How many species will that cost?

This is my contribution to a group of Earth Day posts, mostly written by people I have met in the comments section of Small Farm Futures. I encourage you to enjoy the efforts of Jody and Michelle at animasoul, Clem at Gulliver’s Pulse, Brian at The South Roane Agrarian, and of course, Chris at Small Farm Futures.

Everything has a cost. We usually think of the price in dollars, but that actually hides the true cost.

The cost is paid in species, biomass, and ecosystems.

As interest spreads about big ideas like the Green New Deal, Universal Basic Income, single-payer healthcare, pharmacare or dental care—or more local ideas like a highway to Churchill, more ferries on the BC coast, or more vegetables in the far north, the question is always asked, “How will we pay for this?”

That is the wrong question. We should be asking, “How many species will this cost?”

As I wrote in my post on Universal Basic Income, I think this stems from a basic confusion about wealth.

Money is not wealth, money is simply a very elaborately printed IOU note. It has no value except in exchange for real wealth—like salmon, trees, cotton and wool. 

Further wealth is created when labour smokes salmon, mills lumber and builds houses or furniture, and knits wool into sweaters or weaves denim for blue jeans—and all those labourers need to eat and be sheltered and clothed with more wealth from nature. 

John Michael Greer introduced me to this insight of E.F. Schumacher, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods.

Greer goes on to extend this framework to tertiary goods, which is simply the pushing of numbers around on computers. 

But the thing is, we can’t eat money, and we can’t eat the numbers in the bank’s computer. 

Money is simply a convenient, pocket-sized promise we make to trade for real wealth at a later time. Wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature.

Let me say that again for emphasis—wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature.

People become rich by extracting wealth from nature and from labour.

In our current economy, that means the rich get rich by killing ecosystems and exploiting people.”1

So dollars are just an IOU for an actual, real, material thing extracted from the ecosphere and modified by human labour.

And it turns out the actual, real material things add up to 92 BILLION tonnes per year—our food, metals, fuels and minerals. But we don’t just poke the earth with a syringe and suck up pure copper and refined gasoline. The situation is actually much more bleak, if we take a wander down resource extraction curves.

Marion King Hubbert became famous as Peak Oilers discussed his prediction that “for an oil-producing area, from an oil-producing province, a nation, or the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production of the reserve over time would resemble a bell curve.”

The reasons for this are simple. We live on a finite planet, and we always start with the easy stuff. So we cut down the trees on the flat land first. We collect the oil that is literally bubbling out of the ground. We find three tonne nuggets of copper just lying in a creek bed.

We walk up to an apple tree and pick the low hanging fruit. 

We never start with the hardest to reach fruit. Our first response is never to get out the orchard ladder. We don’t look at that bubbling pool of oil and decide the next step is invent horizontal drilling.

We pick the easy stuff, and if we develop a taste for it2 we move up the tree. Maybe we stand on a rock. Then we sew a picking bag, then build a ladder.

The picking bag allows us to harvest tens of pounds of apples without wasting time climbing down to empty our pockets, and the ladder gets us up to where the branches are heavy with fruit in the sunshine. We fill our boxes with ease, but then things start to get harder and—at the peak of our technological development—we pick the last apple.

We pick the last apple.3

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Let’s look at that three tonne copper nugget again.

The Bingham Canyon Mine is largest and most productive copper producer in the world, and lies in the hills above my relatives in Salt Lake City. Each day 450,000 tons of material are extracted. And each year, 300,000 tons of copper are produced.

Are you following those numbers? That means that one of the finest copper mines in the world is digging up ore that is only 0.18% copper—that is a long way from a three tonne nugget. 

So, every day, 450,000 tons of the earth are dug up, of which 810 tons are the copper we need for our windmills, electric cars and smart phones.

So we just throw the other 449,910 tons of dirt somewhere else.

Every day.

In the history of mining, lakes and river valleys have been a convenient place to dump, but it could be a grassland or a desert. Regardless, it is dumped into an ecosystem, the home of countless flora and fauna who used to live there before that mine came.

Now, not everything we extract comes at such a pitiful rate, but the pattern is just the same.

In British Columbia, where I live,4 many First Nations had productive river fisheries. The salmon would swim hundreds of miles inland to spawn, effectively delivering groceries right to the nets, weirs and jaws of human and other fishers lining the river banks.

But with colonization that wasn’t quite enough, and so technology took us up Hubbert’s Curve. Fishing boats with lines and nets, sail power, then steam, then oil. Ever larger winches and engines. And wouldn’t you know it, with this massive extraction from the ocean comes a lot of bycatch. It is not as poor a rate as copper mining, but according to the WWF, about 40% of what we haul on board is not what we were fishing for and much of that is tossed back overboard, dead or dying. I spent a summer purse seining for salmon on a small boat, mostly off Vancouver Island. In one tragic set we brought up a net full of rockfish. These fish are armoured with spines, and punctured a crewmate’s boot when he kicked one. They also live very long—easily a century—and are slow to reproduce. They dwell deep in the cold waters and when they are dragged to the surface, their guts turn inside out with the pressure change.

You shouldn’t eat rockfish, but they are delicacies on many fancy menus. We left hundreds of them dying in our wake.

