Saturday, November 30, 2019

Every one can...

I've been obsessed with simple ways to transform used waste and  aluminum cans into useful things for nearly a decade now, ever since a trip to Mt. Everest Base camp working on sustainability issues with Dr.  Alton Byers, the incredible director of Science and Research at The Mountain Institute, when Alton took a picture of me standing knee deep in a garbage pit filled with discarded aluminum high in the Himalayas that nobody felt worth hauling down to Khatmandu for recycling, despite the value of and ease of aluminum transformation.

 Alton explains the problem of trash on the trails leading up to Everest in this great article (with great pictures of him too standing in a sea of unnecessarily discarded aluminum cans)

We were on an National Geographic expedition to look at conservation strategies for the delicate alpine ecosystem and saw many examples of great renewable energy practices:

We learned that many of the solutions to the so-called "waste problem"  were all already there, but poorly implemented, communicated and deployed, particularly by Western tourists who seem to turn a blind eye toward their own responsibilities and somehow refuse to "#TakecareofyourownS#!t"!.  

For example,  on the Khumbu trail the Nepali Sherpa people have  had a long standing tradition of using compost toilets to derive nutritious fertile soil for their potato fields and to help heat the house with the heat generated from the thermophilic pile, but that on the Hinku trail in many Rai villages nobody used composting toilets (they use pit latrines) and so fecal material was contaminating the river.

Composting toilets in Nepal are so hot that they are used to heat dwellings and occasionally we would stop and stick our hands in the composted poop and rhododendron leaf piles to warm them up!

 We also learned that the trekker population of foreign tourists and the agencies running the tours seemed to have no idea about the Khumbu local tradition of using composting toilets and that Everest trails were inundated with fecal contamination.  

As a compost toilet builder for several decades (in my apartment in Los Angeles and all over the world) I was stunned to find that a practice so well known in the villages along the Khumbu trail was never transmitted to or picked up by the foreigners or by the villagers of the Hinku, despite constant communication about other issues and constant visits and constant complaining about the fecal contamination issue. It appeared that most people are so fecophobic they can't wrap their minds around how easy it is to turn human "waste" into human value!  

It also stunned me that there was so little conversation about the simple ways to turn "aluminum waste" into metal value.

During my visits I was able to install solar hot water systems and photovoltaic systems and wind systems that we brought with us, and I gave workshops on biogas and compost toilets and ways to derive energy from aluminum cans, but until this day the penetration of these ideas has been lamentably slow for what I can only determine are deep seated cultural issues, both among westerners and easterners.  For those of us who are circular economy zero waste practitioners who have eliminated most of our "garbage" it really is disturbing, because none of this is rocket science.

 My quest to eliminate all waste at the home and community scale began to get attention and support  a decade ago from the National Geographic Society:

Throughout the decade I've been blessed with the opportunity to share many of my adventures in zero waste living.  One thing I was able to demonstrate in Nepal during my second National Geographic Expedition to the Everest region was how to make a flashlight powered by aluminum can waste using a joule thief circuit:

The video we took in Nepal using the flashlight (the Culhane aluminum "tab torch" ) is here:

To get to a zero waste future all we really need is to get the word out of how easy it is (which we thank National Geographic and Coors for helping us do on their website)  and then get students all over the world to simply do it so a new generation graduates with the LIFE TESTED knowledge that, "YES WE CAN"... particularly when it comes to aluminum cans!

To do just that, at the Rosebud Continuum Sustainability Education Center, we have recently been turning our LDPE and Polystyrene "waste" into oil with our BLEST Plastic-to-oil machine, and melting our aluminum cans and turning them into ingots and objects and, most recently, using our new student and teacher assembled X-Carve Robotic CNC Router, recycled aluminum and HDPE plastic signs for our exhibits.

Why waste it?

With our students LIFE TESTING these solutions, we hope now to transmit this knowledge to everyone we can around the world.  The Hinku and Khumbu trails could certainly use signage for conservation in addition to more natural fertilizer and heat and clean energy that all can be derived from what is now being wasted.  We can do this. 

No one has to, and everyone CAN eliminate the waste. All of it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins of Plastic Recycling?

My wife and I have gone to the extreme.

As Solar Punch, the renewable energy powered band I performed with in India with the India Youth Climate Network sang, "Plastic, It's Getting very Drastic".

We now have a separate plastic bin at home for all seven "species" of plastic.  We made a pledge on our our one year wedding anniversary that we wouldn't take out the garbage for a year at a time, not until our next anniversary.

Because all of our food waste and toilet and shower and dish and clothes washer water waste turns into fuel and fertilizer for cooking and heating and growing food via our home biodigesters, everything else we bring home stays at home, for a year at a time, until we
can turn it into something valuable or trade it or sell it to a qualified upcycler.

That means really knowing the polymer resin codes and the different density and melting point characteristics of the plastic "garbage" we are responsible for.

Why are we doing all this now?
This summer, when I was speaking about our off-grid lifestyle at National Geographic at the Explorer's Festival my wife and I took the "planet or plastic" pledge to eliminate all single use plastic from our lives.   WE CHOOSE PLANET!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

My apartment in the slums of Cairo

From 2005 until 2009 I rented an apartment in the slums of Old Cairo being renovated by the Aga Khan Foundation for Culture at the edge of Darb Al Ahmar's Al Azhar Park, a place that had formerly been a huge landfill/garbage dump, transformed by international teams and local experts into a beautiful recreation venue with botanical gardens, playgrounds, waterfalls and restaurants.

