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Rain Barrels, Chickens, and Walking the Sustainable Living Talk

Sustainable Living Farm Garden Greenhouse

sustainable living farm garden greenhouseI write mostly about buildings and the people who fight about them: the crazy things I find, the good things I find, the super-secret Building Science Fight Club, how I don’t need no stinkin’ Building Science Summer Camp. Just your standard energy geek fare. Occasionally I talk about peak oil and the Long Emergency. Aside from the few articles I’ve written about the green home I built, with its greywater system, reclaimed materials, and passive solar features, I haven’t said much about sustainable living, though.

I write mostly about buildings and the people who fight about them: the crazy things I find, the good things I find, the super-secret Building Science Fight Club, how I don’t need no stinkin’ Building Science Summer Camp. Just your standard energy geek fare. Occasionally I talk about peak oil and the Long Emergency. Aside from the few articles I’ve written about the green home I built, with its greywater system, reclaimed materials, and passive solar features, I haven’t said much about sustainable living, though.

It’s not that I don’t believe in sustainability. Well, to be honest, I usually have doubts about anyone who uses the word ‘sustainable’ too much. If they marry that word to ‘growth,’ the doubts change to antipathy, and I start gnawing on the nearest sheetrock. Part of the problem is that the word ‘sustainable’ has become almost as meaningless as ‘green’ because people use it to mean whatever they want.

Reducing my environmental impact is something that I’ve strived for pretty much all of my adult life. The only car I’ve owned that had more than 4 cylinders was the first, and I had it for only 6 months. I lived in Florida for 9 years and almost never slept a night with the AC on. I can’t bear to see organic matter or recyclables go into a trash can. Kermit may think it’s not easy being green. I think it’s not easy not being green. I have to do these things.

Another Allison has me beat on all of this, though. Let me introduce you to Allison Adams, a friend of mine I first met at the Georgia Organics conference in 2005. She lives in Decatur, bicycles and takes public transportation to work frequently, grows organic fruits and vegetables in every spot she can, keeps chickens in her backyard, and uses rainwater from her roof to provide water for all of her gardening.

She also knits, cans, plays music, and forages for wild berries. If you’re thinking this sounds like someone right out of the Foxfire books, well…you’re right, sort of. She grew up in Rabun County, Georgia and got a chance to write part of those back-to-the-land guidebooks when she was in school there.

The reason I’m writing about her Southern Urban Homestead rain barrel rainwater catchment Allison Adamshere today is that I just read a wonderful article she wrote for Emory Magazine called Recalculating the Cost of Living. In it, she lays out one of the most cogent rationales for sustainable living that I think I’ve ever read. I couldn’t do it justice if I tried to recount it here, but I will say that she does an amazing job of tying together the social, environmental, and personal factors. She makes it real. She shows that it’s attainable. And she does it oh, so eloquently. There’s a good reason she’s able to make a living writing and editing.

I’ve been a subscriber to her blog, The Southern Urban Homestead, for a couple of years now, and I love her posts. She’s written about many of the topics I mentioned just above (not above above, when I was talking about my stuff, but above – I know it’s confusing with two Allisons in the same article). Some are practical, this-is-how-I-did-it articles. Some describe her philosophy of urban homesteading. Some are just fun.

An example of one of her practical articles is Slide Down My Rain Barrel, a description of the evolution of her rainwater catchment system. She originally had four rain barrels that just weren’t up to snuff, so she described the solution that allowed her to water her garden only with rainwater all of last year. Just recently, she updated the story with a post about her addition of a solar-powered rain barrel pump.

Southern Urban Homestead bison april fools nellieback40 Allison AdamsOn the fun side, she totally caught me last year with her April Fools’ Day article. I love a good April Fools’ prank, and my post this year on the new USGBC requirement that LEED-certified homes would have to be all glass was a lot of fun. I heard that I may have even snared a couple of folks at Building Science Corporation. That kind of stuff is in my blood, so you get a lot of points for tripping me up.

