How ecologically sound city design can end pollution and clean up the environmental wreckage of the past.
Plus, how to go "poo-less," and how to maybe use diamond batteries (a.k.a. betavoltaics) to clean up nuclear waste.
▲ What is pollution, anyway?
For most of us, it means something yucky and dangerous and unhealthy that you don't want, right? Or maybe unnecessary byproduct of modern life.
I mean, can we really get rid of it entirely?
Well from a permaculture perspective, which is to say, the perspective of applied ecology, waste is any output not used by a system and work is any need not met by a system.
Now, in Edenicity, which is all about large scale permaculture, we're looking at large scale designs with the intention of eliminating waste and work at the personal level, and reversing all of the large scale harms that were causing in the world.
But as you'll see, when we get into the details, it gets personal, very personal.
▲ Intro [music]
Cities designed like modern Edens, for economic and ecological abundance I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.
Welcome to Episode 35, where I'll discuss the Edenicity of pollution.
This would be a good time for you to have a look at the reference design that's available in a link in the show notes.
▲ Removing pollution sources
Let's start by considering how Edenicity reduces pollution. And these are ecology based strategies that cascade through all aspects of life in Edenicity to reduce the total energy demand by an astonishing 98.4% as we discussed in Episode 32.
Now the cool thing about this reduced demand is that it allows solar power to completely replace fossil fuels. So in one step, we've basically eliminated air pollution from car exhausts, power plants, refineries and coal mines. These kill way more people every year than car crashes. See Episode 4 for details.
In fact, Edenicity will end coal mining, which permanently damages groundwater by exposing pyrites that dissolve, leaching sulfuric acid into springs and streams. When I lived in Southeast Ohio, I had a friend whose job was to go and maintain the dosing stations that were required to neutralize many of the local creeks to pH levels that were safe for people in wildlife. Now, of course, this was all at public expense, long after the mining companies had left.
Edenicity's solar power infrastructure also eliminates the need for nuclear power and nuclear waste, which is toxic for thousands of years. Edenicity's underground loop transit system entirely replaces cars. This eliminates heavy metal and fuel based runoff that can make their way to waterways; it also eliminates the road and engine noise and car alarms that make city living so miserable.
And finally, the loop transit eliminates all those disgusting toxic fluids that drip from cars. Those sticky slicks of oil you find under old cars, or worse, those deadly little pools of antifreeze. These come from radiators, brake fluid and windshield wiper fluid.
The problem is that antifreeze is mostly ethylene glycol, which has a sweet taste, but just a tablespoon of it can cause permanent lethal damage without treatment, within a few short hours. See the problem.
My wife had a dog who she later found out must have lapped up some antifreeze from a parking lot. Poor little Georgie got sick immediately, and died of kidney failure a few days later.
Once again Edenicity has no cars so it has no puddles of poison lying around on the ground.
And then there's Edenicity organic farm to cafe culture. All farms are within walking distance from home. And as Joel Salatin said in his inspiring manifesto, You Can Farm, farms should smell nice, not bad. Edenicity's permacultural beyond-Organic farm practices eliminate foul odors and runoff of fertilizers, pesticides, and bacteria-ridden animal waste that you would find in concentrated animal feeding operations.
For example, Zone 3, the broadacre crop area, would use a variety of techniques such as growing crops in rotation with cattle to build soil, much as the Romans did before slavery and large estates ruined their soils and eventually their civilization.
The key here is to have relatively small, tight packed herds that graze intensively for a few days and move on. Then you can follow up with chickens to remove insect pests. Edenicity also does not try to boost soil fertility with nitrate fertilizers that can leach into waterways causing toxic algal blooms. Instead, it boosts soil health with compost in the Zone 2 orchards in the center of the apartment blocks. For larger areas, the Zone 3 broadacre crop areas you would use compost tea.
Here's the general recipe: you blow air through a healthy compost and bubble it through slightly sugary water to deposit the desired microbes, then use this tea to inoculate the fields after light rain. This is a way of really stretching that microbial resource onto a large area. And Jeff Lawton, the world's leading permaculturist, claims he can get much higher than commercial yields using this method. In other words, it greatly outperforms commercial fertilizers. And the best part is it builds soil health and long term fertility.
