Saturday, December 31, 2016

FEW NEXUS Case Study: Standing for Sustainability at Standing Rock.

FEW NEXUS Case Study:  Standing for Sustainability at Standing Rock.

The ongoing conflict at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where first nations tribes have been making a stand against the oil companies trying to run a pipeline through their land, is an example of a key opportunity for the FEW Nexus to show its power.

 The conflict itself is a Nexus Issue: The Lakota Sioux tribe is worried, quite justifiably, that a leak in the pipeline, which is intended to supply energy to Euro-American businesses, will contaminate their water supply. In so doing it will also contaminate much of their food supply.  This one energy issue, given the inevitability of leaks, would force them to depend on purchased water and purchased food and increase their dependency on the white businesses, further eroding whatever traditions and autonomy they have left.  Energy affecting water and food.  Can they ever be considered in isolation?

Nexus thinking showed us the problems – nobody today can look at a proposed energy project without considering the effects on food and water --  and Nexus thinking  can also reveal the solutions.

 At Standing Rock , the three camps of Water Protectors, Oceti Sakowin on the front lines, Rosebud and Sacred Stone, have become the temporary home for over 7,000 people from around the world who stand in solidarity with Native Americans defending all our access to clean energy, food and water. To keep the water protectors and their allies alive, particularly through the harsh winter, requires energy, food and water, and plenty of it.

Let’s start with energy.  At standing Rock there is no electricity.  So for heat and light the first things the protestors had to turn to was the oldest form of stored energy, used by the indigenous people here for thousands of years – firewood.

The dim glow of a campfire, its flickering embers illuminating the creased faces of the elders as they chant prayers and beat on drums, is a familiar sight each evening at the camp.  Figures huddled around chimneys from wood burning stoves within teepees harken back to a time here centuries ago before anybody knew petroleum existed. 

But people switched to oil from firewood for what they thought were good reasons that are as true today as they were a hundred years ago. Wood fires are poor sources of illumination, they create toxic noxious smoke and they so rapidly consume forest resources that with the number of people at the camp today, they can no longer be called renewable or sustainable. In fact there is already a small environmental outcry  (admittedly manipulated and promulgated by the pipeline profiteers) over the sheer amount of wood being consumed in this anti-oil environmental justice campaign.

So what to do?

Propane tanks were brought in, but while convenient for heating and cooling and running generators, they weaken the argument of the protestors because they are a product of the very industry the protestors are fighting against. In addition, the sherrif’s office ordered Ace Hardware outlets near the camp  to cease selling propane to the protestors to try and freeze them out.  So the dependency they create on outsiders who are hostile to the initiative makes the campaign vulnerable to sabotage. Faced with these challenges, an international effort began to provide renewable energy. Even the actor Mark Ruffalo, famous for his role as the Incredible Hulk in the Avengers, got involved delivering large solar electric arrays to the camp.

There are wind generators of various sizes and configurations, and even bicycle generators.  These provide fairly reliable electricity for lighting and power tools.

 I was able to make myself useful at Sacred Stone camp over Thanksgiving putting a 550 Watt photovoltaic array into the new emergency medical tent while my friend Chris Lindstrom gave electricity to the IBC compost toilet he built, and there was nowhere at the camps where one couldn’t charge laptops,  phones and cameras.   But using electricity to create heat is well known to be the least efficient use of energy and while it could be used in an emergency at the camp there was no economic incentive to devote those resources to heating.    There is a main geodesic dome gathering space where the Oceti Sakown camp holds their orientations and  decolonization meetings and hosts guest speakers like John Bowlingbough, the whistle blower from the oil spill cleanup crew who showed us his documentary expose on the lies the oil industry spreads about safety. This public space, which also serves as sleeping bag sleeping quarters for new arrivals like me, has a wood burning stove and is also heated by electric ceiling heat lamps that are variably powered by solar electricity, wind and a gasoline generator.

And every day more people arrive with the expertise and the vision to use Nexus thinking to solve all these problems in tandem.

The incredible thing about the Standing Rock protest camps is that the Native Americans who have called themselves the “Water Protectors” are also calling the rest of the world to join them in being Food and Energy protectors.  They see their cause, fighting against the “Black Snake” – a euphemism for the deadly and deceitful oil pipeline – as a rallying point around which humanity can come together and finally create a single location where the existential problems of survival are solved sustainably.  