Her post was brilliant. She wrote that she was adding to her backyard menagerie. In addition to chickens, she had just recently gotten a bison and was going to lead the new backyard buffalo movement, as she’s been a leading proponent of what she calls chicks in the city. Hey, why wouldn’t I believe it?! That’s exactly the kind of thing she would do!

If you haven’t done it yet, you need to get over there and:

  1. Read Recalculating the Cost of Living
  2. Subscribe to The Southern Urban Homestead

Would I steer you wrong? OK, maybe sometimes, but if you subscribe to only one blog, it should be Allison’s. And if you subscribe to two, it should be Allison’s and Allison’s.


Related Articles

What’s Your Energy Ideology?

The End of Growth – Mathematics & Peak Oil

The Optimism of Pessimism in the Age of Peak Oil



Photos of rain barrels and Nellie Oleson, the backyard bison, used with permission from Allison Adams.

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t
    I’m surprised you didn’t mention eating a vegan diet – or at least a lot less meat and dairy. That’s pretty much the most sustainable thing for the planet that you can do on an individual level – but most people like to ignore that one.

  2. Amanda:
    Amanda: Good point! I was a vegetarian for 23 years, and a vegan part of that time. Now I eat seafood and poultry but not every day. In her article, Allison did mention that when she eats meat, she tries to find the local, grass-fed, or wild varieties.

  3. Allison, 

    You are precisely correct on the utter vagueness in the use of sustainability. I am currently doing an MSc. in Sustainable Development and very few of our lecturers (actually only one) have really engaged with ‘sustainability’ as a concept either. 
    I am new to this too having gone back to college after the construction crash here in Ireland. However, the key thing I think I have learned about sustainability is that it is only meaningful at the ‘global’ level whether you look at your own energy/resource/waste budget, or your town’s, state’s, nation’s or the globe’s.  
    And ultimately only the last matters. 
    If you insulate your house and spend the annual savings on consumption, a plane flight for example, all is lost in sustainability terms: Jevons paradox, as Martin Holladay described recently. Same for companies whose energy efficiency measures contribute to their bottom line and the dividends enable to shareholders to use more resources and energy. Same for national and global budgets. 
    Worse if you and I and all those responsible folk do all the sustainable things then the immediate demand for that ‘saved’ energy and those ‘saved’ resources goes down. Demand goes down so the prices of energy and resources go down. This enables all those ‘irresponsible’ folk to buy even more, probably more than wiping out all of the ‘responsible’ savings. 
    If there are limits to growth then this is called market failure. Not believing in limits to growth is logically absurd, so the market failure has to be addressed. 
    The logical thing is flat, or more equably, escalating, taxes on resources and energy, provided that ALL of the tax revenues are then passed back to citizens and corporations, equably – per person or person employed perhaps – as all have an equal right to a reasonable basic amount of resources and energy.  
    Ideally everyone and every business gets to spend these amounts ONLY on energy/resource/waste/emissions efficiency improvements. Or possibly paying off debt (and only debt) first! 
    I think it is the global and political change implications of global ‘sustainability’ that make it so challenging, leading to vague and misleading uses of the term to obscure what we would prefer not to see.  
    On rainwater harvesting, rain barrels are great but only part of the garden water solution. Improving the ‘spongness’ and limiting evaporation of the garden itself is going to have a much greater effect: 
    Sorry to go on everyone, it’s a holiday Monday here! 

  4. Paul P.:
    Paul P.: Ah, yes, this kind of discussion always has to go to Jevons’s Paradox, doesn’t it? Not sure how long you’ve been a reader here, but I’ve talked about the issues you raised a few times in this space. (See the links I’m about to add to the bottom of the article above.)  
    In the end, though, as you mentioned, the resources that I save get used somewhere else, but only as long as we’re on the upswing. Now that resource production is peaking, we can make real progress because that cycle will be forced to change. I like Kenneth Boulding’s quote: 
    “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

  5. Are you sure you wouldn’t
    Are you sure you wouldn’t “STEER” us wrong when she talks about backyard urban bison?

  6. Ben K.:
    Ben K.: That was too obvious, wasn’t it? ;~) 
    Paul P.: One other thing I forgot to mention in my response to you excellent comment was that as that continues to get more difficult with the global economy this century, it’s going to take a lot of people doing just the kind of thing Allison is doing to get us through it. And we’re only on the Bumpy Plateau right now. Just wait till we hit the other side of peak.

