Lessons from a “gift economy”

Robby Robin's Journey

Braiding Sweetgrass, an engaging book by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer that marries the science of plants and nature with Indigenous teachings, gives its readers insight into two polar-opposite ways of viewing the world in which we live. Beautifully and compellingly written, she presents a philosophy of living more responsibly and respectfully with nature – and with each other – that we would each do well to take to heart.

I had known from previous reading that Indigenous communities have always, for millennia, shared the bounty of nature with each other and have always paid respect to nature and its plants and animals for providing their gifts.  Gratefulness is part of accepting these gifts, as is sharing.  Kimmerer describes this approach, a “gift economy”, with understanding and grace. It’s a concept that, put in practice, can only add value to our lives.  Think of it as a philosophy for living.

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How we choose to spend our time …

Robby Robin's Journey

Penticton, BC blogger David Folstad’s recent blog post, Daily Choices and Math, got me thinking not only about what’s really important in life, but also how we might measure our success at living our personal values in that regard.  It’s all about the daily choices we make, big and small. He starts by reminding his readers of how much time we spend on the Internet these days compared to a decade or more ago, and how many of us are never far removed from work thanks to the same Internet that provides so many hours of “entertainment”.  The Internet is soaking up a frightening amount of our time.

He poses these thought-provoking questions:

What time and money will I look back on in one year or five and wish I had spent differently? What choices will I wish I had made? and you?

He then provides a simple, intriguing…

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A Lament for an America that I Believed In — Aging Capriciously

I sit here looking out my window and wondering what happened to the America that I grew up believing in.  A nation that was founded on the values of truth, justice, and equality.  The land of the free and the home of the brave.  A country dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. […]

A Lament for an America that I Believed In — Aging Capriciously

This Is Some Good Shit

How the sewage plant in our nation’s capital spins human poop into fertilizer gold.


I’m standing on an observation platform atop 24 colossal pressure cookers that belong to DC Water, the sewage treatment plant of our country’s capital. You may think that a sewage plant isn’t much to look at, but there’s a lot to take in from this observation platform. In front of me there are fields of silvery pipes stretching over massive sewage aeration tanks, where sludge percolates after it first arrives. To my left there’s a building that holds a dewatering centrifuge that turns this sludge into a goo ready for the next processing step—the pressure cookers that hum steadily below me as they simmer. They are slowly cooking shit into something awesome.

DC Water processes the contributions of about 2.2 million people who live, work, or visit the capital and the area that surrounds it. There’s input here from every residential house, every apartment building, every business and every historical landmark—Tyson’s Corner, the Smithsonian Institution, the Lincoln Memorial, and Capitol Hill. And the White House, of course. There’s some presidential poop percolating in those aerating tanks, along with the input from the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Pentagon, and the protestors chanting in front of the White House lawn. “That’s where all of us come together,” quips Bill Brower, a resource recovery engineer who is showing me around the plant. “And I’d like to thank all these people for their contributions.”

Despite the joke, Brower is quite serious. Unlike many other wastewater treatment plants, DC Water doesn’t identify as such. It describes itself in a different way: a resource recovery facility. There’s a reason for that, says Christopher Peot, the plant’s director of resource recovery, who is trying to change the mentality of the sanitation business. “There’s no such thing as waste, only wasted resources,” Peot says. “So we don’t process waste here. We recover resources.”

PRESSURE COOKERS: At DC Water, a wastewater treatment plant, tanks “are slowly cooking shit into something awesome,” writes Lina Zeldovich. That something awesome is plant soil rich in nutrients.Lina Zeldovich

To an average toilet-flusher, resource recovery from poo may be a shocking concept. For one thing, sewage management is incredibly difficult, and happens on a large scale. An average adult produces about a pound of poop a day so the Washington area dishes out a pretty impressive pile. What do you do with all this crap? Especially when there’s no vast amount of farmland nearby? Many wastewater plants destroy or landfill it. Meanwhile, farmlands are getting depleted after growing crops for years, so farmers use synthetic fertilizer to boost production. Mother Nature’s link is clearly broken.

That’s exactly what DC Water is trying to fix. One of the most ecologically savvy sewage treatment facilities in the country, DC Water uses the so-called thermal hydrolysis or THP process, which renders sludge harmless and converts it into a safe form of fertilizer. As Brower walks me down from the observation deck to the tanks labeled Heated Sludge, he explains the inner workings of the pressure coolers to me. Originally designed in Norway and called Cambi, the system consists of a pre-heating tank, called a pulper, and a series of upright cylinder tanks, in which pumped sewage is heated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and pressurized to six atmospheres for half an hour. “That’s six times more than what you are feeling now,” Brower says. “That’s how you kill all the pathogens.”

“We don’t process waste here. We recover resources.”

The stewed sludge is loaded into the so-called biodigesters—four humongous concrete tanks where a microbial menagerie chews through it, slowly breaking it down. “Digesters work just like our stomachs,” Brower explains. “They take big complex molecules like proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and break them down into smaller and smaller bits. And just like bacteria in your stomach, bacteria in the digesters break down proteins into amino acids, which become food for the bacterial community further down the food chain, and so on.”