Anyhow, Hubbert’s point is that we have to do more and more to get less and less, until finally it costs too much to do anything at all and we stop.5

And so let’s talk about that 92 billion tonnes that we extract each year from the ecosphere. As reported, resource extraction is the source of 50% of our greenhouse gasses and 80% of biodiversity loss.

At the rate of the Bingham Canyon Mine, for the 20 million tonnes of copper that are mined globally each year, about 11 billion tonnes of mine waste would be dumped into the ecosphere.

Every year.

“Into the ecosphere” is a pretty smooth phrase. What I really mean is that 11 BILLION TONNES of copper mining wastes are dumped on TOP of animals and plants, rivers, creeks, marshes, glades, dens and nests. Just for copper.

Every year.

For fish, of the 90 million tonnes of seafood caught each year—which doesn’t include the rogue, uncounted fisheries—millions and millions more tonnes are bycatch, thrown back dead or dying.

And of course this does not count the ghost nets, cut loose to entangle whales, the bottom draggers that rip up coral reefs or kelp forests.

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So. 92 billion tonnes is a staggering number. It is probably double anything that could be vaguely considered sustainable. And it is just a fraction of the true amount we dig, and drag out of the planet, only to throw overboard or dump to the side.

As with all diminishing returns, it is only getting worse—but this is how we earn money.

This is how we pay for our roads and hospitals and schools and televisions.

We pay for those things with biodiversity loss. As Daniel Quinn says:

It’s obvious that it costs a lot of money and energy to produce all the food we need to maintain our population at six billion. But there is an additional, hidden cost that has to be counted in life forms. As I’ve said, it’s conservatively estimated that as many as 200 species are becoming extinct every day as a result of our impact on the world. Put plainly, in order to maintain the biomass that is tied up in the six billion of us, we have to gobble up 200 species a day.

This—this shitty, unequal, unjust continent of strip malls requires 200 species a day.

So when we talk about growing our economy, when we talk about eliminating poverty, when we talk about expanding manufacturing, we are talking about more than 200 species a day.

And so I love the folks at Strong Towns who ask how we can build places that are productive, not extractive.

I love how they do the math—every roadwork, every arena or stadium, every fire hydrant has a cost. Where will the money come from? Most towns never produce enough money to pay for their own streets and water systems—they are just quietly mouldering into bankruptcy, hoping for the feds to send them a few species worth of infrastructure money.

I love it because they strip the conversation down to something that feels very real to me.

If a fox spends more energy chasing mice than it earns from eating mice, it starves to death and dies.

Where is the money for the Green New Deal, or the hydrogen highway, or total electrification going to come from? I am not fucking talking about who we are going to tax. It is going to come from wealth, extracted from nature and worked by labour. It is going to come at the cost of at least 200 species per day, every day.

The finest ideas of equality and justice cost 200 species per day.

I am right on board with lining the billionaires and industrialists up at Madame Guillotine. But I am not on board with using their billions to build electric cars kill 200 more species every day.

400 in two day. 600 in three days. 800 in four days.

In just five days, one thousand species are lost forever.

The people who should be my comrades foolishly drone that debt doesn’t matter,6 forgetting that some accounts can never be paid back—once they are gone, they are gone.

This is perhaps the purest source of my grief. I don’t see the world through rosy lenses, but rather as species, and ecosystems of relationships—so every time I read another godforsaken call for more good things for more good people I can’t help but weep.


Pickle Soup

I like dill pickles so much that each year as a child I would find a jar of Polskie Ogorkie weighing down the toe of my Christmas stocking.

Now I make litres and litres of lactofermented dill pickles every summer, picking the cukes while they are small and submerging them in a salt brine with fresh herbs and garlic.

Fido Jars make pickling effortless, and do a wonderful job of keeping pickles and sauerkraut crunchy, but we are now eating pickles from last summer…which means I can make soup from the pickles leftover from the summer before that.7

Russia has a pickle soup, but it seems that Poland is the true homeland of Zupa Ogórkowa. Recipes abound online, but I used this one as a base, lifted flavours from a couple of other recipes, and modified to suit our fondness for creamy potato.

Dill Pickle Soup

  • 10 cups of chicken stock
  • ⅓ cup pickle juice
  • 150 gms. (1 ¼ cups) carrots, chopped small
  • 1000 gms. (8 cups) potatoes, cut to the size of game dice
  • 125 gms. (1 cup) celery, thinly sliced
  • 450 gms. (3 cups) dill pickles, coarsely grated
  • 3 tsp. grated garlic
  • pinch or two of dried dill weed
  • 1 ½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ cup milk
  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • 1 egg
  • ⅓ cup sour cream
  • salt and pepper to taste

Boil about half of the potatoes in stock until they are soft, then purée with a stick blender.

Add everything except the milk, flour, egg and sour cream and cook another 15 or so minutes, until the potatoes are just soft.

Stir together the milk and flour, then add a bit of hot broth and stir again. Add to soup and stir well. Bring the soup to a boil and stir until thickened.

Remove soup from heat. Thoroughly beat egg and sour cream together, and slowly add to the soup.

Serve garnished with fresh herbs or a dollop of sour cream.