This gave me an opportunity to live among the impoverished communities and experience the same deprivations they did in electricity, hot and cold running water, heating and cooling and municipal services like trash pickup.  To live well I challenged myself and my neighbors to create our own solar hot water systems and biogas systems and other amenities.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Intrigo for Module PhLB: the Anthropology of Waste I: The Garbage Man

Intrigo for Module PhLB: the Anthropology of Waste I: The Garbage Man
By T.H. Culhane

When we lived in Germany and my son was about 2 years old all he could think about and talk about were garbage trucks.  Of course we had to get him a toy one big enough for him to sit on and to ride around on. When I would take him in his stroller, his favorite thing to do was to be pushed up to the recycling bins and throw something in and then kick them with his feet. He had to touch every bin on the street before he would let me take him home. And his heroes were garbage men.  Whenever the real garbage trucks rolled into the neighborhood with what I considered to be the most annoying, horrible shrill beeping noise he would run to the window with delight and point breathlessly and insist that I take him outside to greet the guys, decked out in their dayglo yellow and orange outfits, and watch them load the recycle bins he had kicked from his stroller  into the truck. His highlight was getting to sit up in the cab with them, pretending to be a real “Müllmann”. Garbage men might as well have been superheroes as far as he was concerned.
4 years later my two year old daughter went through the same phase.  It apparently isn’t just a boy thing, although we noted that in Germany, where we lived, there were no grown up garbage women.
Loving garbage people and being fascinated by the waste management cycle, and particularly the trucks, actually seems to be a universal thing; when you start buying children’s books for garbage truck obsessed toddlers you find a plethora of offerings in almost every language. One American mother living in Germany wrote a blog listing all the books for all the other parents with similar kids, from “Bei der Mullabfuhr” to “Heute kommt das Mullauto”, saying as her opening “ You might be surprised just how many German kids books are written about garbage”.  Since my kids are German-American with ¼ Arab thrown in the mix, we’ve found them of course in English and Arabic too. From “Buster the Little Garbage Truck” to “I am a Garbage Truck” and “I stink” one could spend an entire childhood reading about nothing but garbage trucks and garbage men.
Yet despite this early anthropologically universal fascination with garbage and its handling, it isn’t long before children’s idolization of the people who deal with dreck turns into disdain or revulsion or some other kind of class biased prejudice.  
Taking out the trash becomes a chore, and devoting your life to taking out and dealing with other people’s trash becomes a job not for superman, but for the those who did worst in school.
There is a stigma associated with garbage people.
I remember when I was a kid, during the heady 1960s and 70s era with our civil rights and women’s rights and environmental movements, using the moniker “garbage man” fell out of fashion.  People in the profession of waste management started referring to themselves as “sanitation engineers”. It was a way to sanitize the profession socially, even as health and justice groups lobbied to have its image and practice cleaned up environmentally.  After we landed on the moon in 1969 and saw how small and fragile spaceship earth looked, after Earth Day in 1970, and on the heels of the publication of “Limits to Growth” in 1972, recycling was supposed to be in, and throwing things out was supposed to be out.
Nearly half a century late we know we haven’t gone nearly far enough toward zero waste through complete recycling, but the image of the garbage man has improved somewhat in the eyes of adults. Even I got invited as a garbage obsessed urban planner to be a National Geographic Explorer and to  join the Clinton Global Initiative because of my work in collecting and transforming smelly food waste and turning it into fuel and fertilizer. President Clinton actually put his arm around my shoulder to take a picture of the two of us with our “commitment to action” sign and said, “Now Thomas, YOU KNOW there is treasure in that there trash -- let’s do this!”
 Real sanitation engineering principles -- systems thinking principles -- are being put in place in waste management and exciting new startups are starting up to mine the treasure in that there trash.  It is slow going, but at least the stigma is gone. There are as many opportunities for well educated garbage men and women as there are combinations of elements on the periodic table.
This course, and this module,  is one place to start!

Food waste makes no sense

Food waste makes no sense:
Intrigo for Module TwXLT: Kinds of Wastes I, Food and organic wastes
By T.H. Culhane, Ph.D.

In this module we will explore the recycling of organic residuals from food production and consumption back into energy and fertility.  This issue -- the transformation of food wastes, including the food waste we waste every time we pass the food we eat through us and into the toilet -- transforming these wasted resources  into fuel and fertilizer -- and into growing, processing and cooking healthy food again --  is the core of my research at USF and around the world.
It is the foundation of my identity as a National Geographic Explorer, and is something that  I dedicate my life to.

See,  I’ve been composting food wastes and yard wastes and making composting toilets for a quarter century and producing my own home biogas from food scraps and fecal materials for a decade, and I’ve been teaching others simple and effective ways to eliminate organic wastes and transform everything once alive into valuable end-products, into food and energy security,  for my entire career.
 Let’s just say these solutions are LIFE TESTED.
So here’s where I feel I have a right to get a little -- ANGRY.
Lookit -- Solving the Food Waste Problem  is ranked number 3 of the top 100 urgent solutions for mitigating climate change by the panel of scientists and policy makers who contributed to “Drawdown—The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming”.   And its nice that it is finally getting the recognition it deserves and getting elevated to the importance level it deserves, but jeez, talk about human beings turning a good into a bad and creating problems where there shouldn’t be!   The very idea that organic residuals-- by which I mean anything that comes from once living plants and animals and fungi and microbes and protozoa -- can create a waste problem on a planet that owes its special status as a haven for life in a desolate solar system to the very efficient recycling systems that have been operating on this island Earth for at least a billion years -- that is ABSURD! Dangerously absurd.  Criminally absurd.  I mean recycling carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, hydrogen and oxygen, and water, and micronutrients that enable cell growth and reproduction -- that’s what sets this planet apart from all the others.  It’s all nature does!
(Culhane pulls a timeline of the earth into view next to him and gestures)

And please note that when I say these natural recycling systems have been operating for a billion years,  I am being conservative and making this assumption only for the Phanerozoic era, shown here. I am of course  fully aware that most of these superbly efficient organic recycling systems were well established and in place during the 2 billion year old Proterozoic era just after the oxygen crisis or GOE -- great oxygenation event --  that preceded the  Huronian glaciation, and I am equally aware that the precursors for efficient organic waste recycling, the ones that permit us to efficiently transduce organic wastes into valuable biogas, were really established during the Archaean era 3.5 billion years ago!

