Friday, December 11, 2009

"Authentic development" and the Pun Pun model

A while back I was assigned to write an essay for my "sustainable community development class" on the following theme:

As a program officer for the Gates Foundation, your assignment is to allocate $100,000 for a development project for a rural community (pop. 5,000) in the developing world. As identified by your [participatory research] assessment team, the key issues are mounting population pressures on arable land, food insecurity, deforestation, high morbidity/mortality of [children under age 5] from infectious (especially diarrheal) disease, and a contaminated primary water source (river is contaminated with agricultural runoff-pesticides and fertilizers, grazing livestock fecal matter, and local laundry and bathing).

How will you allocate your funding? Why? Explain in detail how your project's output will extend a positive effect on other problem areas...Just to clarify, this grant is for one primary project output.

In class the profs further clarified that the assignment was to identify one major objective to address (i.e. not addressing all the challenges listed, just one, presumably in a piecemeal fashion), considering the $100k as "seed money" to pilot some project to then use to go after more money down the road.

Anyway, I wanted to take the assignment as an opportunity to evince a different approach and a different philosophy than these "development professionals" typically deal with. So I wrote some background about my views of conventional "development" and what I call "authentic development," and I used Pun Pun Farm as a case study in an alternate philosophy/approach and as an experience that has been formative for me.

So here's what I wrote...

* * *

Let me start by saying something about my fundamental beliefs regarding what constitutes authentic development.

I consider that individuals and communities can be happiest and healthiest, enjoy a strong degree of livelihood security, and minimize harmful ecological impacts by meeting the lion’s share of their basic needs (e.g. water/sanitation, energy, food, shelter, goods, medicine and heath care) through their own efforts and skills, according to local indigenous traditions, and though sustainable management and use of local resources. (cf. Hind Swaraj, or village home rule, by MK Gandhi.)

I believe this logic applies not only to “developing communities” or communities in lesser-industrialized regions, but equally to industrialized, developed, and over-developed regions like the US.

The logic of economic globalization and conventional “development” has been to create dependence: countries of the North such as the US have become dependent upon imports, and the countries of the South have become dependent upon selling their exports (e.g. agricultural commodities) on the so-called “free” market. Native production in the US has dwindled as industries move overseas leaving devastated communities and economic depression in the wake – my home region of Appalachia, the steel towns of western Pennsylvania, the abandoned farming communities of the mid-west, and the manufacturing areas in and around Detroit are examples that attest to this damage. Meanwhile farmers throughout the global South have been forcibly converted to capital- and chemical- intensive forms of agriculture and production for export; many others have been extirpated from their land and crowded into peri-urban slums as a consequence of big “development” projects and must compete against the growing hordes for scarce, underpaid, and often dangerous jobs. Their livelihoods are thus vulnerable to the vagaries of the global economy as their capacity for local self-reliance has been eroded.

The globalization of our food system, to take an example, has reached absurd proportions with devastating ecological consequences. I once went into a Safeway in Washington State and found that the apples grown locally cost nearly twice as much as apples imported 7,000 miles from New Zealand. A 2006 report (1) by the New Economics Foundation documented numerous examples of such “ecologically wasteful” trade. For example, “in 2004 the UK imported 17.2 million kilos of chocolate-covered waffles and wafers and exported 17.6 million kilos; [the UK] imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream from France and exported 9.9 million. The figures for the same trade with Germany were 15.5 million kilos and 17.2 million. Germany sent us 1.5 million kilos of potatoes and we sent them, yes, 1.5 million kilos of potatoes….”

One imagines jumbo-jets full of milk and potatoes passing each other in the night as they traverse the English Channel – an absurdity wrought by the “logic” of economic globalization and so-called “free trade.”

So my fundamental belief is that re-creating local economies and engendering local self-reliance among communities worldwide is integral to authentic development everywhere. Attaining this means re-building within communities the capacity for subsistence and livelihood security based primarily upon the stewardship of local resources for local consumption. It means developing knowledge of place and intimate understanding of local ecosystems. It means embracing the type of life a particular place makes possible through its natural attributes rather than forcibly refashioning everyplace into a homogeneous corporate wasteland.