Makes 12 hearty servings

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So that is pickle soup, but I would like to just add a little bit of trivia down here…

We don’t often keep sour cream in our house, so Carmen quickly curdled some milk with lemon juice—one tablespoon of juice and four tablespoons of milk made a thick cream quick.8

Using lemon juice or vinegar is a rush job of what would traditionally be called clabbering, or letting dairy be soured…by the same lactofermentation that pickles our cukes or sauerkraut, and for the same reasons—to preserve food without refrigeration.

Lactobacilli produce acid as they eat sugars, and this acid creates an inhospitable environment for pathogens. We can assist our friendly bacteria by creating an environment in which they thrive. Mostly we do this by keeping them a titch warmer than room temperature, and, in the case of fermenting vegetables, by also adding salt.

This acid creates the pucker of pickles and the sour of sour cream.

I first ran across clabbered milk when I was researching the safety of drinking raw milk, and it highlights one of the big compromises we tend to make in our “modern” industrialized society.

Industrialization brought the milk of dozens of dairies together in one big tank, so pathogens from one dairy could infect the whole load.9 Perhaps because the milk run trains were running in the cool of the morning, the conditions were not hospitable for the protective bacteria which would have soured the milk. So the pathogens took over, and lots of people got sick.

The obvious thing is to abandon industrialization—naturally—and scale back to a convivial life lived in harmony with the natural cycles.

I am sorry. I mean the obvious thing it to cook the milk and kill everything in it—Pasteurization. But Pasteurization kills the lactobacillus as well as the pathogens, so when your milk goes off now it is greenish and foul—not what you want to leaven your pancakes.

Raw milk doesn’t go off, it just transforms into other food products: sour cream, yogourt, buttermilk, and sour milk. You can still make sour milk products from Pasteurized milk, but you have to reinoculate the milk with lactobacillus.

Anyhow. Clabbering is a thing—and it turns out it is a Gaelic word. Read more about it and find the Anglo-Saxon term at Cook’s Info.


A strong and affordable backyard greenhouse

In the rainy fall weather of the Canadian Pacific southwest, plants like tomatoes and cucumbers can easily develop blights and mildews before the fruit is ripe. If you wander the back alleys of the once-Italian neighbourhood of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, you will see many elderly gardeners shelter their tomatoes with overhangs of plastic sheeting.

But we wanted a full greenhouse to start seedlings in and to hold lettuce through the winter in addition to providing the shelter for heat-loving crops like melon and tomato.10 I built this greenhouse for under CA$500, and it has withstood many fierce coastal windstorms with ease.

We had made small shelters with PVC pipe, and found the plastic pipe was too brittle. An all-wood frame seemed too finicky and would require extensive joinery or a profusion of gussets. So I decided to frame the house with Electrical Metallic Tubing—EMT—or, plain electrical conduit.

I chose a “house” shape as being an easy shape to make out of conduit—unlike arches with long and consistent curves, the pipes have a simple 45° bend. The peak roof also sheds what little snow we get here on the coast, and has adequate headspace for growing vine crops. I also designed this with an eye to using fairly simple techniques so those with a smaller workshop than I have could still create a sturdy and effective greenhouse.

Our greenhouse is 20′11 long, and about 7’4″ wide. We wanted to cover two of our garden rows with a walkway up the middle, but the size is somewhat flexible if your rows are wider or narrower. At this width, our house is almost exactly 9′ high at the peak.

The idea of the greenhouse needing to match the garden row widths could also be seen as an expression of one of my charming manias—sometimes I get an idea in my head and I can’t get it out. In this case, I was interested in Eliot Coleman’s idea of moveable greenhouses, and so I built this so four average people could pick this greenhouse up and carry it to a different spot in the garden.

  • 16 pieces of ¾” EMT, standard 10′ lengths
  • 8 ¾” 90°EMT elbows
  • 15 feet of ⅝” square steel rod
  • 4 lengths of 10′ 2×8
  • 40′ of 1×8 in whatever lengths you like.
  • plywood scraps
  • 50 ¼” x 3″ galvanized carriage bolts, with 50 washers and nuts
  • 3 ten foot long pieces of ½” rebar, cut into thirds.

You will also need 2 10′ 2×6, and eight to ten 8′ 2x6s.12

I have used fir to make many outdoor things—rabbit runs, pea trellises, tomato stakes, and this greenhouse. I find that as long as the wood is not buried I get good life without needing expensive cedar or chemical-soaked pressure-treated wood.13

I bought plastic greenhouse sheet at our local agricultural supply, but I am sure you can order it online as well. UV in sunlight degrades plastic and reduces the amount of light that passes through the sheeting dramatically. Common hardware store plastic should be replaced after two years, while greenhouse cover will last five.

For tools I used a handsome measuring tape, an impact driver, a circular saw, a speed square, a staple gun and a hand or bench grinder. You also need a drill and a drill press if you have one. Also very nice to have are a chop saw, table saw, and a pneumatic stapler. Almost mandatory to have is a suitably sized EMT bender; I found one for ¾” tubing on Craigslist for $30. You might be able to borrow one, or rent one. You can also find solid curves out in the world—I have bent steel around parking bollards and concrete barriers…but that is definitely slower and more prone to kinking the tubing.