As the microbes feast on the sewage stew, they dramatically reduce the amount of “dark matter” that DC Water needs dealt with. Without the digesters, the plant would generate 1,100 tons of biosolids daily, which even in their pathogen-free form still need to be trucked somewhere, with the use of fossil fuels. The microbes reduce this amount to nearly one third. “We went from producing 1,100 tons a day to 450 tons a day,” Brower says. “The rest literally goes ‘puff,’ and not just puff but a puff that you can burn and create power,” he points out. The microbes produce methane, which burns to spin the plant’s electrical turbines, generating 10 megawatts of power. “Ten megawatts is enough to power about 8,000 homes in this area. And the remaining 450 tons becomes our premium product: Bloom. Let me show you how it happens.”

He hands me a hardhat with a blue and green DC Water Logo, puts on his own, and heads into a concrete building filled with conveyor belts. Officially called belt filter processors, they are designed to squeeze as much water out of the digested sludge as possible. They resemble giant moving cheesecloths stretched out flat, only instead of white squishy curds it’s draining black soggy ones. And as the cheesecloth carries these glops along, the water drips down through it so the soupy substance becomes less and less watery. It starts like a muddy stream and drains to a consistency of wet forest soil.

At the conveyor’s end, two roller presses flatten out this soil-like substance into shiny black sheets. The sheets quickly crumble into fragments resembling pieces of coal or graphite, only thinner and more uniform because they have been neatly pressed. The conveyor drops the fragments into a deep crater with an overhanging backhoe. It looks more like a coal-mining crater than a waste treatment plant and it makes me think of a quarry. And then it hits me. Of course it’s a quarry. DC Water is quite literally mining black gold.

“I like that name, Black Gold,” says Brower, chuckling at my description. But this isn’t yet the last step, he adds. A third-party company named Homestead Gardens takes this black gold, ages it, dries it up, and packages it into 25-pound bags labeled Bloom. “We can make a more marketable material if we age it,” Brower says, because the moist product sticks to your boots and shovels, but the dry one is powdery and light.

Brower finds an open bag and scoops up a handful of Bloom. He takes a sniff and offers me to do the same. I hold a little Bloom mound in my hands and examine it closely. The dry, crumbly substance resembles your everyday garden dirt. It neither looks like shit nor reeks of it. It smells of forests, meadows, riverbanks, fertile earth, and the promise of the next harvest.

“I grow everything with it, squashes tomatoes, eggplants,” I hear Brower say. “Everything grows great and tastes great,” he says. “And I’m not the only one who thinks so. We’ve heard from a lot of people that they’ve got the best response they’ve ever seen from the plants. Particularly with leafy greens because that nitrogen boost does well with leafy plants. And the plants seem to have fewer diseases and fewer pests around—probably because Bloom helps build healthy soils.”

Besides gardeners, Bloom has proven popular with landscape architects and construction companies that buy good soil for horticultural use. As they clear sites for new developments, they often strip off the topsoil, which later needs to be replaced. Bloom helps restore the damage done—and it doesn’t smell like manure, so tenants don’t complain.

On my way back from DC Water I hold my hand to my face and realize it still smells of Bloom’s pleasant springtime scent. I sit on the train sniffing my hands, oblivious to the curious glances of other passengers, wondering what else can we do with our dark matter, with that potent organic power within us? Can we turn it into other forms of black gold? And it turns out, we can. When recycled properly, poop can power your home, cook your food, fuel your car, and even stave off algae blooms and floods. We even have the technologies to do it, and some companies are doing it already. We just have to stop pretending that our shit doesn’t stink—and use it for what it’s worth.

Read author Lina Zeldovich’s 3 greatest revelations while writing The Other Dark Matter here.

Lina Zeldovich is an award-winning popular science writer and former Nautilus editor. She has written dozens of stories for major publications in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, including the Smithsonian, Popular Science, and Scientific American, and won four awards for covering the science of poo. Her book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth and Healthpresents novel solutions to the world’s oldest problem—keeping humans free from their own excrement. @LinaZeldovich

Adapted from The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth and Health by Lina Zeldovich, to be published by University of Chicago on Nov. 19, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Lina Zeldovich.

Lead image: funnyangel / Shutterstock

Another Remembrance Day. Please let us not forget.

Thanks for your thoughts, so very well said.

Robby Robin's Journey

Another Remembrance Day.  Most allied nations have been honouring Remembrance Day for 103 years now.  That’s a long time.  How are we doing in faithfully remembering and being grateful for those who sacrificed for our freedoms and safety?  Do we ever stop to consider the millions of innocent civilians who were and are the ultimate victims of all wars?  How are we doing as a world in deciding that war is not an answer, that killing each other and laying waste to people’s homelands is a cruel, costly, lose-lose business?

