I am a professional engineer practicing in the field of Natural Environment engineering, including the assessment and mitigation of natural hazards, mostly concerning flooding, erosion and land slipping. For the last 30 years I have worked as a consulting engineer on catchment and river management issues throughout New Zealand, including hazard assessment, design and construction of works, water and soil resource investigations, the evaluation of environmental effects and economic impacts, and the management of assets.

I am a Fellow of EngNZ for: “his role in designing flood management schemes that harmonise with the natural environment. He has led the development and dissemination of an approach based on working with nature by understanding natural behaviour and the form of waterways, and then adding channels or fairways that augment rather than modify the natural behavoiur.”

I also provide a permaculture design and advisory service, and facilitate and tutor permaculture courses and workshops. I initiated the forming of a permaculture emergency response team, and was part of a small team that responded to the Christchurch earthquakes by providing information and guidance on compost toilets as an option, given the damage and disfunction of the city sewerage system.

With my partner, we manage a small 50 hectare property, with a diverse range of farm and forest activities, following the practices and methods of organic and biodynamic agriculture.

My academic qualifications are: Bachelor of Engineering (Civil – Hons 1st), Bachelor of Science (Physics) and Master of Commerce (Economics – Hons 2nd).



I have read the Terms of Reference [T of R] of the Inquiry. However, I am not clear what the inquiry will cover and what is excluded, for instance the meaning of ‘operational’ and ‘structural’ in reference to the purposes and practices of the Earthquake Commission [EQC].

In common with many New Zealanders, I have family, friends and professional colleagues who were directly affected by the Christchurch earthquakes, and I had direct contact with many people in Christchurch through the community-organised workshops on compost toilets, from February to September 2011. From this I am aware of the many issues and problems that arose concerning insurance claims, rebuilding actions and EQC responses.

My submission, though, is not so much about what happened in Christchurch, but more about why it happened in the way it did. It is about the wider context in which EQC operates, and how this impacts on its operational practices. As noted in the T of R, the Commission provides insurance for natural disasters, and this includes flooding and land slippage. My professional experience is on these hazards, of flooding, erosion and land slip. My experience also covers different institutional arrangements and government policy concerning the responses to and mitigation of these natural hazards.

My initial professional training was with the, then, Ministry of Works & Development, and as an engineer with qualifications in economics I was directly involved in policies and procedures on emergency responses, insurance and mitigation of risks, including the economic and environmental effects of alternative approaches. Since the late 1980s, New Zealand has been in the very unusual position, compared to other countries, of having no central government ministry of works or infrastructure planning agency.

Central government ministries or authorities now have no real operational capacity, and are generally reliant on outsourced contractors for professional and technical knowledge and advice. This is the case with EQC, as a government authority.

My submission, then, is based on my personal and professional experience of natural hazard events, of differing type and intensity, over a long period of time and under different institutional arrangements. Its focus is on the general context of natural hazard management, the role of insurance, and of the EQC in particular. I consider what happened in Christchurch, but my main concern is how EQC, and we as a country, respond to natural disasters (events causing substantial damage and social or economic dislocation).

Personally and professionally I have a deep concern about the ineffectiveness of our responses to high intensity natural events, and the lack of any real resilience in our infrastructure and in our social or economic capacity to cope with, adjust to and rebuild after severely damaging events.


The Christchurch earthquake activity was unusual in the number of significant damaging earthquakes in the region, and the long duration of earthquake activity. This made both the insurance and re-building responses especially complex. What made the insurance response even more difficult was the co-insurance between a public insurer and private insurance by a number of separate private companies.

The 1994 Act involved a partial privatisation of the Commission, to become the EQC, with the first $100,000 of claims covered by EQC and any additional amount by private insurers. For the Christchurch earthquakes, where the EQC determined that a number of earthquakes were ‘separate’ events in terms of its involvement trigger, and ‘events’ continued to occur over a relatively long period, the insurance liability and role of EQC relative to the private insurers became increasing complex and confusing.

At the same time, there was an assessment capacity and training shortfall, which from my knowledge and experience, appeared to become worse or more problematic with time, rather than being resolved by a well-directed and standardised training and assessment procedure. While standardised procedures and assessment templates were drawn up over time, they did not appear to be universally used or adhered to. The independent assessments of EQC and private insurers certainly did not help in this regard. There seemed to be a profound lack of coordination and overall management of the insurance and re-build activities.

The EQC, rather than facilitating the use of local companies and tradespeople, and supporting the training and up-skilling of local people, appeared to support the use of large (internationally owned) corporates, such as Fletchers, directing people to these companies. These large companies then took the cheaper option of importing the skilled people that they needed. The use and training of insurance assessors, by EQC and the private insurance companies, also seemed to be uncoordinated and without standardisation.


The social role of insurance is to spread the cost of loss and damage across the whole of society. Where the events that cause loss or damage are relatively rare and the risks can be assessed statistically across a large population, then premiums can be set for individuals, families or businesses, and the recovery costs spread over the population as a whole.

In my initial involvement with natural hazard risks and insurance in the 1970s, insurance companies were clear that they were risk spreaders, and calculated premiums on an actuarial basis. They were not in the game of social incentivising or proxy planning, for instance by charging varying premiums for flood damage insurance based on flood hazard vulnerability, to alter the behaviour of people and businesses. This was a matter for government authorities and planning agencies.

Over time, there has been a change in approach, with premium variations based on differing risks, generally for specific groups or parts of the population. An early example was the higher car insurance premiums for young people, and in particular young men. More recently there have been insurance companies that ‘cherry pick’ the safer end of the market, by offering lower premiums to selected people or businesses based on a risk profile.

Insurance has, thus, shifted, from a generalised premium that shares losses equally across the population, to a more targeted approach. The recent changes by private insurance companies concerning earthquake insurance in the Wellington region, to withdraw from cover or raise premiums, is a case in point.

Where flooding has given rise to extensive and expensive insurance claims, insurance companies tend to withdraw from the affected area, or will withdraw if improved flood protection is not provided. This puts pressure on the relevant authorities to fund improvements. Some insurance companies will pay out on a first flooding event, but then if there is another flood damaging the same properties, they will no longer provide insurance cover to those properties.


The natural processes and activities that give rise to hazards (that adversely affect us and our property or assets) have functional patterns in the intensity and extent of events. In general, the larger (and more intense) the activity the rarer the event. However, there are definite cyclical or oscillatory patterns, with periods of relative quiescence and period of more intense and frequent activity.

The records show that there are periods when more severe storms and flooding affects different regions in Aotearoa/New Zealand, [A/NZ] and larger events tend to come in clusters. When a severe storm/flood occurs in a region, there is often at least one other large event (within a period of about 6 months), and sometimes a series of other significant events (in terms of risk potential). The climatic conditions that generate a large event seem to persist long enough to generate another similar event, before the pattern changes.

This dynamic of quiescent and intense periods arises from the wind and ocean current circulation patterns of the south Pacific Ocean and the southern ocean circulation around Antarctica, which connects all the large oceans of the world. The intense period for a given region in A/NZ depends on the phase of these circulatory patterns, and different regions (east and west of the main mountain divide, and northern and southern regions) have their intense period at different times.

There is a similar pattern of quiescent periods and intense activity periods with earthquakes, but in this case the reasons or process dynamics for this variation are not so well known or understood.

Understanding these patterns of activity, and their relative timings, is clearly useful for insurance risk assessment, and for a more resilient community capacity and response effectiveness to hazard mitigation, including emergency responses and recovery actions.

The provision and protection of infrastructure could take these variations into account, and the reserve or emergency funds of public authorities could take cognisance of those patterns and differing risks over time.

An understanding of these patterns could also inform insurance risk assessments. However, what responses private insurers would take is an open question, as there are different strategies they could take to maximise their profitability. How the EQC as a public insurer, but providing only partial cover, and at the lower end of damages (up to $100,000), would, or should respond, in the context of differing responses of private insurers, seems to me to be a complex and difficult matter.


The tectonic location of A/NZ, with its earthquake, volcanic and land uplift and subduction activity, has given rise to a very active landscape, with steep and fractured mountain ranges and fast-flowing and very mobile rivers. Its oceanic location gives rise to a highly variable climate, that generates intense rainfall storms, and its mid-latitude position means that global climate changes have a very pronounced effect on the climate.

