Entropy ~ the law that needs balancing…

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Life opposes entropy...

Entropy is commonly defined as;
‘A measure of disorder or randomness.
A closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.’
As a physics undergraduate student, this never made sense to me. If things are only able to proceed to a greater and greater state of disorder, where did the order we see come from in the first place? This paradox could only ultimately be answered by bringing in an additional factor not mentioned above; one that acts in opposition to entropy. I later realised that factor is life.
Yes, we do indeed see plenty of examples of entropy around us. ‘Inanimate’ objects do fall apart; we see mountains being eroded by the forces of wind and water, rocks being broken into smaller and smaller pieces, cars rusting and so on, but is that such a bad thing?
Or are we just so afraid of change, that the very idea of entropy scares us? Just look at the things we make; plastics are a great example of something we made to last forever and then we realised what a bad idea that was. When we’d finished with them, they just wouldn’t ‘go away’. They just sat there performing no useful purpose, locking up important raw materials and preventing nature from making something new from them.

Getting into good shape!

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Reed beds are very efficient and produce an additional yield

So having looked at the functionality of different patterns, how might we go about using this knowledge to design truly sustainable ways of living? Well, looking at both excellent and poor examples of pattern application should help illustrate the idea.
In wastewater treatment systems, we have long used beds of gravel to help clean up our sewage. Collectively, the many particles of gravel have a lot of surface area on which the active bacteria live.  This is an application of the successful ‘lobe’ pattern, which we find being applied in our colon, where the collective surface area of the ‘friendly’ bacteria makes digestion most efficient.
An adaptation of this system involves planting in addition, some heavy feeding plants into the gravel beds. These plants take up the fertile wastes of the bacteria and turn it into plant matter (or biomass). This can then be cut and made use of in any number of ways, including use as fuel or a mulch. The combination of gravel and reeds for instance, makes for a very efficient system.

Patterns ~ blueprints for life

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Patterns abound in nature, and yes we often see beauty in those places, but our ability to recognise patterns is actually vital to our survival. Imagine if you will… What if we couldn’t recognise the pattern of say, a particular face or fruit and associate it with safety / nurturing or indeed the opposite? Wouldn’t life be so much more time consuming (and dangerous)?
So our brains are already ‘hard-wired’ to recognise patterns. It is such a powerful process, that it can even elicit an emotional response (to for instance, a fluffy toy in the pattern of a baby penguin).
OK, so other than these obvious survival issues, why is understanding patterns important to me?
Well, given that we’ve been making a bit of a mess of things of late, we might be advised to consider some different ways of doing things. Like how we grow our food for instance. Or how we use energy. Quite frankly, how we might go about being sustainable!
So how does understanding patterns help us with living more sustainably on the Earth? Well, you may have noticed that nature as a whole has done pretty well. Yes, species have come and gone, but life as a whole is still here, after a mere 3.5 billion years apparently. Makes one feel humbled by the sheer vastness of such a timescale. So what’s nature doing right, and how can we use those same principles to ensure that our human genes make it beyond the end of the next century?

Eating for a healthy planet

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Money doesn't grow on trees, but some food does!

The daily choices that we make have either a positive or a negative effect upon our environment & believe me, those choices are significant. Have you ever considered how much of your income (& time) that you spend each week on just obtaining food? Now multiply this up for a whole year. Then multiply that by the number of people in our country alone. It’s a big number isn’t it?
So, where do you currently choose to spend that money (at the supermarket or from local producers & family businesses)? How do you spend that time (travelling back & forth from the shops & queueing at checkouts or growing your own in your garden)? These are choices that we can decide to change in any moment. We can decide to do that now. Every little thing that we change for the better makes a difference & is always worth doing. Is it clear now that we are not as powerless as we have all been led to believe?
Climate change certainly is occurring, but what is rarely mentioned is the significant role that modern farming practices are almost certainly playing in all of this. Energy-intensive fossil fuel use, economic subsidies that encourage overproduction, monocultures (huge areas of single crop), the massive use of pesticides, herbicides & chemical fertilisers, factory-scale meat & dairy production & poor countries growing luxury cash crops for Western greed. These are all practices that are poisoning our World & destroying the soil, without which nothing on Earth could live…. When we buy foods grown in these ways, we are not only funding these farming methods, we may just as well be carrying them all out ourselves.

Where are the straight lines in nature?

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OK, so there is still a bend, but a lot less than before...

If I were to ask you the question:
“What is the quickest way to get from A to B?”

A .                      . B

What would you answer?
The most common response is of course “a straight line” and we humans have got quite obsessed with them. But where (else) in nature do we find them? Which others species uses vast amounts of energy to carve a massive slice out of a hill to level a road, destroying important habitats in the process, just to save a minute or so of journey time?

Clear the clutter!

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Our clutter...

It’s traditionally the time of year again to give our homes a good ‘Spring clean’. I guess back in ‘the old days’, warmth was too precious to be opening doors until it was warm enough outside, so a smelly winter indoors was probably inevitable! Vacuum cleaners have of course removed the excuse for us to leave cleaning things that long, but affluence has brought with it a different problem. Clutter!
It seems to be the in-thing nowadays to have people come in and get rid of your clutter for you. Many of us have big emotional resistance to this, but we know on some level that it makes sense. Paying someone else to do it for you seems a big drastic to me (and scary!), but if, like me you’re looking for one more good reason to get on and have a good clear out yourself, then read on…
The millstone around the neck is a powerful metaphor for life’s responsibilities, but in a society that values the ownership of material goods, it can be difficult for us to recognise the ways in which our ‘stuff’ burdens us too. What we need is a clear sense of the time, energy and space it takes to keep something in our possession, but first let’s look at how nature does things.

