Rickety Bridge

Please note: I’m busy moving blogs, and copied this content over. The image links are going to break, if they haven’t already. It is what it is.

The transcript of the talk I gave at the SA Geography teachers conference, on 24 September 2014.

The title, roughly, is Permaculture, water and the landscape: the connectedness of things


The attendees made for a lovely audience, so much laughing in all the right places that I got totally overexcited. 🙂 I’m not quite happy with the structure and content of this talk yet, but I think it’s starting to get there. (As a point aside, I think I should make a talk that gets into the nitty gritty of Permaculture, water and the landscape, but first, I need to write 3x 4000-6000 word essays on the PhD… sigh) Also, this was the first talk where my special person was in the audience. That was … different.

When I was building this talk, I thought, I work in sewage, and this is a dinner time talk, so…that’s not going to work. I also thought you, as geographers, probably know more about water and the landscape than I do. You probably also had a long day, and I don’t want to exhaust you further with more technical stuff.

To be honest I just put this slide in everywhere because I love it so much, but to give it some place here, this is a rather random talk, some things may be too technical for you, some things may be too general, some too soft and mushy, some too hard… Take what you like from it, and just sit back for the rest. The talk will be online, so you can dip into it whenever you want to again. I learnt about constructivist learning approaches this week, that really appeals to me, so I would like you to build this learning with me.

To read the quote, it’s a Bruce Lee quote, but I can’t do the voice, so bear with me:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Now, water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.

It’s a bit weird for me to be here, I’m not a geographer, I don’t even really know what it is, I’m not a teacher, even though I’m learning to be one, I’m on a course! So the web says you all learn about everything on the earth (laughter). I can relate to that, that’s cool.

So I didn’t want to talk about sewage, and then I thought, what is the big thing that I want to talk about? I can tell you about that we have too much dirty water, that our stormwater causes too much flooding because our cities are paved over. That we have a flush and forget, out of sight out of mind mentality where it comes to wastes. That we struggle to manage manure at feedlots at the same time as we struggle to fertilise and nourish our fields. We all know these things, I don’t want to bore you with it.

Now, as engineers and scientists, we like to identify the issue and then address it. I think it’s important to communicate it too. So I’ll follow this approach tonight, but as useful as this is, it causes a lot of specialisation, and creates these silo’s of knowledge, so I want to give one other approach before I dive in.

This quote is by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and I go through these phases where my thinking pulls a lot from the Little Prince, so I apologise, I got a bit carried away with all the pictures… anyways, this quote sums it up.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work (of course, this is important, to organise teams and so on, but it’s not the only thing), but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

So, what’s my big issue? Well, here’s another quote from the little prince. The fox says, you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. And we have tamed our environment. But this is not the whole issue. Here’s another quote, from Bruno Latour, and I learnt a new word – post-environmentalism! I’m a post-environmentalist. Actually, my engineering friends think I’m a hippie and my hippie friends think I’m a capitalist, but hey. Here’s the quote:

Dr. Frankenstein’s crime was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology, but rather than he abandoned the creature to itself.

We create monsters. It happens. But we need to take responsibility for them. And I think a lot of the environmental and other challenges we have now is not that much because we created the circumstances for them, but that we then abandoned them.

For me, the big issue is this: Tame is not sustainable.

When I finished this talk and sent it off to Bridget, and went home, I suddenly thought, oh my God, they’re going to think I’m talking about anarchy. I’m not. Tame and wild is not like order and chaos. To me, tame is disconnected, subdued. Wild is connected, an ecosystem. Community. We do not know ourselves and our interactions with the wider world anymore. This quote by Ian McCallum sums it up – to understand wildness is to discover the thread that binds us to all living things.

I guess it’s a different way of identifying the issue, and now that we have, the really tricky thing is to communicate it. We are trying to bring many very different minds together to talk to each other, and that’s really hard. I want to share with you two approaches that I think does very well at achieving bringing people together to learn in a fun way. The first is biomimicry. It is a design tool: I don’t think it does particularly well at actually addressing challenges, so I think that needs to be kept in mind, but as a design and educational tool, it’s fantastic. The website has excellent resources and a lot of them are free:



Biomimicry has six principles, and Permaculture has 12 principles, which I’ll get to in a moment. These principles help a lot to get your mind around things and iteratively develop solutions to them. They are also very helpful to get people out of their areas of technical jargon, they get to play together in a neutral space.

(I did not go into the principles during the talk as the audience was tired and I thought not really in the space to pay attention, they seemed to want a quick laugh, dessert and then a bed…)

Biomimicry’s six principles:

  • Adapt to changing conditions
  • Be locally attuned and responsive
  • Use life-friendly chemistry
  • Be resource efficient (materials and energy)
  • Integrate development with growth
  • Evolve to survive

Permaculture is the conscious design of human living environments that reflect the ecological principle that underlies nature.