A/NZ is, then, naturally a high energy place, of strong winds, intense rainfall and frequent tectonic activity. Its landscape is very rugged and geologically undergoes relatively very rapid changes, while its climate is also highly changeable. This makes both the protection of human assets, livelihoods and lives, and insuring natural hazard losses, particularly challenging.

Rapid changes in the global climate from human-induced changes in the natural environment and ecosystems of the world, will have profound effects on the A/NZ environment and hence on people living here. Increasing risks and vulnerability are most likely in storm and flood related hazards, and along coastlines from storm generated waves and rising mean sea levels. The processes and dynamics of waterways are likely to change sufficiently in the near future to alter the form and natural character of our streams and rivers. This will greatly increase the vulnerability of a large proportion of the homes, farms and businesses of New Zealanders. Given the relatively high vulnerability to storm and flood damage in many places throughout A/NZ, we, as a country, face challenging times, in this regard, as well as in other ways.


The operations of EQC, as a partial insurer of natural hazard losses to residential properties, has a complex and difficult structural context. This is compounded by the fact that it is a relative small managerial authority and not an operational one, with its own in-house expertise and qualified staff to carry out its insurance assessments and actuary work.

I know of some changes in approach of EQC following the Christchurch earthquakes, but I have very little experience of the Kaikoura earthquake responses and re-build. I would note, though, that the largest and most expensive part of the rebuilding was funded directly by the state, in the reconstruction of the state highway and railway line between Blenheim and Kaikoura. Other infrastructure reconstruction was also supported by state funding.

EQC deals with the most difficult claims: of private citizens concerning their homes. The importance of a home as a safe and secure dwelling can bring about high levels of emotional anguish and distress when it is badly damaged, and especially when there are long delays in both the assessment of claims and in the actual rebuilding and securing of damaged houses. A well-developed strategy that can be effectively implemented in as short a time as practical is thus important for EQC operations. This would include the scaling up of capacity for larger-scale events, using pre-prepared training workshops of standardised procedures for assessment and rebuild monitoring.

If private insurers are contracted to act as EQC’s agents, as the T of R notes about the Kaikoura earthquakes, then what is the operational role of EQC? This further outsourcing makes the commission more operationally redundant and therefore further reduces its technical and institutional knowledge base. My understanding of the role of EQC is that of a lead insurer, taking an involved leadership role in the assessment and settling of claims, and thereby determining the required standards of assessment and rebuild, as the public authority responsible for natural disaster insurance.


The operations of the EQC can not be separated from its structural and policy context.

In my opinion the co-insurance of residential properties is a policy and operational disaster, which was clearly demonstrated by what happened in Christchurch. Either it is a matter for a public authority, as it has been in the past, or it should be completely handed over to private insurance. The mixed approach is a confusing and complex middle ground, and makes life unnecessarily difficult for all parties, and especially for home owners.

Natural disaster insurance has a context that is significantly different to other insurance, in terms of risk assessment and statistical analysis, and the potential payments from single events. For example, car accidents are individually small scale events that are spread relatively randomly over a large population. A single natural hazard event, such as a flood or earthquake, can cause a large amount of damage within a relatively small area of the country, with extensive damage across the area and consequential social and economic disruption and dislocation.

Because of the size of total claims from large natural hazard events, private insurance companies tend to be wary of such exposure, and will withdraw from insurance when they have been subject to large total payouts from specific events, or when they realise that their exposure may be unduly high, given their whole portfolio of insurances.

There has been a history of state intervention in insurance in A/NZ, and in particular natural disaster insurance. There seems to be a cycle of intervention, with the state becoming involved, in one way or another, as the private market fails to provide insurance for an increasing proportion of the population, or for specific types of hazards. The natural cycles in the intensity of events, with oscillations between quiescent and high intensity periods, may have some impact on this market and policy response cycle. Of course, particular ideologies of political economy will also influence state intervention, and this can have its own cycles.

At present we are in a time of a political economy that emphasises private enterprise and market forces, with government authority being confined to overall policy and ‘bottom line’ regulation. As the intensity of natural disasters increase, with environmental and climate changes increasing vulnerability to storm and flood damage, but also increasing impacts from pests, diseases, fire and drought, this present political economy is likely to become increasingly unfit for purpose.

As a society, we do have choices in how we will respond to natural disasters and increasing personal, social and economic vulnerability to natural hazards. When people loss their homes, farms and businesses from storms, floods or coastal erosion, we can respond as a whole society, sharing the losses and rebuilding or re-location costs. Or it can be a matter of private property and market forces, with the individual owners bearing the losses and coping by themselves with the disruptions to their lives. What approach will we take if relocation away from the coast or river floodplains is required due to the changes in natural processes and dynamics that occur because of both large and smaller scale environmental and climate changes? Is it a matter of the individual beware, or are there whole of society issues, with the changing impacts arising from what people as a whole have done?

If we are going to share out the losses and costs, how will this be done? And what is the role of insurance? Is it provided by private insurers on a market forces basis, or is there an operational as well as policy role for the government?

From my experience, within different political economy contexts, the easier and more effective way of keeping private insurers within bounds is by direct state intervention that provides real competitive pressure. Using a regulatory approach based on general policies gives rise to complex administration, approvals and monitoring requirements, which complicates the whole insurance industry, and can be quite ineffective in attaining the stated policy objectives.

Some time in the future, A/NZ may have an effective government Public Works department again — if The Treasury looses at least some of its present sway over government policies. What is evident to me from my professional experience, and what shows up in the EQC approach and operational procedures, is the lack of institutional knowledge within government ministries and agencies, and the general lack of training and maintaining of appropriate standards when operations are carried out solely by private enterprises in a competitive for-profit economy. The balance between public and private enterprise, and, for example, of publicly employed and private enterprise employed engineers, that I saw in the 1970s and early 1980s, has been lost.

To completely outsource natural disaster insurance in A/NZ, which appears to be the trend in EQC, would, in my opinion, be a social, environmental and economic disaster, compounding the problems and inefficiencies of insurance and reconstruction following natural disasters. We are sorely in need of effective planning and operational standards that take cognisance of the likely future increases in vulnerability to natural hazards.

There has been a generation of under investment in social and economic infrastructure, and in the training and maintenance of standards necessary to provide effective and resource efficient infrastructural services. We now have a much reduced resilience in our infrastructure, while facing more serious threats and potential damage to that infrastructure.

It is not the operational procedures of EQC that are the issue, it is the whole structural and policy context. The partial privatisation and co-insurance of the current enabling Act of the commission is, in my opinion, the worst of all possible arrangements. Without policy and structural changes in natural disaster insurance in A/NZ, rejigging EQC operational procedures is merely tinkering at the edges.

I would thus suggest that the inquiry does consider context, and make recommendations concerning the role of government in natural disaster insurance and reconstruction planning.


♦   The operational procedures of EQC and their effectiveness can not be separated from their structural and policy context.

♦   The complex and confusing procedures around insurance assessment and rebuild monitoring after the Christchurch earthquakes demonstrated the problems with a co-insurance approach, where EQC covers the first $100,000 of any event claim.

♦   The assessment capacity and training shortfall evident in Christchurch, with no pre-prepared plan for scaling up capacity, showed up a general lack of planning and government leadership in natural disaster insurance and reconstruction responses.

♦   There has been a generation of under investment in infrastructure, without the on-going training and maintenance of appropriate standards to ensure effective and efficient infrastructure.

♦   Natural disaster insurance has significantly different issues than other insurance, in terms of risk assessment and potential payouts from single events. This makes private insurers wary of too much exposure, and hence their tendency to withdraw cover or add surcharges to premiums.

♦   As a society, and individually, we are facing increasing risks and vulnerability from natural hazard events, and there is an urgent need for more effective planning with public authority development of appropriate standards.

♦   The return of direct government involvement in natural disaster insurance, preferably through full public insurance, with a lead operational capacity, in-house damage assessment and actuarial expertise, with training and plans for capacity scaling. Further regulation of natural disaster insurance by EQC as a small managerial agency would be counter-productive.

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A pamphlet about the patterns of nature that guide our perception and our understanding of the world we live in.