  7. Hi Allison, 
    Hi Allison, 
    I don’t know if you recall this, but you actually introduced me to the other Allison’s blog some time ago, and I agree, it’s a great blog and her accounts of her experiences there are excellent. 
    I believe that sustainability and sustainable homesteading is something that someone makes happen through their efforts only. And Allison is a really good example of how an individual can do it right.  
    It’s really unfortunate that terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ have been hijacked by marketing people and are now associated by the public at large with mass consumerism. But highly fortunate that folks like you and Allison continue to write and publish and champion these efforts. 
    ~ John

  8. Thank you, Allison, and to
    Thank you, Allison, and to everyone here who has read and commented on this article. I’m thrilled that my blog and the Emory Magazine essay is stirring some conversation about these complex issues.  
    It is, I agree, unfortunate that the meanings of terms like “sustainable” and “green” have become so diluted with use and misuse. It is up to those of us who are trying to tread lightly on the earth to re-imbue them or, perhaps, find new words for our endeavors.  
    If you are interested in my ruminations about being a carnivore, you might enjoy a blog post from a couple of years back, titled “Meat”:

  9. John P.:
    John P.: Yes, I do recall sending you to the Allison’s blog because of your big gardening interest. She also writes about squirrels…but not nearly as much as you do. 
    Allison A.: Thanks for commenting here, and for writing such a great article!  
    Here’s the live link to the article on meat, for those who want to read it.

  10. My antipathy toward the
    My antipathy toward the squirrels is white-hot and all-consuming. They mock me with their evil chittery laughter, then they eat my outdoor wiring.

  11. Uh, oh. You may have met your
    Uh, oh. You may have met your match, John Poole. Maybe you can show Allison the photo of the mean squirrel that stared you down the other day. 
    (Correction: That should say “Allison’s blog” in my first response to John, not “the Allison’s blog.”)

  12. A recommend academic lecture
    A recommend academic lecture on sustainability – (because unlike most talks, it covers the dark side of engineering ethics and sustainability) – is presented by Professor Roland Cliff, Engineering for Sustainable Development and offered through the Department of Engineering Science, Oxford University.  
    This will take you to the free 60 minute podcast:  
    If you would be uncomfortable hearing about ethical challenges for engineers forced to work for the Nazi regime and how these ethical challenges still apply today as it relates to energy sustainability – then don’t listen to the lecture. 
    On another note, there is something delusional about believing in high efficiency appliances as part of a ‘sustainability’ solution when these devices require the generation of 2800F (1500C) in combustion chambers at coal/gas power plants or onsite for the purposes of generating 50F (10C) to 80F (27C) to 120F (49C) for use in buildings.  
    Think about that for a second…non-renewables are converted into temperatures 20 to 50 times higher than what is required in our buildings – there is absolutely nothing sustainable about his process regardless of the efficiency of the system.  
    A few things to consider: 
    First, in Canada (as an example), of all the non-renewable energy sources harvested from our soils and used domestically (not exported) approximately 50% of its usefulness is lost via conversion entropy (thermal, sound, vibration etc.).  
    For effect see this thermographic image of a cooling tower at a power plant: 
    Put it this way we throw away a kW for every one that we use…or you could say we steal a kW away from the future for every one that we use. 
    Consider also every time combustion takes places for the generation of electrical energy or thermal energy for space heating, cooling and domestic water, the energy is not destroyed however access to the potential high temperature needed by future generations for industrial purposes is destroyed and can never be recovered. Look at it this way…what we do with non-renewables is kind of like throwing away a slightly exhausted hand warmer in front of freezing homeless person. 
    This concept is called “exergy efficiency” hence mathematically something that is say 98% energy efficient may only be 5% “exergy efficient” because the temperature generated is at polar extremes from the temperature required.  
    Remember this…whenever energy is converted entropy is created and exergy is destroyed. 
    Just something else for everyone to think about while contemplating rain barrels, chickens, and walking the sustainable living talk…and now squirrel hunting (buggers pillage our strawberry patch)! 