So you can well understand how upset it makes me to think that after at least  a billion years of  of all the millions of species on Earth getting it right, particularly after robust and biodiverse ecosystems evolved out of these systems after the Cambrian explosion half a billion years ago,  including humans for the hundreds of thousands of years we’ve been consciously present and creating this new phenomenon called “Culture” on this planet, one tiny group of Homo sapiens, our own species, with a Latin name that is supposed to mean ‘Wise Guys”  recently screwed things up! By recently I mean within the last 150  years really, since the Industrial Revolution for the most part.  And let’s be frank,  this one tiny group of troublemakers have mostly been greedy middle aged men suffering from extended adolescence who are anything but sapient, anything but truly “wise”.  These Homo un-sapiens, lazy little boys who never quite grew up and owned their responsibility to “do no harm”, to  not harm others in their quest for get rich quick in their quest for alpha male dominance, have created a rapacious throw-away culture that for the first time in evolutionary history, has found a way to turn organic residuals from a blessing into a curse, from valuable resources and clean energy and nutrients  into poisons and disease and greenhouse gases.
 I mean, how can you screw this one up?  The planet LIVES to turn organic residuals back into food; it’s the cycle of life!  It’s what life DOES. Effortlessly!   And this willfully  negligent “let’s turn organic residuals into dangerous waste” culture has now infected the entire planet, making food waste such a crisis that it’s mismanagement  not only causes mass starvation and disease and nutrient depletion of soils and desertification and catastrophic floods and deforestation and habitat loss and eutrophication of our waterways and dead zones in our oceans, and indoor air pollution,  but is now threatening all the precious life support systems of the earth with a climate crisis such as we haven’t seen since the Huronian glaciation’s mass extinction event.
Talk about the “Age of Stupid”.
And see, here’s the thing:  I can tell you from LIVED experience for the past quarter of a century, since I became aware of how easy it is to work with nature on this and started applying those principles, that this one is a no brainer.
 My wife and I turn 100% of our food waste and yard waste, and toilet waste -- yes toilet waste -- the kind of food waste even most of you who compost still really waste -- into fuel and fertilizer and healthy soil and food right at home, without any special or expensive technologies and with no health risk, no rats or flies or any chance for cholera or diseases and no smells.  It’s safe and effective and it's easy. We are working on programs with local Churches, Synagogues and Mosques and schools to get the God’s natural cycles back in sync, so that organic residuals are wasted no longer.
This is one of those “Yes we can” things that anybody can do, at home, at school, at your place of worship, at your place of business, in your community.  And you can get involved TODAY!
So in this module we will explore the realities of solving the problem that should have never been a problem, in the great hopes that you, too, will join our movement, a movement that has literally been going on since the beginning of life itself.  If there is only one thing you can do to eliminate waste -- this is it. Achieving Drawdown solution #3 is easy. No food waste. No shit. Literally.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Going off-grid in a 2017 Keystone Cougar Fifth Wheel as part of our Solar CITIES research/demonstration project at Rosebud Continuum

This is just a diary to jot down what we are observing in our quest to go off grid.
The first problem we have had was a bad battery in the new RV.

Perhaps it was a hidden blessing.  Our brand new RV -- a 2017 Keystone Cougar Fifth Wheel -- was delivered on Thursday night (October 12th), the on-board battery was used when it was moved in position and decoupled from the delivery truck to level the jacks and to demonstrate the unit to the family at Rosebud Continuum (lights turned on for about 15 to 20 minutes) and then we shut everything down and went to sleep in the house.  The next morning the battery -- a brand new battery mind you -- was dead.  My wife called me to say the lights wouldn't turn on.  I advised her to leave everything off and wait for me to troubleshoot.
I got home too late, after dark, to do any work on the issue, so on Saturday morning I hauled out the multimeter and checked the battery.
It read an appalling .009 volts -- as dead as a dead battery can be.
After calling the Camping World tech in Illinois and going through troubleshooting it was advised that I disconnect the battery from the vehicle's converter (which I was told draws 10 amps and could blow a fuse) and hook the battery to a charger to see if we could bring it back to life.
The first thing I did was haul the 3.2K Predator generator from the house to the RV and fire it up on gasoline (it can run on both gasoline and biogas, but we didn't have enough biogas to run it for the required hours the tech said we needed) and plug in the deep cycle battery charger I got at Walmart (INSERT TYPE HERE) and connect it to the terminals.
After several hours the battery at most reached 2.5 Volts and when taken off the charger, even though not under any load, quickly drained to between .3 and .5 volts.  Not good. And I was running out of gas.
Next I got two very long outdoor AC cables and ran them from the tennis court outlet to the RV, hooked the charger to the house current and let it charge that way.  After 5 hours we had reached 11 Volts on the charger, but when it was disconnected it quickly drained down.
The next trial was to hook the house current to the RV Alternating Current cord itself (with a 50 amp to 15 amp adapter) and try charging the battery from the in-RV converter.
This seemed to work, and the multimeter after a few hours read 13.5 at the battery, which is great. But when we disconnected the battery and read the voltage it steadily dropped.
We charged it up again to 13.5 until late evening and then disconnected it overnight to see if the battery would hold its charge.  The next morning it read 3 volts and then dropped to 2.7 which is where it stayed Sunday morning.
Thomas, the grandfather of Kylen Newcomb, our Blake High School student environmental artist, came to pick him up when he was working on the dragon biodigester sculpture and it turned out he spent his career building deep cycle batteries.  He checked the battery and said "it must have an internal short.  Only one of the cells is functioning".  12 volt batteries generally have 6 cells with a nominal voltage of 2.1 Volts.  In this case 4 or 5 could be bad.
The folks at Camping World were concerned that parasitic loads on the battery that first night, without being hooked up, could have drained the battery down to zero. They said that RV's aren't made to go camping and not be hooked up to some source of battery charging energy.  Still this didn't sit well with me -- with everything turned off, parasitic loads shouldn't drain the battery down to 0 over night...

