Implementing Open Source Ecology in The Village on Sewanee Creek

Open Source Ecology, which aims to provide the blueprints and instructions to build the 50 most essential machines for civilization, promises to be one of the great industrial shifts in the coming decade. The promise of industrial manufacturing in garage and tool-shed not only permits low-cost solutions, but independence and security in the event of disaster.

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The 19th century industrial revolution eliminated the cottage industry through the development of assembly lines and division of labor. In the globalized economy, Western consumers have become dependent on imports to sustain our consumer lifestyle. Many products are no longer manufactured within the United States and other developed nations. While not an intrinsically bad system, the era of self-sustainability has gone by the wayside. Gone is the simple life, replaced by global supply chains and logistics solutions to get your toothbrush from the other side of the world.

The first taste of a return to the good life is exemplified by the excitement over the 3D printing revolution. For example, a company which aims to provide the next generation of manufacturing, 3D Systems, has had its stock price double due to investor expectations. The same excitement that surrounds the ability to manufacture your own custom plastics with 3D printers is magnified by Open Source Ecology, which provides the DIY designs to build everything from your own tractor to making construction bricks from compressed earth. The ability to have a plasma cutter, bioplastic extruder, and dimensional sawmill at your disposal offers the prospect of a rebirth of cottage industries. Manufacturing will only be limited by your imagination, not for the lack of tools or material. Your open source induction furnace will largely eliminate material constraints.

Sawmill
The open source movement is expanding into the physical realm but like the online sector, open source is only as strong as its community of contributors. The movement not only relies on its network of designers and prototypers, but communes and clubs to build and test the machines. One such community is the Village on Sewanee Creek, a sustainable community on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee.  The property development has weekly projects where villagers come together as a group to build chicken coops and biochar gasifiers to support a self sustaining community. Groups like these are part of the development and the success of Open Source Ecology

For example, the Village on Sewanee Creek recently ran into a hitch when their tractor began to malfunction.  Open Source Ecology now provides the designs and instructions to allow the village to build a tractor of their own. One that they can fix on site should problems arise and made from materials locally available. The village not only brings together likeminded people interested in tinkering, fabricating, and sustainability, but roots its community weekly projects such as building an open source tractor.  Open Source Ecology will succeed best in a permanent setting where the community is already project oriented and dedicated to self-sufficiency.

Find out more about the Village on Sewanee Creek here.

Saving the World one person at a time … starting with me

“Teach them Correct Principles and they Govern Themselves”.  This is the foundation for a sustainable world.  This is my message to the world.
I was asked to give a talk to the Economics club at Sewanee, the University of the South on our independent local currency initiative, the Sewanee Dollar.  But when the sponsor, a student representing the Economics Club read my BLOG, he decided there is more to the story.

He admitted to being a closet Libertarian, an unpopular position at liberal Sewanee U.  But, he said he was having a hard time reconciling “sustainability” with some of the libertarian views I had written of on this blog.  In his mind, these were polar opposites.  To which I responded,

“I can’t imagine anything sustainable unless founded on true principles, including the freedom to act on them”.  

That led to a broader discussion of sustainability.  Sustainable extends into eternity.  It’s not just about restraining ourselves from destroying natural Eco-systems, although that is part of it.  It includes spiritual, moral, physical and economic sustainability.   It’s about being wise, good stewards.  It’s about being the change we want to see.

In other words, Saving the World one person at a time. . . starting with me.

PS:  For a list of some of the community projects referred to in the above video, see my post, Socialism Fails as Free Markets Flourish In the Village.

New Opportunity for Sustainable Energy?

One of the things that I think distinguishes Sewanee Creek from people in intentional eco-village communities is that we look at things through the practical eyes of real-world street experience. As a seasoned businessman, I recognize the importance of understanding basic economics. That’s why I have waited to invest in solar PV even though I’m driven to be energy self-sufficient. The way I see it, if the investment cost is too high to justify a reasonable return on investment, it’s not a “sustainable technology” I monitor the Solar PV industry fairly closely by subscribing to industry periodicals on the web. Just this morning, I read an article complaining about reductions in government subsidies in Germany that will potentially devastate the world’s richest Solar PV market. What does that say? To me, it says “without subsidies (rob from other more efficient businesses to pay for something less economical but politically attractive), the technology is not currently sustainable”. That’s not to say Solar PV won’t ever be sustainable. It’s actually getting there through lots of incremental innovations and scaling to reach critical mass. Just not yet.

