Thursday, May 04, 2006

COMMODITY ECOLOGY: From Living Machines "End of Pipe" Dead Ends, to Ecologically Engineering Commodity Interaction for Sustainability in a Watershed

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COMMODITY ECOLOGY: From mere "End of Pipe" Remediation, to Ecological Engineering for a Sustainable Economic Watershed

This section veers outside the formal institutional discussion toward a proposal of how to make economically sustainable frameworks across each watershed in the world. This is done by going further than the "end of pipe" remediation strategies of both ecological modernization as well as Living Machines, toward democratizing a process by which we choose and use materials locally in the first place. Commodity ecology is the local watershed democratization of commodity choice and their interactions.


Most people I know consider that sustainability means only a form of agroecology, socially speaking, a continuation of the whole 1960s ‘back to the land ethic’ revisited--and little else. I have nothing against that, and its very important, though, however, food is only one of the 54 different materials and material choices (or lack of choices!) we consume daily in social relations. Food can hardly be the alpha or omega of a movement of sustainability because it is only a small 1/54th part of commodity relations--however important food is.

What is required is a larger vision and knowledge base for how to integrate all materials in sustainable relationships--instead of only food. This post moves toward that commodity ecology.

First, a commodity ecology of a watershed would integrate all 54 commodity choices. (Just what these 54 are will be addressed in section two.) A commodity ecology will be a human invention of how to interact the 54 different commodity choices we all use worldwide, to fit a variety of different geographic concerns concerning issues of remediation as well as sustainability of commodity choices that potentially can be as different and perfectly suited to each microclimate, soil type, people's political economic local desires, or general ecological specifics for each watershed worldwide. And if they get out of bounds with externalities, there is the political feedback from their neighboring watersheds in the bioregional state as well as from within their own as a political feedback because these watersheds are additionally electoral districts.

I personally see nothing the matter with economic scale expanding outside of a particular watershed (unlike more puritanical foodsheders, for example)--as long as externalities are successfully avoided within their home watershed. The issue of avoiding institutionalizing externalities in the first place is the greater point I think. If people wished to self-limit themselves to exclusively buying and selling within a particular watershed, well, who can or should critique that? That is the point. That is the "local jurisdictional domiance over developmental paths" that is important in the bioregional state. There should be variation within the theme of sustainability. Sustainability is the theme of variability, institutionalized--institutionalized and protected from being undermined from environmentally degradative frameworks of commodity production elsewhere.

Second, as mentioned, this commodity ecology would be done on the criteria to minimize externalities in the beginning by entirely removing the whole category. Instead of a flippant after the fact "end of pipe" concern, materials as a group would be chosen holistically inside the factory wisely through a producerist-consumerist democratic process described below (in section three).

Instead of attempting to deal with pollution politics when pollution has already been institutionalized in the poor choices of material choices in factories via chemical/technological processes used--which puts producers typically at odds with the consumer politics of pollution remediation and safe health, ecology, and economy--instead the 54 different commodity producers get together in the first place led by their vision for sustainability for their watershed. In this sense then the consumer and the producers will be more of one family on the same side. This additionally avoids the trap of institutionalizing a supply versus demand framework of politics that fits much of world history of commodity politics if you look into the political dynamics of environmental degradation--where supply politics and demand politics are at odds with one another.

Third, another criteria of this human invented commodity ecology would be adjudicated on whether producers' commodity choices for their positions can be integrative or supportive--instead of degradative--of the other 53 different commodity choices in a particular watershed.

To do this, it is suggested to institutionalize a producer-consumerist deliberative interaction between all 54 different commodity producers by a regular democratic process of collective work in each watershed to create this commodity ecology as a living practice. Each "watershed of 54 heroes" and their consumer feedback of improvement or critique can be supportive of cobbling together how to institutionalize local developmental paths that are germane and particularly suitable to a watershed. This is done by an open political process to suit and protect each specific waterhsed's contribution to sustainability (which includes preservation of the local interaction of health, ecological security, and economic sustainability).

Each watershed can draw upon the experiences and "commodity ecology" plan of interaction of another watershed for ideas about the interactions in general, though each watershed would have a nugget of 54 interactions of commodities especially suited to its democratic producerist-consumerist process. This interaction of a democratic, watershed-specific developmentalism is where people, in the local area, can have jurisdictional dominance in the oversight of the demotion of their own pollutions and create their own 'local wing' solutions. This is implied in the short definition of the bioregional state. Each watershed has the dominant jurisdiction in its own health, ecological, and economic conerns, though within the larger civil rights rubric of the bioregional state. (See this other post for more details on this point.)