Are we all brain damaged?

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All the junk currently orbit our world...

Could we all be suffering from brain damage? Tony Wright certainly thinks so, pointing out that the world we’ve created is clearly the product of a disconnected consciousness. The idea that we can keep on using up Earth’s resources and polluting her soil and water without consequence is insanity.
But it seems there was a time when we lived much more in balance. A time before the ‘Fall’ spoken of in the stories of many of the world’s cultures. Anthropologists now tell us that 150,000 years ago our brains were 10% heavier than they are today. So what happened?
Tony Wright thinks he knows. His new book ‘Left in the Dark‘ challenges the common idea that we are now at the peak of our evolution. He argues that if we do now have significant brain dysfunction, then how would we know, when the instrument we use to judge this is the very thing we are observing?
Tony’s quest to find answers has driven him to experiment regularly on himself, in particular around the effects of diet and sleep. He even stayed awake for 11 days and nights last year (a new world record) to prove his theory ~ I know, as I was there! It was not the first time he’d subjected himself to this process though, he’d previously undergone scientifically scrutinised sleep deprivation, baffling researchers with his lucidity.

Reflecting on the power of individual choice…

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Winter mist on our local lake ~ a perfect place for reflection

In the great seasonal cycle of the year, Winter; when there is little for us to do outside, is the time that nature has offered us for reflection. Yet instead, our artificially-created busyness keeps us pre-occupied (working all hours to earn enough money to pay the mortgage* & keep on top of our debts) & this, as far as I’m concerned is happening for a particular reason. If we were actually allowed the time to think, to feel… most of us would quickly see through the way that we are all being manipulated & demand significant change.
In his younger years, Aussie Bill Mollison was a logger, until he realised that he & his fellow labourers were being worked to exhaustion to keep them from finding the time to think about what they were doing. That realisation led him to take responsibility for the choices that he was making & to reconsider his life path. He went on to spend many years observing natural systems & noticing what made them so inherently stable. From this he redesigned existing human systems to work in harmony with nature, something he was later to call ‘Permaculture’. His set of design tools & methods has since inspired milllions worldwide into making more ecologically sustainable lifestyle choices & we can use them ourselves too.

Natural economics ~ have we invested badly?

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Birds often migrate incredible distancesIt’s unusual to get to the end of the day at the moment, without hearing the word ‘recession’ (look there I go mentioning it again!). But these cycles are to be expected as they are a completely natural thing. Each year we enter a different kind of recession, but one that we are always much more prepared for ~ winter.
Life employs two main strategies to get through these lean times; migration & hibernation. Plants don’t have a lot of choice as they are rooted to the ground, but being mobile gives animals & birds an extra option.
Migration is an effective way for many species to cope with the ups & downs of the natural economy. When one habitat goes into recession, they just head off to another that is about to b(l)oom again. Instead, over centuries we humans have opted for an adapted hibernation option, but has this been a crucial error that has led us into the environmental mess we now find ourselves in?

In celebration of failure…

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There is always a reason to celebrate...
So that went well… my new year resolution to write every day failed at day 2. Many would call that pathetic, but I (after a short period agreeing with them), have decided to celebrate it instead. Am I mad? Some might say so, but there is reason in my apparent insanity.
You see, everything I have really learned in my life has come from trial and error. Sure, I have a lot of stuff in my head that has got there from books & TV etc., but that isn’t genuine learning. That stuff might not actually be true. Or it might be true for others, but not for me. The only things I really know are those I have learned from my own personal experiences.
And those understandings have come from trial and error. Starting with the likes of how to make sounds, then crawl, walk and so on, to the present day. To discovering that it just isn’t realistic, given my current situation, to expect to be able to write every day.
So OK, I’ve discovered something that I wasn’t doing before my resolution; but what’s new?
Well, the difference is that now I have examined the reasons behind my failure. I have more understanding. I have more patience. I can set more realistic goals.
I’ve certainly learned how well I have been programmed to beat myself up for ‘failing’.

I gave up hot drinks for the environment!

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Habits can have long term effects...So what’s your new year resolution? Have you thought of one yet?
The turning of the year always provides us with a great incentive for a fresh start, but what is the secret to maintaining any new habits?
Well for me, it has to be something important, or I lack the helping hand of my conscience. Those past habits that I have successfully changed have been those where the benefits were to more than just myself.
Which is why last year I finally decided to give up hot drinks for the environment… A pretty contentious thing to do I know, especially at the time of year when a nice cup of tea is one of our favourite ways of getting warm. Why such a drastic step?
Putting on the kettle for a cup of tea has long been a British institution, but all our habits were once new behaviours. We probably started boiling water simply because it was the only way to be sure it was safe to drink. Tea (& later coffee) was a habit born out of British colonialisation, & one that was initially affordable only to the upper classes. No doubt, like those energy hungry & unproductive lawns we now all have, it was seen as a sign of affluence & so ultimately adopted by us all as a result. Indeed we have adopted a great number of energy wasting habits over the years. The big question (& one posed by transition culture) is ‘would we rather give them up one by one in our own time, or have a massive change forced on us at once?

To find out more about permaculture have a look at my blog, videos, publications and courses page