[This is a story of hope – not the disempowering and delusional hope in centralized power systems that FTW has long warned our readers to abandon, but real hope. Two brilliant individuals are taking personal responsibility by planning for the Post-Peak world with eyes wide open. They are empowering themselves by pooling local resources to implement a business plan designed to gradually divorce their community from oil with the long-term goal of forming a neo-tribal village.
Will it work?
Only time will tell. But the learning experience gained from this experiment will be immensely valuable whether successful or not. It is highly likely that “The Gateway Project” will neither succeed nor fail but rather evolve. When you have multi-talented individuals with off-the-chart IQ’s like Brian & Farmer dedicated to a project, the ability to adapt to change is high. Add in a community of hardworking conscious people and you have a recipe for genuine hope.
Hopefully, their pioneering work will inspire similar ingenuity throughout the country. Hopefully, it is not too late to implement such a bold plan as resource scarcity looms. – FTW]
Think Small, Think Local
THE GATEWAY PROJECT:
Sustainable bioregional planning
© Copyright 2006, From The Wilderness Publications, www.fromthewilderness.com. All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact [email protected]. May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.
*Special thanks to Diana Leafe Christian – Editor of Communities Magazine – for her critical research into ecovillages and intentional communities, and for introducing me to a world that I never knew before taking her Editor’s Tour of Earthaven. It is impossible to thank you enough Diana. – MK
July 25th 2006, 1:23pm [PST] – New York - At Black Mountain, North Carolina, there is a developing ecovillage known as Earthaven that exemplifies Catherine Austin Fitts’ Solari economic model to a tee, though the community has never consciously worked directly from it. It is usually assumed that an intentional community such as this is a commune, but that is not so in the case of Earthaven. Instead, what I will call a “natural-capitalist” model has been embraced where investment in the community is encouraged through equity. One community member calls this “capitalism with a heart.”
Within this community, two individuals have taken the initiative to fast-forward Earthaven’s planning for the Post-Peak world by implementing an amazingly ambitious business plan with a bioregional focus. Chris Farmer and Brian Love (commonly referred to as “Brian & Farmer” throughout the community) have raised $93,000 in loans from Earthaven members for their business. After spending over five hours with these men in total during my stay at Earthaven, I can tell you this is where the smart money is.
These low interest loans were given even though Brian & Farmer have no collateral to back them up--a true testimony to how much trust the community holds in their ability, intelligence and loyalty. Brian & Farmer’s plan is to integrate as many local resources as possible: agriculture, livestock, ethanol, bio-diesel, solar energy, wood gasification, wood milling, aquaculture, and anything else that will help their community – and hopefully the surrounding communities – survive Post-Peak through sustainable bio-regional strategies.
The plan starts with a leased agricultural site, a neighborhood, and a project that all share the same name: “Gateway.”
Earthaven is 320 acres of mountainous forest with few flat areas, so it is difficult to find sections to clear for agriculture. Since the community is in need of more farmland, they were able to devise a creative lease structure for Brian & Farmer in exchange for clearing four acres of relatively flat land provided that they dedicate it to producing food for Earthaven residents.
Brian (right) & Farmer (left) over-looking their recently cleared land
The 70 year-old forest cleared at Gateway produced massive amounts of lumber that was locally milled to help create materials for another desperately needed resource at Earthaven: housing. Brian & Farmer make their income building new houses from start to finish – foundation, structure, rainwater roof catchment, propane systems, solar systems, electric systems, interior finishing, etc…
Earthaven is entirely off the electric grid, relying on small-scale solar and micro-hydro renewable energy systems along with some propane. The community still relies on economic, food, and hydrocarbon grids, although they are taking steps everyday to become more self-sufficient. The fact that there is no grid energy makes it very difficult for a home to be built from scratch in a timely and efficient manner unless the contractor has an independent source of energy.
Enter The Road Warrior
To deal with this reality Brian & Farmer bought an old U-Haul, converted it to run on bio-diesel, and installed solar panels with an 800 lb battery and an inverter to produce all the electricity they need to run their power tools on a construction site. They affectionately call this beast The Road Warrior.
“98% of the energy we utilize on a construction site is solar, maybe even more,” said Brian. Occasionally, they have to idle the engine and burn bio-diesel to supplement the solar panels, but that is extremely rare. The Road Warrior has allowed Brian & Farmer to virtually corner the construction market at Earthaven. They are currently booked solid well into 2007.