I think Permaculture does a good job of communicating the issues, as well as addressing them. Perhaps more in the organic sphere, land restoration and food production, for example, but the principles can be used in any setting (some more metaphorically speaking than others).

Permaculture principles: (permacultureprinciples.com/resources/free-downloads/)

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change.

I want to particularly highlight the eleventh principle – Use edges and value the marginal.

It’s the things on the edges that innovate because they have to, because if they don’t, they die. At the edges you also get to interact with other things, cross the boundaries, which allows you to make connections that may not have been possible before.

What we have move to the margins is our waste, so I want to take the last part of the talk and focus on how to address this big issue in terms of waste, and the work that we do.

Biomimicry considers that nature knows no waste. Permaculture says a waste is simply a resource that is out of place, that we can innovate and make valuable again. Even OMO gets in on the action, and says, waste is good (I’m paraphrasing).

At CeBER, the Centre for Bioprocessing Engineering Research, we look at how these things fit together, what we can make from wastes using biology, and also what that means in terms of economics, and if it fits well in the bigger picture, if it is really good for the environment and so on.

I didn’t know how much technical stuff you want so I just put in the introduction pictures, but please feel free to ask questions at any level of technicality.

The Biominerals group is our largest group and the best funded (and sometimes with the ego to match). They use bugs to treat mine wastewater, but also to mine low grade ores, mainly for copper, but also for zinc and gold. They do great work, they’re really brilliant.

One of the main research areas in CeBER is bioleaching, a process where microbes are used as biocatalysts to convert metal compounds into their soluble forms. This leaching process is an alternative economical method for the recovery of metals such as copper, zinc and gold from low-grade mineral ores, with low investment and operation costs.

The Algae group is the PR face of CeBER: all our press photos have algae group pictures in, and the most beautiful people work in this group. It’s true. This group looks at if algae is all it’s cracked up to be, it started with the hype around biomass to fuels, and looked at if it made economical sense – it can’t, and now we look at ways to supplement the economics with higher-value products like carotenoids and nutraceuticals. This group also looks at the whole ecosystem and if it makes environmental sense.

CeBER focuses on algal cultivation, harvesting and processing for the production of carotenoids, nutraceuticals, lipds and energy products. Maximising lipid productivity through optimising the uptake of light and CO2 is critical to systems scale-up. Through the biorefinery concept, inventory analysis and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). we identify key contributions required for feasible algal processes.

And then there’s me. I learn from the biominerals group who work with the very dilute mining waters, and the algae group who knows about biorefineries, and I try to bring them together, to create value from a range of wastewaters – my passion being municipal wastewater. I found this beautiful quote at the last conference in Spain this year, which was very exciting as more and more people are now getting the hang of this thing. That does make me feel a bit odd because now it feels that I’m moving away from the edge, so I have to do something to keep the edge!

A biorefinery is characterised as an explicitly integrative, multifunctional overall concept that uses biomass as a diverse source of raw materials for the sustainable generation of a spectrum of different intermediates and products (chemicals, materials and/or bioenergy/fuel) whilst including the fullest possible use of all raw material components – EU definition, presented at RRB2014 by Timoteo de la Fuente.

This is really important, as the first ‘biorefineries’ were all about taking one raw material, say the crops that were taking the space for our food, and turning it into fuel, and that was not working well at all. These biorefineries now start to approach much more of an ecosystem, and I think that is really moving in the right direction.

I want to end with coming back to that longing for the sea. I spent a lot of time fighting and trying to figure out how to make this world better. We are in a tough spot, a lot of things are not going well, and it is easy to get despondent.

Then I found this word, jouissance. It means physical or intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy, and comes from the French word jouir, for “enjoy”.

I’m not sure if I should say this, but I’m going to anyway. This word also has links to orgasm (roars of laughter which made me feel quite goofy), … and I think that’s epic.

I first came across jouissance in a book written about capitalism (Capitalism’s New Clothes – Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis), of all things, in which Colin Cremin describes it as follows:

… a brief flash of enjoyment (more roars of laughter, making me very happy 🙂 ) achieved after excessive pursuit (a few giggles). The pleasure lies in the obstacles to fulfillment – but only if that fulfillment eventually arrives, and only if there are obstacles.

In our search for tameness and control, we want everything to always flow smoothly, but that robs us of jouissance. On the other hand, the fact that so many things are changing so fast is not such a bad thing. So I want to implore you to embrace a bit of wildness, in these interesting times. We need to work hard to make things better, but celebrate those small wins, have some brief flashes of enjoyment. This way, we would get further, and have more fun.

And that’s it! Thank you for your kind attention.

*** The talk after mine was by Carin De Villiers on SA’s Alternatives to Coal, and can be found here (1.5MB).


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