Artificial Turf: Is It Ever a Good Idea?

Monsanto Astroturf ad

Another winning product from the folks at Monsanto.

In the midst of a drought, our local Department of Water and Power is offering a $3 a square foot rebate for residents and businesses who remove their lawn in favor of less water hungry plantings. Those dollars add up if you’ve got even a modest sized backyard.

But the devil is always in the details. While the LADWP has some very good information on lawn alternatives as well as training classes on water wise landscaping, why did they have to include “non-vegetative groundcover” a.k.a. artificial turf in the rebate program? And why did they landscape one of their own facilities with the stuff?

In this interest of keeping an open mind, I tried to think of circumstances in which artificial turf might be a good option. Maybe if it were used ironically? But I don’t really think its use can be justified. Why?

  • It’s a petrochemical product.
  • It will eventually break down and end up in a landfill or the  ocean.
  • There’s no wildlife benefit.

Practically speaking, it also gets really hot on a summer day and you’ve got to hose it down with water just to step on it. And if you have pets, it’s not easy to clean up after them on artificial turf.

And while we don’t have kids, I don’t buy the argument that kids need grass. I think kids would enjoy a garden that’s lush and a bit of a maze with places to play hide and seek. Same goes for dogs, really. They’re hard on grass, and do better with mulch. Kids and dogs and grownups as well enjoy the wildlife and rich scents brought in by diverse plant life.

As far as athletics are concerned, while there’s considerable debate on the subject, some studies have shown that sports injury rates are higher on artificial turf.

In short, I don’t think there’s an application for this stuff. And we certainly don’t need our government to incentivize it.

And just FYI, Monsanto developed AstroTurf.

How Can We Fix Our Public Landscaping?

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Yesterday Kelly blogged about the appalling landscaping in front of an Los Angeles Department of Water and Power facility. When Kelly first showed me the photo of that purple gravel and artificial turf I thought it might be some kind of conceptual art project.

Unfortunately, this poor attempt at a drought tolerant landscape is just another example of an attitude of indifference towards public space that’s all too prevalent in Los Angeles and many other cities. Sahra Sulaiman at LA Streetsblog has done a great job covering the many ways this indifference manifests in big piles of trash on LA’s sidewalks and horrible conditions for bus commuters.

This indifference is also apparent in the lackluster landscaping of most of our public spaces. This egregious LADWP “garden” is the last straw for me. It’s time we do something about it.

Two California based organizations come to mind: Daily Acts in Petaluma and the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. Daily Acts has landscaped public spaces such as libraries and schools as well as private homes. These gardens provide an example that others can follow. The Ecology Center has a spectacular garden that shows do simple water harvesting to create a beautiful landscape with drought tolerant plants that attracts beneficial wildlife.

We need similar organizations in Los Angeles. We have an immense pool of talent here that could fix that terrible purple gravel and artificial turf atrocity and go on to do so much more. Who’s in?

And to those of you reading this elsewhere in the word, feel free to leave a comment about how you changed your public space for the better.

Induced Demand

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Image: Wikipedia.

I was on the phone the other day having a conversation about greywater with a person enrolled in an entrepreneurial program. She asked me an excellent question: did having a greywater system cause me to use more water?

She was alluding to a concept known as induced demand. In other words, when you have more of something you use more. Buy a hybrid car and you end up driving more miles since you don’t pay as much for gas. Build a four lane highway instead of a two lane one and so many more people end up driving that you end up with worse gridlock.

I’d never thought of induced demand when it comes to greywater, but it’s a good point. Did I plant more fruit trees because I had a greywater system? Has this caused more water consumption in our current drought? Honestly, I think the answer is yes.

You could probably find induced demand between the lines of David Homgren’s permaculture principles. But perhaps we should insert a thirteenth principle: acknowledge induced demand and work to prevent it. Simply being aware of the phenomenon is a good first step in avoiding its pitfalls.

My original greywater system consisted of a tank and a hose to drag around to a bunch of trees. I’ve since simplified the system. It’s now just a pipe leading from the laundry machine to one tree that needs just about as much water as we do in laundry each week. My second system is more of a 1:1 match between the waste water and the demands of the landscape.

