Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The FEW NEXUS Episode 1

Script for Module 1
By T.H. Culhane, Ph.D.
Greetings and welcome to Episode 1 in our new Sustainability Series, “Navigating the Food/Water/Energy Nexus; Synergizing for Sustainability”.
In this course we will take you on a journey into the complex interrelationships between 3 essential sectors in our environmental solutions portfolio  that dominate our lives and yet continue to be poorly understood and whose mismanagement now arguably threatens the very existence of billions of people.
According to the United Nations World Water Development Report from 2014, “Recognizing the synergies [between food, energy and water], and balancing the trade-offs engendered by dealing with any one of them in isolation, is “central to jointly ensuring water, energy and food security.“

Water security. Energy security. Food Security.  Homeland security.
It’s a hot topic.  For millions of people around the globe it is literally a matter of life and death.

Approached  in isolation, each problem’s solution has historically created still more problems for the other sectors.  As the United Nations World Water Development Report from 2014 reminds us:

” The global community is well aware of food, energy and water challenges, but has so far addressed them in isolation, within sectoral boundaries. At the country level, fragmented sectoral responsibilities, lack of coordination, and inconsistencies between laws and regulatory frameworks may lead to misaligned incentives” .

When trying to solve issues related to how and what and when people can eat and drink healthy food and water, and where they will get the energy to keep from heat or cold exposure, or to move away from trouble and toward opportunity, misalignment creates debilitating chaos. And yet, we’ve been well aware of the problem the sectoral approach creates.

This course seeks to address that by giving you a synergistic, holistic approach to problem solving.  We need leaders in systems thinking, in sectoral integration. We need leaders who will bring insights from each domain where dysfunction is being dealt with and combine them into a broad suite of interleaving overlapping, combinatorially dynamic best practices.   We need leaders who cross the boundaries and create industrial and natural ecologies that work together for the betterment of all.
You have just entered… the Food Energy Water NEXUS.

The UN report states, “If water, energy and food security are to be simultaneously achieved, decision-makers, including those responsible for only a single sector, need to consider broader influences and cross-sectoral impacts. A nexus approach to sectoral management, through enhanced dialogue, collaboration and coordination, is needed to ensure that co-benefits and trade-offs are considered and that appropriate safeguards are put in place”.
Safeguards from what, you may ask?

The UN report stresses that there are hidden costs to every benefit. That each forward step we take along a given path can simultaneously move us backward along another axis in our journey.  It can be frustrating, and it is anything but obvious.
This graphic animation illustrates the point – you can try it yourself.  The graph shows a sphere in a 3 dimensional Cartesian space, the kind 3D animators at Pixar use to create movies like Toy Story. We can let the x axis represent food, the y axis water.  The z-axis would be energy.  The zero point would be stagnation and anything below the 0 in negative number space would be, well, negative. Dysfunctional. Any  points away from Zero  in the positive direction would be a good thing.  Think of it like a game. Can you keep the ball moving in positive direction in all three axes simultaneously?

When all you can see is one or two axes it is easy to be fooled.  With only one dimension you have no idea where the ball is in the other dimensions. You wave your hand and move the mouse and drag the ball forward in, say the food dimension, only to find that you catastrophically decreased the amount of water available.  In two dimensions, your typical X-Y space graph from economics, the kind we use with supply and demand curves, you can check out how movement in the food axis affects the water axis but still have no idea what is happening along the energy axis.

  Anybody who has struggled to learn a 3D mesh modelling or animation or architectural program knows this effect two well. The mental ability to visualize in 3D space is also something scuba divers, submarine drivers, airline pilots and astronauts train for.   We can learn to think this way on a computer through visualization programs like the one I am using here, “Blender 3D” a free open source physics engine used in the gaming industry.  Despite the fact that we live in a 3 dimensional world, it is hard for most people to visualize motion in three dimensions at once. Computer simulations can help if we can look at different perspectives simultaneously with more than one 2 dimensional representation of space..  What most of us do when we want to manipulate an object in three D on a computer is open 4 windows with different viewpoints, as I illustrate here.

Three of them are two dimensional two axis views, one a flat plane looking down the Z axis so that we can see the X and Y just like in your high school geometry class, the other two looking down the X and Y axes respectively.  The third view, the user view or camera view, is the nexus.

It shows how any move on one axes affects the position of the object on each of the other two axes.

It is a powerful conceptual tool, and once your mind has embraced the concept and skill of thinking along three axes simultaneously, you can make moves with confidence. And then you can apply this way of seeing the world to complex problem solving that involves many overlapping and interconnected parameters.