Since these are my fundamental beliefs, I advocate a holistic approach to development that augments a community’s native resources – human and ecological – with an integral vision to promote local self-reliance across the multiple dimensions of basic needs. Why is a holistic approach superior to a narrow, piecemeal approach? Because cross-connections are fundamental to nature: surface water quality is strongly influenced by forestation – clear-cutting forests increases erosion and impacts water bodies. Concerns for sanitation cannot be divorced from concerns over agricultural soil productivity as nutrients must be recycled to sustain crop yields. Using the organic manures from animals and humans obviates the need for synthetic chemical fertilizers that lead to runoff and drinking water pollution. Sustainable management of forests provides sources of food, fiber, herbs and medicinals, building materials, and energy, as well as wildlife habitats, biodiversity conservation, and micro-climate stability – in perpetuity. And so on…

Local and indigenous knowledge forms, rapidly being lost because of economic globalization, “development”, “modernization,” “education,” urbanization, etc., can help us to see these linkages and explore our own interdependence with ecosystems.

The effects of economic globalization have led to overmuch specialization among individuals and communities. University education in the US, for example, is geared to produce narrowly specialized technicians. Livelihood “security” for such individuals almost always involves selling one’s labor as a specialist to a giant corporation in return for a wage that is used to purchase products to meet life’s needs manufactured and sold by other specialists at corporations. This system is inherently insecure as we become increasingly dependent upon multinational corporations to employ us and sell us all our needs for life.

In the global South, farmers are increasingly pressured to become specialized growers of cash crops in monoculture for export – a farming style that is particularly vulnerable to pest outbreaks and thus necessitates the use of dangerous chemicals and synthetic fertilizers to guarantee the single-crop yields upon which the farmers’ livelihoods are now dependent. Again this system is inherently insecure and damaging to individuals and communities. The rash of farmers’ suicides in India (2) when faced with mounting, multi-generational debt attests to the damage and insecurity industrial farming has wrought.

The solution is not to abandon specialization completely but to move in the direction of a balanced generalism. In other words, as a society we need to recapture the homesteading skills that my grandmother’s generation relied upon to live in relative abundance even during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The small farming communities of Appalachia were “poor” by monetary standards but rich in tradition, skill, and knowledge of how to make a living from the forests and fertile bottomlands of our home region. Regaining these waning skills is my prescription for communities in both the “developed” and “developing” worlds alike.

To illustrate how this transition can happen, I’ll take the case study of the Pun Pun farming community in northern Thailand. (3)

This community was built from scratch by a nearly penniless couple with a vision to create an agro-biodiversity conservation farm and sustainable living-learning center. Six years ago, Coloradoan Peggy Reents and her partner, Thai farmer Jon Jandai, bought a dilapidated hill farm on the outskirts of a remote village in mountainous northern Thailand. The land had been deforested, cropped in corn for several years until the soil was exhausted, and then abandoned to the rocks and weeds. The land was nearly worthless, so Peggy and Jo could just afford to buy about five acres. Through three seasons of mulching and composting and growing a few banana trees, Peggy and Jo slowly rehabilitated the wasted soil. They began to plant trees of the native hardwood species and fruit orchards for future agro-forestry development.

They had so little money they had to learn to make a life in ways that didn’t require money – in my mind this is the best kind of research for developing appropriate technologies and sustainable living practices that can be accessed, emulated, adapted, and improved upon by the poor (by definition, people who do not have money). They built their home from mud bricks made from the local earth and beautifully painted with local clays and pigments mixed with tapioca starch. They made their own soap and toothpaste out of local natural plants and substances. The brewed their own rice wine for celebrations. As their soils improved they were able to grow a greater portion of their own food and depend less upon the gifts of sustenance from visiting friends.

Industrial agriculture spread through Thailand while Jo was growing up in a small farming village in the eastern part of the country not far from the border with Laos. With it came hybrid seeds that would not grow without the chemical pesticides and fertilizers sold by the same agribusiness companies. The seeds were not viable after the first planting so it was no use for farmers to practice their tradition of seed saving. The local varieties of vegetables began to disappear and were replaced by a very few hybrid varieties of inferior taste and nutrition, and that were more vulnerable to pests, floods and droughts. As Jo watched the erosion of the traditional vegetable biodiversity, he decided the most important thing he could do was to save seeds and try to perpetuate the local varieties.