Before we begin, here is one more picture that contributes nothing to this instructional, but shows off how pretty Swedish Red Peas are—with the greenhouse in the background.

Let us begin…

As much as possible, I try to use what I call “reality-based carpentry”—rather than measuring a piece of wood and then using a tape measure to transfer that measurement to another piece of wood, whenever possible just lay the first piece on top of the second piece. This greatly reduces the opportunities to screw up numbers or read things backwards.14

Another key concept is the registration face—always measure from the same end. If you measure down one side and back up the other side your errors will compound and you will likely build a trapezoid instead of a rectangle. So pick an end and always measure from that end. For this greenhouse you want to build two mirrored sides—so mirror the damn sides. Lay the 10′ 2x8s down together and mark them Left and Right. Mark the top or the bottoms. If needed, you could lay out your measurements on both boards at the same time, measured from the same end (this is not needed for this project).

Now, rather than trying to measure the diameter of one piece of conduit, lay eight pieces side by side and measure all eight. Subtract that number from 20′, and then divide it by the seven spaces you will have between your eight EMT ribs. You should end up with something like 34″.

34″ felt like a nice space to me. I could have gone with tighter spacing, at the cost of two more lengths of EMT and one more EMT elbow, but this felt fine. I would never go for wider spacing, and if I was in an area that gets heavy snow I would cut that down to 18″ or 24″ between ribs. Check out other greenhouses that have survived good snowfalls in your area.

Cut 14 pieces of 1×8 to that length. These boards are going to be the primary way to make your greenhouse plumb, so make some effort to cut the ends square. A chop saw with a stop block is the ideal tool to make multiple identical pieces, but a carefully wielded speed square will be good enough.

Now start working with one of your 10′ 2x8s. Using one of the ¾” EMT elbows as a spacer, start from your registration end and give one EMT width, then nail15 or screw one of your 14 1×8 pieces on to the 2×8, aligning them to the top edge. Move your EMT elbow to the end of that piece and butt another piece of 1×8 onto it. Repeat.

Because I have seven spaces between eight ribs, the join between my two 10′ 2x8s falls in the middle of a space. This is great, because a 1×8 piece will span the joint. So, space with your EMT elbow, butt up the 1×8, and screw the first half on. Then slide your next 2×8 underneath and line it up. Make an effort to get a straight top edge along the length of the new 20′ board. You could even stretch a string or a chalkline to ensure your eyes do not deceive you.

Keep screwing or nailing 1×8 pieces on, always spaced with a real piece of EMT, not a tape measure. When you get to the last piece, make sure your last piece of EMT will line up with the end of your 2×8. If it hangs over, trim your 1×8 a little. If against all odds it is too short, then trim your 2×8 a smidgen.

Now you have two long and heavy pieces of wood joined together by short and thin piece of 1×8, which is suboptimal. Gently roll it over and tack on another piece of wood. 1×8 would be okay, but I would suggest you use a scrap of plywood about 7″ by 30 inches and ⅝” or ¾” thick.

Now drill eight ¼”+ holes through the whole sandwich, four on each side of the join. Stay 3″ back from the ends of the wood to avoid splitting. Putting the domed head of carriage bolts on the outside (the 1×8 side), wrench them up tight.

This photo shows one of the notches that will hold an EMT rib.

You should now have a good, strong 20′ long base for one side of your greenhouse. Repeat for the other side, starting from the registration face.

Tangent: As you can sort of see in the pictures, I did this in a slightly different way. I started with 2 12′ and 2 10′ 2x8s and cut a long lap joint. This allowed me to geek out a bit, and also avoid having the plywood scab on the inside. You can see the lap cutting technique between 3:30 and 4:40 in this video.

Leaving these aside, it is time to make the EMT ribs.

I chose to use one 10′ length of EMT for each wall, joined at the peak by a 90° elbow. Elbows are expensive, so I could have chosen to bend the peak myself, but I knew it would be hard to get consistently matching parts when I had to make three bends in one piece of tube. By using the prefabricated elbow, I only need to put one bend in each wall tube. Besides, the elbows are sexy.

You might want to buy yourself an extra piece of EMT for practicing bends. And on that note…I called around and got a shocking range of prices, from about $10 per length of EMT at Home Depot to $3 at an electrical wholesaler. Surprisingly, even at wholesalers there was a range from $3 to $6—twice the price. 16. I ended up going to two wholesalers to get the best price on elbows at one place and lengths at another.

Now you need to figure out where to bend your walls into the roof. I started this process on graph paper, but then again moved to a full-scale layout. Lay lengths of tube down on the ground. Position your elbow at the peak. Move things back and forth until it seems like things are about right, and don’t rush.

I didn’t want to cut my 10′ lengths—for no other reason than laziness and an aversion to adding another opportunity to make things different lengths. This worked out great with the added length from the elbow and the two-row width we were after. This put the centre of my 45° bend, where the wall becomes the roof, at about 66″.

All of my wall tubes, with the longer wall leg to the right and the roof leg to the left.

Now, I say the centre of the bend, and I am afraid I have bad news.