It starts with the following prologue:

The patterns of nature are all around us, and we have the ability to perceive and understand these patterns because we are a part of nature.  Or we should be able to.
But our world has been greatly modified by our technology and the power and control it gives us.  The world many of us live in is, thus, a very constructed and artificial one, of an urban-industrial world.  The world we live in and learn about has, then, a manufactured character where the rules (about knowledge and behaviour) are set by cultural conventions and beliefs
Central to this constructed world of humanity are beliefs about progress and growth, human-centred growth of material consumption and comfort, based on attitudes of exploitation and individual self-seeking.  ‘Nature is outside of us, and there to provide resources and services for us.
This presents us with a dilemma if we want to understand the ways of nature, of the world we do, in fact, live in.  To appreciate and understand the patterns and processes of nature we have to have an intimate engagement and awareness of the world around us, as a fully connected being of that world.  To be fully connected and intimately engaged, however, we have to appreciate and understand the patterns and processes of life on Earth, the place we inhabit.
Humanity has, though, studied and reflected on its place, for a long time, and there are guides and aids that can assist us in re-connecting and really engaging with the world we share with so many life forms, which are all inter-related in very complex and diversified ways.
Writing about the patterns of nature is an intellectual activity using the formalities of language and cultural conventions.  It can only provide some mental aids, but this can be a starting point for a real appreciation of the natural world we are part of.
We do have a natural ability to live in the world we are born into, and we can reclaim our natural heritage, to become a people of the place we live in, understanding and sharing it in a compassionate and responsible way.  Our technology does not have to be alienating and destructive, or our culture one of control and domination.
We can un-learn and re-learn, reclaiming our place in the natural world and our role as a connected and responsive part of the greater scheme of things that is life on this planet.

Reconnecting and experiencing our world in all its wonderful diversity and vitality is not only possible, it is a really practical way of bringing about a transformation in our lives, to a more balanced, healthier and creative way of living.  We just need to start doing it.
Then we will change, our worldview will change, and we can be part of the solution instead of the problem.

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How can we share power equitably, making decisions as inter-dependent communities of people, with engagement and respect, and for our common interests?


The third of three pamphlets outlines a governance system that is socially equitable and mimics the natural systems of our world.

It starts with the following prologue:

Democracy means people power, or rule by the people for the people.  But which of the people rule and for whose benefit?
In the large centralised nation states of our present world, where there is a form of democratic governance, it is one of a few people representing large electorates, who are easily influenced by lobbyists for the rich and socially powerful.
Where the social aims of these large states revolve around material consumption and comfort, and economic activity is controlled by private enterprises for ownership profits, politics becomes subservient to economics and the power of money and wealth or capital.
Social aims and economic activities are, though, defined and directed by laws, standards and regulations that are decided through governance structures and political processes.

Power can be taken by force of arms, intellectual prowess or emotional manipulation, but fundamentally it has to be given, however begrudgingly — orders have to be accepted.  It does involve an imbalance, but the needs of all parties do have to be considered  in some way to sustain the arrangement.
The tools of power may be superior weapons and extensive surveillance systems, but social power is a matter of belief and imagination.  It depends on stories of origins and purpose, and ultimately words can be more powerful than guns.
This basis in imagination allows both great extremes of power and sudden radical alteration.
Can a participatory democracy, based around collaboration and cooperation for the common good, have a governance system that is socially resilient and allows large complex societies to be dynamically stable?
The present crisis of political economy can provide the opportunities, provided we have formed the seeds, to sprout vigorously in the social clearings.

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What is our relationship with the world that sustains and nourishes us, and how do we act and interact in a healthy and productive way?


The second of three pamphlets outlines a possible and internally consistent economic system based on the patterns and processes of nature, where we are one part of a much greater whole.

It starts with the following prologue:

There should be less spending on weapons of war and more on humanitarian development.
There should be enough food in the world to feed everyone.
There should not be any poverty.
Kids should not go to school barefoot and hungry in an affluent society.
There should be a restraint on the use of fossil fuels, and a reduction in our output of carbon to the atmosphere.
We should reduce our ecological footprint and protect the habitats of other species.
Food should be nutritious and healthy.
We should be able to swim in our rivers and fish in our seas.
Governments should listen to their people.
Legal systems should be just.

There are lots of ‘shoulds’.

But wishing or desiring is not reality, and is not realising.
There are good reasons why things are the way they are, and much of it has to do with the economy.
“It’s the economy, stupid.”
But it is a rapacious and highly exploitive economy with an in-built driver of economic growth.
An economy controlled and managed by corporations for private profit, where everything is a commodity to be bought and sold.
An economy driven by financial power, to give excessive wealth to a few from unearned income.
Without fundamentally changing the way the economy works, all attempts at social redress and a fairer sharing will, sooner or later, fall flat. Repeatedly.

There is a disconnection between our way of life and the economy that provides it, and the ways of nature and life on planet Earth.

To understand an economy that allows and encourages us to live in partnership and with respect and responsibility, we have to understand nature.
This means we have to reconnect.
Then we can envision a natural economics, of healthy sustenance and good living for all.  
An economy that is constructive and regenerative, providing sufficiently for our needs, while maintaining the ecosystems and habitats of our environments.

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3P-Natural Economics-A5

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What is the character of our place and period, the conditions of our lives as human communities in the present age?


The first of three pamphlets sets the scene about our time and place, and its social conditions, trends and influences.

It starts with the following prologue:

If the water in a glass is half way, it is half full to an optimist and half empty to a pessimist.  Or so they say.
But being a pessimist or an optimist is just a state of mind, and is irrelevant to the reality of the situation.  When it comes to the crunch, what is important is being realistic.
Whether the level is half way is also not really the point.  What matters more is whether the level is rising or falling.  It is the direction or trend that is informative, with life being about change and processes not static states.
We live in the present, with the conditions of our time and place, but with imagination we can foresee trends and patterns of change.  This allows us to be responsive and proactive, and thereby more capable and creative in the way we live our lives.

If we look at the ‘glasses’ of our time and place, many are reaching empty, while some are overflowing.  There are severe imbalances, which have a very destructive potential.  Life is all about exchange, and the continual cycling of energy and nutrients through all parts of the whole integrated system.  Excessive accumulations and over consumption by some parts at the expense of others is distorting, and brings forth countervailing forces of destructive cleansing and re-balancing.
We respond to our excesses, or we are destroyed.
The present human population and its consumption is clearly an excessive burden on the world and life on planet Earth.
Where are the responses to this excess?  Will people respond sufficiently, and say, “Enough.”  Or will we suffer a destructive cleansing by the forces of the Earth, with a withdrawal of support from the ecosystems of life?

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There are different processes of change in nature.  Some are more gradual and progressive, with small step changes, and others involve radical reformulations or transformations into quite different states or functional arrangements.  The dynamic and system implications are very different, and as with much of nature, there tends to be an oscillation between progressive or gradual change and radical or transformative alterations.

When the system driving forces become especially intense, or feedback adjustment measures become overloaded or dysfunctional, then the system may be driven towards a breakdown, which then allows a radically different system to establish.

Are we, in our living systems, in a time of such strong forces and expansionary processes towards a transformative dis-junction and alteration?  What then are the processes of transformative change.





Let’s start with the Universe.

The universe exists because there is change, a movement and exchange between entities that are different.  Difference drives changes, which generates further differences (in a fractal expansion).

Difference ⇔ Change

Difference involves polarity or distinction, with exchanges between polar opposites.  These oppositions, though, become increasingly intertwined as exchange systems develop.

Polarity ⇔ Exchange Systems

Life is a creative development of differences and generator of change.  Life comes from connection and exchange developing difference and diversity.

Connection & Exchange ⇔ Life ⇔ Evolving diversity

This dynamic becomes increasingly complexified as connections are made and exchange becomes more and more systemised, with multiple relationships at varying levels, and diverse feedback loops.


The systems dynamics of life are hugely complex, but there are basic trends and distinctions that we can recognise and work with.

Always appreciating the limitless complexity and connectedness of the universe, we can make use of polar distinctions.  Our view of the world is necessarily very partial, and the understandings we come to necessarily very limited.  We are but a small (and very dependent) organism in larger ecosystems that are themselves small organisms of even larger systems.

Accepting these limitations, let us consider a polarity within the very processes of the system dynamics of life.

Throughout nature there are processes of change that are small-scale, gradual and progressive.  There are trends and cumulative changes, albeit with sudden steps and jumps, and in different directions.  Throughout nature there are other processes of change which are messy, disrupting and transformative.  There are shifts that are rapid and irreversible and give rise to very different systemic arrangements, albeit set within a limiting and confining context.

These progressive or transformative change takes place at all levels, and the transformations at one level are the small steps in the progressive change of the larger containing system.

The metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly, or of worker to soldier ants, involves a very messy and disturbing process of transformation.  A forest fire that burns down all the large trees and destroys all the existing undergrowth provides a clearing for different life and for a very different ecology to flourish.  The butterfly may then lay eggs that hatch into a caterpillar growth machine, and the forest may slowly recover and grow back again through a complex but progressive succession.  Grasslands can be grazed slowly and progressively by spread out grazing animals that uses up the available feed, or trampled and manured by tightly packed herd animals that feed the soil life and allow another cycle of grass growth.

These processes of change work together, within defined but open exchange systems that are contained within larger systems.  Both processes can be regenerative or degenerative, as part of the cycles of growth and maturity, building up and decay, birth and death, expansion and contraction.  They all take place within the interwoven diverging and converging spirals of life, where death and loss of one part is feed and growth for another.

Progressive ⇔ Transformative Divergence ⇔ Convergence

Evolution implies imbalanced systems, with a creative drive and developmental pressures.  A healthy ecosystem would then involve more generative growth than maturation and stabilisation, with a long-term building up of biomass and complexity.  The unbalanced meta-stability of a living system may then have a golden proportion of generative to stabilising forces (of around 61 to 39%), and depend on a net inflow of energy or nutrition.

Over the longer term, this involves catastrophic collapses and extreme losses, as a creative destruction.


Human societies change in accord with the same dynamics, and experience more gradual and progressive changes (of betterment or detriment), and sudden transformative alterations and cultural shifts.  What type of change takes place depends on the existing conditions, the driving influences of change, and the openness or ability to change.  Whether we are looking at progressive or transformative changes also depends on the scale or sphere of action we are considering.  There are times of large-scale transformation that push down into many smaller scales of disruption and pressure for sudden changes.

Living in large and complex societies, of civilisation, remains a real challenge for humanity.  The shift to a settled urban living and fixed area agriculture has taken place, many times, since the global warming around 15 to 10 thousand years ago that gave rise to the present inter-glacial period.  The agriculture brought land tilling and clearance of forests, with the domestication of many different plants and animals.  Much larger areas of trees and forests were cut down for the cooking of food and smelting of metals.  Inappropriate and unsustainable management practices have, over this long period of time, caused widespread deforestation and soil degradation.

Urban living brought specialisation, professionals and privilege.  Resources, food, tools, knowledge and decision-making were all accumulated, stored and secured, rather than being openly available and shared out.  The first profession was a warrior class (of men) to defend the land and protect the privileged.  The second were (women) prostitutes who traded sexual favours for access to protected and hence purchasable goods and services.

Settled urban living & Agriculture ⇔ Civilisation ⇔ Specialisation & Privilege

The gaining and losing of land and resources, of power and privilege, and the rise and fall of civilisations, has followed a very punctuated dynamic.  Civilisations have continually collapsed because the maintenance of privilege for a few has caused the over-exploitation of both their people and their place, and the over-extending of management and organisational abilities.  Progressive gains have turned to sudden loss.  Revolutions have rotated the power and the privileges, while invasions and war have altered power relationships and ownership or rights of access to resources and services.

Progressive growth and transformative transitions have involved much degradation and destruction.  The amount of violence and abuse, and the irresponsibility of management and governance suggests an imbalance on the side of violence and degeneration instead of regeneration and creative productivity.  Decadence and selfish hoarding has been increasing with the expansion of human civilisation and technological advance, rather than healthy living and sharing.  Empires have grown in size and in their centralisation of power and wealth.

Creativity & Productivity ⇔ Civilisation ⇔ Violence & Destruction


The pressures for transformative change, of a deep cleansing and clearing of the slate, have been increasing for a long time.  However, the recent globalisation of human societies  through global colonisation and empire building has involved very intense exponential growth, taking off from past foundations of trade, agriculture and urban-industrial living.  The very rapid increase in population and material consumption, that has been possible because of the very abundant and cheap energy obtained from a manic extraction of fossil deposits (of old life), is giving rise to extreme pressures on and from the rest of the natural world.  This consumption, and the mis-use of science and technology, is causing global environmental destruction, climate responses and the collapse or implosion of ecosystems.

The concentration of power and the extremes of wealth and poverty, at local, regional and global levels, is causing social destruction and destroying basic human trust and the acceptance of conventions and authority that is essential for large complex societies.

In these circumstances, there can be no continuation, and no gradual unwinding or back-tracking.  The processes that can deal with our present human and environmental condition have to be transformative, with transformations at all levels — personal, community, state and global.

This means an essentially unpredictable future.  The transformative processes will provide opportunities for change and renewal, by clearing away the existing and leaving an open field for innovation and adaptive responses.  That openness, and the creativity it allows, means there is a wide range of possibilities, and the actual outcomes will depend on the myriad of responses and choices of all the players — human, biological, ecological and physical.  At different levels, and in different places, climes and ecosystems, there will be different outcomes, as the varying responses play out in different ways.

Transformations are messy, and what humanity as a whole has done to the Earth will make the near future a very bumpy journey, of dislocation and distress, as well as uncertainty.  What we can do now is to form the seeds of another way of living.  As far as we practically can, to live the way we would like all people to live, given the seeds have to be kept safe and can not really flourish until the present conditions and their constraints have been wiped away.

Excessive Growth ⇔ Transformation ⇔ Messy Processes & Unpredictable Outcomes


The basis of human life, as of all life, is connections that feed and support us.  We are creatures of our environment, embedded in it and an outcome of it.  We are no more, but no less, than a functioning organism within a larger ecosystem, sustained by that larger system, and sustaining the ecosystem that we are.  These systems are material and energetic, with retained memories and responsive abilities.  They have a materiality, an intelligence and a spirituality.

We are a microcosm of the universe, and we share, in some degree, its materiality, intelligence and spirituality.  We are connected by its energy fields and information exchanges, and our internal polarities interact and exchange with external polarities.  We receive our sustenance from both earthly and cosmic forces, which interact with our own earthly and cosmic characteristics to sustain the wholeness of our being.

We obtain sustenance from our senses, which directly feeds our brains and enlivens us.  The light around us, the warmth of the sun, the smells of the flowers and the forest floor, the sounds of the winds, the feel of things, this all involves energy exchanges and provides us with information about our surroundings and ourselves.

The food we eat is our most potent source of information about our world and the environment in which we live.  It is our most direct and necessary connection with the world around us.  We are what we eat, and our health depends on the health of the environment in which our food grows.  To have the will to action be need nutrient dense food in our bellies.

Water is the facilitator of all the processes of life, and even of movement itself.  Function and form reflect each other, and the patterns of water flows, with its interwoven diverging and converging spirals, are the patterns of physical and living processes.  Water molecules take on shapes and form liquid structures, retaining forms from the influences on them and the functions they undertake.  Water connects everything, and our connectedness comes most intimately from interactions and messages given by water.  The water we take in connects the water of our body with the water in everything around us.  It allows and facilitates all our relationships.  To feel related we need high vitality water in our food and in what we drink.

Effective action requires an appropriate understanding, an emotional motivation and the will to act.  An integrated response of head, heart and guts!

Head ⇔ Heart ⇔ Guts

Intelligence ⇔ Motivation ⇔ Will

Senses ⇔ Water ⇔ Food

But to be sound of body, mind and spirit, we must have good all-round nourishment.  Healthy and invigorating surroundings, provided high vitality water and food; supportive and well-functioning communities and cooperative working relationships; and a sense of connection and identity, of belonging and purpose, with the social means for expressing it through ceremonies and celebrations.  We are complex creatures, with personal physical and psychological needs, social or relationship needs, and spiritual needs of connection and purpose.

Without a fulsome nourishment of our body, mind and spirit, we are deficient in our abilities to act, feel or understand.  We become disabled and disempowered in different ways, depending on the nourishment we lack.

The sudden global expansion of urban-agricultural-industrial civilisation in the last century or so has adversely impacted on all aspects of our nutrition.  The mis-management of land, soils and forests, and an inappropriate use of tools and technology, has debased our food and water supplies, as it has destroyed ecosystems and physical resources.  Very recently, we have made an even worse mess of marine life in the oceans.  Everywhere, what we throw away as wastes is of minimal use because of the overloading of waterways, soils and ecosystems, and the contamination by synthetic and toxic chemicals.

Our senses are assaulted by unnatural smells and sounds, and we are mostly confined to artificial environments of concrete, steel and synthetic plastics, which are linear and square in form.  The highly competitive and individualised ethos undermines community support and the acceptance of the common good.  Money and the economy overrides everything else, instead of being the means for the material purposes of our group activities or social living.  In this way, wealth and power is increasingly concentrated and abused.