Now the farm is part of a total farm to cafe culture that eliminates grocery packaging that would otherwise go to landfill, lakes and oceans. It also redirects all food waste back to compost. More about that next episode.
Okay, now let's look at how Edenicity replaces or reduces pollution sources in the home. The main way it does that is through non toxic skin and fabric care. And the main theme here is to have better processes and simpler non toxic chemistry following what's called the precautionary principle. The idea here is to be very skeptical of new chemical formulations that have not undergone very rigorous long term testing.
And just to give you a hint of where we're going, back in the early '90s, a doctor friend of mine called my attention to a then recent study that had shown that disinfectant wasn't as good as just plain saline water for cleaning wounds.
Why was that? Well, the disinfectants tended to damage tissues, slowing recovery and leaving them more vulnerable to infection.
For me that planted the first seed of doubt in all of those smelly cleaners that we use around the house. Here's how simple and environmentally friendly it could be.
First of all, vinegar is recognized by the FDA as an excellent cleaner, and an alternative to chlorine bleach. I use it diluted for most kitchen and bathroom cleaning tasks. And the FDA is right to ban antibacterial cleaners that contain triclosan. The problem is that as they get out into the environment, they breed super bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics when we have an infection. A better choice for disinfectant would be alcohol 70% or more, or hydrogen peroxide for hands, doorknobs, light switches, and so forth in the COVID era. These broad spectrum disinfectants wipe out bacteria and viruses alike, and are strong enough that it's very unlikely that microbes will acquire any immunity to them.
Let's talk about soaps, shampoos and conditioners. And this is going to get wild. If you Google the word "poo-less", as in shampoo-less, you'll find quite a discussion online in the permies forum, which is a permaculture forum run by Paul Wheaton.
Now I'm going to emphasize that this is not strictly necessary for Edenicity. But for various reasons, I think that many people living in Edenicity will eventually adopt this life. style. So here goes. If it freaks you out, just skip to the next section, and I won't hold it against you!
The basic concept here is that soaps are a waste because they leave residues not used by the system of your skin. So the permaculture thing to do is to drastically cut down on your use of body soap and you still need hand soap for basic day to day sanitation, of course. Now skin produces natural sebum, which is an emollient. Soap removes it, leaving you dry, and then you have to add moisturizers and that's more work.
Now, years ago, when I was dating again, I was googling around for the most inoffensive soap and came across a research item that said that your natural scent is best and you're better off without deodorant and without soaps. And there's this thing in dating called chemistry where your natural scent smells good to some people and those are the ones who are likely to like you for a long time.
I know it sounds wild, but the basic concept is that people with compatible immune systems smell better to each other. In other words, you don't catch each other's colds.
Anyway, I was googling around for more information about how to do that when I came across Paul Wheaton's blog on permies, about going poo-less. Now there's lots of individual variation, but the gist of it is that many people could benefit from frequent water washing with no soap or shampoo. And as people tried this, they found that many of the strange odors that accumulate on our skin, hair and clothes came from those shampoos and soaps. And this brought to mind an incident that happened when I was 10. A family member was having skin problems, and the doctors couldn't figure it out. I chimed in with "Hey, what if you got rid of that new scented toilet paper?" Well, that fixed it immediately.
Similarly, people who went poo-less generally reported reduced skin problems and hair that had more body and shine, although sometimes slightly less softness or silkiness.
Now around this time, I was living in a tiny off grid house and bathing in just one to two liters of rainwater applied with a squeeze bottle, no soap, just lots of washcloth action. And what I found was that I could get very clean, even after digging 600 feet of sweet potatoes with facial sunscreen on just two small squeeze bottles and wash cloth and a Thai stick of deodorant left me good to go out dancing, and I never lacked for partners.
Now look, I know this isn't strictly for everybody. I'm short haired, and I know that hair length has a lot to do with how much water you can use. And I'm no longer bought into the idea of really skimping on water, because in permaculture you're regenerating groundwater in abundance in almost all climates. But I did find that my natural body smell was a natural matchmaker.