With their knowledge of natural earthen building and practical self-reliance born of direct experience and some hardship, Peggy and Jo began to build their vision of a seed center and sustainable living-learning center. Local Thai and hill tribe people, as well as like-minded Westerns who heard about their work, began to arrive at Pun Pun (Thai for “thousand varieties”) farm in this remote corner of SE Asia to live, work, learn and be a part of the creative effort.

The farm has developed curricula for workshops in local self-reliance and sustainability in meeting basic needs for food, shelter, natural and indigenous approaches to medicine and health, and homespun goods. My colleagues and I have endeavored to add a component of appropriate technologies in water resources to the farm’s educational curriculum. Others have supplemented with decentralized energy technologies. A cooking school showcasing traditional Thai recipes using the local farm produce has been established. Local village women teach and perform traditional therapeutic Thai massage, and the farm has hosted a number of yoga and meditation retreats.

Now, hundreds of people from all over Thailand, south/southeast Asia, and around the world visit Pun Pun each year for workshops and programs. Peggy and Jo have started an alliance of organic farmers that is spreading through the northern and northeastern parts of the country, as well as a network of seed savers. They have conducted countless workshops training villagers and groups of Buddhist monks in the techniques of natural and earthen building. Thai, hill tribe, and Western families have moved to the farm community and they are creating a home-farm-school for the children – kids from the neighboring villages will thus have an alternative to the distant English-style Thai government schools.

They have opened a successful restaurant in Chiang Mai supplied by local organic farmers that was recently written up in the New York times travel/food section. (4) They have established and helped to supply numerous market stalls for organic produce throughout the region, and are helping many farmers in their village and nearby to make the transition from chemical farming to organic and to get out of debt to the seed and chemical companies. And this year they are hosting a giant seed saving fair complete with rock bands and carnival activities and sponsored by, of all companies, the Red Bull corporation.

Peggy and Jo, along with the team of like minded folk that have assembled around them, have had an incalculably powerful transformative effect on the lives of so many. They have helped local Thai and hill tribe farmers out of penury and debt. They have helped local villagers and many visiting Westerners along the road to more sustainable, natural, simple, and enjoyable ways of living.

A recent grant of about $25,000 has allowed Pun Pun to enhance their seed saving operations. With this money they have acquired a few additional acres of land to expand seed gardens, increase their water supply and install irrigation equipment. They purchased a hand tractor and wagon to assist with planting and harvesting of rice and materials hauling. They’ve hired local villagers to help with the additional labor, and to train for the management and oversight of the seed bank and distribution system. They’ve hosted large groups of trainees in agroecology workshops. They’ve spawned another organic cafĂ© in Chiang Mai, expanding the market for local farmers’ produce and generating income for the farm. They’ve facilitated school gardening programs in Chiang Mai coupled with education about the importance of saving seeds. And Jo has given many interviews to the popular television and print media in Thailand describing Pun Pun’s philosophy and practices. He’s recently completed a book on organic agriculture and seed saving written in a style and language accessible to “common” farmers and villagers (most Thai books are written in scholarly style and are read only by university people).

In short, Pun Pun has exemplified the maxim of doing a lot with a little. They’re able to accomplish this because of personal integrity and commitment to the principles of simple, natural, ecological living. Rather than employing typical life strategies that depend upon money, they’ve endeavored to minimize dependence upon money wherever possible and substitute ingenuity and creativity, and to emphasize money expenditures that truly maximize well-being and not just keeping up with fads. This philosophy provides the basis for their educational programs – what Jo calls his “brainwashing.”

What they are creating is so obviously attractive they do not need much if any conventional marketing or “PR.” So any money that comes in through grants they can make go a very long way to do a lot of good for many people.

