Why “rich” and sustainable?


An Australian friend looked closely at the front page of Appropedia and saw:

Sharing knowledge to build rich, sustainable lives.

He said “Oh, rich – you got that American thing happening.” When I stopped laughing, I told him why we use the word rich.

In developing countries, we’ve sometimes found a perception that sustainability is being foist upon them, to block them from having wealth like that of wealthy nations. Something like, The rich folk are already rich, and we want to be like them, but now they’re telling us we have to be “sustainable” instead. You can imagine the resentment. This isn’t entirely imagined, either – think of the worry about the impact of many Indians driving efficient micro-cars, when we the wealthy world’s job is to worry about the multiple enormous cars belonging to families in our own communities (and to think about the kind of leadership, the kind of “wealth” we’re modeling).

That’s not the sustainability we want. Appropedia stands for a fair and just sustainability. Moreover, we know that with the appropriate choices in technology and design, with access to medical care, with water, sanitation and transport, richer lives are possible. A small, well-designed passive solar house is a pleasure to live in – superior to a poorly designed mansion. Healthy soils yield fresh, abundant, delicious food. This is the prosperity we’re talking about.

These are the riches we envision for the world.


Wonderful fruit in a humble package (another mango, in Malaysia)

Visiting a friend last year in the peak of the Australian summer, I was lucky to be staying a 15 minute walk from a fantastic indoor market for fruit and vegetables. Tropical fruits were mixed in with Vietnamese and other Asian groceries, and near closing time the fruit sellers would discount their fruit and tout it loudly.

It was mango season, and I’m a mango fan, so when I saw a shop had 5 different kinds of mangoes on sale, with samples, they had my attention. That included some small, soft, wrinkled mangoes – I assumed they’d have that sour, unpleasant, overripe taste – but out of curiosity, I tried the sample.

In an instant, like the food critic in the animated film Ratatouille, I was transported back to my childhood. This was the same fantastic, indescribable flavor, better and more real than any mango I’d had in years. As a child I loved my mangoes squishy ripe, and now I realized why: that’s how this variety is meant to be eaten. I piled several kilos into the bags I’d brought with me, and enjoyed them over the next few days.

I was lucky that summer. You don’t often get surprised by fruit in your average supermarket, or overwhelmed by choice, and you don’t generally get ugly, wrinkled fruit, even if they taste better. But if you have an excellent market near you, or you have your own tree, vegetable patch & fruit-producing shrubs, and especially if you trade produce with someone else who does, you can be lucky, and get a taste of abundance.

What inspires me about Appropedia is not just that it supports renewable energy, permaculture, healthy soils, clean water for all – though those things do inspire me. But it’s more – Appropedians share a vision of abundance with people around the world, with hard-nosed science and engineering types working on sustainability, along with Transitioners, permaculture devotees, and people of all different cultures and philosophies. We know that a low-carbon economy could be a better and richer economy in the ways that matter, and we’re finding ways to help create it.

Sharing our knowledge and wisdom about how we’re creating abundance is one of the ways that we bring it about.

To explore this idea of knowledge sharing and a better world, over the next few months we’ll be having guest posts from leaders of online communities. Tomorrow: the OECD project, WikiProgress.

Image by me (CC-by license). This is a very different mango, which I bought from the roadside in Northern Malaysia in 2007. Green with pale flesh, it was another wonderful surprise – absolutely delicious.

Thrivability: A Collaborative Sketch


This is a collection of essays and images crafting a “topography for thriving.” Beyond ideas of personal hardship and sacrifice, towards a mindset of abundance and caring for our planet and society.

It includes contributions by Lonny Grafman (President of the Appropedia Foundation), myself, plus Michel Bauwens, Clay Shirky, Gil Friend and around 60 other thinkers whose work deserves to be better known. Jean Russell, an inspiring ambassador for the concept of Thrivability, herded and encouraged us in our contributions, and curated the work.

The best way to view the book is through the slideshow, above, but there is also a PDF version.

Thank you Jean!

Humboldt Sustainable Future


Last Wednesday, I had the honor of presenting on the future of Humboldt (Northern California) Sustainability for the Humboldt Bay Center for Sustainable Living and the Redwood Coast Energy Authority. The presentation was part of a growing movement of community wide sustainability and hopes to catalyze a series of large-scale open space technology style meetings.

This clip starts a few minutes into the presentation, just after I describe that the presentation was made with the help of many local and over-the-internet colleagues. Click the info button to access the introduction (part 1).

Thanks to StreamGuys for providing excellent streaming services.

A real reason for eating local


I’m ambivalent about the “100 mile diet” and other approaches to “eating local”, when it’s seen as a panacea. The problem is that:

  1. Transport distance is only one factor in the carbon impact from transport (cargo ships being far cleaner than trucks, for example)
  2. The carbon impact from transport is only one component of total carbon impact
  3. Carbon impact is one component of environmental impact (though the evidence says it’s an extremely important component, at this time in history).

So it’s not surprising that food from the other side of the world can be cleaner than local food, in some cases. Heated, artifically lit greenhouses can be worse than shipping costs.