It is a difficult road however, especially given that North and South Dakota’s food, energy and water problems are made far far worse by the yearly winter storms and radically reduced sunlight which render cold season  agriculture and energy production problematic and freeze water into an all but useless solid.

Still, in the hands of a people who survived in this frigid landscape for millennia before fossil fuels and plastics and engines and generators were discovered,  working with all of us around the world who have developed improved independence technologies, the FEW Nexus Eutopia seems more than ever achievable.

To give you some perspective, I recently received this announcement from my inventor friend Sam Smith, who is living in a tent at Standing Rock working on these technologies . Sam writes,

“With the eyes of the world on Standing Rock as a microcosm for indigenous rights and clean energy activism in general, we believe that our efforts here can have more of an impact then at other times and places. We believe that if we can help to demonstrate that clean energy systems are possible in the face of such an extreme environment during such necessary times, that they are possible to implement elsewhere, as well as directly helping the Standing Rock community who can in turn use them to teach other communities what really works.”

Sam noted that most of the many donations coming into the camp from around the world were creating a surplus of cardboard box wastes.  He writes,

“We figured out we were able to shred cardboard into a pulp and then press it into fire logs that could be burned in the camps wood stoves. We also were able to help by jumping cars, fixing stuff, and getting LED light strands with battery packs into several community spaces that needed lighting. In the first weekend we also worked on being able to do some guerrilla light projection, using an overhead projector that Sam had brought to project the words “NoDAPL” onto the snow in glowing 8' letters..

"On Monday night there was a high powered blizzard that managed to shake up our infrastructure quite a bit. After some damage control at 3am that night we were able to rebuild and recreate a working space over the next few days. Over the time we were there the temperature steadily dropped and we adapted accordingly with a lot of flexibility, a bit of luck, and a strong ability to fix things and adapt between the two of us. It was a harsh environment but we found that the harder we were pushed the more ready we were to rise to the next challenge.

Standing Rock in blizzard. Photo: Sam Smith

"We continued making friends and refining the process of making fire pucks for whole trip (which we affectionately called “fucks”. We wanted to have lots of fucks to give.) We ran into several difficulties, including the incredibly arduous task of finding and creating enough liquid water to mix with the cardboard shreds. This is something we can solve for on subsequent trips.

Cardboard pellets. Photo: Same Smith

Sam Smith's hand-made shredder. Photo: Sam Smith

Sam Smith's hand-made shredder. Photo: Sam Smith

Sam Smith's hand-made shredder. Photo: Sam Smith

Grinder. Photo: Sam Smith

"Sam and River got several projects going before we had to head home, including figuring out how to charge phones from wood stoves and make hot water consistently, which is a big damn deal in that environment. With the right parts and enough money we could make these and other related projects genuinely happen on the ground which would be a big deal to the people there.
The ultimate goal is to get Sacred Stone camp completely off of fossil fuels, notably gasoline and propane, as quickly as possible. This is an extremely attainable goal, and also an extremely challenging one. In such  a severe environment one comes to respect and appreciate the often life-saving availability and energy-density of such fuels. Getting off them entirely is a considerable design challenge.

"Here’s the current energy situation: The most common energy needs are electricity (mostly for lighting and phone-charging), hot water, and space heating. Electrical needs are being met with solar panels (wind turbines are in the works as we speak) and gas-powered portable generators. Hot water needs are being generally under-met in many parts of the camp, with clean liquid water being constantly scarce, water for dishwashing coming from melting snow, and hot showers basically nonexistent. Space heating is coming almost entirely from wood burning stoves.

"What we are working towards is a decentralized, easy-to-replicate waste-to-energy system that can be easily implemented in all of the community spaces and provide consistent and abundant electricity, hot water, and space heating, without using any fossil fuels. This means deriving electricity from wood and trash. There are many ways to do this, but the current plan involves shredding all burnable waste, including food waste, and compressing them into fuel bricks. These bricks must then be dried, but this can be done in a way that produces steam and distills out clean water while heating interior spaces.