Have you encountered induced demand on your homesteading path? If so where and how?

LA ecovillage: self-reliance in a car-free urban homestead

Johnny, who shot that nice video of us for faircompanies.com just made another video about our friends at the LA ecovillage. It’s well worth a view. Some of the most amazing folks in Los Angeles live there. And I like that fact that’s it’s an ecovillage smack dab in the middle of my beloved hometown.

Make sure to also check out Johnny’s blog Granola Shotgun.

Chicks, Mayonnaise and Personal Responsibility

handsome in poppies

Recently, an email from Farm Forward (which I believe is tied to PETA somehow) appeared in the Root Simple mailbox, saying, “I thought you and your readers might be interested in a new campaign Farm Forward just launched called BuyingMayo.com. We’re letting consumers know that baby chicks are killed in the process of making America’s #1 condiment: Best Foods & Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.”

Following the link, I found an emotional video pairing sentimental, sun-drenched images of a mom making a sandwich for her toddler with factory farm footage of dead chicks jostling down conveyor belts.

The website says,

Most of us don’t consider the treatment of baby chicks when we purchase mayo. And we shouldn’t have to: we should be able trust companies when it comes to preventing cruelty to animals.

Best Foods and Hellmann’s use millions of eggs each year to create their products. Since only female chickens lay eggs, Best Foods and Hellmann’s don’t have any use for the male birds. Their solution is to treat these chicks like garbage: they’re either ground up alive, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags.1

Nobody wants to see animals suffer, but some of the worst abuses occur where we least expect them. If we care about preventing cruelty to animals, we have to shine a spotlight on abuses that otherwise would be hidden. We’re calling on Best Foods and Hellmann’s to stop treating animals like they’re trash.

I agree with the broad facts. Male chicks are destroyed just out of the shell because they come from breeds developed specifically for heavy egg production, not for quality meat. Only the girls have value to us, but nature insists on giving us 50% boys. The practice of culling newly hatched males is appalling. It is wasteful, in the darkest meaning of the word. It is a blatant disregard of life. It denies that we have any relationship to, or responsibility for, these animals.

Nonetheless, my first impulse was to ignore this email, because I don’t understand why they are targeting mayonnaise makers specifically. I mean, I do, on one level, because OMG! Dead baby chicks in my mayo??!!!!  After all, what’s more sacred or beloved than mayo? These campaigns are fueled by emotion.

But the focus on mayonnaise alone seems to muddy the waters overall. The fault is not with the mayonnaise producers. The fault is with us. All of us who eat eggs.

Yet it seems that the activists are hesitant to point the finger at us, potential donors that we are, and say, “If you really care about this, change your behavior.” Instead, they give us a scapegoat to point our finger at and cry, “Chick murderer!”

They want us to convince Hellmann’s and Best Foods to solve the problem for us (or rather, one small slice of the problem), perhaps by reformulating their mayonnaise to be eggless (likely by adding weird stabilizers or–joy–monocropped GMO soy) or figuring our how to humanely source eggs on a vast industrial scale…er…somehow? My response to this is one big big eye roll.

It’s time to point fingers toward ourselves. But instead of letting the guilt gnaw at us, or living in denial, we can take positive action–such as:

Continue reading…

When the Cat’s Away the Mice Will Play

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Kelly went on a camping trip this past weekend leaving me alone at the Root Simple compound. I took the opportunity to make a slight modification to the homestead. I don’t think she’s noticed yet.

Consider this post an inside challenge. Kelly–I dare you to find what I did. No hints yet.

Readers–have you done any projects while your significant other is out of town?

Kelly’s Response:

So no, I did not notice his “intervention.” Worse, I didn’t even see this post.  Bad blogger, bad. He had to call my attention to it. Then I searched for what he’d done, and could not find it. He laughed cruelly, very amused I could not see it, and would not give me hints. Finally, today (5/23), he gave me a hint and I found it: he’s installed a HAM antenna on our roof.  I guess I just don’t look up at the roof enough!