When you bend metal, it does not turn a 90° corner making a perfect right angle. As the metal bends, it is offset by an amount that relates to the bending tool and also the thickness of the material. This is the bend allowance, the K Factor, or the “takeup”.

So… Have fun!17

As I said, go ahead and splurge on an extra length of tubing and practice bending it. Make a mark, line up your bender on the mark, and see what happens. Where does the bend start and where does it end? How much length is taken up in the bend?

Lay your sample back down on your full-scale mock up of pipes and string and whatever, and see how things look.

Once you are happy enough, mark and bend all the tubes. Did I mention reference faces?

You can bend tubing around other things. You would need something about one foot in diameter and very solid. Maybe a tree trunk? But a conduit bender will make it easier to get matching bends and greatly reduces the risk of kinking, so I am going to assume you have begged, borrowed or stolen one.

Now here is a cute trick. My bend was at about 66″ or maybe a little more—so after the bend I had a long leg and a short leg. I laid the long leg on a table with the short leg hanging off, and let gravity plumb my pieces. Now lay your next piece beside it and you will be able to easily see how closely the angle matches.

Reference faces! Pick a tube and make it the master pattern. Adjust all the others to match the master.

Now, while you have all your tubes lying on the table with the short leg hanging off the edge and gravity pulling them all plumb, we will mark drill holes so you can bolt the tubes onto the base boards you made. You don’t want those holes going all willy-nilly.

First measure up from the end of the long leg—I am saying long leg, but that is just for my geometry. What I mean is the end of the tubing that will be touching the ground. Make a mark across each tube at 1 ¼” and 6 ¼” so the holes will land nicely within your 2×8.

With the short leg hanging off the edge, the high point of tubing on the long leg is the centre. Turn your two marks into crosses at the high point. These are your drill spots.

Once I had the spots marked I actually used the same cute trick on my drill press. I set up a support a few feet away so the long leg would be level, and the short leg would hang straight down. This made my drill holes go straight across the centre of the tubing.

If you don’t have a drill press, use a centre-punch to help your bit start, drill a small pilot hole and work your way up to slightly oversized hole for your ¼” bolts. Drill two holes in each rib.

Okay, this next part was my least favourite.

EMT is normally connected with an external clamp the tubing slides inside, tightened with screws. But using these would be bulky and would create unacceptable wear points for the plastic covering. So I researched the inside diameter of the EMT tubing, and found the diagonal measurement of the ⅝” square rod is about the same.

My idea was that I would just grind off a smidgen of the corners and hammer lengths of the rod inside the EMT. This way there would be no clamps but the joint would be reinforced with a long piece of rod.

Great in theory. It turned out that I had to grind a lot, which I tried to compensate for by brute force hammering. Once I finished, I was very pleased with the result, but I was very sweaty and unhappy in the process.

So at least you know that is coming. Take a bit of EMT to your metal supplier and see if you can find something closer in size than I found. This problem is created because the EMT is plus or minus the nominal size, as is the square rod. Perhaps I ended up with EMT on the small side and rod on the large side so the tolerances compounded unpleasantly.

There is also quite a difference in shape between hot-rolled steel and cold-rolled, so check out different materials—I wish you best of luck with that.

Once you have picked your materials, I think it would be a good idea to grind the corners off while the rod is full-length, or maybe cut in half. That just makes it easier to clamp down for safe grinding.

Then use a zip blade in your hand grinder and cut the ⅝” square rod into 16 pieces; they should be around 7″ long.

Using various hammers and rubber or wooden mallets, bash the rod into the EMT wall pieces, and then into an elbow for the peak. For me, I ended up with noodley ribs that are now shaped like a peak house. Keep going until you have ground all the rod and bashed all the ribs together.

I came up with this method to avoid abrading the plastic, but this is by far the worst part of building the greenhouse. If anybody else has found a better approach, I would love to hear it.

Okay. Set one of your base boards roughly where you want it. Slot one of your ribs into the EMT-width space in the board, eyeball it square, and clamp it in place—don’t start with the end ribs. Drill holes through the wood and run carriage bolts through, again with the domed side out where the plastic will lie. A helper to hold the noodley ribs would be quite nice at this stage.

Bring your other base board into roughly the correct position, clamp on the EMT, drill and bolt. Don’t worry about wrenching them too tight at this point. Continue to fit all the ribs.

Adjust the spacing between the base boards so the walls are vertical and cut two 2x4s to that length. Use long screws and toenail these boards across the ends, aligned with the bottom of the 2x8s. This makes a small sill you have to step/trip over, but it is not too bad.

You now have a base wooden rectangle with eight metal ribs—it should look something kind of like a greenhouse. Congratulations! Square it up.18

At this stage the ribs were still kind of noodley, as the rods could twist inside the elbows and the wall pieces; so let’s take that noodle out.

I used six 8′ 2×2 to make braces/spaces/hanging poles for the plants. Lay one of your brace boards down on your base board and mark where the ribs actually are. This is important because the ribs can be quite noodley up in the air thanks to the top elbow joints. When you mark the where your ribs are at the bottom you ensure they will stay at the spacing at the top.