Everywhere you look today the mainstream media is promising us that bio-fuels will “save” us--save our pocketbooks, save our over-consuming lifestyles, save us from ourselves. In no way do Brian & Farmer support any of this nonsense, but they are not abandoning liquid fuels for sustainable bioregional solutions.
They both have a lot of hope for ethanol on a small scale. The “big boys” in this business are making 200-proof ethanol (pure alcohol), which is extremely energy intensive to produce. This has made large-scale ethanol production very inefficient.
However, it is only the last 4 to 5% of the process that requires the most energy. According to Brian – whose knowledge on alcohol production runs deep – producing 190-proof ethanol (95% alcohol) uses only 30 to 40% of the energy needed to make 200-proof ethanol.
So why waste the energy?
Ethanol cannot be alternated in an engine with gasoline unless it is pure alcohol. If water remains in the ethanol when combined with gasoline (as is the case with 190-proof ethanol), these three liquids will separate in your gas tank causing major problems. Making it 200-proof guarantees that ethanol and gasoline won’t compete against each other in the transportation fuel market since they can be combined. It also assures ethanol will always be more expensive to produce than gasoline.
However the conventional automobile can run on 190-proof ethanol alone. All that is required to do so are three fairly minor tweaks to any car currently on the road:enlarge the jets on the carburetor or the nozzles on the fuel injector, advance the timing, and change the material of the fuel line to avoid corrosion if need be.
The long-term goal of The Gateway Project is to have a dedicated fleet of cars – modified to run on 190-proof ethanol – transporting Earthaven members on bioregionally produced fuel. The concept is to have a bus or van running on bio-diesel that brings people into the nearby city of Asheville where the dedicated fleet would be stored. Cars, scooters, and bicycles would be left at the homes of friends in town so everyone could run their errands separately (as is the current paradigm).
A major benefit of this plan is that the number of cars needed in the community would drastically decrease, saving a significant amount of money and resources. But there must be a dedicated fleet of cars modified to run on 190-proof ethanol. Any long-distance trip in one of these vehicles would require bringing all the needed fuel with you.
At Gateway, Brian & Farmer built a 24’ X 60’ barn constructed with lumber milled from trees that once stood on the very same land. This is where Brian & Farmer will house a small ethanol production plant. The corn needed for the process won’t be grown at Earthaven, but will be produced by local farmers (no more than 15 miles away) who currently sell their crop to the market. Brian & Farmer plan to offer above-market pricing to one of these farmers while helping them implement sustainable organic production of corn (for ethanol) and soybeans (for bio-diesel).
“Organic is not by definition sustainable,” said Brian.
Will local farmers continue to produce corn – which can rapidly deplete soil nutrients – as Peak Oil wreaks havoc with food security?1 This may be the major unknown variable currently facing The Gateway Project. Success or failure will depend on the ability to adapt to change as it arises.
If their ethanol plant is successful, they will also be producing feed for their livestock from the corn. Ethanol is made from sugar, which is produced from carbohydrates. The fat, protein and fiber remaining as a byproduct of the brewing process produces a wet yogurt-like substance that is a highly nutritious feed for livestock. The “big-boys” have to dry down this distillation grain so it can be shipped long-distances as commercial animal feed. Both the drying and shipping process consume energy – lots of it. Brian & Farmer plan to feed their livestock the “ethanol mash” byproduct of the distillation process without the financial and energy costs of drying and shipping it.
On the local level it is likely the conservation gained by avoiding these energy intensive processes while producing the lower-grade 190-proof ethanol will prove sustainable.
We shall see…2
On a large-scale it would be absolutely impossible to utilize wood gasification to sustain the over-consumption Americans are addicted to. But when you are in a forest of more than 300 acres that must be partially cleared for agricultural development and lumber, you are left with tons of chips and brush.
Of course this “waste” has other very important applications such as mulch for agriculture and filtration for gray-and black-water systems, but the majority is not consumed in these processes at Earthaven.
“Woodchips are a much lower grade of waste (than the carbohydrates of corn) to produce fuel from,” asserted Farmer, throwing a few woodchips in my direction as we stood on a 15-foot mound of them.
