From void into vision, from vision to mind, from mind into speech, from speech to the tribe, from the tribe into din.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Solar Swadeshi, Hand-Made Electricity

After much thinking, I have arrived at a definition of "Swadeshi" that perhaps best illustrates my meaning. Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote.
Speeches and Writings of M. K. Gandhi, 1919 (

Gandhi was a middle-aged man when he first asked his wife Kasturba to teach him to use the spinning wheel. Once he had mastered the wheel, he practiced spinning every day for the rest of his life. Home-spinning became a symbol for independence and self-reliance throughout India under his encouragement and direction.

Gandhi would spin for an hour each day, usually producing a hundred yards of thread, and helped develop a simple spinning wheel (charkha) that allowed many to do the same. He believed that spinning was the foundation of non-violence. I believe this type of practical labor has to be the core of any sustainable ecological action.

We need a solar swadeshi, an ecological practice on a daily basis that allows us to live within our solar income. Gandhi used the charkha, the spinning wheel. What would be an ecological charkha, a solar charkha? I suggest a hand cranked, pedalled, or treadled dynamo. Work it for 30 minutes a day and generate watts and watts of electrical power for your own use or to put back into the grid for the benefit of others. Solar swadeshi. Hand-made electricity. 21st century khadi cloth. Real electrical power to the people. True energy independence with minimum waste, at least in terms of generation. Doing what Gandhi did with cloth but now with electricity.

In this "deregulated environment" with oil used as a weapon and national security identical to energy security, direct ecological and economic action toward renewables and away from the nuclear, gas, coal, and oil that we presently use can be a primary political as well as economic act. A treadle/pedal/crank powered generator with a flywheel can be the solar swadeshi, an ecological and economical electrical charkha.

One humanpower is about one sixth horsepower. A healthy person can put out 100 watts of power for hours on end and 300 watts in a sprint. Let's not be batteries in the Matrix but generators in a net metered ecological Network.

The ultimate goal I envision is to meet all electrical non-space-heating and refrigeration needs within the space of one south-facing window (4-10 square feet of photovoltaics) and a half hour to an hour a day's human power. The realistic goal today is most of the electrical load with the exception of refrigeration and space-heating: lighting, TV, audio, computer, phones...

This isn't Edward G. Robinson in "Soylent Green" pedalling a broken down three speed to light one sickly incandescent bulb. This is more like Lance Armstrong powering his energy efficient Spanish villa with a morning workout on his state of the art Tour de France simulator stationary bike and power generator.


The essential ingredients of the Swadeshi thought may be summarised as follows :

1. Swadeshi means that which is natural and native to a country and society, but allows scope for assimilation of wholesome and beneficial elements from the outside. This applies to economics as well as politics; culture as well as technology.

2. It is the principle of prefering the neighbourhood over the remote.

3. It commands need-based life, and rules out unlimited consumption as an end.

4. It renews and relies on family, community and society as socio-economic delivery systems. It does not substitute these traditional institutions by the State and the Market.

5. It is not autarky; but a global alternative which accepts only need-based transnationalism.

6. Swadeshi restores economics to its earlier definition which even now the dictionary meaning of economy indicates, namely, practical human needs, frugality, savings, thrift etc. and seeks to remove the latter-day distortion of defining economics as multiplication of wants and efforts to satisfy them, powered by greed.

Stated in simple terms, Swadeshi rejects materialistic and imperialistic homogenisation and aimless transnationalism of the Western assumption. Swadeshi is a multidimensional thought, embracing civilisational, political and economic aspects of human life and presenting an integrated vision of life in harmony with nature.


The message of the spinning-wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living so as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant. That larger message is naturally for all...

The message of the spinning-wheel is, really, to replace the spirit of exploitation by the spirit of service...

There is no "playing with truth" in the charkha programme, for satyagraha is not predominantly civil disobedience but a quiet and irresistible pursuit of Truth.

NB: I've been thinking about these ideas for quite a few years now. It seems appropriate to be publishing them on Memorial Day. People laugh at Gandhi for his insistence on swadeshi, on "wasting" his time by drawing thread from a spinning wheel but he was doing something fundamental in terms of self-reliance and self-respect on a level so obvious and so deep that most people can not see it at all. This lesson is one we need now more than ever. This practice is something that can generate the beginnings of real economic freedom.

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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Gaian Design of Ecological Alchemy

A history of New Alchemy Institute. Here is the core of their natural systems designs.

_A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design_ by Nancy Jack Todd
Washington: Island Press, 2005
ISBN 1-55963-778-1

(82-83) The living world remained our conceptual model for the architecture of the bioshelters. Evolution is continuous, dynamic, and highly adaptive. As John was wont to point out, the Laws of Thermodynamics determine that there is a progressive deterioration in the quality of energy, but living forms create spatial form and morphic order. In defiance of entropy, energy can be harnessed to work on the side of life - which is precisely what we were trying to do.

(190) A Gaian worldview holds all life to be a sacred ecology in which humankind serves as steward.

(155) Gaia knows what she is doing, and our best bet is to get better at playing junior partner in the overall scheme of things.

(142) We had, in our experiments in applied Gaia, decoded some of the elements for healing both people and the planet and had helped to give the world what Gregory Bateson had called a "paradigm with a future."

(162-163) Twelve principles fundamental to the practice of ecological design:

1. Geological and mineral diversity must be present to evolve the biological responsiveness of rich soils.
2. Nutrient reservoirs are essential to keep such essentials as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium available or the pants.
3. Steep gradients between subcomponents must be engineered into the system to enable the biological elements to evolve rapidly to assist in the breakdown of toxic materials.
4. High rates of exchange must be created by maximizing surface areas that house the bacteria that determine the metabolism of the system and facilitate treatment.
5. Periodic and random pulsed exchanges improve performance. Just as random perturbations foster resilience in nature. in living technologies altering water flow creates self-organization in the system.
6. Cellular design is the structural model as it is in nature where cells are the organizing unit. Expansion of system should also use a cellular model, as in increasing the number of tanks.
7. A law of the minimum must be incorporated. At least three ecosystems such as a marsh, a pond, and a terrestrial area are needed to perform the assigned function and maintain overall stability.
8. Microbial communities must be introduced periodically from the natural world to maintain diversity and facilitate evolutionary processes.
9. Photosynthetic foundations are essential as oxygen-producing plants foster ecosystems that require less energy, aeration, and chemical management.
10. Phylogenetic diversity must be encouraged as a range of aquatic animals from the unicellular to snails to fish are as essential to the evolution and self-maintenance of the system as the plants.
11. Sequenced and repeated seedings are part of maintenance as a self-contained system cannot be isolated but must be interlinked through gaseous, nutrient, mineral, and biological pathways to the external environment.
12. Ecological design should reflect the macrocosmos in the microcosmos, representing the natural world miniaturized and reflecting its proportions, as in terrestrial to oceanic and aquatic areas.

(183) This approach to watershed restoration involves the following:
1. Modifying hydrological cycles on a microscale.
2. Working first upstream then downstream in the watershed,
3. Developing many local points of intervention.
4. Allowing local topography, including buildings, parking lots, and roadways, to direct design.
5. Employing natural systems engineering.
6. Incorporating organisms such as fungi, mosses, and higher plants to sequester metals, bind phosphorus, and destroy pathogens or to break down organic compounds, including petroleum-based products.

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