Sunday, December 11, 2016

Trophic Cascades

"Chinese youth are starting to wish they had not been lured into where they find themselves. It is best for all our sakes to encourage that impulse."

  We were expecting 25 students but got 40, and on some days it even goes up to 50. Initially our hosts wanted to have a Permaculture Design Course but after we told them such an undertaking would require 2 weeks, including 72 hours of classroom time, and multiple co-instructors, they asked instead for a week-long introduction to the Ecological Key, part of the Ecovillage Design one-month curriculum offered by the Global Ecovillage Network and Gaia Education Associates. We helped author that module so we agreed, but then they needed to cut it to 6 days to factor in the national independence holiday and also asked if we could do an introduction to natural building as part of the course.

Reluctantly, we agreed, since it was only introductory workshop in any event, but then we had our expensive Japanese finishing trowel confiscated by airline security and lost our shiitake mushroom plug spawn to agricultural inspection in Beijing. Undeterred, we pushed on, arriving a day early to sleep off jet lag and get oriented to the venue.

An able team of young Xu Ling villagers and volunteers rushed about cleaning up an old hall in the center of town, laying in bulk food for the cooks, re-wiring everything and setting up wifi, a PA system with bluetooth microphones, and a big projection screen.

As we walked the steep stone steps of the village we saw essentially a ghost town. Eighty large family houses stood empty, abandoned to the elements. Skinny dogs picked through the central garbage bins, scattering plastics and bits of foil into the bubbling mountain brooks that wove through and under the ancient stone stairways. Chickens and ducks, apparently the only domestic animals raised for food here, wandered the streets and picked through scraps the dogs missed, or raided the kernels of corn laid out on cement terraces to dry.

The old townspeople looked favorably towards the arrival of young ecovillagers but knew all too well that they were gardening greenhorns, unused to the seasonal ebbs and flows, city kids with city addictions, so they tried not to get too involved with them, not expecting they would last long. How many winter mass starvations had they witnessed in their long and difficult lives?

The students begin to arrive, coming in from all four corners of the Middle Kingdom. We have a Mongolian student who shaves his head and wears the traditional topknot. We have several from the mountainous Southwest, along the Tibetan plateau, and some from North of Beijing where there are ecovillages being born on splendid and historic royal estates and former monastery grounds. The government is committed to assuring their success by giving them some of the best land in that part of China. Among the students are architects, ecovillage designers, professors, gardeners, post-grad ag students, city recycling activists and engineers. They come because either they support this back-to-the-land movement or they are getting serious about joining it.

Here in Xu Ling the land is not bad, just in need of TLC. The elderly farmers descend to their terraces every day and work them over with hoes and sickles. They bare the ground, again and again, a practice that destroys whatever microbiome is close to the surface and that somehow survived the heavy use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, federally subsidized and liberally applied. The health clinic, still bearing slogans from the Cultural Revolution, is shuttered and padlocked and people go to distant hospitals to die so it would be difficult to look at the chemical fallout of this style of agriculture in an epidemiological way.

After a day of introductions and a village tour, we tackle the harder subjects. We don’t have a subtitled version of the late Albert Bartlett’s famous lecture, so we recapitulate with the assist of our able translators. We put up the equations for doubling times on the board and tell the story of the mathematician who introduced the game of chess to the emperor. This tale resonates well with the daytime TV soaps in most parts of China — a mix of KungFu and Mandarin intrigue. The emperor was very pleased with the mathematician and asked what he would like in reward. “Oh nothing much, sire, only a few grains of rice will do. Just place one on the first square of the board, and then two on the next, four on the next, and so on, until you have covered the board.” The emperor thought him a very foolish man, thinking he had been prepared to offer great treasures but instead the man wanted only a few grains of rice.

“Well, just how much rice is that?” Bartlett had asked his college mathematics class. The answer was, once you got to the 64th square, it was more than 400 times the global rice harvest this year, and perhaps more rice than had ever been grown in all of human history.

Our Chinese students ponder this, as we begin to describe the exponential function in terms of various percent growth rates and doubling times. We point to a few commonly understood rates like coal mining or fish catch. Then we introduce the bacteria-in-a-bottle analogy and the point is hammered home. If you have a bacterium in a bottle and it doubles every minute and at the stroke of midnight the bottle is full, then at what point is the bottle half full? Answer: one-minute to midnight. And we ask, as did Bartlett, when the bottle was 7/8 blue sky, “just yearning for development,” how much time was left? Answer: 3 minutes. Did the bacteria realize they had a problem? Probably not. But suppose by the time the bottle was 1/4 full (2 minutes to midnight) they did, and sent out astronauts in search of more bottles, and were extraordinarily lucky and in the final minute those bacteria astronauts came back with three new bottles. How much time would they have now? Answer: 2 minutes. To go another minute they would need 4 more bottles, and so on.

One hardly needs to hammer home this analogy with the pollution problems being experienced throughout China, or the global Ponzinomic pyramid of financial debt from deadbeat creditors that is knocking at their door.