Our sense of place and connection has been progressively weakened by cultural attitudes of dominance and possession, and through the social fragmentation of high mobility.  The disconnection of urban-industrial living, and the violence of state regulation, enforcement procedures and military intimidation, has just about eliminated any spirit in many people.  There are so many idols and hollow prophets to distract and confuse, and very little genuine nourishment of the spirit of people.

Domination ⇔ Money ⇔ Mal-nourishment & Ill-health

There is a disempowerment at all levels, from debased and adulterated food, sensual deprivation and entrapment in artificial environments, political corruption and outright greed by those exercising power and the rights of decision-making.  There are multi-dimensional and systemic weaknesses that makes our present societies non-reformable.  The loss of real economic, social and natural capital is too great and too deeply penetrating, and the internal decay increases through poorer and poorer nutrition.

Real nutrition comes from sharing, from exchanges of goods and goodness.  It involves connection and an exchange of energies or information, of communication, to ensure the well-being of all the interconnected parts or organisms.  It is basically about mutually beneficial caring and sharing.

A full nutrition allows power to be exercised for care and to enhance well-being, with a fair sharing of sustenance.  At the same time, this full nutrition ensures that care and support is respectful and empowering.  Then love and power, feelings and actions, guided by intelligence, will work together for the good of all.  Generative living and well-directed change requires a dynamic interplay of intelligent understanding, emotional engagement and the will power for effective action.  Love and power guided by compassion.

Love ⇔ Compassion ⇔ Power

Engagement ⇔ Understanding ⇔ Action


While there is much talk about transformation and the need to take action given the extraordinary extremes and imbalances that exist in the world, the processes of transformation do not seem to be well understood.  They are not simply a reversal and unwinding of the damage we have done, and the inequities that have been created.  It is not a matter of changing tax rates and banking regulations; using renewable sources of energy and resources; re-directing funds from weapons to humanitarian assistance; and adding on ‘clean technologies‘ to ever more and larger homes, buildings and infrastructure.

There is an essential first step, of saying ‘NO!’ to our present way of life, saying enough and turning away.  Then with an open mind and heart, turning towards a very different way of living, which we can imagine, but have not yet lived.  It is not about life as we live it now, or as we have lived, but as we might live, given the imagination, vision and will to do so.  It requires a leap of faith, and the courage to try out alternatives, and accept the failure and loss that goes with this experimentation.

Openness ⇔ Transformation ⇔ Enough

Transformative action is about living in the unknown.  Starting from where you are, but going in a different direction.  Going against the powerful currents of normality and convention, and the practical and legal constraints imposed on unconventional alternatives.  It is taking the opportunities for changes that counter prevailing trends and forces, and make the continuation of the present economic and political systems more difficult.  It is to stand for, not stand against, to disregard and not confront, to leave behind not attack.

Say: Yes, we can ⇔ Levers of Change ⇔ Say: No, we wont

It is not protest or revolt to change the people in power, but to change the very nature of power relationships.  It is a revolution of growing your own food with others in a healthy environment, instead of buying industrialised energy packets from supermarkets.  It is a revolution of sharing, and pooling your savings with your family, friends and neighbours to borrow from each other, and not using the inter-mediation of banks with their monetary creation, interest charges and leveraged trading.

It is to seek a real nourishment of body, mind and soul, through mutually beneficial relationships and reciprocity.  It is to be sensitive to everything around us, being observant and responsive, and taking responsibility, while respecting differences.  Building partnerships and alliances for effective action, and co-creating healthy and resilient communities, waterways and landscapes.

Our society is like a river rising in flood, sucking in and sweeping everything before it.  But in river floods, the larger and faster the flood flow, and the more turbulent it becomes, the more and larger the eddies that shed off, and flow away into backwaters.  All over the world, people are forming backwaters of a different movement and opposite spin.  It is these grassroots responses and actions that are the seeds of a different future, the imaginal cells of a wholly different human society underpinned by a radically changed understanding of the world we live in.

A deep and regenerative transformation requires a fundamental change in world-view, a cultural evolution.  This can only come from the challenges and necessities of wrenching dislocations and shocking losses.  Renewal requires a feed-stock from destructive breakdown and its ‘waste’ products.

Opportunity ⇔ Cultural Evolution ⇔ Loss

Like a return of the glacial ice ages, which may come from a sharp increase in global temperatures and rainfall, a sudden and catastrophic collapse of a globalised civilisation provides the opportunity for a profound cultural transformation, and a fundamentally different paradigm for our relationships, with each other and all the other species that inhabit planet Earth.

Humans are especially challenged by power and sexual relations. There is a flexibility and malleability that allows very different expressions and extremes of behaviour.  It allows a wide creative scope, which can be expressed very destructively, as well as in a very constructive and responsible way.  How we reach agreement and work together, while respecting and celebrating differences and diversity, and how we engage in decision-making and share power, will be critical to the development of healthy and sustainable ways of living.  This will be at the heart of regenerative transformation and its paradigm shift.

Care & Respect ⇔ Generative Living ⇔ Fair Sharing

The field, though, is open to all comers.  The broken pot will be re-moulded by those who stand up and act on the opportunities.  The outcomes are not determined, they will be created.

Posted in Ecosophia, Wisdom | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


This article was written about our actions in Christchurch after the damaging earthquakes, as a voluntary response, to bring information we had about compost toilets to people who were unable to use their flush toilets because of the damage to the centralised city sewer system.

It may well be useful to you if you find yourself in the same circumstance!






There have been many responses to the earthquakes in Christchurch from people outside the region.  A network of people interested in a permaculture response to emergencies was initiated following discussions at the annual permaculture hui in Raglan during April last year.  Within 6 months, the first large earthquake affected the Christchurch area.

Following the devastation of the February earthquake, there was an informal and personal response by some members of the permaculture emergency response network to demonstrate an emergency use compost toilet to local communities most affected by the loss of the city sewer system.  A simple bucket method was developed, which was easy to use with locally available materials, and contained the human manure until it was well composted.  Simple, contained, hygienic and recycling our ‘wastes’ as beneficial resources.  A website was also set up: www.composttoilets.co.nz to provide and share information.

There was major damage to infrastructure services in Christchurch, with the sewer system in particular suffering major and very extensive damage.  There was not going to be a quick return to normality, and ‘flushing it away’ could be to your own garden or to the street or nearby waterway.

An emergency kit includes stored water and food, among a range of personal items, but when we take stuff in, other stuff comes out.  Toilet paper and a bucket is about as far as most preparedness advice goes for our most basic ‘call of nature’.  So what do you do when the municipal sewer system is busted apart, and the ‘flush out of sight’ no longer works?  This has been the case in many parts of Christchurch for over six months now.

Over time, requests from local communities resulted in a series of workshops on emergency compost toilets, with increasing interest from people (and the media).  Recently, there has been some real interest from local authorities and organisations.

These workshops have been organised and undertaken by the following members of the emergency response network (in no particular order):  James Bellamy, Lisa Johnston, Matt King, Gary Williams and Felicity Yellin.  They have been supported directly and indirectly by many other people, not least their families and friends.

From this experience, the workshop approach and content has been refined, and is now being taken to other communities around New Zealand, starting with Whangarei and Wellington.  The workshop includes a practical hands-on demonstration of the emergency compost toilets.

The permaculture emergency response network now has a project on its books, and the start of a track record.  This project was undertaken on a voluntary basis by everyone involved, as neighbourly assistance where a real need was evident and we could provide a realistic and practical option.  The direct travel expenses have now, though, been covered by a generous donation from the members of the permaculture movement, through its coordinating council.


The Christchurch earthquakes showed up the inherent vulnerability of centralised sewer systems based on water flushing to a pipe collection network and single large treatment facility.  The pipe network is underground and always leaks, and the whole pipe system from the household connection pipe to the treatment facility has to function for the system to work.

The Christchurch earthquakes not only broke the pipes and disabled the pumps, the liquefaction flows filled sewer pipes with silts and other fine material, which is very hard to remove from underground pipes.  Of all the infrastructure services (including water supply, power, telecommunications, roads and transport facilities) the sewer system is most vulnerable to damage in earthquakes and the most difficult to repair, for temporary fixes and to regain full function.  The pipes are relatively large and weak, identifying the damage is especially difficult (compared to power and water supplies, for example), and staging the restoration of full service can be very problematic.