As I have written on many Remembrance Days, remembering is something that our town does pretty well. We live near the largest training base in Canada, with a strong military presence and much pride in that fact. People of all generations turn out in droves to remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for our freedoms and those…

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The fate of man

Thanks Barry for a neat way of showing the problems facing us.

I can't believe it!

When the tide is out,
for long man and his companions
stand proud together,
facing the western horizon,
full of promise.

Inevitably the tide turns,
heads back towards the shore.
Wave after wave comes closer,
at first harmless,
but soon a sea of troubles.

The forward phalanx slowly disappear from view,
then ever more of his companions.
Soon the waves lap at his feet,
up his legs, to his torso.

He is alone.
The occasional wave splashes right over his head,
yet recedes. He endures,
again and again submerged.

Unbowed, he is the survivor.
The primitive force of earth and moon spent,
the waves slacken, begin to recede,
new hope kindled.

Soon the heads of companions appear
in the lull of a wave.
New life, new companionship,
the promise of idyllic times again…

The cycle of earth, of life,
of man.

* * * * *

Inspired by a high…

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The Tipping Point

Our survival depends on piercing the glassy surface of distraction, and ceasing to obey.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 30th October 2021

There is a myth about human beings that withstands all evidence. It’s that we always put our survival first. This is true of other species. When confronted by an impending threat, such as winter, they invest great resources into avoiding or withstanding it: migrating or hibernating, for example. Humans are a different matter.

When faced with an impending or chronic threat, such as climate or ecological breakdown, we seem to go out of our way to compromise our survival. We convince ourselves that it’s not so serious, or even that it isn’t happening. We double down on destruction, swapping our ordinary cars for SUVs, jetting to Oblivia on a long-haul flight, burning it all up in a final frenzy. In the back of our minds, there’s a voice whispering, “If it were really so serious, someone would stop us.” If we attend to these issues at all, we do so in ways that are petty, tokenistic, comically ill-matched to the scale of our predicament. It is impossible to discern, in our response to what we know, the primacy of our survival instinct.

Here is what we know. We know that our lives are entirely dependent on complex natural systems: the atmosphere, ocean currents, the soil, the planet’s webs of life. People who study complex systems have discovered that they behave in consistent ways. It doesn’t matter whether the system is a banking network, a nation state, a rainforest or an Antarctic ice shelf; its behaviour follows certain mathematical rules. In normal conditions, the system regulates itself, maintaining a state of equilibrium. It can absorb stress up to a certain point. But then it suddenly flips. It passes a tipping point, then falls into a new state of equilibrium, which is often impossible to reverse.

Human civilisation relies on current equilibrium states. But, all over the world, crucial systems appear to be approaching their tipping points. If one system crashes, it is likely to drag others down, triggering a cascade of chaos known as systemic environmental collapse. This is what happened during previous mass extinctions.

Here’s one of the many ways in which it could occur. A belt of savannah, known as the Cerrado, covers central Brazil. Its vegetation depends on dew forming, which depends in turn on deep-rooted trees drawing up groundwater, then releasing it into the air through their leaves. But over the past few years, vast tracts of the Cerrado have been cleared to plant crops – mostly soya to feed the world’s chickens and pigs. As the trees are felled, the air becomes drier. This means smaller plants die, ensuring that even less water is circulated. In combination with global heating, some scientists warn, this vicious cycle could – soon and suddenly – flip the entire system into desert.

The Cerrado is the source of some of South America’s great rivers, including those flowing north into the Amazon basin. As less water feeds the rivers, this could exacerbate the stress afflicting the rainforests. They are being hammered by a deadly combination of clearing, burning and heating, and are already threatened with possible systemic collapse. The Cerrado and the rainforest both create “rivers in the sky” – streams of wet air – that distribute rainfall around the world and help to drive global circulation: the movement of air and ocean currents.

Global circulation is already looking vulnerable. For example, the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), which delivers heat from the tropics towards the poles, is being disrupted by the melting of Arctic ice, and has begun to weaken. Without it, the UK would have a climate similar to Siberia’s.

AMOC has two equilibrium states: on and off. It has been on for almost 12,000 years, following a devastating, thousand-year off state called the Younger Dryas (12,900 to 11,700 years ago), which caused a global spiral of environmental change. Everything we know and love depends on AMOC remaining in the on state.

Regardless of which complex system is being studied, there’s a way of telling whether it is approaching a tipping point. Its outputs begin to flicker. The closer to its critical threshold it comes, the wilder the fluctuations. What we’ve seen this year is a great global flickering, as Earth systems begin to break down. The heat domes over the western seaboard of North America; the massive fires there, in Siberia and around the Mediterranean; the lethal floods in Germany, Belgium, China, Sierra Leone – these are the signals that, in climatic morse code, spell “mayday”.

You might expect an intelligent species to respond to these signals swiftly and conclusively, by radically altering its relationship with the living world. But this is not how we function. Our great intelligence, our highly evolved consciousness that once took us so far, now works against us.