Of course, in real life, even if you appreciate the complexities in moving along different axes, there are tradeoffs and antagonisms as well as synergies, many interventions require value judgements and our ability to model reality is filled with uncertainties even if we could agree on what is “good” and what is “bad”.  The law of unintended consequences always rears its ugly head,  Murphy’s Law, stating that whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment, usually applies, and nature can behave in a capricious manner at times. And then there are competing visions of the world and competing political forces to factor in.

The UN report  tells us,
““There are many synergies and trade-offs between water and energy use and food production.  For example, Using water to irrigate crops might promote food production but it can also reduce river flows and hydropower potential. Growing bioenergy crops under irrigated agriculture can increase overall water withdrawals and jeopardize food security. Converting surface irrigation into high efficiency pressurized irrigation may save water but may also result in higher energy use. Recognizing these synergies and balancing these trade-offs is central to jointly ensuring water, energy and food security.
Ay, and there’s the rub.  We want to JOINTLY ensure the elements necessary for our survival and well being are always available, sustainably used, creating health and welfare benefits and justice for all.  But it is quite a challenge to figure out how.
All we can console ourselves with is the notion that more information is often better than less – although economist Daniel Kahneman’s work on Fast and Frugal Heuristics, based on ideas from Gigerenzer and Todd’s ecological rationality research,  calls even that assumption into question.  But at least we can say that having a bird’s eye view of a landscape, having a fish-eye lens to take it all in, having a multi-dimensional perspective, is arguably better than being stuck on a single axis, like the square in Edward Abbey’s classic math parable “Flatland” who has to learn how limited his perspectives and world view were when suddenly visited by a sphere and taken above his world to see how much more there is to reality.

The Food-Energy-Water Nexus provides that all-encompassing view from outside the flatland of single subject assumptions.  We call it the FEW Nexus as a convenient acronym, but might also be thought of as the MORE Nexus – the place where more and more things are brought together and their interconnections made manifest.

FEW stands for Food Energy and Water.  MORE could stand for “Multidimensional Omniperspectival Relationship Ecology”, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well, does it?

But while we are on the topic of the acronym we use for this course, let’s address the obvious “sin of omission”.  

Where did all the waste go?

We all know that the process of growing, delivering and consuming food, and capturing, storing, delivering and using water, and producing, transforming, transmitting and consuming energy generate WASTE.  And we know that these wastes – in the form of disease causing, foul smelling, water eutrophying and water and air polluting substances, are the primary reason that humanity is in such trouble these days, and that waste is the source of environmental injustices, habitat and species loss, illness  and climate change.

So why isn’t WASTE in the title? Why don’t we call our course the “FEWW Nexus : Food Energy, Water and WASTE?”.

It is a good question, but we think we have an equally good answer.

The fact is, we want to eliminate WASTE.
We don’t waste in our title as a reflection of our commitment to see waste disappear from both our world and our worldview.

In the food-energy-water nexus, there is no room for waste. Waste is simply “the right thing in the wrong place at the wrong time or in the wrong concentration.” Waste is often a form of food for another process that has simply been denied a role as an input to that process.
The FEW Nexus takes an Industrial Ecology perspective.

Industrial Ecology, made popular by the architect William McDonough in his book Cradle to Cradle, remaking the way we make things, is an applied philosophical framework in which the output of every process should be  the input of another process.

For example, in Reykjavic in Iceland I visited a thermal spa called the Blue Lagoon. It’s healing sulfur hot springs where merely the wastewater from the adjacent geothermal power plant. Nothing wasted there.  In coal country, fly ash from the burning of the coal is reprocessed into concrete blocks.  In Cairo Egypt I visited a factory in the desert that took plastic bags from the city garbage collectors, heated and melted and crushed them into forms to make everything from park benches and palettes to manhole covers.  Sometimes they mixed them when sand for weight and rigidity, and there are now companies making building block materials out of recycled plastic. In fact the entire world of recycling is moving toward a form of industrial ecology.  At Mercy College we have the BLEST Japanese Plastic—to-oil machine that takes Styrofoam, polypropylene, polyethylene and other waste plastics and uses computer controlled pyrolysis/gasification to transform them back into oil and then into fractional products like kerosene, diesel fuel, gasoline and paraffin.  After all, plastic was made from oil, and it is a simple procedure to turn it back into the substance from which it came.

But while all of  this seems straightforward, the NEXUS teaches us both the limitations and the opportunities.