Following the February earthquake, temporary services were provided by using relatively intact sections of the pipe network as a collector, and pumping out sewage directly from the pipes.  Direct outlets to waterways were also established from parts of the sewer network, and raw sewage has discharged from over 30 such outlets.  Cleaning out and repairing pipes or relaying shallower replacement pipes was undertaken progressively to connect areas to the central treatment facility.  However, following the large June earthquake, they virtually had to start again, given the damage and liquefaction effects of this quake.

The City sewers have been repaired and re-established again, however the connection to this system on private property is the responsibility of the owner.  Insurance pay outs are needed to fund such repairs, and in red zone areas where there will be no re-building, who will pay for a temporary connection until people move out — not the insurance company or the government.

A fully functioning sewer system connected to all occupied houses is still a long way off.  The Christchurch experience makes clear the long period of time a water-flush centralised municipal sewer system can remain non-functional.

The emergency response in Christchurch was to bring in, first mobile portaloos, and then household chemical toilets emptied into street-side collection tanks.  As a toilet system for people to use over months, it certainly left a lot to be desired!  The chemicals used can vary significantly in terms of amenity, health and environmental impacts.  Some are simply strong deodorisers (or odour changes!) without much environmental impact or health protection, others are strong sterilisers such as formaldehyde, which kill all microbes, beneficial and pathogenic.

This chemical toilet approach has proved to be a difficult and expensive exercise for the authorities, and a far from pleasant experience for many people, with some people preferring to use holes dug in their outside garden.  Larger people could not sit on them easily and even broke them.  Elderly people found it difficult to use them, and to carry the heavy liquid filled container down the street to be emptied.  Disabled people also had difficulties, with additional individual assistance being required.


A permaculture response to an emergency would arise from an assessment of the particular conditions of the emergency, and what activities could be undertaken together with the local people, to facilitate a community-based re-building that related to the nature and resources of the region.  The approach of the permaculture response network is to provide assistance to communities severely affected by high impact shocks, from natural events or due to social and economic causes.  This assistance could be at a strategic level or as on-the-ground practical action.

The aim is to bring in people who have not be directly affected, and can act as a focus for much needed actions for the affected communities.  To facilitate the sharing of useful knowledge and bring about collective action in a participatory way.  The re-building may, then, be in a way that provides greater security from hazards and threats, while encouraging a local provision of the basic necessities of life, that is in tune with the natural character and conditions of the area, thereby enhancing the health and integrity of people, communities and their supporting environment.  The default response is a re-construction of what was there, using the current ‘business-as-usual’ approach.

Bringing knowledge about the composting of human manure or ‘humanure’ to Christchurch, and developing a simple and robust emergency compost toilet, well fitted this approach of the emergency response network.  All the people taking the workshops had personal experience of compost toilets, covering design, building and use.  The compost toilet is simple and uses readily available local materials, and with some assurance around hygiene and the practicalities of use, interested people are comfortable about using one.  The state of the sewer system in Christchurch after February, and the prospect of using chemical toilets, and bucketing their humanure down the street to collection tanks, definitely increased the number of “interested” people!  To many, it was just a reasonable and practical alternative, while the flush system wasn’t working, which they were very pleased to hear about.

There was a real need for an alternative, and one that was beneficial to the environment while being user-friendly, hygienic and odour free.  The workshops focused on emergency use, but the discussions always broadened out to the wider issues of recycling ‘wastes’, impacts on the city environment from the continued use of a broken system, and what could be a more resilient system in the future.

The initial visits in March were an immediate response to the February earthquake, and were partly to observe what had happened and interact with local people to get a feeling for what could be done. There were some trial workshops, which included a temporary outdoor ‘hole in the back garden’ compost toilet — a shallow hole in biologically active soil, adding a carbon cover material and keeping the urine separate as much as practical — as well as the indoor bucket system and wheelie bin composting.  In June, immediately after the strong quake of that month, another workshop was held after a request for more follow up.  People came from all around Christchurch to that workshop — in New Brighton.  They then networked themselves, with their own workshops building the emergency toilets, and later sourcing wheelie bin containers from Invercargill, with the assistance of Transition Town people in that region. These follow on activities by people in Christchurch increased markedly from workshop to workshop.

Three workshops were held during a week in August, and at the final Saturday workshop — at the New Brighton community garden — people just kept on coming, and over a 100 people packed into the garden service building.  There was sympathetic media coverage, which is an endorsement in itself, and not one easily obtained.  Staff from the City and Regional councils came to workshops, and by August there was a clear change in attitude from the local authorities, with a readiness to listen to us, which was definitely not there earlier on.  Scientists were interested in doing research to provide the numbers, or evidential information that authorities need to OK something.  In one case, this was stimulated by personal experience with compost toilets through their own need.

This community response demonstrated the need and the usefulness of what was being provided by this work, undertaken through the permaculture project that developed over time as the team work built up and the workshops continued.  At the same time, the work itself has created and refined both useful information about the use of compost toilets in emergencies, and a successful workshop approach for the sharing of this information.  The website is being maintained as a site for information and to share ideas and collectively respond to questions and queries.

The team is now taking this knowledge, and a focus on compost toilets as a community-wide option in emergencies, to other regions in New Zealand.  The response so far has been very positive, and the Christchurch experience and their very real difficulties is clearly raising interest throughout New Zealand in these issues and the potential range of options available.

The small and slow approach taken with this project is starting to bear fruit.  The actions taken in Christchurch, including all the workshops, were directly with people at a community level, and we came back only when there was a local request.  The initial steps were very small, but the message did seep out — and the adverse conditions generating an interest remained.  A repeated presence, with a willingness to return when asked, does add up, and each time we went back the ideas had filtered further, and the actions, in terms of compost toilets in use, increased.  Sharing our own practical experience gave us credibility, and our neighbourliness was certainly appreciated by those who came to the workshops.  There is also nothing like seeing the real thing, and the practical demonstration of the emergency compost toilets by people in Christchurch has been most effective in gaining acceptance.


The emergency compost toilet system we are recommending is described on the website, and in a booklet that can be downloaded from the site.  It uses cold composting, which relies on good air circulation rather than heat to break down the manure and kill off pathogens.

There are two stages; the use and containment in buckets within the home; and then the outside storage for compost breakdown over a long period of time in wheelie bins (or other suitable drums).  The final product of the composting is a soil humus material that can be added to a garden or onto soil and covered with a vegetative mulch or litter.  Only a small garden area is required for the spreading of the final composted material.

The toilet consists of two buckets in boxes, or containers, with a toilet seat on top.  There is a Pee bucket and a Poo bucket.  The Pee bucket has water in it and is for urine only.  It is emptied daily, as there can be a strong (ammonia) smell if stored too long.  It is best emptied after the morning pee session.  The dilution should be at least 5 parts water to 1 part urine.  Urine is sterile, and there are no health dangers from handling it, although drugs (medicinal and recreational!) and alcohol do pass through into the urine.  The diluted urine can be simply spread over any soil or grassed area.  It is a good source of nitrogen for plants.

A dry carbon material, such as leaf litter, dried grass, rough sawdust or wood shavings is used in the Poo bucket.  This material contains and covers all the deposits.  As a bulky material it ensures air flow throughout and adds the carbon matter to start the natural composting process.  Some urine is fine, and whatever comes out can go into the Poo bucket!  Some moisture is useful for composting, but there should be sufficient bulky cover material to generally absorb the moisture present.  The toilet paper goes in too.  A container of the dry carbon material is kept beside the toilet, and sufficient is added every time to ensure full coverage.  This is important to stop flies and insects being attracted to it, and to prevent odours.   Some of this material is placed in the bottom of the bucket before use.

That is the toilet inside the home.  Two buckets in containers, some water for the Pee bucket and some dry cover material for the Poo bucket.  It is simple and does not smell, and being inside is certainly appreciated, especially during a Christchurch winter

The wheelie bin (or other such covered drum) outside is where the composting takes place.  The bin ensures full containment while the composting breaks down the material to a soil beneficial and plant useable form, and the pathogens die off.

In general, pathogenic bacteria and other microbes, which can cause diseases and human illnesses, live in a non-oxygenated environment (or anaerobic conditions).  Thus they can survive and propagate in the guts of animals and humans.  On exposure to air and oxygen they die off, and the oxygen using or aerobic microbes, which thrive in compost heaps and do the breaking down, displace these microbes and prevent their reproduction.

