Archive for June, 2013

Big picture stuff

June 29, 2013

This article appeared in this morning’s Melbourne Age newspaper.

Read it. Sounds good? Melbourne could live on 100% renewable energy made from waste. Hallelujah, we’re saved!!

Aaaaarrrrgh!! I could scream!! (I did).

This is the sort of ignorance that should be a criminal offence. The writer is environment editor for the Age and yet he hasn’t a clue about big picture stuff.

Look at these paragraphs exerpted from the piece:

“Biogas is the great, and largely untapped, energy resource that offers the simplest transition away from coal. It is synthesised from biomass, or anything organic that decomposes – typically crop husks, wood offcuts, animal dung, and sewage. Put simply, our cities could run on a resource that they will never run short of – our waste.

The City of Sydney surveyed every potential source of renewable gases within a 250-kilometre radius. After scouring hundreds of piggeries, waste dumps and forestry sites, it was able to show that there was more than enough decomposing matter within easy reach of the existing natural gas pipe network to disconnect the central city from the coal-fired power grid. Melbourne, with even more farmland close to its centre, is thought to have greater resources.

”The research shows that you can go to 100 per cent renewable energy this way,” says Allan Jones, the City of Sydney’s renewable energy adviser.”

Look, it goes like this. Every time we take a crop off the soil, nutrients go with it. Otherwise why would we eat? Our bodies need those nutrients to survive. If we kept doing this without adding back those nutrients, eventually nothing would grow. In a diverse natural ecosystem like a forest, nutrients taken up by the plants are returned to the soil in fallen leaves and branches; in spent flowers and uneaten fruits and in large trunks when whole trees fall. Bacteria and fungi in the soil aid the breakdown process that recycles nutrients. Animals that live in the forest, eat the forest products and return nutrients to the soil in their dung and in their bodies when they die. This is often called the “balance of nature”.

As (non-organic) farmers we return those nutrients to the soil by adding (artificial) chemical fertilisers produced in a factory (this isn’t sustainable, but that’s a subject for another time). Organic growers add composted plant material (including the parts of crops not actually used as food) and animal dung. We cannot, repeat, cannot afford to turn that ‘waste’ material into biogas, to run cars and industry. Everything must go back into the soil, or else all growth stops; all ecosystems die.

Organic farmers and permaculturalists already know this. Why is it that so-called environmental editors don’t. It’s not rocket science if you’ve studied ecology. Maybe anyone who writes this sort of rubbish should be locked away for a year with a swag of ecology texts until the bigger picture becomes part of their psyche.

Of course, human bodies should also be returned to the soil when life ceases, but we don’t do that. Our nutrients end up in cemeteries where no food crops are ever grown. Another example where nutrients aren’t returned to the soil from where they’ve come.

Another thing that occurs to me is that in a diverse, balanced ecosystem only certain numbers of each organism can be supported by the available nutrients. Human numbers are out of balance with the Earth’s ecosystems. Because human birth rates vastly exceed human death rates, there are far too many nutrients tied up in living human bodies that should be in the soil, supporting other life.

Mother Nature will eventually fix that.


June 27, 2013

I’ve just finished reading Dmitry Orlov’s The Five Stages of Collapse.


Orlov’s blog is here.    It’s one of my favourite reads.

I’m not going to spend time waxing lyrical about this book, because I realise the imminent collapse of industrial civilisation is a taboo subject with most people, but I will say I found it unputdownable and the source of some stunning new insights into the human predicament.

Orlov’s five stages are: Financial, Commercial, Political, Social and Cultural. Although treated in the book in that order, there’s no guarantee they will occur in that order, or one after the other in an orderly slow succession. At the end of each chapter Orlov has added a case history to illustrate each of the stages: Iceland (financial); the Former Soviet Union (commercial); the Pashtuns (political); the Roma (social) and the Ik (cultural).

Orlov has posted some exerpts at his blog and I’ve pasted one of them here just to give you an idea of what to expect from his writing:

“Looking at the first three stages of collapse—financial, commercial, political—it is clear why financial collapse should, and to some extent already has, come first. Commercial collapse results from the disruption of the physical flows of products and services; political collapse occurs when governments are no longer able to fulfill their obligations to their citizens in the wake of commercial collapse; but all that is required for financial collapse is for certain assumptions about the future to be invalidated, for finance is not a physical system but a mental construct, one resembling a house of cards that, to stretch this metaphor just a little, can remain stable only while continuously adding more cards, in the sense of continuous credit expansion supported by economic growth. But we are entering a time when a wide variety of physical constraints are making themselves felt around the world, from the depletion of fossil fuel resources, metal ores, phosphate, fresh water and arable land, to massive disruptions because of droughts, floods and heat waves brought by accelerating climate change, to the political instability and upheaval which sweep the world in the wake of each food price spike. All of these elements combine to make a rosy projection for global economic growth untenable. In turn, an extended period of economic stagnation followed by a sustained, perhaps terminal contraction is fatal to a financial system that constantly requires more debt, and more growth.”

The remainder of the chapter goes on to describe ways of cashing out of the system before cash (along with all other financial contrivances) becomes worthless, how to trade in absence of banks or other financial institutions and what life without money tends to look like. All very fascinating stuff. Orlov’s book will be a permanent fixture on my bedside reading table.

If you’re interested in the subject of collapse (and you should be, for all past civilisations have collapsed and the present one will be no exception), and you want to do some thinking about how you might survive this one, then I can recommend this book.

If you need more background, then I’d also recommend the following:

Overshoot: the physiological basis of revolutionary change  (William Catton).