I have no objections to the antenna, though it is an ugly thing. Yet somehow, it says LA.

Gluten Intolerance . . . Is It All In Your Head?

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As a co-founder of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers I go to a lot of public events where someone will walk up to me and announce that they are gluten intolerant. Their stories of getting off bread have the flavor of a religious conversion. My defensive reaction (I help run a bread club, after all) smacks of religious zealotry.

We know with a great deal of certainty that gluten intolerance in the form of celiac disease effects slightly less than one percent of the population. That actually makes it one of the most common allergies disorders related to food. But a much larger percentage of people self-diagnose as gluten intolerant who do not have celiac disease. Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the GI Unit at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, kicked the gluten intolerance self-diagnosis trend into overdrive with a 2011 study that showed a large percentage of the population (those without celiac disease) as having a problem with gluten.

Gibson decided to take another look at gluten intolerance and construct a much more rigorous study in which all the meals were provided to the subjects and all urine and feces were analyzed. An article at Real Clear Science summarizes the results:

Analyzing the data, Gibson found that each treatment diet, whether it included gluten or not, prompted subjects to report a worsening of gastrointestinal symptoms to similar degrees. Reported pain, bloating, nausea, and gas all increased over the baseline low-FODMAP diet. Even in the second experiment, when the placebo diet was identical to the baseline diet, subjects reported a worsening of symptoms! The data clearly indicated that a nocebo effect, the same reaction that prompts some people to get sick from wind turbines and wireless internet, was at work here. Patients reported gastrointestinal distress without any apparent physical cause. Gluten wasn’t the culprit; the cause was likely psychological. Participants expected the diets to make them sick, and so they did. The finding led Gibson to the opposite conclusion of his 2011 research:

“In contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.”

Nocebos, incidentally are placebos with a negative effect. If I tell you you are going to get sick there’s a good chance you will. All human beings are highly suggestible. How powerful are placebos/nocebos? A recent study showed that placebos/nocebos work even if you tell research subjects they are taking a placebo/nocebo.

What’s important to note about the nocebo effect is that it results in real physical ailments. Ioan P. Culianu, professor of divinity at the University of Chicago used to quip, when asked about the subject matter of his research (Renaissance magic and the occult), “It’s all in your head.” And then he would wink. His point? We don’t take seriously enough the life of the mind. We dismiss the placebo/nocebo effect as, “just being psychological.” And because it’s “psychological” it’s not “real.” We forget that what goes on in our heads has real world implications.

I think, many people are having a spiritual crisis as a reaction to their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the modern world and the industrial food system. This system is making us sick both physically and spiritually. This crisis is manifesting as non-celiac gluten intolerance and other real health problems. The placebo/nocebo effect was known to the Renaissance magicians that Culianu studied, such as Giordano Bruno. It’s known to all shamans and spiritual healers. It should be taken seriously.

Manipulation of feelings and emotions in realm of our minds (done everyday through advertising, by the way) can  be used for both good and bad. Bruno even wrote a treatise on the subject, De vinculis in genere (On bonding in general). But Bruno and other philosophers of his time took metaphysical matters seriously. In our modern world we value only the material, which is how our lack of awareness of the nocebo effect can get us into trouble. The only people truly aware of the power of the placebo/nocebo effect in Western culture are advertisers and they are largely black magicians. Advertisers harness the nocebo effect of our gluten fears, reinforce those feelings and then use them to sell us products we don’t need.

The nocebo effect raises some thorny questions. If I open a toxic waste dump that creates a psychological feeling of unease that in turn causes people to get sick am I a “psychological polluter?” Am I liable even if I don’t leak any toxic waste? Again, the illnesses are real and the people getting them aren’t crazy.

Back to gluten, there may still be a gastrointestinal problem with wheat, Gibson is careful to note. But he doesn’t think it’s gluten. Ever in defensive mode as a bread enthusiast, I have an unproven theory that the way we make bread may be contributing to the problem. Perhaps the pre-digestive power of sourdough cultures, ancient wheats and baking bread longer may have an effect on how our bodies process bread. But there’s no research yet to back up my idea.