Again, we will mirror them, so clamp two braces together, and use a 1″ hole saw or spade bit to drill both pieces at the same time. When you unclamp, you have a half-hole that nicely fits over a rib.

Important! The end rib is going to be infilled with 2×2! You want your brace to be 1 ½” shorter than your base board on each end, so it will butt into the end wall.

Use 1 ½” self-tapping screws to attach the brace to the ribs. If you use six brace pieces as I did, attach one at each end, then span the gap in the middle with the third. Or use two 10′ pieces and scab them together with plywood. I attached my braces so they would be aligned with the centre of my beds. Eyeball the spot, then measure or snap a chalkline to keep it consistent.

In a snowy climate, a ridge pole would be a real good idea. I didn’t think it was necessary for the coast where our snow usually comes in liquid form.

After the top braces are on to space out the ribs, wrench up the bolts at the bottom. Check your base rectangle for square again, then attach diagonal braces to the walls to buttress against the wind. I did not cut notches in the wood for these, just countersunk deep enough to give my self-tapping screws enough length to bite into the conduit and screwed them on.

Now figure out the end walls. Attach 2×2 to the EMT with self-tapping screws. Custom fit in whatever way makes sense, remembering you need a door at one end and an opening window at the other. I think my window should be larger, as it really gets hot in this house.

As you are going, glue and staple ⅜”-ish plywood gussets on to attach all the 2x2s together, to the baseboard, to the 2x4s on the end, and to the top braces. I bought a narrow crown stapler at a price that almost makes it disposable, and I am very pleased that I did. Staples are fantastic for attaching gussets like this, or for building things with chipboard or plywood. You could use screws to hold the gussets until the glue sets, but I would try to borrow or rent a stapler if you can’t find a cheap one.

It is time for a final positioning and squaring to get your greenhouse right where you want it. Then, pound in four pieces of rebar inside each baseboard. I drove them in at opposing 30° angles—the idea is to make it hard for the wind to pick up your greenhouse and blow it away. Pound three 3″ framing nails beside the rod and bend the last bit of the nail over the rebar so the greenhouse is well pinned to the ground.

And when that is all done, you can stretch the plastic—this step really calls for an assistant or two. The professionals use a cool system called wiggle wire that locks the plastic in a channel. It is removable and adjustable and even lets you attach shade cloth as needed, but it is quite pricey. I simply stapled the plastic taut onto a ½” thick lathe and rolled the wood up inside the film a couple of turns, then screwed through the whole thing to attach to the base boards. Make sure you roll to the inside so all the rain sheeting down your greenhouse does not end up rotting your lathe prematurely.

Before you stretch the top cover over onto the end walls, sheet the end walls. I ripped long lathes about 3/16″ thick and stapled through them to hold the plastic sheeting on. Then do the same for one end of the top cover, and, pulling tight!, the other end. This is thirsty work.

Futz around with doors, windows and automatic openers,19 and you have yourself a fine little greenhouse.


A simple DIY bottle washer

Each year we glean unwanted apples from backyards nearby and crush them into juice with our homemade cider press.20 This juice is mostly fermented into hard cider—gallons and gallons of hard cider.

When you are drinking 60 to 90 gallons of cider, there are a lot of bottles to rinse so the yeast and other bits don’t dry inside the bottle.

You can buy bottle washers, but they typically are made to screw on to a hose fitting. Indoors, that means a laundry tub, and we don’t have a laundry tub. If you want to attach a bottle washer to your kitchen faucet, you need an adapter and a great deal of patience to not cross the extremely fine threads on the faucet.

This does just not fit in my dishwashing reality.

For years I have dreamed of a built-in bottle washer. I imagine it as a slender tube, kind of like a filtered water tap, but spraying up into the bottle instead of down into the cup.

So far this has stayed in dreamland, but I did make a prototype out of a rubber dishwasher drain fitting, a brass compression fitting, a bit of bent chrome plumbing tube, a bicycle light mounting clamp and a few inches of wire. I crushed the end of the tube into a sort of fan nozzle.

It worked very well to clean bottles, but I never got around to figuring out some sort of cam that would allow me to clamp it onto the faucet so it had a tendency to blow off and spray water for several feet around.

Then, in a late night google-athon I found the missing part for the Mark II Bottle Washer, a very simple and effective design built for less than $10.

The Tapi, a silicone doohickey turns your tap into a drinking fountain. Slide it onto your faucet, pinch the bottom, and water bubbles up for your pleasure.

Or, if you jam a length of 3/8″ chrome toilet supply tube into the upper hole, the water bubbles into your bottle.

I had to do some thinking about nozzles. An actual nozzle, for agriculture or paint or foaming milk would be nice, but how would it attach to the tube?

So I used a triangular file as a mandrel and gently hammered the tubing to that shape, inserting the file further as possible.

I found a scrap of 1/4″ aluminum rod would almost fit inside the triangular tip, so I filed three chamfers on the tip, and cut off a little less than an inch. I gently tapped the aluminum plug into the tubing—tap too far and the plug will fall out the bottom.

So far the plug is staying in place, but I could probably affix it with a bit of silicone or epoxy if I need.