Now again, let me emphasize that I did use regular hand soap many times a day washing my hands because I was handling food. And the upshot for me today living a more normal city life is that I do use body soap and shampoo, but only maybe once every few weeks to remove sunscreen or to deal with a feeling of residue build up in my hair or on my skin.
Okay, so let's just tuck that thought away for now. We'll come back to it at the end.
Now what about laundry in Edenicity? Generally speaking, you would use a laundry service, as this is more environmentally friendly than everybody owning their own washing machine and dryer that gets used just a few hours a week.
Well, the chemicals in traditional dry cleaning are quite harsh and environmentally unfriendly, not to mention the fact that there's a lot of plastic waste in dry cleaning. So I was thrilled to learn of Blanc cleaners in England, which offers a Woolmark-approved dry cleaning alternative that uses a sustainable wet cycle. And their franchise would most definitely be welcome in Edenicity.
Of course, there would be aggressive and highly automated recycling, which I'll discuss in greater detail in Episode 36. And each of the four industrial zones would include a wastewater treatment plant the size of a village.
▲ Wastewater treatment
Now, conventional plants are quite efficient, and the outputs consist of water that can be used immediately for zone three fiber crop irrigation in the industrial zones, as well as solids to be used in compost, which recovers nutrients from sewage and neutralizes organic and inorganic toxins, and finally methane gas to be used in specialized fuel applications such as a few gas stoves in high end restaurants throughout the city.
The four industrial zones will include zero waste industries, which I'll discuss in more detail in Episode 37. Their main impact on pollution is that they vastly reduce the need for mining and hence mine waste. And finally, Edenicity reduces our overall land use by at least 97% and this limits the overall scope of pollution and things like highway noise and runoff and roadkill (which are gone because of Hyperloop) and subtler forms of pollution such as light pollution, which disrupts bird migrations and firefly life cycles as well as human biorhythms.
Edenicity's total design further reduces light pollution. There's no car dealerships with blaring floodlights. Edenicity's LED path lights along sidewalks and bikeways provide far more safe and useful illumination than street lights. Outdoor lighting would be just enough light just where you need it. And the result would be that at night, you could see the sky with all the stars and planets and in the summer, looking at the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius, you would see the shape of the central bulge of the Milky Way galaxy naked eye within city limits.
▲ Healing past damage
Now let's talk about how Edenicity would heal past damage.
Let's start with carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide traps infrared radiation in the atmosphere, heating it up. This causes extreme weather, damages crops and ecosystems, and causes extinctions. According to a climate.gov publication last month, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased about 28% in my lifetime, and it's not slowing down. It has already made the ocean 30% more acidic, making it hard for sea life to form bones and shells. If the carbon increases another 28%, according to a 2018 paper in environmental International, it will start having measurable effects on human blood pressure and heart rates. And these effects are magnified indoors. It's not enough to end global carbon emissions. We have to reverse them by removing incredibly large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it.
Here's how Edenicity does that. In the reference design, you'll find that Zones 1 through 4 are carbon neutral to slightly negative due to solar power and extensive tree cover. When I say carbon negative, what I mean is that it would have the net effect of removing carbon from the atmosphere, which is a good thing.
Zone 5, the wilderness, sequesters carbon. The way it does that is by shrinking our land footprint from today's 47% down to about one and a half percent. Once that's done, we depave now obsolete highways and urban spaces so that grasslands and trees have space to grow. And finally, we restore and reforest the vacated land, which works out to about 7 billion trees per Edenicity.
Now short term, the trees store carbon up to five times faster than today's emissions, putting the brakes on carbon emissions.
Long term, we're talking about carbon sequestration, and that's a slower process. It's a case of 20 steps forward 19 steps back, because fires and natural decay will release much of the trees' carbon back into the atmosphere. But remember, our lifestyle in Zones 1 through 4 produces no net carbon and maybe sequesters a little of it, too. So decade by decade, century by century, the forests or grasslands we reestablish will undo the harms of the past century or two.
▲ Nuclear cleanup
Now, clearly Edenicity makes nuclear power obsolete. The problem is there are over 100 boiling water reactors similar to Fukushima throughout the world. And these are dangerous and toxic. There are also still 10 reactors, similar to Chernobyl in Russia. Decommissioning and cleaning up all these reactors and safely storing their waste is a huge problem, and I honestly have no idea how to solve it. This is way beyond the scope of anything that I've done or thought seriously about, but it does need to happen and it's a major challenge for the first generations to live in Edenicity.