At any rate, the blessing is that with the battery not working my student Li Zhu and I were forced/inspired to start measuring all the loads in the new Fifth Wheel and to set up my solar charging battery bank and 1500 watt inverter so that we DO have a source of battery charging energy without relying on house current.

Here is what we found:

With the inverter supplying energy to the RV and the connector turned on and the bad battery connected we saw a spike of 400 W that settled down to 280 watts as the inverter was supplying energy to charge the battery.  We don't know if the converter on the RV is a three stage (preferred) or a single stage (not great) for sure; the tech from Camping World Illinois seemed to think it is just a single stage.
At any rate the battery was pulling 280 watts continuously off the solar inverter.
With this base load we then tested all the loads in the RV

Living room ceiling lights: 50 W
Kitchen lights: 10 W
Flood Lights: 20 W
Step lights: 0 W (this is what the inverter displayed, meaning low enough that it is hard to measure for that inaccurate inverter).
Bedroom lights: 40 W
Stove light: 30 W
Stove fan: 30 W

When the "Reception" Circuit Breaker was put on the inverter showed a dancing wattage of 270 to 280.

With reception on the outlets and lights in the living room of the RV work.  By seeing how each appliance affected the base wattage of 270 to 280 we were able to calculate the load from that appliance.
Our cylindrical fan consumed 30 W
The Round Fan: 30 W
Vent fan: 10 W
The living room vent motor consumed 30 W
The microwave light: 20 W
The microwave: spikes at 910 W, settles to between 840 and 870 W
Microwave circuit breaker on (phantom load of MW): 20 W
The Water Pump: 100 W
Dining Room light:  20 W
Awning Light: 10 W
Loft Light: 10 W (for 2 bulbs)
TV Living Room: 50 W
Middle Room Light:  20 W
TV Middle Room: 40 W
Bathroom Light: 30 W
Bathroom Fan: 30 W

The next test was to disconnect the battery and see how the draw on the inverter registered.
Here we saw:
Ceiling light in living room: 130 W
Pendant Kitchen lights: 10 W
Flood light: 20 W or 90 W.
Flood light and ceiling light together: 150 W
Water pump: 190 W
Water pump and living room ceiling light together: 230 W

From this, knowing that the ceiling lights drew 50 W when it was coupled with the battery charger converter, it appears that when you aren't charging the RV battery the basic use of the converter circuit breaker on to the converter consumes 80 to 100 W for making power available to the 12 V side, so no matter what 12 V appliance you use it will consume its wattage PLUS 100 Watts.
For this reason, the bathroom light, which should consume 30 W, showed 110 W when used alone.

The water pump is 100 W, and the ceiling light 50,  but when used with the converter and no battery it draws an additional 80 W.

The refrigerator, if run on electricity, draws 360 W (but dances up to 380 and 390).
Bathroom light alone shows 100 W, but when combined with the fridge shows about 50 W.

Our big white floor fan used 130 W on highest setting, 120 on middle and 110 W on lowest setting when used with converter circuit on  by itself.
When the battery was connected it consumes 80 W on highest setting, 70 on middle and 60 on lowest.

What we seem to be observing is that the RV needs to use a 12V battery to use the lights and many of the loads and if you don't have a good battery (or if the battery is disconnected) you still need to run the converter to provide that, and the converter draws between 80 and 100 W.  The AC outlets work without the converter circuit running, so we brought an LED lamp into the RV that could be powered off of a wall socket.

In this way the RV industry is making it a bit difficult to go off grid.  The connection of the two systems and the need to constantly have a battery on board that constantly needs charging is a bit problematic.
Our RV is 150 feet away from the sunny area (it is under the shade of trees) so running DC current from the solar panels to the battery in the RV, even though it has a solar charging port) is unfeasible as the line losses (voltage drop) for long runs of 14 gauge wire (the only thing affordable) were about 12% (we see a voltage of 16 V  20 feet from the panels and 14 V 150 feet from the panels).
So it is better to charge the batteries next to the panels (within 15 feet) and invert to 110 and run a standard garden AC extension cord to the RV and do everything through the RV circuitry (which means using the converter to go back to DC to charge the onboard battery).

In future we will see if trickle charging the RV battery from the solar panels is effective without investing in thick cables. Perhaps we can use 10 gauge...

The journey is just beginning...lots to experiment with and learn.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Climate Change and the Flooding in Houston: A Relational Summary

Climate Adaptation and Mitigation
Professor Thomas H. Culhane
Climate Change and the Flooding in Houston: A Relational Summary
By Thomas H. Culhane
(picture from
Houston.  We have a problem!
9 trillion gallons of water dumped on the city within two days, averaging about 5 feet of water,  with no end in sight… people are literally dying in the streets. Yes Houston, we have a problem. And it is the result of climate change, so this is one current event we need to discuss it in this course in real time!
Scientist MATTHEW CAPPUCCI on NPR tried to help the public visualize such a quantity of water, called “epic” by our president, and “of biblical proportions” by the media,  flooding a modern city.  He said  “ If you took the Empire State Building, more than a hundred stories tall, you could fill that entire volume 33,000 times with the water that fell on Houston and the surrounding areas. That shows you how much there was.”
When NPR interviewed Cappucci they reported , “(He)  has yet another way of picturing this. He says that if you took that amount of water, 9 trillion gallons, and spread it equally over the 48 contiguous states, it would equal .17 inches of rain covering the entire country.
Cappuci said, “ If we took three pennies, put them on top of each other, that's how high it would stack up. It'd be a rainy day everywhere. And picture that crammed in just one small county area.”
NPR reporter Shapiro said this week, “ And it's not over yet. The forecast shows more rain in Texas through Friday. One more note - the colors that the National Weather Service uses to show rainfall on its maps, shades of yellow, red and orange - they couldn't represent the amounts seen in southeastern Texas. So it added two new shades of purple.”
This is unprecedented in American history.  
I listened to this interview about the “biblical proportions” of the damage wrought by this year’s hurricane Harvey while driving to USF through our own rain storm here in Tampa, and each day, as the news gets worse,  we finally hear more and more reporters and government officials and rescue personnel and flood insurance specialists bring up the issue of climate change. Sometimes recognizing the problem is the first step in finding serious and lasting solutions.
Insurers, of course, have been concerned about climate change for decades. They don’t want to give insurance guarantees in situations where the unknowns could dramatically  affect their profits. Conservative by nature, insurance companies don’t like situations where a so-called “black swan event” could wipe them out, and according to Fox Business News, (  “The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the singular source of flood insurance for most Americans, is already $23 billion in debt after servicing prior natural disasters, including Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.”

