systems thinking on dream farms and eco bubbles

sustainable farming, click for larger

A key section of my book talks about "closing the loops", and it turns out this is a crucial insight from systems thinking.

To balance development and growth, we gotta close the production cycle by turning ‘waste’ from one activity into resources for another. Productivity is maximized, input is minimized, and little waste is exported into the environment.

So notes Mae-Wan Ho in a marvelous systems model of a "dream farm" called Zero Emissions Food & Energy (ZEFE) that captures all emissions and taps this energy throughout the production cycle. In contrast, our industrial farm model is a nightmare' (via rheingoldsbrainstorms).

Says Ho, industrial farming "does not have the biodiversity and reciprocity to hold the energy within and ends up generating a lot of waste and entropy and depleting the soil…Entropy exported to the environment will simply mean diminished environmental input."

Oh, and,  "industrial monoculture tends towards maximum entropy.", whereas "a thermodynamic model of a sustainable living system looks like that of a living organism tending towards zero-entropy", says Ho (see image above).

"Looking at sustainable systems as organisms provides fresh insights on sustainability, and offers diagnostic criteria that reflect the system’s health. Sustainable development is possible through a ‘zero-emission’, ‘zero-waste’ integrated food and energy ‘Dream Farm’."

Here’s the DUH: You cannot grow forever without closing these cycles, and the way to grow is by closing these loops.

In Ho's model, you can grow by engaging more cycles (what Ho calls "units of devolved autonomy") that help one another do better (and she has the flow chart to help you think this through for yourself).

On a proposed 200 acre farm costing $1.5 million to establish, Ho would incorporate grasslands, orchards and field crops, vegetables, fishponds, and algae basins, with cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks and fish. Ho's farm could produce nearly $800,000 in food while saving $40,000 in annual energy costs, reducing emissions by 160 tons, and even generating several hundred dollars a month in carbon credits. Kewl. (Oh, but, Ho gets her land for $60k...)

Turns out, the anaerobic digester is the core technology for Ho’s dream farm’ that treats wastes, prevents pollution and generates energy.

As Ho notes, “anaerobic digestion of livestock and other wastes saves carbon emissions twice over, by preventing the serious greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide from reaching the atmosphere, and by methane substituting for fossil fuel use to run vehicles and farm machinery.”

Now, then, if systems thinking can help us create sustainable farms that are more productive and profitable than the industrial model, perhaps its time to start thinking about our food systems.

Says Ho, "The thermodynamics of organisms and sustainable systems tells us not only why we must move away from the dominant environmental bubble economy, but especially how we can create a healthier, richer, more equitable and satisfying life without fossil fuels, and we should start right now."

Published by Ken on December 10th, 2008 tagged Food, Systems Thinking

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