The Collapse of Complex Societies (Joseph Tainter).

Collapse (Jared Diamond).

If you’d rather watch than read, then the series of 20 short videos which make up Chris Martenson’s Crash Course, which deals with economics and finance is well worth it.

My new toy

June 25, 2013

I’ve been making yoghurt for some time and now I’m making cottage cheese. A batch of each every week. To heat the milk I’ve been using a mercury-in-glass thermometer, a relic of my laboratory working days. Not a good idea, as glass can be broken and mercury is toxic. Before my luck ran out and I found myself having to throw out mercury contaminated milk, or crawl round on the floor trying to scoop up globules of mercury (have you ever wondered why it’s called quicksilver?), I decided it would be a good idea to buy a proper cheese thermometer.

It arrived yesterday. I bought it from Green Living Australia.

I’m pleased with it. It has a dial gauge and a clip that attaches to the side of the pot:

cheese 002

The dial is small but readable (with glasses on):

cheese 001

I made yoghurt and cottage cheese this morning. Cottage cheese curds floating on the whey:

cheese 003

Curds draining:

bread 003

Lunch. Cottage cheese and red cabbage kimchi:

cheese 004

Depending on the draining time, a litre of milk makes around 200-250 gm of cheese. That costs out at around $4-5 a kilo if I buy supermarket milk at $1 per litre. I priced a couple of supermarket cheese brands at around $14 a kilo. The home-made stuff doesn’t have all the additives which is another thing in its favour. Suits my budget nicely!

I usually freeze the whey and use it wherever I can. Today I made Thermomix risotto, so used the whey instead of chicken stock.

Winter solstice

June 21, 2013

I love it when the winter solstice comes around once more. It means the sun has reached its most northern point in the sky and will start to make its way back into the southern sky. Every day sees a couple of minutes more daylight. It doesn’t mean it will get warmer—there’s still a fair bit of cold weather left to go—but unlike the European calendar, which heralds spring on the first day in September, the Aboriginal calendar for this area welcomes pre-spring in the middle of July. The first wattles will come into flower, as will the native Chocolate Lilies and Sugar Gliders will be giving birth. A colony of gliders lives here on the property in the many tree hollows. They emerge at dusk and spend the night feeding on insects and tree sap. When we first moved here, I used to watch every evening for them the emerge, but I’ve become a bit blase about it now and only watch occasionally. Last time I watched, a few weeks ago, I saw five come out of the one hollow. Must be nice and warm all cuddled up together in there, but I’ve read that they urinate on the leaves they drag into the hollow to mark their territory. Warm but stinky!

So cute:


In full flight. Up and at ’em!:


I mentioned in the last post that I’d planted Sebago, Desiree & Kipfler potatoes so far this season. I was in Coles (for overseas readers, one of our big supermarket chains), and saw a variety called Creme Royale for sale. Always keen to try growing new varieties, I bought some and planted them. Not having heard of them before, I Googled and found this site. It seems they’re grown exclusively for Coles so they may have been treated with sprouting inhibitor. Oh well, we’ll see what happens. I bought a couple of extras and had them for dinner, cooked in the microwave. The texture was soft and creamy, flavour not too bad. Hope they grow.

While searching I also found this site which is a useful summary of major potato varieties and their uses.

Bread & cheese on a wet day

June 13, 2013

We had 47 mm of rain on the first day of June; just over the June average for Melbourne. Then another 23 mm by the end of the following week, 20 mm last night and it’s been raining all day today. The gauge is visible from the bathroom window and it looks like another 20 mm so far. The 3 pools at the rear of the property are brimming. I’d be happy if I was a duck but I’m not. The chooks are disgusted; they’ve been confined all day to the only bit of their playground that’s covered by a tarpaulin and their holes are just puddles. But not muddy ones thankfully; the soil is sandy and water drains quickly, so I don’t expect any cases of chookfootrot.

It was obvious no outside work was going to be done today, but I had a batch of bread lined up to make and also some cottage cheese. I’m making the cheese weekly now, using the recipe from Green Gavin’s e-book, Keep Calm and Make Cheese. It’s a bargain, downloadable from Gavin’s blogsite for just a few dollars, as are his other e-books.

The bread turned out fine:

bread 007
As did the cheese. Here it is draining in the sieve:

bread 003
From a litre of milk I get 200-250 gm of cheese, depending on how long it drains. I keep and freeze the whey to use as stock:

bread 004

The cheese has a lovely fresh taste and it’s free of all the additives in the commercially made stuff. One day I’m going to have a go at a hard cheese.

Out in the garden, I’ve been making more hugelkultur beds from sticks, raked-up litter and leaves. The bed I made last year has been invaded by fungi which is good because it means the underlying wood is being broken down:

fungi 001

I’ve been adding wood ash and chook poo compost to the bed and I’m hoping to get a good crop of pumpkins from it this summer.

The garlic and potato onions I bought from Yelwek Farm earlier in the year are growing well. The garlic took a long time to eventually sprout but it’s OK now:

wednesday 004

These are the brown potato onions. The nets are to keep the blackbirds off. Their constant digging is driving me crazy:

wednesday 006

There’s not much else happening at the moment. It is winter after all. I’ve planted Sebago, Desiree and Kipfler seed potatoes and still getting lots of greens and two (small) heads of broccoli. It’s almost the winter solstice and time to think about what tomato varieties I’ll be sowing this year. I may wait another month and start sowing in July. Time to get out the seed bank and do some sorting out.