  13. My relationship with
    My relationship with squirrels is not unlike that of an Ahab with many Moby Dicks chomping away at his peg leg… 
    OK. That was something silly I just made up. But I do have a long history with squirrels. 
    Here’s the one staring me down, right outside my window, while I was working at my desk, just a few days ago. Glad I had my camera within reach: 
    – Capt. John

  14. Maybe slightly OT, but
    Maybe slightly OT, but regarding rain barrels – has any pro actually analyzed water off an asphalt roof to be sure it’s safe for use in a vegetable garden? I’ve heard concerns, but no idea if they are well founded…

  15. Allison, 

    I have read nearly all of your blog entries, commented a couple of times, most excellent and stimulating. I love building science, just too scared/unqualified to go to Lstiburekian boot camps. 
    You said:  
    “the resources that I save get used somewhere else, but only as long as we’re on the upswing. Now that resource production is peaking, we can make real progress because that cycle will be forced to change.” 
    How is that necessarily so? If we are on the downswing the demand/supply relationship will still hold at any particular time, just as it did on the upswing when supply was at a similar level. Therefore what you save will still be used somewhere else.  
    On the downswing it may well be that the reason we are not buying the resources or energy is not because we are being ‘responsible’, it will be because resources and energy become unaffordable. Unfortunately Jevons holds.  
    The question is: how can we maintain prosperity for the most people on the downswing if some make excessive use of resources, either by having more wealth or by being enabled to by the restraint of others keeping prices down.  
    I am still struggling to see how restraint, though ethically laudable, is helpful to the overall problem on any sustainability scale larger than a small community. Overall it will have little effect, hence the need for government and preferable global agreements on how we face the future together with future generations. 
    Robert Frank has suggested that taxes escalate with escalating personal use so that the wealthy also feel the ethical benefits of restraint. He suggests that this would restrict the overall size of antlers in the useless “I’ve got a bigger antlers than you” consumption race among the wealthy. They would still race but on a restricted scale and the taxes would bring in societally beneficial funding for investment in energy efficiency and renewables.  
    Is there another universal restraint on excessive resource and energy use except direct taxes or regulation?  

  16. Here’s what drives
    Here’s what drives me squirrely when it comes to sustainability. 
    The Aqua Tower in Chicago: A Thermographic Perspective. 
    Can you picture the annual energy flow into this building for the rest of its life… 
    We can fix up all the houses we want and build all the Passivehaus to our hearts content but until this “modern” architectural mayhem stops – all is for not…

  17. Hello, Allison. I’m glad to
    Hello, Allison. I’m glad to see I’m not the only energy auditor who’s also into sustainable living! The particular school I follow is permaculture design; I have my PDC and am trying to make a go of it as a garden designer since the auditing field has dried up here in Kansas. 
    I think the word “sustainable” needs to be reclaimed, not abandoned. The fact is that the sustainability of a practice — or rather the UNsustainability — is quite easy to determine, because if it consumes any nonrenewable resources or produces any unused waste products, it is unsustainable. Rather than just throw up our hands at the greenwashing of unsustainable products through false claims of their sustainability, we should do something about it. Sue them for false advertising, perhaps. I don’t have a plan, I just have a conviction that the word still has meaning and value in spite of its misuse. 
    Of course the sad fact is that if we were to enforce the use of “sustainable” only for practices that can truly be sustained indefinitely, most of what WE do would also fail the test. The only case I know of where someone has truly achieved meaningful sustainability and proven it beyond a doubt is Jim Merkel, in his book Radical Simplicity, recently made into a film, RADICALLY simple, which I have not yet seen. The rest of us are just poseurs compared to him! 
    In any case, thanks for this post, and I look forward to hearing more about your homestead.

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