.

Mudbricks and Building

Why has earth-wall construction been so little used in past years? The answer is that as there is nothing to sell there are few to extol its merits. G.F. Middleton, Earth Wall Construction 1952.

Timbuktu Mosque made from mudbricks
Timbuktu Mosque made from mudbricks

For centuries, earth and water have been used for construction in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It is estimated that around 20% of all the buildings on the planet are build from earth. Earth is very little used in Australia. It is strong, durable and well suited to the Australian climate. It does have problems meeting the energy ratings as required for new buildings, but after having lived in mud brick homes and 5-star energy rated homes in cold climates, I know which one I prefer, as do many other people.

Earth walls are fireproof, cheap (requiring labour and minimal mechanical inputs), dry and hygienic. It exists at every building site, and many times is carted away. The walls are cool in summer and warm in winter, and white ants and insects (other than mud wasps, which collect pest insects anyway) don’t tunnel in the walls.

Muscle power and water are essential ingredients, along with the sun to dry them. The first buildings in Australia in Sydney were wattle (thin sticks) and daub (mud) mixed with straw. Many of the villages in Africa and South America are still built using this ancient method.

Today, most earth walls are built from rammed earth (pise) or unfired mudbricks (which I have used). Pise is made by putting damp soil into a movable framework and ramming it. It was introduced into Normandy by the Romans, and spread from there. It is still widely used in China and other Asian countries.

Mudbricks have been used for well over 8000 years to build shelters in hot, dry, arid

mudbrick making
Mudbrick mold showing some bricks just made

countries in the Middle East, Africa, China, Mexico and South America. Mud is placed into a bottomless mould to make blocks, which are then allowed to dry, and then stacked near where they are to be used.

When I started building, I had lots of time, not much muscle power, no mechanical power, some water and lots of dirt. I had helped my daughter made some mudbricks as well as putting them into walls. It is a bit hard on the back, and hands. We used an old bathtub for mixing. We would make a batch in the morning, mix and let soak all day, then make the bricks in the afternoon, and then make another mix, so that it would ready for putting out the following morning. This method gave

mudbricks drying, waitiug to be stacked
Mudbricks drying, waiting to be stacked

us 60 bricks or so per day. Doesn’t seem like many, but after 10 days, we had over 600, which was enough for the small cottage. I have used the same method here, sometimes doing 3 mixes in a day giving close to 100 bricks per day without much effort.

Slowly but surely the house walls are coming along. I put up 4 courses, then some building strapping for ensuring the wall is solid and fastened to the log poles holding the roof down, then another 4 courses. This is enough for the day, otherwise the mud mortar gets squeezed out by the weight of the bricks. I get to work in the shade most of the time, which suits my skin.

mudbricks stacked near wall ready to use
mudbricks stacked near wall ready to use

The house is not yet finished – a work in progress, but at current rate, will be airtight and warm for next winter, with about 1000 bricks still to make. Once the house is finished, we are planning on making a couple of 2 bedroom units and another 4 bedroom cottage for people to stay in. The idea is that they work 4-6 hours per day in order to pay for accommodation and their food from the aquaponics system.

mudbrick wall waiting for shaping of half-bricks
Mudbrick wall waiting for shaping of half-bricks

There are many people who for circumstances beyond their control, are unable to find somewhere to live that is affordable. Towns and cities are not good places for lots of people, and this is provide some alternative for a few people while they get their lives back together with the assistance of counselling, art therapy, and meditation.

mudbrick wall at eight courses high
Mudbrick wall at eight courses high