Until then, I look for other technologies or energy sources that are truly SUSTAINABLE not only from an environmental standpoint but also from an economic standpoint. That kind of thinking is especially important right now for people who care, as I do, about the environment. Why? Because without economic sustainability, environmental sustainability amounts to a bunch of hippies around a campfire singing Kumbayah as the environment implodes.

I try to monitor a lot of information, looking for clues and inspiration for sustainable ideas. Continuously testing sustainable solutions, I invested in a Lister (diesel) generator, a wood gasifier and a micro hydro-electric generator for the creek and waterfall near my house. That experience has taught me a lot that I can share with community members with similar goals. That’s one of the many reasons people are attracted to the Village. As I often say, we’re not selling just land. We’re offering the distilled expertise of a community of like-minded, hard-headed people with similar goals. It’s been hard work bringing all of that together, but for people who are serious about learning to live more independently, the value of this kind of community is beyond priceless.

But I digress. Let’s get back to energy solutions. As I said, I invested in a Lister Diesel generator and several of my vehicles run on diesel.
Diesel has some wonderful properties for self-sufficient, off-grid living.

  1. It can be stored for up to 8 years without deteriorating, while regular gasoline is only good for a few months.
  2. You can make bio-diesel from waste oil products or vegetable oil.
  3. Diesel engines produce more torque than gasoline engines and deliver better gas mileage in vehicles
  4. Until a few years ago diesel was a lot cheaper than gasoline.

But number four has changed big-time for a lot of market-driven reasons that I won’t go into here. The price of diesel is now a lot higher than gas and rapidly heading north. So, as markets change, so must strategies, including those for sustainable off-grid living. Lately I’ve been re-thinking my plans to use the Lister generator to make my own electricity. Diesel is no longer an economically attractive solution, at least for now.

This morning, right after I read the Solar industry newsletter, I read another newsletter from an investment consulting firm that recommends buying stock in a natural gas company.  FYI, I’m no longer in the stock market. I simply believe it’s a playground for insider trading, rigged against the small guy. That’s me. So, while I won’t be using the investment advice, there is valuable information to be found in diverse sources if you are creative enough to connect the dots. Here are some excerpts that caught my eye.

A New Energy “Megatrend” Is Starting … Get in Now
Friday, February 24, 2012

“We will see natural gas as a transportation fuel inside of five years.” The latest bust has brought natural gas prices down from about $4.80 per trillion cubic feet (tcf) to $2.65 per tcf in the past nine months… And …it isn’t over yet. … wouldn’t be surprised if natural gas prices hit $2 in the short term. That’s about a 25% decline from current prices.

If this forecast proves correct, that’s an even stronger argument behind the buildout of a new transportation network based on natural gas. At $2 per tcf, natural gas would be more than 65% cheaper as a transportation fuel than gasoline. Trucking companies are adapting right now. Waste Management, UPS, Coca-Cola, and Wal-Mart are buying trucks with engines that run on natural gas. Clean Energy Fuels is building natural gas fueling stations across every major highway in America. Soon, Ford and GM will be selling cars that run on the clean fuel.

The U.S. is now “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” That’s remaking the country’s energy industry. The glut of gas supplies has led to a historic collapse in prices. Over the past six months, natural gas is down 40%. And it’s not likely to soar soon…
Looking at the numbers, the U.S. consumed roughly 24 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas in 2010. Based on estimates provided by the Potential Gas Committee, a nonprofit organization, the U.S. has roughly 2,170 tcf of natural gas reserves. Dividing 2,170 by 24 means the U.S. is sitting on a 90-year supply.
At current prices, natural gas as a transportation fuel is now 50% cheaper than regular gasoline. This fundamental shift in prices is causing some of the largest trucking fleets in the U.S. to switch from using diesel engines to ones that run on natural gas. These companies include Wal-Mart, Ryder, Coca-Cola, and Waste Management.