Bioregional democracy (or the Bioregional State) is a set of electoral reforms (and commodity reforms) designed to force the political process in a democracy to better represent concerns about the economy, the body, and environmental concerns (e.g., water quality), toward developmental paths that are locally prioritized and tailored to different areas for their own specific interests of sustainability and durability. This denotes democratic control of a natural commons and local jurisdictional dominance in any economic developmental path decisions--while not removing more generalized civil rights protections of a larger national state.


The challenge of sustainability is to integrate ourselves into ecology politically, with the mental focus that people used to devote to thinking up novel cogwheels or flywheel designs for clocks or heavy machinery. Instead, a means is required where we can integrate our politics and consumption into ecologically durable relationships, because it is the organization of our consumption choices that pays little heed to this which leads to environmental degradation and habitat destruction--instead of our consumption by definition in the abstract per se. However, a vocabulary for commodity ecology is lacking for the most part. I hope to provide a few ideas below for that by a comparison with some ideas that have been toyed with approaching commodity ecology without touching on it. I will show that each lack crucial material and/or socio-political insights that makes them far from sufficient for achieving sustainability as commodity ecology would. These insufficiencies relate to their lack of appreciation of socio-political instituional dynamics and/or knowledge of the major 54 commodity choice puzzle pieces. Many still view commodities as neutral abstracts. However, materials are always politically informed choices which have very different material and political ramifications.

As an introduction to commodity ecology and what I would call its applied science of ecological engineering, there are several different strategies aired in the past 20 years where I think all this is leading.

The mental prowess now required is for raising a generation of "ecological engineers." This desire--actually this requirement--for sustinabilty means that such "ecological engineering" of human and environment to take each other into account from the start by knowing of the biological issues and material science issues and social science issues of each item chosen. Ecological engineering would ponder the long term iterative health, ecological, and econmic durability issues with each policy, commodity choice, technology, or formal institutional design change, and how each change whether biological, physical or social will give rise to a whole different kind of interaction in a particular watershed.

Showing how these four variables of ecological engineering would interact:

1. This means knowing how each policy influences commodity choice, technology, or formal institutional design issues over time.

2. This means knowing how each commodity choice influences policy, technology, or formal institutional design issues over time.

3. This means knowing how each technology influences policy, commodity choice, or formal institutional design moves over time.

4. This means knowing how formal institutional democratic change influences policy, commodity choice, and technology over time. (Toward a Bioregional State has typically concentrated on #4 as a form of ecological engineering. There is plenty of room for others working on #s 1,2 and 3.)

It means understanding how the social, biologial, and physical interact in the real world in any phenomena instead of pretending that there is a division between these topics as in much academic discussion which pretends that there is a set of phenomena that is "social" over here, a set of phenomena that is "biological" over there, and a set of phemonena that is "physcical" somewhere else. A lot of UNsustainability is caused by ignorance of "interscientific" interactions in all phenomena.


This style of thought of ecological engineering has only scratched the surface with those biologists and ecologists toying around with "living machines." This is a very novel use of a nascent "applied ecology", though it has only started from the 1990s.

The concept of living machines represents a particularly interesting variant on intelligent machines, and has mostly been associated with water treatment systems that make use of [humanly assembled off known ecological relationships into "machine ecologies" that have a human designed product outcome, particularly in..] their natural bioremediation processes such as wetlands to remove contaminants from sewage and other waste water sources. The earliest living machines were developed and designed by John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd of Ocean Arks International, beginning in the 1990s. [*]

A particularly claustrophobic party-piece "living machine" would be those blown glass globes with fish that live their lives trapped inside them. The living fish are balanced in a closed sphere: where percentages of water, air, carbon dioxide scrubbers of algae, and carbon soruces of fish are a "human manufactured ecology" that existed first in the human mind before being artificially constructed as a machine in the glass globe. I dislike any species being forced into a mere adjuct of another's mental game, though this is a good description. Read the whole page if you are curious:

A Living Machine (capital letters, it's a patented invention) is a series of tanks teeming with live plants, trees, grasses and algae, koi and goldfish, tiny freshwater shrimp, snails, and a diversity of microorganisms and bacteria. Each tank is a different mini-ecosystem designed to eat or break down waste [from the previous process tank, arranged in a series from closed anerobic reactions first to increasingly more open to the air tanks]. The process takes about four days to turn mucky water crystal clear. It is chemical-free, odor-free (with the exception perhaps of the sweet fragrance of flowers), and, compared to conventional waste treatment, it costs less financially and ecologically. [*]

And more on John Todd from Wikipedia is useful to summarize here to understand the background of this "first step" toward ecological engineering moving from "end-of-pipe ecologies" to wholesale ecological interaction intent that many oceanographers want to turn all fisheries management into immediately.

Dr. John Todd (1939- ) is an important biologist working in the field of ecological design. His ideas often involve applications that make use of alternative technologies. His principle interests include solving the problems of food production and waste-water processing. As an author, he has presented the outcome of the work that he and colleagues have undertaken in a series of books, as well as in the requisite scientific papers. Todd was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1939. He earned his B.Sc. (1961) in agriculture and his M.Sc. (1963) in parasitology and tropical medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, after which he did doctoral work in fisheries and oceanography at the University of Michigan. His early professional interest, involving the behavioral ecology of fish, was the basis of his work as an assistant professor of ethology at San Diego State University (1968-1970), after which he joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, as an assistant scientist. Todd's wife, Nancy Jack Todd, trained as a dancer and is a skilled writer and editor. She has edited and added introductions to many of John Todd's books, and co-written the most recent. Back in the Woods Hole days, John had begun to develop his ideas about how complicated biological food chains worked, and in their conversations Nancy wondered if ecological concepts could serve people's needs. She suggested science needed "a human face." In 1969 the Todds co-founded the New Alchemy Institute to do both fundamental research into aspects of biology and deciplines as well as to apply biological science to technology. Todd and colleagues have designed miniature ecosystems, largely self-perpetuating, which bring ecological principles into service of human requirements. Besides designing and prototyping food-producing systems and approaches for communities of people, this work has resulted in innovative new approaches to processing sewage and industrial waste water. Todd's approach has involved applications of micro-organisms, fish, and plants (phytoremediation).

Todd and colleagues have developed what they call "living machines." In principle, a living machine is an ecologically engineered technology developed to restore, conserve, or remediate sewage or other polluted water, by replicating and accelerating the natural purification processes of streams, ponds and marshes. In practical application, a living machine is a self-contained treatment system designed to treat a specific waste stream using the principles of ecological engineering. It does this by using diverse communities of bacteria and other microorganisms, algae, plants, trees, snails, fish and other living creatures.

John Todd developed a greenhouse waste treatment plant in Cape Cod that yields clean water from sewage. Bacteria consume the organic sewage and turn ammonia into nitrates. The nitrates are used as food for algae and fertilizer for duckweed. Zooplankton and snails consume the algae. Fish eat the zooplankton. Floating plants soak up the leftovers. Bulrushes, cattails, and hyacinths render the toxins harmless. Trees absorb heavy metals. The byproducts are decorative plants and minnows, both of which are sold. The minnows are sold as bait fish. Aquatic plants, raised in the system's open-air lagoons for sewer treament, are used in California, Florida, and Mississippi. Todd's "living machine" system makes it possible to do all this in the colder northern climates. The town of Harwich, Massachusetts began using Todd's system in 1990. Todd served as the New Alchemy Institute's President until 1981. In 1980, he co-founded Ocean Arks International. He also co-founded Living Technologies Inc., an ecological design, engineering, and construction firm in Burlington, Vermont. From 1999 he has been Research Professor & Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Vermont. While Todd has pursued much of his work with the developing world in mind, applications for the benefit of industrialized and affluent societies have been part and parcel. [*]