An argument for growing locally that I find more compelling is that when you grow local food in season, and it travels a minimum distance to your plate, you experience a freshness that doesn’t survive a long international trip, at least for some foods. The nicest strawberries that you can grow in full sun and rich soil will never be challenged by strawberries shipped all the way across the Pacific. The right varieties of tomatoes ripened on the vine (especially heirloom tomatoes) can be amazing – tomatoes shipped long distances can never compete.

Just stick to suitable crops for the season, and simple tech (like greenhouses, mulch and simple plastic cover suspended over seedlings). Grow a variety of the foods that are  or even better, grow a small number of crops and trade with your neighbors! On that note, check the yardsharing resource below.

Check these resources:

It’s not developed versus developing


One thing that naturally affects what kind of abundance we’ll experience in future is: how many people will have to share what we have? This has led to much fear and many generalizations over the rapidly growing poor parts of the world.

There are many oversimplifications in this thinking. One important observation on this comes from the former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government:

We are today at the point where the average woman on the globe is having only one female child. We’re still committed by the momentum of population growth to see population increase another 50%. But within the developing world there are huge differences, where some countries, not in a coercive way, but with culturally sensitivities, have empowered women, and given them the ability, made available control over reproductive choices. Other countries have done absolutely nothing or even opposed, and you see fascinating patterns.

When India was partitioned… originally, Bangladesh had about 5 million more people than Pakistan. They have had three decades of culturally sensitive, information rich, resource rich empowerment of women. Pakistan’s done nothing. By the middle of this century, Pakistan will have 60 million more people than Bangladesh.

So it’s not first world, third world; it’s not developed, developing. It’s the governments within the developing world, and in many countries in the developing world, their models that act better than we do.

That’s Lord Robert May, transcribed from a Lowy Institute video. (Quote is from 3:26 – 5:24)

The seemingly impossible is possible


What’s the real state of the world? This is the brilliance of Gapminder – it takes us beyond platitudes and generalizations about poverty and abundance, and shows us the state of the world in terms we understand.

I apologize if you’ve already seen the video below, but there are still many who haven’t. It’s an enlightening and funny presentation, and a must-see for all who care about the state of the world.

There is a lot of good news, but:

“This really shows you – we have not seen good economic and health progress anywhere in the world, without destroying the climate, and this is really what has to be changed.”

That’s Hans Rosling at TED 2007, a moment of warning in a positive talk where he argues that “the seemingly impossible is possible” and demonstrates it in an unexpected way in his finale:

As for how to have economic and health progress without destroying the climate – that’s what we’re about at Appropedia. Watch this space.

The Dalek solution to climate change


Most or all of us in the Appropedia community and the Appropedia project stand for abundance, for thrivability. We believe in using every tool at our disposal to make a better quality of life, building and working within a thriving ecosystem in which there is no waste and which enhances the renewal of natural resources.

One very different “solution” that is sometimes heard for the climate crisis, for reducing our environmental impact in all ways, is to drastically cut the human population. In some cases there is even an optimistic quality to these writings, looking forward to a better time after the population has been reduced by 90% or more. These comments left on a New Scientist article are an example:

A managed reduction in the human population to a sustainable 300 million would do much to reduce the amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere.

Of course it would – but most of us will find this a ghastly thought – there’s no pretty way to slash our numbers in a short period of time, and I don’t think we want to call in the 20th century’s experts in population reduction, (all of whom exterminated millions who stood in the way of the utopias they were building).*

A crash would certainly have its benefits, just as the Black Death had positive effects – leaving more food and more land per person, and less serfs per feudal estate, and giving serfs the openings to swap their allegiance to a lord offering a better deal. Most of us, though, want a solution that doesn’t involve massive death by chaos or eugenics, just as we don’t want another Black Death.

To be fair, this commenter seemed to imagine something other than mass murder or letting massive numbers of people die somehow:

People respond well to draconian measures of population control when it is explained to them in a simple clear manner – like I say China is a case in point.

The error here being that China has not reduced its population, merely slowed its growth. So we’re back to killing people, if we really want this population crash.

Some good and sobering points about this kind of population crash utopia were made in response, in the same comments section:

Also how does dropping the population to 300 million help, if for example America wiped everyone else out we would still have a problem because America produces so much CO2.


I’d have to imagine that there would be more than a few loudly vocal dissenters to this plan, many of these carrying weapons of some sort and more than happy to ensure that you, or I for that matter, are among the cull while they survive…

Use less, it makes sense.

My favorite responses, though, suggested that if instead of reducing our population size, we should reduce our literal size:

We should be genetically engineering humans to be smaller, Lillypudlians or smaller, same dimensions just smaller. We would have all the resources we need then we could manage up to a sustainable population instead. I am a bit worried about cats though!


Yes, this will be beneficial for the space program.

Ultimately humans could be reduced to the size and shape of a Dalek.

Certainly preference to employing the Daleks to carry out the “Exterminate!” policy to bring us down to  300 million.

More seriously, this still leaves the issue of how we can sustainably and drastically reduce our impact, without starving ourselves or killing each other off. I’ll be blogging in coming days and weeks about abundance, resilience, the future of agriculture and population growth.

*The reference to genocidal maniacs is not meant to cause offence – the point is that this “population crash” option really is that bad, but on an even bigger scale.

Minor typos were corrected in the quoted comments.