I tried forming the tip of a tube into a square for another jet of water, but aluminum rod I had on hand was too small. If you have a lathe and can mill your rod to a specific diameter that would be fun to try.


I recently had a social media conversation about Universal Basic Income, and I would like to expand on it here.

I think a UBI may greatly increase our environmental impact—and produce only a more equitable arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

The conversation arose when I was asked to explain my reaction to the subtitle of Rutger Bregman’s book, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek. 

Bregman posted a very interesting article adapted from his book, called Why do the poor make such poor decisions? If you have read my posts on Compassionate Systems, you will find Bregman’s article in alignment.

I have not read the book, so maybe he does a bait and switch after the subtitle—but if he really does support “Universal Income…and a 15-Hour Workweek” I think that shows Bregman does not understand sustainability. 

I have been tentatively participating in discussions about UBI for a couple of years now. There is an odd assortment of people promoting basic income—pragmatists, business people, and radicals on both right and left, and it is really having a moment thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. I haven’t liked the smell of basic income but the various ideas have not coalesced into anything coherent enough to respond to, so I haven’t written more than the occasional comments until now, when I was asked to explain myself further.

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So how will we pay for a Universal Basic Income? The image above is from Time Magazine—can we really have a life of reading books while idly picking dollars off The Magic Money Tree?21

Indeed, an article in Forbes tells us how we will pay for the Green New Deal ‘Isn’t a thing’. The only question raised is about inflation.

If the plan is just to comprehensively tax the rich and give their money to the not-rich, then all we are doing is redistributing the profits from killing the planet. 

As I said, I think it is much worse than that, I think a UBI may kill the planet faster.

It all stems from a near universal confusion about what money is.

Money is not wealth, money is simply a very elaborately printed IOU note. It has no value except in exchange for real wealth—like salmon, trees, cotton and wool. 

Further wealth is created when labour smokes salmon, mills lumber and builds houses or furniture, and knits wool into sweaters or weaves denim for blue jeans—and all those labourers need to eat and be sheltered and clothed with more wealth from nature. 

John Michael Greer introduced me to “E.F. Schumacher’s insight, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods”.22

Greer goes on to extend this framework to tertiary goods, which is simply the pushing of numbers around on computers. 

But the thing is, we can’t eat money, and we can’t eat the numbers in the bank’s computer. 

Money is simply a convenient, pocket-sized promise we make to trade for real wealth at a later time. Wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour23 to the wealth of nature.

Now, various corporate greenwashers, shills, and green tech promoters want to “decouple” our economy from environmental impact—but again, this is just ignorance of the difference between money and wealth. It is impossible. When we “share experiences” we do so in real buildings built and operated with the wealth of nature and labour. When we share a meal with friends, we consume food that came from the earth and was cooked by labour in kitchen that came from the earth powered by energy that came from the earth. We go to a concert in a hall built from the earth, powered by the earth, and drink beer from the earth. 

Yes, we can reduce the amount of impact our consumption has,24 but decoupling is just marketing. There is literally nothing you have ever touched or consumed that did not originate in nature. Furthermore, there is a floor of consumption below which people cannot go, or they die of starvation or exposure. You can’t decouple that. 

So wealth comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature. People become rich by extracting wealth from nature and from labour. In our current economy, that means the rich get rich by killing ecosystems and exploiting people.

Now, I support extremely radical taxation, but I hope I am being clear that taxation simply distributes the profit from killing ecosystems and exploiting people in a more or less equitable fashion.

This puts the conservative in conservatism. Whenever we talk about universal healthcare, increased social programs, hospitals in small towns or highways to remote towns, building a subway, recycling—whatever—we must ask what wealth are we going to extract from nature to make this possible? Asking how we will pay for something is not a question about debt and government bonds and inflation.

Daniel Quinn makes this clear in his incendiary essay The New Renaissance.25

It’s obvious that it costs a lot of money and energy to produce all the food we need to maintain our population at six billion.26 But there is an additional, hidden cost that has to be counted in life forms. As I’ve said, it’s conservatively estimated that as many as 200 species are becoming extinct every day as a result of our impact on the world. Put plainly, in order to maintain the biomass that is tied up in the six billion of us, we have to gobble up 200 species a day – in addition to all the food we produce in the ordinary way. We need the biomass of those 200 species to maintain this biomass, the biomass that is in us. And when we’ve gobbled up those species, they’re gone. Extinct. Vanished forever.

Those 200 species . . . why exactly are they becoming extinct? Are they just running out of air or water or space or what? No, those 200 species are becoming extinct because they have something we need. We need their biomass. We need the living stuff they’re made of. We need their biomass in order to maintain our biomass. Here’s how it works. Go down to Brazil, find yourself a hunk of rain forest, and cut it down or burn it down. Now bring in a herd of cows to pasture there. Or plant potatoes or pineapples or lima beans. All the biomass that was formerly tied up in the birds, insects, and mammals living in that hunk of rain forest is now going into cows, potatoes, pineapples, or lima beans–which is to say into food for us.

We need to make 200 species extinct every day in order to maintain the biomass of six billion people. It’s not an accident. It’s not an oversight. It’s not a bit of carelessness on our part. In order to maintain our population of six billion, we need the biomass of 200 species a day. We are literally turning 200 species a day into human tissue.