Ecological engineering is one step onward and even the inverse. Instead of "bring ecological principles into service of human requirements" (living machines), ecological engineering would entail bringing human requirements into the seamless service of ecological principles, for both ecological and human benefits. This means commodity design itself with ecological interactions in mind BEFORE IT IS INSTITUTIONALIZED, instead of simply end of pipe remediation concerns of still poisonous commodities. It is similar to both living machines end-of-pipe frameworks though is closer to how to expand Gaviotas-style framework on a much larger or more durable basis. Gaviotas approches true applied ecological engineering, though it is missing how such relationships could ever be scaled or shared or instituted beyond a coterie of willing activists. Gaviotas is missing (as it sadly notes) the institutionalized forms for how to deal with the corrupt state foisted environmental degradation around it and the lack of public particpation and upkeep around seeded technologies that has caused it to fail when shared outside the small Gaviotan compound of commodity interaction. The bioregional state formal institutional design for democracy would be one means to expand Gaviotas frameworks anywhere in the world, by tackling and institutionaling the politics that would help perpetuate a commodity ecology plan like Gaviotas, within each watershed.

Ecological engineering means attempting to link up all of the different humanly produced commodity uses across different areas that would innately have different relational solutions, into similar though site specific and ecologically sound framework of interactions and hand offs. This would be done in the real world similar to how living machines perform this hand off in an "artificial ecological" world.

The real challenge of ecological engineering is one step beyond "living machine" design which has a very suspicious pro-corporate "end of the pipe" regulatory attitude about it: let us keep polluting and perhaps polluting even more. A green-on-the-outside coating of an unsustainable framework is still an unsustainable framework though. Living machines are a party-piece at worst, or an ecological-only framework at best for exclusively "end of pipe solutions"--a phrase I would consider an tautologous oxymoron if ever there was one.

I personally have seen a living machine "working" in a Wisconsin dairy. It was quite beautiful. It involved a rather large greenhouse of multiple water tanks, and snails. There were chemical remediation choices based on types of synergistic grasses, fish, and other species which become the novel cogwheels, flywheels, and steam engines of a remediation plant. The builder/operator of the living machine told us that the only time it ever broke down when he fed into it GMO-fed dairy cow milk wastes in a typically organic milk operation. That is interesting, eh?

I'm glad there are some already working on such issues, though it is required to go much further.

Toward A Bioregional State is really a form of nascent ecological engineering I suppose: the first attempt to stop tagging ecology on "end of pipe" issues like the one above. The point of the bioregional state is to evaluate the larger long term iterative historical dynamics of our previously existing whole political economic and state design frameworks as interactive all the while, and to daily integrate the ecologcial feedback that has been ignored into our political dynamics as one of many required ecological checks and balances.

For our durability as much as ecological soundness, it is required to fit ourselves institutionally into ecological specificities and respect ecological interactions and build upon them. Instead of build against these reactions or always having the larger human world on the outside designing the 'living machine,' make our development ethic as geographically specific and geographically durable of ecological specifics as possible, instead of considering the environment simply a backdrop. Instead, we are in the picture itself.

My horse clip-clopping
over a field...oh ho! I'm
part of the picture!
-- Basho

If living machines maintain the same false separation between the ecological and the social while making the first step toward using living machines to integrate one aspect of the social (in externaities remediation), then "ecological modernization" is a half step more: an interest in turning externalities back onto themselves into novel items for sale, by removing the whole concept of an "end of pipe" anywhere in the equation, it always being piped back into some other form.

Taking a full step beyond ecological modernization would be ecological engineering--when tools for those interested in sustainablity cease to be categorized as environmental or social because the point is superfluous--where there are 54 basic tools to use instead: the 54 different types of commodities and how to select wisely between them to integrate them into ecological engineering dynamics in particular watersheds, in the first place. Instead of simply juggling externalities and outputs like ecological modernization mostly does, or instead of simply green-on-the-outside remediation of "end of pipe" frameworks like living machines, ecological engineering would juggle inputs as well, choosing particular inputs wisely in the start to maintain geographic local health, ecological, and economic durability to minimize the whole concept of dangerous externalities that require remediation in the first place. Successful ecological engineering would put living machines out of a job in other words because there would nothing bad left to remediate. The commodity ecology in which we already live would have avoided the issue in the first place in its choices.

This would mean removing many high political raw material regimes that have enshrined themselves as inputs, and that is why commodities are always political.