Stoneleigh and Ilargi tell us:
China property prices rose at the fastest pace on record in September, fueling fears of a market bubble in the world’s second-largest economy. Property prices climbed 11.2% on-year in September in 70 major cities while prices were up 2.1% from August, according to Reuters calculations using data from the National Bureau of Statistics. In August, prices rose 9.2% from a year ago. Home prices in the second-tier city of Hefei recorded the largest on-year gain at 46.8%, compared with on-year gains of 40.3% in August. Top August performer Xiamen posted an on-year rise of 46.5% against an increase of 43.8% in August. Prices in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing rose 34.1%, 32.7% and 27.8% on an annual basis respectively, according to Reuters.

Since 7% annual growth gives a 10-year doubling time, property values in Xiamen are currently doubling every 20 months. Want to invest?

We discuss with the class the concept of anti-fragility, as opposed to robust or resilient investments. Anti-fragile investments do well when things go south. Ecovillages are a good example. If you lose your net worth, you still have food security. If you produce a surplus in hard times, the world is your oyster. That leads to a discussion of organic gardening and soils.

After lunch we construct a compost pile near the kitchen. Our host community had been mixing organic wastes with the plastics and other non-renewables and just trucking it all down the mountain to the city landfill. We give our usual talk on epigenetic coevolution and quantum entanglement — we are our microbial selves — much to the consternation of a whole team of translators trying to keep up. We talk about the spiderwebs of biomes, fermentation, sick buildings, and end the day screening a subtitled version of The Man Who Planted Trees.

It was a lot to digest, but these kids are no dummies. They asked tough questions. They sat on the edge of their chairs. They got it.

When we think of the stereotypes of Red China that pass for most USAnians as good reasons to vote Republican, we had best remember that this giant over there is largely our doing now. They are starting to wish they had not been lured into where they find themselves. It is best for all our sakes to encourage that.

The fourth day began with a mixed blessing. Walking back uphill from breakfast — indistinguishable, really, from the other two meals of the day — and pining for a Starbucks double espresso, we heard the shouts of a farmer down in the terraces below. He was pointing up to the village, shouting, and running. We watched in amazement as this man in at least his sixties sprinted up the steep stone steps, his conical bamboo hat bobbing behind his head as he shouted and pointed. Turning our gaze to where he was pointing, we saw the column of black smoke rising from the center of the village while around us other elderly villagers were rushing uphill, some passing by us at a dead run up the steps, carrying empty pails and plastic dish basins.

When we reached the fire, huffing and puffing and feeling pain in our knees, the students were already there, organizing themselves into a long chain to pass buckets from one of the many streams or taps to positions surrounding the building. It was clear that the first building, which had been storing winter firewood, was a lost proposition, as flames extending up through the roof now reached twice the height of the building. The attention of our makeshift fire brigade, led by our young cadre of engineers and architects, shifted focus to the adjacent home, and started dousing the outer walls and roof of that with all the water that could be brought to bear. When the Hangzhou fire department arrived, after about 45 minutes, the students and villagers already had it under control.

This was a blessing in unexpected ways, because it allowed the old resident villagers to feel the strength of our youthful ecovillage spirit. Where they had been running in ones and twos back and forth to the spring, we had set up a bucket brigade and delivered a lot of water where it was needed in a hurry. We responded rapidly and self-organized efficiently. It also let us feel our strength as a group in a pretty profound way, even though most had only met three days earlier. Lastly, it gave a good reality check to city kids accustomed to having things like fire departments they could speed dial on their smart phones.

Rather than jump back into the planned lesson, we chose to take an hour or two and let the adrenaline subside. We went around the circle and let everyone release what they wanted to say. It was a good chance to talk about planning for catastrophe, a standard element in any permaculture curriculum. We looked at how we had responded, what could have been better, and what was missing in the village’s own response.

We closed with a short think and listen in groups of three: what do you fear about the world your grandchildren will inherit? The results were unexpected.

Normally, when we do this virtually anywhere else in the world, the greatest concern is always climate change. Not one of the fourteen or more groups even mentioned that.

We had our work cut out.
Ripe persimmons and chestnuts
leaves starting to fall
summer heat lingers too long

— Xu Ling Village, Zhejiang, October 2, 2016

This is second in a continuing series. 


wesley said...

beautiful way of weaving a story thanks Albert

dex3703 said...

If not climate change, what did the 14 groups fear?

Thank you for doing this work. You're inspiring.

Albert Bates said...

The number one fear was loss of the Chinese culture, something that youthful ecovillagers and rural farmers share with the current Premier, as I described in the previous post. That endangered social value system is a blend of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and a land ethic that has an ineffable quality (you know it when you see it, but can't really describe it) that is being eroded and only replaced with globalized Exxonian cyberconsumer fantasy culture that leaves one hungering for something tasting more of reality. Which is more important, climate change or that? For them, that is more important.

Deba Sheesh said...

Great blog and I love what you have to say and I think I will tweet this out to my friends so they can check it out as well. I like what you have to say.
Paddle Wheel Flow Meter

Kelpie Wilson said...

Well, did that fire make any biochar or did it burn to ash?

Albert Bates said...

The fire department quenched it pretty well so I imagine there would have been a fair amount of respectable char. Nobody did salvage that, as far as I know.




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