NPR reported that  the premiums for houses between 250 and 300 thousand dollars could be as much as 40,000 dollars a year, way beyond the reach of the families who own such properties, and some insurance companies  are saying they won’t insure at all, igniting an even larger debate about whether we should be building in flood prone areas at all, even when the area hasn’t experienced any damaging floods not just in the last 100 years, but in the last 500 years.
The extent and ferocity of storms that climate change models predict  makes previous predictions and risk assessments moot.  Climate change doesn’t just make storms worse, it makes them much less predictable.
And so even the headline of a conservative midwestern newspaper, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, reads,
“When water recedes in Houston, debate over climate change and flooding must rise”.  

The author notes that his own city, 777 miles away in Missouri, is still recovering from two major flooding events in the past 16 months, and criticizes the current president for just last week “erasing a 2015 executive order signed by President Barack Obama that had a simple goal: When building such projects, particularly federal ones, officials were directed to take climate change into consideration.”

The author uses his editorial power to pummel someone he shows to be an  arrogant, greedy and short sighted real estate developer turned president even  as the rain continues to pummel  Houston, explaining that
“Trump won’t tweet about climate change because he believes — or says he believes, anyway — that it’s a Chinese conspiracy.
So as people drown and die in Houston and Galveston and Corpus Christi, I’ll write about climate change and America’s love affair with bad flooding policy, because if not now, when?...
The author, who spent time working with the army corps of engineers during his city’s floods, is rightly skeptical about the intentions of real estate developers in the era of climate change, and says,
“In two to four years, Houston will still be recovering from Hurricane Harvey.
The president — or our next one — will still be talking about the need to improve America’s infrastructure. St. Louis will still be talking about building in flood plains, whether it’s a city project on the banks of the Mississippi River, or a massive entertainment complex in the levy-protected flood plains of the Chesterfield Valley or Maryland Heights, or even still, the current debate over building an ice arena in federally protected Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park, by raising land so it is allegedly out of the 100-year flood plain.”
But, he says soberly,
“We will throw out those phrases — 100-year-flood and 500-year-flood — as though in the era of climate change they still have meaning.
And we will spend billions upon billions of tax dollars repeating the same old mistakes because we continue to believe the fallacy that it’s easier and cheaper to rebuild in the flood plain than it is to plan for — and around — the next flood.”
We increasingly see similar editorials and headlines facing up to the bad legacy we have created throughout our history of ignoring warnings about climate change effects.  A recent one from the Atlantic is titled,
“Houston's Flood Is a Design Problem”.  The subheading gives a clue to a solution. It says,
“It’s not because the water comes in. It’s because it is forced to leave again.”
There are calls for what is touted as a “new” climate mitigation and adaptation strategy: “permeable paving”.  Those of us who study history know it is nothing new:  Frederick Law Olmstead and his son were proposing the exact same measures even before the LA River flooded that city in 1938, but the powerful railroad and industrial lobbies ignored it and compelled the US Army Corps of Engineers to instead encase the river in concrete to try to move the water to the ocean as quickly as possible.  For some reason the idea of keeping the water in place never seems to… ahem… “sink in”!.
The article points out,

“the impact of flooding, particularly in densely developed areas like cities, is far more constant than a massive, natural disaster like Harvey exposes. The reason cities flood isn’t because the water comes in, not exactly. It’s because the pavement of civilization forces the water to get back out again.
There are different kinds of floods. There’s the storm surge from hurricanes, the runoff from snowmelt, the inundation of riverbanks. But all these examples cast flooding as an occasional foe out to damage human civilization. In truth, flooding happens constantly, in small and large quantities, every time precipitation falls to earth. People just don’t tend to notice it until it reaches the proportions of disaster.

Under normal circumstances, rain or snowfall soaks back into the earth after falling. It gets absorbed by grasslands, by parks, by residential lawns, by anywhere the soil is exposed. Two factors can impede that absorption. One is large quantities of rain in a short period of time. The ground becomes inundated, and the water spreads out in accordance with the topography. The second is covering over the ground so it cannot soak up water in the first place. And that’s exactly what cities do—they transform the land into developed civilization.

Roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and other pavements, along with asphalt, concrete, brick, stone, and other building materials, combine to create impervious surfaces that resist the natural absorption of water. In most of the United States, about 75 percent of its land area, less than 1 percent of the land is hardscape. In cities, up to 40 percent is impervious.

The natural system is very good at accepting rainfall. But when water hits pavement, it creates runoff immediately. That water has to go somewhere. So it flows wherever the grade takes it. To account for that runoff, people engineer systems to move the water away from where it is originally deposited, or to house it in situ, or even to reuse it. This process—the policy, planning, engineering, implementation, and maintenance of urban water systems—is called stormwater management.