Thermoelectric generator. Photo courtesy of Sam Smith.

Thermoelectric generator. Photo courtesy of Sam Smith.

"We are also exploring the use of Thermoelectric Generators, which are basically like solar panels for heat. TEGs can meet the electrical demand of lights and phones and be powered by ANY heat differential, which means wood stoves, or even wood stoves powered by fuel pucks, can produce electricity. This process also produces hot water as by-product. So the goal is to produce an integrated, open-source woodstove/dryer/distiller/water heater/electrical generator capable of meeting all needs for water heating, water filtration, space heating, lights, and power, all at once. We know this sounds fake; we assure you it’s not. The solutions and technology are all ready to go, it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.

"Hopefully it doesn't come as a surprise but this fight against the building of the pipeline is still very much happening and still very much in need of solidarity and all forms of support. DAPL is not going to stop, they will pay a fine and break the law and keep building. The entire time we were there 30 or so football stadium lights blasted our light space from the work site and blocked our view of most of the stars. Helicopters circled often and disruptively. Everyone prayed peacefully before every meal and all day long. The sacred fire at Sacred Stone was an unflagging priority. This fight is hard, we know it is sometimes confusing, we know it is often overwhelming. This is also unquestionably a cause that deserves everything we've got.

"While we were there we saw such hope, and such growth, and such community. In the face of an overwhelming world we saw people work themselves raw every day to make a better one. Sacred stone is laser focused on answering the questions of how to generate solutions to our dependency on unsustainable energy.

"We saw port-o-potties get locked because they were unsustainable and problematic and composting toilets go up within a day. Lemme tell ya, that's amazing.”

Sam’s amazement isn’t just tied to the rapidity with which the more sustainable solutions can be implemented.  It is also about how much better things like composting toilets are from a Nexus perspective.  A “port-o-pottie” merely pretends to be a solution for dealing with human waste, but merely displaces the problem “downstream”, contaminating land and  water through the dumping of its chemical laden and now useless fecal material and, if incinerated, adding to the energy and air pollution problem.  A composting toilet by contrast, not only  renders fecal material harmless but actually builds life giving soil for new food production , keeps contamination away from water and air, and, though still unrecognized at the camp on a large scale, generates energy, producing enough heat through aerobic digestion that it can save lives in the coldest winters.  I have been witness to how the  Sherpas in Nepal’s Himalayas actually use composting toilets built next to their houses to add heat to the house.  I have used compost toilets in Portugal to stay warm on frigid nights.  So this one simple  technology turns out to be in itself a nexus solution of considerable power.

Copper coil heat exchanger on wood stove at Standing Rock. Photo courtesy of Sam Smith.

Combined with well insulated biodigesters, heated by solar hot water and the waste heat from the wood burning stoves, transforming all the food waste and some of the fecal material  into methane cooking fuel  and fertilizer, the waste turns out to be a solution instead of a problem.

Once people at the camps get their cultural taboos in order, abandon fecophobia and get their minds around using compost toilets and food-waste biodigesters  to help keep water liquid and help with space heating, it is my contention that a significant part of the winter problem facing the camp will feel solvable… the more people there are, the more heat will be generated.

And one of the great things about the camp is that as the fight goes on and the need to keep a permanent presence gets recognized, this remote area can serve as an educational hub to energize others.

Sam writes enthusiastically about  something I also observed with great hopefulness when I was at Standing Rock.

He writes,
“We saw a schoolhouse get built that is a true inspiration for the children who live on the land. We saw an unflagging intensity to kill the black snake with green energy, perseverance, extreme cleverness, community and prayer. We want to go back and help. We need to. We want to bring your intention and energy and support with us.”

The idea that there might finally be a schoolhouse and curriculum somewhere in the world dedicated to ending the rule of the black snake’s petro-dominance is lifting the hopes not just of the international allies flocking to the Indian reservation in  Dakota but of everybody connected to it through today’s light-speed spirit lifting social media.  Facebook, for example, is turning into a virtual classroom for the Food-Energy-Water Nexus where problem solvers and water protectors are connecting to connect all the dots, collect all the parts, learn all the systems and synergies and how to integrate them.