For example, we can talk about recycling all day, but most recycling takes prodigious amounts of water and energy, and these determine the economic limits to what almost all of us agree is an otherwise obvious solution to our waste problems.  Because of the energy involved, for example, much would-be recycling is actually better classified as “Down-cycling”. Down cycling means that we may not immediately being throwing things “away” but the secondary or third hand use may be severely downgraded from the first.  In this way, for example, clothing may make it to a second-hand or thrift shop when it is a bit threadbare, and then, when it is no longer acceptable to wear it, it can be downcycled into cloth strips which are then woven into ornamental quilts or carpets.  Further down in the life cycle, these items may end up being torn into strips and used as rags to clean up spills or mop up oil.  At some point they make their way to a waste disposal site to be put in a  landfill or incinerated.  In these cases downcycling is preferred to simply throwing the clothes away, but it is part of an inevitable linear progression from “Cradle to Grave”.

What Mcdonough and Braungart took up the flag for industrial ecology  in their book “From Cradle to Cradle”. Cradle to Cradle processes  are  TRUE recycling, where there is no grave, not landfill, no carbon sink.  A worn out carpet is shredded, processed and turned back into a carpet.  A plastic water bottle is turned back into a water bottle, and aluminum can into an aluminum can… or they are transformed into other goods of high value in such a way that the molecules in them never end up in the air or water or landfill.

But this process only works economically and environmentally and socially – the three axes of the sustainability paradigm – if the energy costs and water costs and labor costs (driven by the consumption of food, don’t forget) are taken into account and managed in a win-win-win way.

The FEW nexus lets us do that.  It asks at every step of the life cycle – “how is this impacting the water? How is this impacting energy? How is this impacting food?” And it assumes a goal of ZERO WASTE.

The Nexus assumes an explicit understanding of systems integration, and draws its strength from the holistic approach successfully employed by NASA engineers working together in interdisciplinary teams to keep human beings alive in the forbidding environments of outer space.  As the movie pitch slogan goes “In space, no one can hear you scream” – and in addition, nobody can make home deliveries of food or water while energy has to be very carefully managed.

The reductionist approach to problem solving that was the bedrock of the early scientific revolution, approaching systems in isolation, was fine for drilling down to basic principles and developing early theories and models of the universe. But when it comes to surviving in that universe its limitations can become debilitating.  The Nexus, with its theory-meets-practice approach, which we call PRAXIS, demands multiple disciplines working in synergy and harmony, demands mutual respect and understanding for multiple perspectives.  It is a application of the ancient “blind men around the elephant” metaphor, where one touches the trunk and thinks it’s a hose, another touches the tusk and thinks it’s a spear, another thinks the tail is a rope and another the leg is a tree trunk.  Only when they integrate their limited observations can they begin to reconstruct the whole elephant.

The NEXUS is the coming together of observations, theories, disciplines and sectors. It disciplines us to always pay attention to what the other blind man is seeing and to follow the threads as we tug on each strand of our understanding to see what impact it is having on another part of the system.

The food water energy nexus is also iterative and self-correcting.  In its DNA is a kind of genetic algorithm that says “if a gain in parameter A causes a loss in B or C such that the entire system starts collapsing, correct A for maximum sustainable yield, even if it means bringing A down now in order to help it increase later. Then learn from that experience to make better finer adjustments in the future.”

The musician activist Pete Seeger, famous for his song “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” and for his work on the ClearWater Sloop sailing ship studying water pollution issues on the Hudson River, told me the following when I was in his activist club when I was in high school studying sustainability.

He said, “You have to think like Sailors… when we want to go forward we don’t simply set a course for our target.  We are working in a complex environment with many forces – the current, the waves, the tides, the winds, eddies and swirls and backwash and turbulence, heat and cold, all these things affect the speed and direction of the boat.  But when the wind is blowing against us, we don’t give up or go where it wants to push us. We learn to “tack against the wind” and use the energy in that gust or gale to push us in another direction, to nudge us upstream even though it may be blowing downstream. That is how we succeed, by understanding the flows of energy and water and harnessing them to a positive goal.”

This had a lot of influence on me as a kid because it too is an  endorsement of the nexus concept that helps us operate in multi-dimensional space.  The Nexus can be very subtle. Sometimes it is like a mixing board in a recording studio. There is a whole bank of sliders and knobs and buttons for every aspect of food production and transport and consumption and waste, another one for the myriad parts of the energy mix, yet another for all the things associated with water, from the hydrologic cycle to irrigation and sewer systems. Each affects the other. As a good producer understanding the nexus, you begin to feel how a given action will affect the entire mix.  It is much more complex than merely blending bass, midrange and treble; as any good studio engineer or musician knows, sounds, like the parameters of sustainability,  have their own special properties that go beyond tone and volume, beyond frequency and wavelength, and they blend differently, blend in unique ways, depending on the particular song or symphony.  