If this were something that was going to stop next week or next month, that would be okay. But the unfortunate fact is that it’s not. It’s something that’s going to go on happening every day, day after day after day–and that’s what makes it unsustainable, by definition. That kind of cataclysmic destruction cannot be sustained.

We’re like people living in the penthouse of a tall brick building. Every day we need 200 bricks to maintain our walls, so we go downstairs, knock 200 bricks out of the walls below and bring them back upstairs for our own use. Every day. . . . Every day we go downstairs and knock 200 bricks out of the walls that are holding up the building we live in. Seventy thousand bricks a year, year after year after year.

I hope it’s evident that this is not a sustainable way to maintain a brick building. One day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and the penthouse is going to come down along with all the rest.

Making 200 species extinct every day is similarly not a sustainable way to maintain a living community. Even if we’re in some sense at the top of that community, one day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and when it does, our being at the top won’t help us. We’ll come down along with all the rest.

So, I have yet to see a UBI proposal that addresses sustainability—the extraction of wealth from nature. I will be happy to cash my UBI paycheque—for the few years our culture might have left in a wildly damaged ecosystem—but UBI is just a band-aid on a sucking chest wound of living beyond planetary limits. 

We will live within limits—either we choose to do so, or nature will force us to do so.

The 15 hour work weeks might be a bit better? Like I said, I haven’t read Rutger’s book, so I don’t know what the proposal is and my critique may be way off base. But typically arguments like these are something like, “If we stopped letting billionaires squirrel wealth away in the bank, we would all only need to work 15 hours a week.”

I think this could actually cause enormous ecological damage.

Again billionaires don’t squirrel away wealth—or at least only a very small share. They are billionaires—they possess over one billion dollars—because they have not converted the money into wealth extracted from nature. Yes, they have more yachts and houses and diamonds than the rest of us, but what they squirrel away is money. Most of their riches are actually just numbers “invested” in a computer. 

If you distribute those numbers to the rest of us, we will actually turn them into wealth—into salmon we eat and trees we cut. This is a feature of localism—spending money locally keeps it cycling in the local economy, being spent over and over and over again on the real wealth extracted from nature and labour.

So redistributing wealth from the tertiary economy—from the stock market and billionaire’s bank accounts—will radically increase environmental impact. It will turn numbers in a spreadsheet into species on the extinct list.

The first time I put that into words I felt like vomiting—and I still get queasy thinking about it. 

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I have yet to see any proposal for UBI or shorter work weeks that starts from the question of what the ecosystem can sustainably provide—but here is a good starting point. 

Human population was fairly stable for a thousand years at about a quarter of a billion people.

One thing and one thing only has allowed for the exponential growth in population, and this is burning fossil fuels. 

“But knowledge!!” people will say. Yes, knowledge matters. And I think useful knowledge could likely lift that population ceiling to half a billion people, or maybe even one whole billion human beings. But that is all. 

Here is a searing paragraph from Greer’s eulogy for William Catton, who wrote Overshoot. 

The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

So knowledge is not enough. We still need resources, and especially, we need the primary resource, energy. If we want to do much at all we need highly concentrated energy. 

“But solar!!” people will say. “Windmills!!”

Neither of these is a concentrated source of energy.

We built this modern, globalized economy with oil that had an Energy Return on Energy Invested of 100:1—we had to burn one barrel of oil to gain 100 barrels. One gallon of gas contains the energy of weeks of human labour, so that gave us a massive surplus of energy. 

We are now down around 30:1 EROEI for fossil fuels—and the world we built for 100:1 doesn’t work so well. 

Solar and wind are 10:1, maybe 15:1. Some of them are less than 1:1–in other words, it takes more energy to manufacture the solar panel than it will ever generate in its lifetime. 

Here is another problem. 

You can’t make solar panels with solar energy. There is essentially no solar heavy industry—mining, refining and manufacturing. The concentrated energy carried fossil fuels is required in those industries. 

But can’t we just electrify manufacturing? No, because we can’t get the energy concentrations. 

So when we say we want wind farms, we are saying we want to keep changing the climate so we can mine and refine the resources and manufacture the parts.

And then of course, there are resource constraints. Being practical people, we dug up the easiest and richest resources first. This means the resources we have left are poor. Some analysts think that even if we could get over the social barriers and the financial barriers, there are not physically enough resources left in the ground for a transition to a renewable society. 

If a fox spends more energy chasing mice than it earns from eating mice, the fox starves to death. 

So, the world we can have with renewable energy is not this world. We simply won’t have the concentrated energy supply.

Therefore a world of 15 hour workweeks is a fantasy. Ask subsistence farmers how many hours they spend working and I think you will find it is a lot more than 15. 

Put another way, when we talk about 15 hour weeks or the UBI, what we are saying is we want to continue destroying ecosystems and changing the climate. We want to keep destabilizing our life support system. That is how we have built an economy that we think is rich enough to distribute more equitably.

One way or another, our future lies in what is able to be sustained, and that likely involves the work of subsistence we have seen in most of human history, human and animal-powered pastoralism and agriculture for a much smaller population base. 

Not a universal income or a 15 hour work week.