In one sense, nuclear waste is the ultimate test of the permaculture mantra waste equals resource. There's been some research and a lot of hype about using these materials to create batteries that could last many decades. These schemes use the irradiated graphite from the control rods of a nuclear reactor. According to an August 2020 Wired magazine article, there are 100,000 tonnes of this waste in the United Kingdom alone. To make a battery from nuclear waste, you simply boil off the radioactive carbon 14 and condense it into diamonds, then layer it with carbon's stable isotope, carbon 12, for safety. As the carbon 14 decays into nitrogen, it produces fast moving electrons. Physicists call these "beta particles." These leave positively charged gaps that can power an electrical circuit.
The half life of carbon 14 is 5700 years so these beta voltaic batteries could be expected to last perhaps dozens to hundreds of years before the diamond lattice became too frayed to function. Supposedly the radiation is fully contained within the stable carbon layers and the casing of the device.
Arkenlight, the firm profiled in the Wired article, seems legit. Their claims are modest: low power applications like powering smoke detectors, pacemakers and remote sensors. However, it doesn't seem likely that these specialist applications will make a dent in the vast number of decommissioned control rods.
Another firm has been making wild claims about building beta voltaics that could power everything from mobile phones to electric cars for many decades without recharging, and compete with lithium ion on cost within five years. I stopped by their website and, if they have the technology or the team to pull this off, they're keeping it a secret. I'm not convinced.
Of course, I'd love to be wrong!
▲ Solar panels
Now there's been some talk recently about solar panels being an environmental problem in their own right in the long run. So let's get into that in a little bit of detail.
Solar panels lose 8-20% of their efficiency every 25 years. Edenicity's energy consumption is likely to drop in that time due to shifting consumption patterns. For example, if 5 million people move to Edenicity, and 4 million buy bikes, that's 200,000 bikes manufactured per year in the first 20 years, but after that people might only need 50,000 bikes per year. So demand could fall enough to get another 25 years or more out of the solar panels as our industrial demand and output drops.
Solar panels are already amazingly durable. But we'll have 25 to 50 years to figure out how to recycle them, make them longer lived and make them easier to maintain. There's also a lot of progress going on in all these areas right now. And just to put things in perspective, let's compare solar panels to other materials.
A square meter of transparent solar photovoltaic in a temperate location like Ohio would produce four megawatt hours throughout its first 25 years. It would have a mass of 10 kilograms, and you would need to burn 1.6 tons of coal to get that much energy. That's 160 times as much material for the same amount of electricity.
I think thin film panels could be designed for easy replacement and recovery of the organic layer, which would weigh a tiny fraction of the total. The glass layers would be fully recyclable, maybe even fully reusable with just light refurbishment.
Bottom line: Edenicity's energy industry is not very polluting, and in the end may be fully recyclable, which would completely eliminate its capacity to pollute.
▲ What will life be like?
What will it be like to live in such a place?
I could sum it up in one word: clean!
Instead of noisy cars dripping poisons, you live among orchards, healthy farms and forests. Instead of breathing car exhaust and smoke from power plants, you smell the rain, sunshine and flowers.
Instead of blaring horns, engine starting and the roar of highways even miles away, you hear birds and crickets and children playing.
Instead of tasting stale supermarket produce and canned food and having to clean the kitchen twice a day, you join family and friends in the cafe for a meal harvested fresh an hour ago.
The night sky is starry. The day sky is deep emerald blue. It's a healthy place and you can feel it in your hair and skin, which have become so smooth and healthy, that they need surprisingly little soap or shampoo. Just the clean water that Edenicity has in abundance.
And you know your lifestyle is daily taking carbon out of the atmosphere and making the whole world an easier place to live.
What a perfect day for a walk or a bike ride!
▲ Close [music]
If you enjoyed Episode 35 please spread the love by clicking that share link in your podcast player. And be sure to join me next time when I'll discuss even the city's unique strategy for recycling.
I'm Kev Polk and this has been Edenicity.