Farmer’s interest in this process led him to a farmer in Wyoming who built his own wood gasification system to supplement his energy consumption on the grid (it spun his electrical meter backwards). The system was graciously given to Farmer for free simply because he had such an intense interest in wood gas. When first viewing it in their barn, I had no clue what the funky looking mechanism could possibly be.
“Looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, doesn’t it?” said Farmer with a glowing grin.
Brian & Farmer don’t know precisely how they are going to use this system most efficiently within The Gateway Project, but they are certain it will be part of their co-generation energy system. The wood gas byproduct can also be pressurized in tanks and used as a propane substitute. The above-pictured generator can run on wood, gas, or petroleum, but Brian & Farmer plan to replace the petrol aspect with ethanol. At the very least this system will supplement the energy consumption of their ethanol plant.3
BIG PICTURE: Plan for the Land
Massive amounts of fertilizer have been spread across the cleared land at Gateway. Grass and clover are currently growing to fix nitrogen into the soil. Next season Brian & Farmer plan to start relatively small by growing crops such as sweet potatoes that require minimal work.
But the long-term goals are far more ambitious.
Using a modified version of Joel Salatin’s rotational grazing method, livestock will both fertilize and till the land eliminating much of the human labor traditionally needed to ready the soil for growing vegetables the following season. Animal feed produced as a byproduct of the ethanol plant will supplement the grazing.
A pond is being developed at the edge of their field where aquaculture will be raised to provide fish for Earthaven. Waste produced from the slaughter of livestock such as chicken entrails will be used as feed for the fish.
“Sun fish provide protein in a ratio of 4 to 1, whereas a cow is upwards of 15 to 1,” explained Brian regarding feed-to-food ratio. The water in the pond may be used as part of a cooling system for their ethanol plant, which could allow them to include more warm water fish varieties.
Primal vs. Modern – Grounding the Spell
Obviously things are not perfect with this project just as they are not perfect within the village itself. There are many differing views and opinions as to what direction Earthaven should go.
Some want only low-tech solutions and look at Gateway with skepticism, while others wish the project the best of luck while holding deep doubts regarding the likelihood of its success. The fact that Brian & Farmer themselves hold the latter opinion reflects both their humility and the immensity of the task they have assigned themselves in the face of Peak.
Then there are Gateway’s unabashed supporters:
“I consider the Gateway Project a watershed moment in Earthaven’s history,” said Diana Leafe Christian on her Editor’s Tour of Earthaven. I tend to agree with this view since the success of the project is less dependent on whether the details all come to pass as laid out in this report, but rather on the community’s ability to adapt.
Perhaps most importantly, Gateway will serve as a critical experiment for transitioning into energy descent. It is nearly impossible for modern Americans to build shelters in the forest (using no fuel or transportation) resigning to live in primitive fashion. At the very least Gateway will act as both a mental and physical bridge on the down slope of Hubbert’s Curve.
However, there are some individuals at Earthaven who can, and often do, survive by primitive means. A few have argued that everyone in the village should be doing the same. Brian & Farmer do not feel this is necessary – at least not yet.
“I don’t want to abandon technology or even stop environmental destruction,” insisted Farmer as he knelt over the finished wood stored on the second floor of his newly constructed barn. “I want to bear the responsibility for it and bring it out from behind the veil – see it with my own eyes.”
Farmer repeatedly described the process of clearing over four acres of forest as “brutal.” Using massive machinery to uproot tree after tree was neither easy nor without emotional scars, according to Farmer. He doesn’t believe anyone could buy a 2X4 from Home Depot if they had to witness the forest being clear-cut to produce it day after day. For these two men technology itself is not the problem, but rather it is the way we have chosen to utilize technology that is both tragic and perverse. Now that Brian & Farmer have consciously decided to dominate the land and resources they call Gateway, it is their responsibility to be proper stewards with good intentions.
There are those at Earthaven who feel that a strict definition of “sustainable building practices” should be adhered to; that means no formaldehyde-soaked plywood, sheetrock, or many of the other modern construction materials commonly used to build homes. Timber-framed and adobe brick homes are commonly seen throughout the village. But when is sustainable building not sustainable? “When you’re not growing your own food,” says Farmer.
If it takes 10 years to build your “sustainable” home, yet you have to drive into town to buy food shipped in from California, how sustainable is that? Rough (very rough) estimates given to me regarding how much of Earthaven’s produce is currently grown on site were around 5% during the growing season. This drops drastically in the winter. Everything must be done at once, fast. Brian and Farmer are using every resource available to them in a race against Peak.4
“We really needed to start all of this 10 years ago,” said Farmer.