The combination of climate change and aggressive development made an event like this almost inevitable.”
The article continues with best practice advice, worth quoting here in full:

“Accounting for a 100-year, 500-year, or “million-year” flood, as some are calling Harvey’s aftermath, is difficult and costly… it’s almost impossible to design for these “maximal probable flood events,” as planners call them. Instead, the hope is to design communities such that when they flood, they can withstand the ill effects and support effective evacuations to keep people safe. “Many planners contend that impervious surface itself is the problem. The more of it there is, the less absorption takes place and the more runoff has to be managed. Reducing development, then, is one of the best ways to manage urban flooding. The problem is, urban development hasn’t slowed in the last half-century. Cities have only become more desirable, spreading outward over the plentiful land available in the United States.”
The Olmsteads developed a brilliant plan for Los Angeles in the early part of the 20th century  to ensure that dramatic 100 year floods caused no damage, designing a series of flood plain wildlife parks and elevated bike paths and recreation areas robust to inundation while increasing the value of the land to the city.  But they were ignored.  It isn’t as if the arguments are new.
The article goes on to explain how the federal government ended up dealing with the issue in the later part of the 20th century but with no true concern for downstream environmental and social injustices. It says:
“The National Flood Insurance Program, established in 1968, offered one attempt at a compromise. It was meant to protect and indemnify people without creating economic catastrophe. Instead of avoiding the floodplain, insurance allowed people to build within it, within management constraints recommended by FEMA. In theory, flood-hazard mitigation hoped to direct development away from flood-prone areas through the disincentives of risk insurance and regulatory complexity.”
Of course, students of political ecology and political economy know that disincentives don’t really work for the majority of people:  As population grows and people weigh the unknown and unpredictable risks of living in a disaster area with the well known and quite predictable advantages of being close to the few jobs and opportunities that urban centers make available their own quite rational cost-benefit analyses lead them inevitably to take dangerous chances.  Just ask any of the literally billions of people living in dangerous slums and shantytowns and favelas around megacities like Rio and Cairo and Dhaka; just ask the millions and millions who have died in typhoons, monsoon floods, landslides, earthquakes and building collapses.  Life for most people is a kind of Russian roulette, a deadly gamble, a horrible game that leaves most people vulnerable, hoping that at least some family members can dodge the bullet while struggling to get into a better position before disaster falls, one way or another.
That is why on NPR this morning the commentators were saying that the system of disincentives is so perverse - because even while governments supposedly on the side of “the people” think of disincentives for them to live in a vulnerable or risky area,  insurance companies and developers actually have a direct incentive to keep “those people” -- the ones with little political power, the one’s who can’t easily sue, the ones desperate enough to accept any bad deal -- paying.
Says the article about our current policies,
“It’s more about living with water than it is about discouraging development in areas prone to risk… Sometimes “living with water” means sidestepping the consequences. Developers working in flood zones might not care what happens after they sell a property. That’s where governmental oversight is supposed to take over.”
But when the government is dominated with profit-oriented businessmen, particularly those who directly profit from real estate development, and whose cronies make their riches from the same schemes, especially in a time when there is resistance to regulation among the general public, that oversight is often deliberately overlooked.  Who is really going to look after “the little guy”?
In fact, the Koch brothers, who are funding so much of the current politics of climate change denial, are well known to espouse the philosophy of Charles Koch’s mentor James McGill Buchanan and his successor at George Mason University, Tyler Cowen,  who champion  the idea that :
with the "rewriting of the social contract" underway, people will be "expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now." While some will flourish, he admits, "others will fall by the wayside." Since "worthy individuals" will manage to climb their way out of poverty, "that will make it easier to ignore those who are left behind."
And the Koch brothers perverse pseudo libertarian philosophies, based on the logic of Cowen, didn't stop there, according to economist Nancy McLean’s new book “ Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America.”
"We will cut Medicaid for the poor," Cowen  predicted. Further, "the fiscal shortfall will come out of real wages as various cost burdens are shifted to workers" from employers and a government that does less. To "compensate," this chaired professor in the nation's second-wealthiest county advises, "people who have had their government benefits cut or pared back" should pack up and move to lower-cost, poor public service states like Texas."
Indeed, Cowen forecasted, "the United States as a whole will end up looking more like Texas." says McLean.
“ His tone is matter-of-fact, as though he is reporting the inevitable. Yet when one reads his remarks with the knowledge that he has been the academic leader of a team working in earnest with Koch for two decades now to bring about the society he is describing, the words sound more like premeditation. For example, Cowen prophesies lower-income parts of America "recreating a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment" complete with "favelas" like those in Rio de Janeiro. The "quality of water" might not be what US citizens are used to, he admits, but "partial shantytowns" would satisfy the need for cheaper housing as "wage polarization" grows and government shrinks. Cowen says that "some version of Texas -- and then some -- is the future for a lot of us" and advises, "Get ready."
Well, if the agenda of the radical right wing, lead by the real estate developer president, is to make the  whole country look like Texas, and that Texas increasingly  looks like Houston at the moment, then we have a lot getting ready to do.

But it isn’t like we haven’t had the warning signs all along.
And I’m not just talking about violent hurricanes, which are just the most obvious consequences of climate change,  but we can start there.
Exactly 12 years ago, on August 29 of 2005, while on a research trip  visiting cities that were preparing for climate change in Germany and Austria, like the solar energy capital of Freiburg, and the EPFL research university in Lausanne, Switzerland, with its building integrated photovoltaics and solar electric tourist boats, and the renewable energy research labs in northern Italy, I heard the news of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina flooding New Orleans. All the Europeans said, of course, “those crazy Americans…while we in Europe are investing and getting ready, and even as  the effects of climate change stare them in the face, they remain in denial.”
 Nearly 1500 people died in New Orleans as 80% of the city was buried under 20 feet of water,  that caused  $81 billion in property damages, with a total economic impact in Louisiana and Mississippi estimated at over $150 billion. The tragic irony is that the previous year,
in their 2004-OCT edition, National Geographic magazine had looked at how we were developing our landscapes and predicted the whole thing.  National Geographic  published an article by Joel K. Bourne titled: "Gone With the Water” that decried the  loss of wetlands that have historically protected New Orleans. As illustrated on the website, “” “The article started with a very accurate prediction of the events which occurred during Katrina's devastation of the city one year later. The author was in error in their estimate of the number of deaths. But many other points raised in this prefix to the article were deadly accurate”.