Hmmm.  Maybe T. Boone Pickens was right.

Off-grid preppers know that living the independent, sustainable lifestyle requires you to build in resilience. Interpreted into every day life, that means

  1. Redundant systems. If something fails, you need backups.
  2. It also means a little personal know-how about a lot of things and enough confidence and energy to build or fix stuff.
  3. Finally, because things change, you need to be aware, flexible creative and resourceful.

Looks like it may be time to take a hard look at natural gas as another energy system. I’ll be working with others at the Village and sharing what we find out.

BTW:  This was posted on our internal board called “Friends of Sewanee Creek”.  There was some spirited discussion that followed.  I’ll post that as a comment to this post.  If you are interested in joining our private site, contact me here.

It’s not what you make. It’s what you keep that counts.

Sustainability

It’s the buzzword of the decade.  Wrapped up in that word are other buzzwords like “green” andeco-friendly.  But these words represent passing fads.  The bedrock reality underlying sustainability is a much more prosaic, boring, yet little understood word, “Economics”.   It’s a terrifying word.  It suggests complex supply / demand curves and the inscrutable workings of inscrutable institutions like the Federal Reserve, the IMF and the World Bank.  People are increasingly frustrated and angry with the “banksters”, politicians and other manipulators of “the economy”.

Take a deep breath.  It’s actually quite simple at our level.  Make more than you spendThat’s it.  Take charge of your life.  Live frugally.  Be industrious.  Build and create.

That’s not to say that one need not be aware of the many external factors that weigh in on the spending side of the equation.  America’s favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, is next week. 

The Washington Post informs us Thanksgiving Dinner this year will cost 13% more than last year.  Yup, inflation is accelerating.  It’s about to get a lot worse.  Thankfully, I’ll be keeping more of what most people will be spending on a Thanksgiving feast this year.  We raise our own vegetables and poultry!

We’ll be enjoying some non-traditional, but delicious green tomato pie, remnants of our summer garden after a hard freeze last week.  Interesting how that word “Sustainability” is increasingly associated with another buzzword, self-sufficiency.  Keeping more of your output is inseparably connected with controlling both your income and outgo.  And that’s what self-sufficiency is all about – personal independence and control.

The good life is about more than financial economics.  Peace of mind is an even bigger part.  That’s why self-sufficiency, the sense that I’m in control of my destiny is so closely connected with sustainability and economics, which are all about achieving an abundant life.  Abundance can be in things, but has a lot more to do with state of mind.  It’s hard to have one without the other.

It’s not easy to be self-sufficient and independent.  It takes forethought, planning, intelligence and work, all values that were common to the early American ethic that seem to have become lost in the generations of excess.  Thankfully, those values are coming back into fashion.

One of the obvious elements to consider in the outgo part of the equation is the general cost of living.  We selected rural Tennessee as the place to buy land and put down our homestead.  Tennessee offers the lowest overall cost of living in the U.S.  For thinking people who want an abundant life, keeping more for themselves of what they produce, it’s an obvious choice.

For thinking people, there are many ways to cut costs beyond the current coupon fad.  Coupons only tie people to existing products and systems that reduce your control of your life.   Coupons might be put to better use as band-aids with a little stick-em.   That’s all they are anyway; short-term relief for a chronic disease.  Band-aids can be useful, but not for long.  In the Village on Sewanee Creek, an intelligent Intentional Community, people work together.  Cooperative effort on gardens, homes and other projects increases productivity and reduces costs.  We try to standardize on equipment and vehicles.  That way, it’s easier to repair things (increased productivity) and maintain extra parts (reduced, shared costs on a few critical items).   This kind of coöperation takes extra thought, extra preparation, extra commitment.  That’s why most people don’t do it.  That’s why most people don’t keep a lot of what they make.

At the end of the day, economics is pretty simple at our level.  Keep more than you spend.  Spend only on things of lasting value.  Work with your neighbors.  It’s all natural law.  We call it … “in harmony with people and nature”.  It’s our motto and it’s working to create a more sustainable, abundant life for people in the Village.