To ensure good air circulation and separate out any liquid in the wheelie bin container, some twigs and brush is placed at the bottom of the bin, with a thick layer of bulky dry (carbon) material on top to act as an absorbing layer.  A bundle of twigs is also placed against one side of the bin, to act as an air chimney.  As required, the Poo bucket is emptied into this (covered) container, and a layer of the dry matter added as a cover layer each time.  Some soil or compost and tiger worms can be added to stimulate the composting.  The microbial life within the composting material can be enhanced by adding microorganism inoculants, such as expanded EM (effective microorganisms), which is available from Nature Farms in Christchurch — http://www.naturefarm.co.nz/ .

To reduce cleaning, the Poo bucket can be lined with paper, or other biodegradable material, which is also emptied into the composting container.  Warm water should be sufficient for bucket cleaning, with hands being washed in warm soapy water after handling.  Good hygiene practices should be maintained whenever the buckets and wheelie bins are handled.  Bleaches or other sterilizers should not be used, as this kills the microbes that are doing the composting work.  Vinegar is a useful and safe cleanser, and a vinegar and EM mix to clean and reduce odours is also available from Nature Farms.

When it is full, the composting bin is left closed for some months to mature.  To be on the safe side it can be left for a year.  For a long period of use, then, more than one wheelie bin would be required, so one can be added to, while the other is in storage.

At the workshops, we also went through a permanent compost toilet system, using replaceable bins and a hot composting of the bin material along with other organic matter.  This followed the approach of Joseph Jenkins, the author of the “The Humanure Handbook”, a guide to composting human manure.  He also went to Haiti after the large earthquake there, and a bucket system, with collection to a central community hot composting area, was set up in temporary townships.

Our workshop format now covers hot and cold composting, but focuses only on the bucket and wheelie bin emergency system and a community-wide approach with collection to a hot composting site, using other organic matter as well.

In Christchurch, there has been community composting of organic and kitchen ‘waste’ material for many years, and ‘Living Earth’ operate a very efficient hot composting system, contained in large tunnels, near the Bromley sewage treatment plant.  Their resource consent from Environment Canterbury does not allow them to use any manures.  The main issue is odour, and they undertook some experimental outdoor composting following the first September earthquake.  However, they were not allowed to continue it, and even after serious damage in the February earthquake, Environment Canterbury would not allow them to operate outside.

A community-wide compost toilet option for emergencies requires a collection arrangement, and one possibility is to use the wheelie bin transporters (of solid waste collection) to pick up clearly marked or colour coded bins of the composting humanure.  This would be a similar collection operation as that for the chemical toilets, from all the street-side tanks, but without the chemicals.  A central hot composting of the compost toilet matter could then be carried out, for example, through one of the tunnels of the ‘Living Earth’ company in Christchurch.


What are some lessons from the Christchurch earthquakes, and our response on compost toilets and the demonstration workshops that were held over a period of months following the February quake?

It is not a simple matter to go in and help people after a devastating event that upsets their normal rhythms and way of life.  Whatever is offered from outside has to be understood, seen as useful and be accepted by the people directly affected, despite any trauma or disorientation and psychological issues they may be struggling with.  There has to be a willingness to engage, taking actions where opportunities arise, and responding to the situation and what people need and ask for.

Suggesting something different to the norm is probably harder initially, as most people just want to get back to their normal way of living as fast as possible.  Authorities are overwhelmed, and are head down, bum up, trying to do their job and provide essential public services. Over time, though, the dislocation and on-going experience of inadequate services and the lack of the usual amenities of modern life, opens up opportunities for different thinking and unusual or uncommon alternatives.  You just have to be prepared to keep coming back, and one time after another demonstrate an alternative and its practical application in the circumstances.  Then things can happen.

Although a permaculture emergency response network existed in theory, we were in no way prepared to undertake any assistance programme by the time of the Christchurch earthquakes.  The planting of the seed was probably useful, but the response about compost toilets happened organically from the initial actions of a few people.  Hindsight is a marvellous thing, and in this case it suggests that what happened was actually a very good approach.  It was one of small steps regulated by feedback from people and communities in Christchurch.  Our main criterion for action was community requests from the people directly affected.  The interest and momentum thus grew slowly, but surely, as people and communities became more open to the idea and more aware of the practicality of the compost toilet option.  It was not forced, and there was no imposing of a solution.

We were willing and demonstrated what we were promoting in a practical hands-on way.  We had the experience of composting and compost toilets, and we showed people how they could do it themselves.  Making it simple, while keeping it hygienic and without contamination through the fully contained method.  Then people in the affected communities could take it on themselves and spread the word through their own networks.

What was clear to us, though, was the serious environmental impacts and potential health issues arising from the earthquakes and the extensive damage that they caused to the city sewer system.  There also seemed to be little emergency preparedness, either in communities or by authorities, around one of our most basic ‘calls of nature’.  There really was not a well thought out plan in advance.  The extent of the damage, the difficulties of repair and the problem with providing temporary service, appear to have been very much under estimated.  Then there is the left hook after the right — another large earthquake just as the system is starting to become widely functional, which takes everyone back to square one to repeat the whole experience all over again.  And then maybe another time?

Then consider that Christchurch had many advantages compared to other vulnerable cities and towns in New Zealand.  Except for the Port Hills, it is flat.  There are lots of alternative access routes to and around the city, and flat roads can be relatively easily repaired, at least as temporary repairs.  The sewer system has many pumps in the network, and main sewers could be tested and sewage pumped through them relatively quickly.  It is the detail of all the small connections that is the nightmare.

In a hilly city like Wellington, landslides and faulting ruptures would completely isolate most communities — from themselves and the outside world.  Where would you site all the street-side collection tanks for chemical toilets, and how could they possibly be serviced?  Digging holes in the back garden, for mini long drops, would not be so easy in many parts of Wellington, with it harder underlying base rock materials.

We believe that a simple compost toilet system should be part of everyone’s emergency kit.  It can be just a couple of buckets, a wheelie bin, and a few instructions.  Further, emergency management authorities should seriously investigate community based composting systems for use when communities are isolated and the centralised sewer system does not function.

Posted in Ecologia, Nature | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

WATER — Medium of Life & its vitality

The basic (physical) necessities of life are air, water, food and shelter.  We can live only a very short time without air to breathe.  Water we need regularly, while we can live for weeks without food, if necessary.  Our bodies are mostly water, and water is used to mediate all our bodily exchanges, transporting life-giving nutrients to all our organs and cells, while carrying away toxins and wastes.

Air and water are the great transporting and mixing media of life on planet Earth, that allow plants to thrive, while staying in one place.  Air blankets the Earth as an atmosphere of gases, which circulate through the heat of the sun and climate processes.  Water circulates through the processes of the hydrological cycle — as water vapour in the air, as liquid water on and under the surface of the Earth, and as solid ice or snow at high latitudes and altitudes.

Air and water are both energised and purified by these circulatory processes, and these processes and the nature of air and water can be adversely affected by the pollution of excess.  There is also an essential inter-connection between these physical processes and the ecological systems and networks of life.  The nature of the air and the complex states of water on the planet arise from, and are dependent on, living processes and eco-systems.  Water can have many ionic states, and form molecular links and networks that reflect the substances in it.  Water is the most universal of solvents.

The burning of fossil fuels over the last couple of hundred years, and the accelerating rate at which we have burned them, especially oil in the last 50 years, has changed the gas composition of the atmosphere globally.  The cheap energy this has provided has been used to build an industry and urbanisation that spew vast amounts of concentrated wastes and toxic materials into waterways and the oceans.  This water pollution is most obvious locally, but there are global impacts through the circulations of rivers, the oceans and the atmosphere, as there is with the pollution of the air.

The vitality, purity and availability of water is directly affected by the loss of forests and the degradation of soils by agriculture — which also affects the air, locally and globally.  The loss of riparian vegetation and habitats along the margins of rivers and streams alters the nature of the waterways, and affects the transport of sediments and nutrients, and their exchanges with groundwater and across floodplains.

Natural systems are full of exchanges, transitions from one state to another and storages, level on level, in a repeating and interwoven way.  Our human systems, to be healthy and sustainable, must be part of and mimic the natural systems that contain and support us.  Thus our water supplies and re-use of ‘waste’ water should consist of multiple systems at different levels, with different types and size of storage and a diversity of re-use through different processes.

Urban areas need some large central supplies and a distribution network, but the supplies should be diverse, including rivers, reservoir storage and groundwater, as well as direct rainfall collection.  For a robust water supply the distribution network needs to have in-built redundancy, with looped or multiple primary feeders and mains, connected to the different supply sources spread around the network.