It Takes a Village
There are many individual leaders throughout Earthaven in addition to Brian & Farmer showing initiative in many critical areas for the greater community.
It is my pleasure to report that a large percentage of people at Earthaven not only know what Peak Oil is, but they also fully grasp a vast number of the “what if” scenarios we need to be thinking about and preparing for at this point in time. During my stay, Patricia Allison, a longtime Earthaven member and fifteen-year Permaculture veteran, screened the final edit of “The Power of Community” detailing how Cuba dealt with their own energy crisis. The conversation engaged in after the screening was both encouraging and realistic.
It was also extremely heartwarming, on a personal level, to see how many FTW supporters there are at Earthaven – Brian & Farmer being among the top of that list. To know that informed individuals actively pursuing sustainability are reading our publication is the ultimate compliment we as an organization can receive.
To everyone that I met at Earthaven: Diana, Rosetta, Farmer, Brian, Jason, Cailan, Lee, Jeff, Sue, Joe, Andy, Julie, Ivy, Shawn, Holly, Eli, Josh, Patricia, Tracy, Benton, Dan, Greg, Chuck, Arjuna, Tanya, Robert, Michael Jon, Aiden, Peggy, Marjorie, Gigi, Natasha, Elise, Cynthia, Paul, Mark, Max, Brandon, Corinna, Willow and the rest of the extended family of guests, work exchangers and friends – you all exemplify what humans are truly capable of at our best. FTW will be keeping an eye on this truly revolutionary community and The Gateway Project.
Earthaven inherited degraded soil from Appalachian farmers who grew corn almost exclusively before leaving the land. The soil is mostly clay, and community members are using a variety of techniques to bring fertility back to their soil. However the clay is a valuable resource for building adobe brick housing.
2 Throughout the country people are using vegetable oil as liquid fuel. At the Sirius ecovillage in Shuttesbury, Massachusetts, they are quite proud of their “french fry bus” that runs on used vegetable oil from fast food restaurants in town. Perhaps this is a nice recycling concept, but I doubt there is any need to describe how unsustainable this fuel model will be Post-Peak.
3 During World War II the Nazis required the populations they conquered to convert their cars to wood gas due to the short supply of oil and gasoline desperately needed for the war machine.
4 A well-known Peak Oil activist has already moved into a post-oil paradigm. He has no car. He has no cell phone. He travels only by train to avoid leaving a large energy footprint. Yet at the same time he tries to organize conferences around the country, leaving people who depend on quick responses and decision making to operate at levels not seen since the 1940s or 50s.
Does anyone here believe that Dick Cheney or Hillary Clinton or Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke or any of the world’s business leaders are making such self-sabotaging choices now? They may have to, someday. But for now they are taking every possible advantage, using whatever energy is needed, to prepare and position themselves to stay ahead of what are now certain coming events.
I hate to say it, but perhaps we should take a lesson from our enemies here.
Let us not forget that in order to get to the Post-carbon world that is inevitable we must first survive the collapse and the die off that is inevitable. The challenges of the transition period will be completely different from the challenges of living in a world without cheap energy.
It is the almost complete failure of the Peak Oil movement in the United States—and around the world—to grasp, ponder or even acknowledge these transitions that are pointing to a needed evolution in our approach to education, research, networking, and organizing. Psychologically it is always easier to plan along the lines of a single challenge rather than to try to prepare for chaos on a fluid, multi-dimensional field where serious challenges may be completely different from one day to the next. But the easiest path is not always the best choice.
The maxim that I live by is that what we need today, right now, is not a plan, but options. Plans do not bend well. They tend to break. And with breaks in plans come break downs in function. The only plan that I live by today—the only plan that I recommend to our subscribers—is to increase one’s options as much as possible and to selectively choose those options based upon what is happening in the world now and what those developments might mean for the future.
I would submit to you tonight that perhaps a more important question that needs to be answered first is: “How do we get from a civilization where collapse and dislocation is just beginning to a place where we can prepare to transition away from oil and gas when the time is appropriate”? [emphasis added]
Mike Ruppert, April 29, 2006, in a speech delivered at the Local Solutions to the Energy Dilemma Conference in NYC