As to the power of the mind, like sourdough it’s also about culture, but culture in the non-physical sense. On that note, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Thankfully we can harness the placebo effect to do a lot of good. That will have to be the subject of another post.

A Year after The Age of Limits: 5 Responses to the End Times

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photo by Sansculotte on de.wikipedia

Ever since Erik and I and our friend John attended the Age of Limits conference a year ago, I’ve been meaning to offer some kind of measured response to the conference.  (The Age of Limits conference is a sort of woodsy fiesta for doomers held annually in Pennsylvania. For more info, follow the link.).  I’ve hesitated to do so, though, for two reasons.

The first reason was that I wasn’t sure if I should engage with the topic. Erik will rant now and then, but overall neither of us likes to preach or “opinionate.” We’d rather just focus on the lifestyle, and let people find their own reasons for reading whatever it is we happen to be blogging about.

The second reason was ambition. In my head, a proper response to such complex topics required long, thoughtful essays with footnotes.  That was a surefire way to keep myself from writing anything at all.

Yet a year out, memories of the Age of Limits conference nag at me. I wish I were an excellent long form journalist so that I could describe the entire event in detail, because it was such a strange trip, full of interesting characters, unforgettable moments, and strong emotions. We met some really good people there.

I can’t describe the event,  not unless you come over to my house and let me ramble on for about two hours, with many asides and breaks for snacks. But I can distill my overall reaction into a handful of concepts which relate more to the overall “doomosphere” than to the conference in particular.

And since this is the Internet, the home of unfounded opinion, I’ve realized I can say whatever I want, with no footnotes. So, if you want to keep reading, I’ve whittled my responses down to five points, but it’s still long.

N.B. This is what I think, not what Erik thinks. He has his own post to write.

Continue reading…

Journal of the New Alchemists

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“Six-Pack” Backyard Solar Greenhouse, 1975. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

After reading an article by Paul Ehrlich, “Eco-Catastrophe!,” Nancy Todd turned to her husband John and said, “We must do something.” The year was 1969 and the Todds along with Bill McLarney went on to found the New Alchemy Institute.

History repeats itself. What the New Alchemists did, in response to the 1970s era energy crisis and political instability, sounds a lot like what people have been up to since the 2008 economic bubble: aquaculture, organic gardening, earth building, market gardens, no-till agriculture, old timey music, wind power, four season growing, permaculture, non-hierarchical leadership and goats. Only the 1980s era of appropriate technology amnesia separates current efforts from the work of the New Alchemists.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

By accident I discovered the Journal of the New Alchemists deep in the closed stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library. As revealed by their journal, what distinguishes the New Alchemists from other efforts of the time is the Todd’s science background. The Journal has a refreshing research-based approach to its subject matter. The period I reviewed (their last decade of publication) covers mostly their agricultural experiments, but occasionally dips into urban planning and other subjects.

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Biodome. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

It’s interesting to look back at their work to see what ideas went mainstream and what faded away. What didn’t stick is what Nassim Taleb would call “top-down” approaches to design epitomized by the 70s fixation on geodesic domes and self contained ecosystems (though we’re starting to see a resurgence of the latter via a renewed interest in aquaponics). The more bottom-up work of refining conventional organic agriculture through no-till farming and integrated pest management had more long lasting influence. One could make a good argument that you need the domes and aquaculture schemes to inspire people to work on the more prosaic stuff. But another criticism of the appropriate technology movement of the 70s is that it focused on technology rather than social and political problems (see economist Richard S. Eckaus article “Appropriate Technology: The Movement Has Only A Few Clothes On“). We may be in the midst of repeating that mistake.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

One does not need to wander the closed stacks of the library to find the amazing Journal of the New Alchemy. Thanks to the internet you can download the New Alchemist’s publications as pdfs. Aquaponic enthusiasts will find much information. The Journals are a fascinating read and gave me a great deal of respect for the founders of the New Alchemy and their many contributors (one issue features a young Gary Paul Nabhan). They went far beyond talking the talk and walked the walk. They did something.