Ecological modernization mostly veers away from thinking of how many of the commodities that are institutionalized are a variable in their design concepts. This is a flaw. Another flaw is that their frameworks are almost entirely materialistic--ignoring the effect that politics and subsides have on keeping a bad commodity choice in place, and instead they simply attempting to treat environmental degradation as a material phenomenon, when it is a politial phenomenon, and a political phenomenon of commodity choice and enshrinement. This over emphasis on material dynamics only, I believe, is a social design flaw on the otherwise astounding Gaviotas--because Gaviotas-style dynamics work. Only when they come against the larger state around them and the institutionalized environmental degrdation from the political organizationn of society, they struggle

Ecological modernization struggles around with externalities instead of addressing the main issue of inputs in the first place, simiar to Gaviotas-style attempts: simply switch to another commodity choice, and work from something sounder in the first place that can maximize other commodity productions sustainability, then attempt to interlink them. In other words, for all its worth, ecological modernization still has an antiquated "end of pipe" view of the socio-ecological-economic world. Instead, this requires reaching into questions of how politics influences certain material durabilities and demotes sustainability if ideas for sustainability are simply couched as offering "best material practices only." As Gaviotas shows, simply offering "best material sustainable practices" materially sidesteps the political issues at root in unsustainability. There are political issues to unsustainable in particular material supports that all the "best practices" in the world will fail to remove by themselves--with recorse to changed formal political institutions to stop unsustainable practices from starting in the first place. Different political frameworks would help change them toward sustainabilty. It is important to look at "material" choices as very ideologically and politically driven instead of something irrevocably given, economic, or neutral.

Thus, from ecological modernization toward ecological engineering, finding different material choices in the first place that demote externalities is fair game as well. Instead, these 54 tools of an ecological engineer are the commodity input choices themselves (and their technolgical interacitons and their externalities) and how to integrate them sustainability into each other in a "living social-ecological machine" of 54 differnt commodty paths, each with geographic specificity, and each attempting to maximize the interconnections of the other 53 social groups working in these commodity choices to see that their own interest is served by working together with the others to integrate themeslves, while listening to consumers on how to do it as well.

However, instead of an ecological engineer who forces a plan down upon an area, he or she would only provide venues and principles for those innately involved in the 54 commodity production areas so that they themselves could find their own geographically specific mechanisms to do it for themselves, as well as to have consumer input into the whole frameworks that equally affect everyone.

They are alrady about to move to this ecological engineering "ecosystem paradigm" of fisheries management, i.e., managing all different fish commodities simultaneously for their interactions instead of separately.

Hixon tells me that we need a Kuhnian paradigm shift in fisheries management. Current managers learned single-species management, and they’re resistant to changing that, even though it seldom works.” [Just as 54 different 'end of pipe' remdiation strategies seldom works all on their own.] A scientific consensus signed by him and 218 other scientists and policy experts pleads for an updated approach: “From a scientific perspective, we now know enough to improve dramatically the conservation and management of marine systems through the implementation of ecosystem-based approaches.” ["The Fate of the Oceans"]

The suggestion of the bioregional state is that we require an equal ecosystem paradigm of commodities production on land--for the relations of rural land, urban infrastructure, and their interactions as well. If I had my way, all urban planners would be trained in ecology and commercial geography as a background. All environmental management personnel would get a training in environmental sociology of commodities, etc. It's the divisions of knowledge that is killing us, and the divisions across attempting to manage artificially "separate" commodities. The lack of overview systematic appraisals of how much we know already is killing us.

More on that in the next post for how this would apply to land. Humorously, pre-requisites are to read one book from all 52 categories of the commodity biography bibliography. (I'm going to add two more I've left out.) :-) Then, attempt to think how they could be physically, socially, and politically interelated in your own watershed. Which ones would you choose for a particular watershed? What are the criteria? How would you create a watershed-specific ecology of multiple commodity production? What kind of institutions does that entail to make it self-monitoring and durable, as well as to keep unsustainable raw material regimes choices of corrupt politics politically out?

If you fix the corruptions of the land state and its crony materials in other words, sustainability of the oceans will more automatically follow. If we can learn about ecological engineering from the oceans, the dynamics of understanding the process on land will be that much easier.

Section two here

[more to come...]



Blogger Mark said...

Ideally, there should be a commodity ecology conference immediately where teams from each of the 54 different commodity choices--inclusive of material scientists, technologists, inventors, biologists, health workers, businesses, ecologists, on each team-- who know about the interscientific effects of materials in the long term sculpt a model for the idea.

10/12/2006 7:11 AM  
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2/02/2012 5:07 AM  

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