Sam writes to his facebook supporters,

“The items we need to be independent are:
-Solar Powered Fairy Lights and string lights
-Flexible Solar Panels (100, 120 or 150W) ($150-$250, easy to set up on tents)
-12V 100Ah AGM Lead Acid Batteries (Work with and expand our existing power systems)
-Plug-in Power Tools (battery powered ones don't work in the cold)
-Thermo-Electric Generator modules (DC electricity from ANY heat differential, also produce hot water)
-Portable Tables and Shelves (the nice plastic folding ones)
-Solar Powered Phone Battery Packs and/or nicer rechargeable battery packs
-7-20 ton Shop Press (3 needed to make hella fucks, we've got 1)
-Engine Block Heater (for when the engine block in the van freezes)
-20lb Propane Tanks (bonus if they have propane! We need to run heaters to be able to work until we can get alternative energy systems in place.)
-Large propane heaters (nice ones)
We love you all, we love Standing Rock, We are not giving up. We are dedicated and capable and determined.”

And why would you give up when an application of Nexus principles and the right technologies actually proves its utility by saving your life?  Those of us who live in the nexus are dedicated , capable and determined because we have lived the benefits, getting through earthquakes and hurricanes and economic collapses and wars and blackouts and other hard times precisely because these things DO work. And once you have seen them and felt them work, you can't give up.

The list Sam came up with is interesting because it is a good example of the prioritization that occurs when theory and practice collide and cohere into PRAXIS IN THE NEXUS, when practitioners on the ground start applying what they have learned and live what works and what doesn’t and where and why.  It is one thing to dream about some solar powered organically fed clean water eutopia free of fossil fuels and pollution and chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  It is another to be facing a harsh winter on a small piece of property surrounded by militarized police and barbed wire fences cut off from easy access to the outside world constrained by  limited funds and time.  Compromises have to be made and planning for success must embrace immediate realities and long-term ideals.

If we can succeed at Standing Rock we will prove that Nexus thinking really is the most powerful multi-tool in our sustainability tool-kit. Standing Rock makes a stand that is as timeless at it is urgent.  The first nations people stand as a symbol of independence and sustainability that was almost obliterated by the incessant march of greed and profit seeking capitalism driven by Europeans with  a world view based on resource extraction and plundering and expansionism because Imperialist Europe  lacked an understanding of or appreciation for  interconnections and the non-zero sum nature of resource cycles. Finally many of the descendants of the colonialist enterprise have come to understand nexus thinking and are willing to apply it. We are all just waiting for the right when and where.

It is my belief that when we heal this “original sin” of the American genocide, a time in history when an entire continent's people and their lifestyles were exterminated and slavery and fossil fuel power were employed to create the world’s leading economic and military and cultural power, the example will have the power to penetrate the consciousness of all the descendants of nations and cultures who profited from the take over of the Americas but who are now all suffering the same fate of health problems and ecosystem collapse.

Just as non-Nexus thinking and the absurd 19th and 20th century  logics of capitalist commercialization and compartmentalization and reductionism spread unsustainable practices all over the planet, a new wave of nexus thinking now needs to spread from the United States back out to the world.   America is arguably where the stone was thrown into the world development pond, sending out not just  ripples but a tidal wave of destruction as culture after culture adopted our destructive practices. This sacred stone of sustainability being dropped into the pool of history at Standing Rock could be the exactly what is needed to undo that damage.

It is for this reason that I conceive of the water war being waged at Standing Rock as the nexus for all issues concerning  sustainability – not just water, energy, food and waste, but culture as well.
Says, “This is the first time that leaders from across the Sioux Nation—representing all Sioux groups—have come together since 1876… more than 200 tribal nations have assembled peacefully there to resist the pipeline, travelling from as far as Hawaii, Canada and Latin America…As Noam Chomsky recently observed, “all over the world the leading forces in trying to prevent a race to [environmental] disaster are the indigenous communities.”

When indigenous communities all around the world choose a time space cultural and environmental  nexus like this, and join together with the descendants of their oppressors in applying new nexus understandings, for the first time in history, the race can finally be over. As the Beatles sang,  it is time to “Come Together, right now”… over this:  making a stand for food, energy and water sustainability at Standing Rock.