A FEW Nexus expert is somewhat like a symphony conductor, calling in different instruments with a deep awareness of the intended structure and dynamism of the whole song which the individual player may not be able to grasp from inside the orchestra pit.

So those are some of the more colorful metaphors for the FEW Nexus.  We need to play our understandings of food and energy and water like a conductor so that we conduct ourselves sustainably and with justice in this world.
One of the easiest places to start down this road to mastery, as far as I am concerned, is to explore the simple process of “Biodigestion” which is an area of research we are exploring here at the Patel College and which  arguably forces integration of our knowledge of food, energy and water.

Biodigesters take food waste – whether the food has been discarded uneaten or passed through the body of an animal – and transforms it in an anaerobic tank of water through microbial action, into liquid fertilizer for further food production and into useful clean renewable energy in the form of biomethane gas.  Since biodigesters involve food energy and water and integrate them into a recycling system that turns food consumption back into a system for food production and preparation the digester acts as an ipso facto and tangible nexus.  So I will be using the biodigester as a potent and real symbol of the FEW Nexus which we can return to in our studies again and again as we explore other examples of the Nexus approach and how it applies to other parts of the three sectors.
As a perfect case study for the FEW NEXUS, WE can look at the most recent one from the General Electric Foundation titled “flower-power-energy-from-plant-waste-helps-farmers-grow-weapons-against-pests”.
The story here is that Kenyan farmers in the cut flower industry, which is one of the largest agricultural export markets in the world,  particularly those who grow roses, are plagued by a spider mite known as Tetranychus urticae.  This pest, which causes millions of dollars in damages and is one of the reasons that the flower industry uses so many pesticides, which contaminate water and cause cancers and birth defects and wildlife loss, has a natural enemy , Amblyseius californicus, a predatory mite used as a biological control against the red red spider mite. Ambylseius is also affected by pesticides, so to do sustainable pest management no pesticides can be used.
The predatory mite could make organic growing of flowers with no water contamination possible, but the flower growing region in Kenya is in the highlands where it is cold, and Amblyseius needs lots of heat to breed. Once it is an adult it is pretty hardy and can feed on Tetranychus, but it needs help getting established.

The solution funded by General Electric, an energy company, was to use “an anaerobic digester to  convert plant matter into biomethane for generating electricity and high quality natural liquid and solid fertilizers, which help displace synthetic options.
The Austrian Jenbecher gas engines they installed also recover waste heat generated by the burning of the biogas. The heat produces a stream of hot water, a valuable commodity in the farm’s location some 2,000 feet above sea level, some of which is used to heat greenhouses where the Amblyseius predatory mites are incubated, hatched and grown for release in the flower fields.”
And best of all for our purposes, the website for GE actually uses the word NEXUS to describe what they are doing.
“The good bugs will breed inside a nearby greenhouse that will be kept cozy with excess heat from a unique new power plant serving the farm. “We’re rethinking the whole agriculture-energy nexus,” says Mike Mason, chairman of Tropical Power, the company that built the plant. “Gorge Farm’s system is the first step in that process.”
This explicit mention of the Nexus on a corporate website in an interview with a company building power plants shows how deeply the concept is penetrating our society and this is a very hopeful thing.  The isolation of sectors that the UN Report was concerned about is increasingly being challenged and the challenge being met.  There is deep awareness now of how systems integrate for maximum efficiency and economic benefit.
Mason continues with specifics saying,“This power system brings a new dimension to agriculture because it doesn’t just produce food,” “It also produces electricity, heat, fertilizer, compost and, indirectly, pest control for the crops growing in the field. All of these benefits are coming off the land in a closed loop.”

Closing the loop is industrial ecology in a nutshell.  And NEXUS THINKING is the arguably the best way to approach industrial ecology and natural ecology and human ecology, the best way to eliminate waste and tackle the challenges of providing security in food, energy and water.

So, as they say in the Marines, we invite you to be part of the few and  the proud, students at the Patel College of Global Solutions studying and applying the FEW Nexus.  We hope you will carry this knowledge out into the world so that the FEW will become many, and the world will shift its economy from one based on scarcity to one based on plenty. The FEW Nexus can help us do this, and soldier, we are counting on YOU!

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