The best storage is natural groundwater, which is facilitated by forests.  It provides a vast reservoir and distributes itself, through its flow through the ground.  It is a diffuse rather than a concentrated source, which can be taped into for small supplies spread throughout a town or agricultural area.  In dry climates and near the coast it is vulnerable to salination, and the removal of forests lowers groundwater levels generally, while also bringing the salts in the soil close to the surface.  Groundwater away from forested hills, and especially on alluvial or coastal plains can be very variable in quality.

Storing rainwater directly from hard surfaces in rainwater tanks or storage basins provides small-scale distributed storage, which can be used on gardens and for washing etc.  However, hard surfaces should be minimised, and shrub and tree areas maximised.  Mulching of gardens increases ground storage by improving rainfall infiltration and the retaining of soil moisture.

Rainwater is slightly acidic and is best used for washing our bodies, as our skin moisture is slightly acidic.  The best water for drinking is slightly alkaline (like the water in our bodies) and mineralised.  This water is supplied naturally by ‘relief’ springs, which arise from base rock materials as dense cool water, and by the forest enclosed streams that flow from them.  Drinking water is then better supplied separately from appropriate sources, and not as part of washing and industrial water.

The re-use of water, following washing and industrial uses, can be diverse and multi-functional, by having distributed and varied re-use at different scales.  The type and degree of treatment required before re-use depends on the initial use, for instance when natural and biodegradable cleaners are used, and the re-use.  Water used by a single family for washing and then re-used on their own garden has a very low parasite hazard, while the combined washing water from many households sent to a central treatment plant has a much higher health hazard, due to the mixing of microbes from many sources.

Thus, greywater from a household can be simply drained to mulched vegetation beds, following minimal storage for sediment deposition and scum removal.  Runoff from roads and paved areas can be directed to grassed or vegetated swales alongside, or to vegetated infiltration areas.  Contained wetland areas, with or without naturally contained sand filtration areas, can be used to treat road runoff and the greywater from a group of houses or ‘high quality’ industrial ‘waste’ flows, to allow re-use in community gardens and reserves etc.  As far as practical, re-use should be designed around gravity flow systems, with a cascade of ‘units’ along and down the contour.

This re-use fits in very well with the growing of food in towns, in either family or community gardens, and as public ‘orchards’ or food forests along reserve land and waterway corridors.

Toxic waste streams must be carefully treated, being mixed and diluted and then adequately treated before discharge to the natural environment.  Loading and the concentration of harmful substances is the critical issue, but in the end it is natural systems, mainly the reducing microbes, in the natural environment that will transform the ‘wastes’ and make them available for re-use again.  Maintaining healthy and robust eco-systems to do this is then essential for effective processing and re-use of our output ‘waste’ streams.

Air and water are common ‘resources’, which flow across private property and state boundaries.  Their management for our use and enjoyment must, therefore, be handled through community decision-making processes, which allow fair sharing and appropriate care.

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MONEY – A Means of Exchange or Power?

Money makes the world go around — or so they say.  We certainly like to get our hands on money, as it is so useful for obtaining a vast array of goods and services, without any other effort or contribution to the provision of those goods and services.  But how does money come into existence, who issues it, in what form and with what conditions?  If we earn some money, or we take out a loan, where does the money come from?

Money allows us to buy goods and services, it is a means of exchange, and facilitates exchanges between people or organisations that cannot directly trade goods and services that both parties to the transaction want.  It allows a complex economy to develop, beyond the constraints of direct barter and one-to-one exchange.  It has been around for a long time, as tokens, pieces of gold or silver and notes that represented an amount of gold or other valuable resource.  It can be a ledger entry of debits and credits, which record trades, as in local bookkeeping systems of Green Dollar exchanges.  Mostly these days it is ledger entries on the computers of banks, which allow the account holder to make transactions by debiting their account.

An economy basically facilitates the production and transfer of modified resources or information services, and this requires a means of exchange and some rules of ownership.  Ownership defines rights to natural resources and the products of economic modification, while a means of exchange allows multiple party transfers to take place across a social group or with other social groups.  When ownership is not held in common it gives rise to privileged positions, with an exclusiveness of access to or utilisation of resources, such as land, forests, water or minerals, while preferential access to money or loans also bestows privileges.

When we were hunter/gatherers obtaining our needs from the local environment without significant modification there would have been little trade, and no need for any formal money system.  Once we lived in settlements where there was an agricultural modification of the natural environment to obtain our food and other requirements of life, then rights of ownership developed, and trade became a significant part of an organised economy.  Civilisation gave rise to a privileged class that extracted production through rights, enforced by laws or force of arms.  Tokens that represented a bundle of goods or an amount of precious metal then allowed products to be purchased and exchanged for different products or services.  Warriors who enforced the laws and rights of the privileged could be paid in these tokens, as could other professionals who provided services valued within a given social group.

Over time money has taken on a life of its own, but there has generally been some constraint on the issuing of money or loans.  When money (as tokens, notes or bookkeeping entries) is backed by gold, then the people who have gold resources are in a privileged position, but the supply of money is limited by the amount of gold in circulation or stored in vaults.  Today there is no limit on the issuing of money, and governments (as low risk borrowers, given their rights to raise taxes from their citizens) can borrow more and more, as treasury bonds, without any direct constraint.

Over the last couple of hundred years, in the capitalist world, there has been an increasing privatisation of ownership and progressive extension of the market (of monetary exchanges), allowing money (as capital) to buy ownership and extract a surplus from more and more resources and services.  First land, then water rights have been privatised, and now air rights are to be privatised through carbon trading schemes.  Everything it seems has to be tradable and have a monetary value — and if not, then it has no value.

At the same time there has been, first, a separation of finance from entrepreneurship or company ownership, with investment loans being provided at a fixed interest rate.  Then there has been a separation of ownership and managerial control in large shareholder companies or corporations.  The return to financiers arises from the interest payments they receive, and they have no (economic) reason to be concerned about the nature or impacts of the activities of the companies they lend to.  Similarly shareholder returns arise from dividends, and they invest for the highest possible dividend or monetary return.  They often have little say about company activities.  There is then a profound disconnect between both finance and shareholding owners and the activities of these economic organisations.  The quality of their goods and services, and the social and environmental impacts are of no direct concern, their only economic interest is the return on their (monetary) investment.

Money has become paramount, and a commodity where money earns money.  The way to make money is through the mechanisms of money and ownership, as unearned income.  Payments for the investment of past earnings, or is it?

When a bank issues a loan it does not transfer the savings of other people into the loan account.  On the contrary, it creates the loan out of thin air, and then has the cheek to charge interest on that created money.  It’s called fractional reserve banking, which just means that the bank only has to have a fraction of the money it lends.  This loan then has to be repaid with interest, which for longer term loans may be as much or even more than the original loan or principal.  Where does this extra money come from?  To obtain it, further money has to be issued, which under current banking arrangements means more loans.  But those loans also have an interest charge.  In this way there is a spiralling expansion of the money supply, as further loans allow past interest liabilities to be paid off, but in doing so generate even more interest liability and debt.  The overall debt expands, and this expansion is cumulative, driving an ever-increasing supply of money.

The overall level of debt can be reduced by monetary inflation or through bankruptcy discharge or cancellation.  But if the money supply begins to decline, the capitalist world economy goes into recession.  In the end, the choice is depression or hyperinflation!

This debt issue of money then drives economic growth — regardless of sense or need, everyone must work harder (or longer) and consume more.  Technology is used to continually find new gadgets or high-tech services to match the additional money of this expansionary system.  Population and consumption growth allows the financial system to continue to operate and bleed off its interest and dividend returns.  A very small minority of people, the financial elite, then gain most of the money, and hence exchange power and access to resources.

We live in a financial empire, where control and privilege is exercised though the financial and banking system.  There is no need for armed forces, just the upholding of the law by the local police, then we can all be exploited like peasants or economic slaves.  We work in an economy based on hierarchy and dominance.  It is a dictatorship model, and any political democracy is sidelined by the power of money.

We need to rebuild a more diverse and community centred ownership structure, based on common, public and private forms, with a diversity of means of exchange, including gift and obligations, barter and local bookkeeping or note currencies, as well as wider state and international means of exchange.  The money system has no power except through our acceptance of it, and we can issue our own money for our own purposes.  Let us do just that, and turn our backs on the banks and their financial empire.

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