The website notes other articles predicting and warning us of the same consequences. Of note were a Scientific American article in 2001 and even, ironically, a Houston Chronicle article from that same year.  Houston’s science writer Eric Berger, wrote that New Orleans was facing a “doomsday scenario”, saying,
“It's been 36 years since Hurricane Betsy buried New Orleans 8 feet deep. Since then a deteriorating ecosystem and increased development have left the city in an ever more precarious position. Yet the problem went unaddressed for decades by a laissez-faire government, experts said.”
“Economically, he said, “the toll would be shattering. Southern Louisiana produces one-third of the country's seafood, one-fifth of its oil and one-quarter of its natural gas. The city's tourism, lifeblood of the French Quarter, would cease to exist. The Big Easy might never recover. And, given New Orleans' precarious perch, some academics wonder if it should be rebuilt at all.”
He concluded,
“In the face of an approaching storm, scientists say, the city's less-than-adequate evacuation routes would strand 250,000 people or more, and probably kill one of 10 left behind as the city drowned under 20 feet of water. Thousands of refugees could land in Houston.”
Well here we are, 16 years later, and now the refugees are coming from Houston, and the same questions are being asked all over -- “should we rebuild at all?”.
Yet, history shows us that we almost always do.  As long as somebody can make money off of risky investments and sales of risk-prone buildings and infrastructure, some people will continue to develop, no matter how bad things might become.  It seems to be in human nature… at least, that is, in the nature of those who think it is okay to profit off the misfortune of others, as East German playwright Bertold Brecht pointed out  in his 1941 theatrical exposition of petty war profiteers posing as philanthropists called “Mother Courage and her Children”.
And we must be very clear… debates about climate change, and attempts to IGNORE its consequences when planning ways to benefit the haves and punish the have nots  are nothing new AT ALL. The question always revolves around the ancient Latin maxim “Cui bono” -- who profits? “Who stands, or stood, to gain (from a crime, and so might have been responsible for it)”?

Many  current so called “conservatives” who stand to gain  actually claim that today’s climate change is nothing to fear because climate change is “natural” and has been occurring since the earth began. And that may be true if you have access to a private helicopter and a second or third home on dry land.  Others have trepidation about the consequences of climate changes but still deny human agency, attributing it to everything from sunspots, to volcanic activity to the terraforming tendencies of space aliens, all while denying the contributions of  burning fossil fuels, clearing forest land and engaging in industrial agriculture, something  that is certainly convenient if you are making your money through those very activities.  Follow the money, right?
The irony is that the creators of the capitalist economy, who benefitted from deforestation and mining and drilling and agricultural expansion at one time in our history actually believed very very strongly in “anthropogenic” or “human induced” climate change back in the day.  It is just that they saw it as an overwhelmingly positive thing, dreaming for example, as many capital holders today do, of the beach resorts they could open in the north when the ice floes were all gone, and of all the wine grapes they could grow in previously frigid landscapes.
Much of this is  documented in the book “Historical Perspectives on Climate Change” by James Rodger Fleming, which is available from our USF library and summarized online  in the article “The first American settlers cut down millions of trees to deliberately engineer climate change”.  The subtitle is
“Long term, it worked, but not how they intended”. (
The book points out that the second president of the United States, John Adams, was a climate change proponent.  The differences between him and our current president are actually superficial at best, when you think about it, based on whether, in the current political climate a politician is better off  assigning credit or blame for the changes. John Adams  was a believer that anthropogenic climate change  was possible and  real but he thought it was  desirable.  He thought it was good for reasons the allegedly white-supremacist-supporting 45th president would probably agree with :  “When the first colonists arrived, wrote John Adams, “the whole continent was one dismal wilderness, the haunt of wolves and bears and more savage men. Now the forests are removed, the land covered with fields of corn, orchards bending with fruit, and the magnificent habitations of rational and civilized people.”
Other presidents and wealthy, politically powerful (mostly white)  men were in favor of human-induced climate change.  The historical documents show how  early presidents presiding over  American colonist created  global warming trends were celebrating  and endorsing the changes they thought they were witnessing as America seemed to get hotter and hotter, allegedly as a result of their deliberate deforestation.  The book Historical Perspectives on Climate Change notes,
“Even our most famous forefathers chimed in with benevolent compliments for the deforestation agenda. In his Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “A change in our climate…is taking place very sensibly….The elderly inform me, the earth used to be covered with snow about three months in every year. The rivers, which then seldom failed to freeze over in the course of the winter, scarcely ever do now.” In a 1763 letter, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Cleared land absorbs more heat and melts snow quicker.” He added one caveat, however: More study was necessary to confirm these findings.
By 1811, Harvard-educated Hugh Williamson reported that New England snows had been more than halved over a fifty-year period. He argued that once future generations had “cultivated the interior part of the country, we shall seldom be visited by frosts or snows.” Period. “It follows, that a country, in a state of nature, covered with trees, must be much colder than the same country when cleared.”
Ironically, however, as the book points out, science did NOT confirm the findings.  There were plenty of voices contesting the views of the nation’s presidents:

“Contrarians reported the absolute opposite, and their voices helped fuel a 19th-century conservation movement and more rigorous climate science. It was an uphill battle, however, with prominent voices continuing to extol the merits of a utopian civilization based primarily around commercialized agriculture.
Climate hadn’t been “improving,” argued Massachusetts doctor Job Wilson, who studied meteorological records spanning 16 years. Deforestation had made the country’s heat and cold even more extreme. One William Dunbar wrote to the American Philosophical Society, “It is with us a general remark, that of late years the summers have become hotter and the winters colder than formerly.” Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, agreed that clearing trees could certainly exaggerate extremes.
But attacking deforestation science often came with its own political motivations. America wanted to attract more people to the Western frontier, where the air was dry and hot. Desert loomed for hundreds of miles. Expansionists decried deforestation, promising to plant new wooded expanses for a more pleasant and habitable West. The country’s relationship with climate was a veritable Goldilocks tale — nothing was ever just right for everyone. And the reasons had less to do with science and more to do with motivations.”
The same is true today.
Scientists have been observing and predicting  dire consequences from climate change, most of it human-induced or exacerbated by anthropogenic activities,  mostly  driving natural oscillations to unprecedented extremes, for well over a century.  Time magazine had an article called “Scientists Have Known About Climate Change for a Lot Longer Than You May Think” in 2015 ( and it is now common knowledge that Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius “had made the connection that the carbon dioxide caused by that coal could affect the climate” back  in the late 19th century.
Arrhenius wrote
“That the atmospheric envelopes limit the heat losses from the planets had been suggested about 1800 by the great French physicist Fourier. His ideas were further developed afterwards by Pouillet and Tyndall. Their theory has been styled the hot-house theory, because they thought that the atmosphere acted after the manner of the glass panes of hot-houses." (p51)
"If the quantity of carbonic acid [ CO2 + H2O → H2CO3 (carbonic acid) ] in the air should sink to one-half its present percentage, the temperature would fall by about 4°; a diminution to one-quarter would reduce the temperature by 8°. On the other hand, any doubling of the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air would raise the temperature of the earth's surface by 4°; and if the carbon dioxide were increased fourfold, the temperature would rise by 8°." (p53)
"Although the sea, by absorbing carbonic acid, acts as a regulator of huge capacity, which takes up about five-sixths of the produced carbonic acid, we yet recognize that the slight percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere may by the advances of industry be changed to a noticeable degree in the course of a few centuries." (p54)
"Since, now, warm ages have alternated with glacial periods, even after man appeared on the earth, we have to ask ourselves: Is it probable that we shall in the coming geological ages be visited by a new ice period that will drive us from our temperate countries into the hotter climates of Africa? There does not appear to be much ground for such an apprehension. The enormous combustion of coal by our industrial establishments suffices to increase the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air to a perceptible degree." (p61)
"We often hear lamentations that the coal stored up in the earth is wasted by the present generation without any thought of the future, and we are terrified by the awful destruction of life and property which has followed the volcanic eruptions of our days. We may find a kind of consolation in the consideration that here, as in every other case, there is good mixed with the evil. By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth, ages when the earth will bring forth much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind." (p63)

And so here is the rub:
As usual when it comes to the utopian experiment we call “civilization”, there is good and bad, winners and losers.  In order to maximize their own success, some groups will try to change the environments that surround them and sustain them.  When the changes benefit them, when the cost-benefit analysis yields a positive result for THEM and when nobody else gets hurt or complains in a way that can threaten their profits,  they will naturally take credit.  When voices of dissent grow large enough to threaten their well being, they will deny there is a problem or they will find someone or something else to blame so long as the Cost Benefit equation still yields profits. People are opportunistic, and most of those who wield power seize every opportunity they can, because they can.  Only when the changes that are happening  hurt them, will they try to change course.
So let those of us who stand to be harmed by climate changes, however they are caused,  take a page from the playbook of the Koch brothers and their climate change denying cronies and gurus.   “We the people” can actually use the same logic and tactics that they use for a more inclusive democracy (and more Sustainable one!) and still benefit the wealthy and powerful at the same time. Recognizing that possibility -- that a win-win scenario is still possible --  is my principal goal in this course -- to find ways of mitigating and adapting to climate change that also mitigate and adapt to the changes in our political climate so we don’t plunge into war or strife as we navigate the uncertainties in our food/energy/water nexus and life support system.
Nancy McLean’s “Democracy in Chains” tells us how the current regime, who we should actually call “climate change responsibility deniers” are driving their agenda, and we can learn from them:
"Buchanan offered strategic advice to corporations on how to fight the kind of reforms and taxation that came with more inclusive democracy. In the 1990s, for example, as Koch was getting more involved at George Mason, Buchanan convened corporate and rightwing leaders to teach them how to use what he called the "spectrum of secession" to undercut hard-won reforms through measures that have now become core to Republican practice: decentralization, devolution, federalism, privatization, and deregulation."

Ironically, these same threats to democracy wielded by those who believe in Buchanan’s “Marginal Revolution” , in the hands of we the people, in the hands of democracy advocates,  especially those of us marginalized by the wealthy oligarchs and robber barons and elites, could be our most powerful antidote in the quest for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Decentralization is the key here. Decentralization for energy, food production, for waste and water management. Devolution of power to the local level, particularly as concerns food production systems.  Federalism could let us work together at the state level to ignore government rulings that would force us back into the fossil fuel age, creating our own local green economies as California is doing. Deregulation could help us so that we can get away from stodgy bureaucratic rules that were intended or inadvertantly keep us dependent on fossil fuels and fertilizers, rules that keep us  from producing our own electricity and fuels and that keep us from turning our front lawns into permaculture plots, and that keep us from treating the organic residuals from our toilets and kitchens on-site and turning them into sources of local wealth.  As for privatization ,we could be saying, on our private property, with our shotgun legally in our hands  "hey, you don't get my shit. Literally. You don't get my banana peel, or the parts of the banana that passed through me. That shit is MINE. "
And regarding flooding, we can say “you don’t get my water. You don’t even get my pee, the water that passed through me, and you don’t get the water that falls on my roof or my parking lot or any of my land. That water stays on MY land, in my community, in OUR neighborhood.”  
We can build our homes the way the coastal people of Belize and Nigeria  have traditionally done -- on stilts, well above the highest flood waters. We can build our houses on wheels, build our houses like boats. We can win the right to capture and use our rainwater like they do in Bermuda,  to drink, shower and bathe, wash our clothes and water our lawns and gardens. We can set up tidal surge and wave generators and stream generators and wind generators to capture high velocity waves and winds and waterfalls --even off our roofs and rain gutters.  We can insist on permeable paving that recharges our aquifers, or we can insist on no paving at all, populating our landscapes with water loving, water hungry lush plants -- preferably ones that can make us food independent too. With all so called “wastes” safely in biodigesters and recycling industrial ecology systems, so that nothing can wash into our streets and drains and rivers and oceans when the storms come, and our houses and businesses and communities built to take advantage of and be comfortable with the consequences of climate change we can say, hopefully sooner rather than later, when it comes to big rains, “bring it on”.
Let’s get ready.