So what would I do with $100,000 to serve the community in question? I would use it to extend the Pun Pun model of development, addressing sustainability and self-reliance through agroecology and seed saving, natural building using the local materials, decentralized appropriate technologies in energy and water resources, homespun goods and handicrafts, traditional knowledge of medicine and health practices, farm-school education for the children, and development of local businesses and cooperative cottage industries in connection with neighboring communities.

Rather than consider the $100k “seed money” to start some project to use to go after more money later, I would use it to build social infrastructure and local resources to avoid the need to get more money in the future. The aim would be to make the community self-sufficient, and to build in the capacity for the community in question to help neighboring communities on the road to local self-sufficiency and ecological sustainability.


1. Simms A, Moran D, Cordon C. UK Dependence Report. New Economics Foundation, 2006.
2. See for example: 1,500 farmers commit suicide in India. The Belfast Telegraph, Wednesday, April 15, 2009.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rambling polemic #2

For a class in "sustainable community development" I was recently asked to reflect on the statement by Albert Einstein that “the significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them,” and come up with three areas where major shifts in level-of-thought are required for human society to approach sustainability, well-being, etc....

So here's what I wrote.

* * * * *

What Einstein was alluding to could be called metanoia – a term which originally denoted a change in outlook after spiritual repentance but lately has been interpreted more liberally as reaching beyond existing or conventional thought structures to a deeper understanding. (Although an element of spiritual repentance is still particularly a propos in our modern circumstances.) In this essay I will identify three areas of conventional thinking that require metanoic transformation in order for human communities and society in general to approach authentic development.

Myth #1: (more) growth will save us.

A principle “sacred cow” of Western developmentality is the dictum for economic growth as a panacea to cure all ills, social and environmental. “Sustainable growth” is the primary policy goal of all Western governments and by extension the governments of lesser-developed countries living out the legacy of colonialism and its modern analog “development.” However, “sustainable growth” is what ecological economist Herman Daly has called an impossibility theorem. (3)

Indefinite growth of the human economy is impossible on a finite planet and its pursuit attempts to flout the laws of thermodynamics and ecology. More than ample evidence exists demonstrating that for some decades running the human economy has exceeded the biophysical limitations of nature to provide energy and resources and assimilate wastes emitted by the expanding human economy. (3, 4, 7) And yet, what discussion exists in mainstream media sources regarding our extant conditions of ecological overshoot – a concept that a ten-year-old of average intelligence could easily comprehend? What politician could be elected to public office on a campaign platform of “economic shrinkage”? Is this imaginable at present?

Furthermore ample evidence exists that economic growth has not alleviated poverty as was allegedly intended at the outset of the post-war period. A 2006 report by the New Economics Foundation (8) indicated that over the past several decades, out of every $100 of growth in the global economy, a mere $0.60 on average has gone to the people at the “bottom of the pyramid.” It is intuitive that rich individuals, corporations, and countries stand to gain the most from economic growth as they are in the best position to capture the benefits – “it takes money to make money” is a familiar nostrum. So it is not surprising that the rich of the world have pursued economic growth with the specious justification that growth will promote “the rising tide that lifts all boats,” despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.

This program has led to the conflating of “development” with “growth.” So a first step in the metanoic transformation away from an economics of “development” based upon export-led growth is making a clear rhetorical distinction between the concepts of “growth” and “development.” Put simply, growth signifies quantitative increase of the material and energy throughput of the human economy; development means qualitative increase in human well-being. (3)

At this point, growth should be opposed and in fact the process of growth reversed to a steady-state level that can be physically and ecologically sustained by the bioshpere. There is no theoretical limit to development as defined as increase in well-being. However, in our current state of global ecological overshoot, policies aimed at further increasing growth directly impact well-being in a negative way by eroding the planet’s ecological life support systems. Correcting widespread misconceptions pertaining to “growth” and “development” is a first step in the metanoic shift towards implementing an economics of authentic development.

Myth #2: Urbanization is good, natural, and here to stay.

The second “sacred cow” that I would expose as a sham is the notion that the current trend in urbanization of the human population is somehow “natural,” “inevitable,” and “beneficial.”

Anyone who has spent any time in a rapidly urbanizing mega-city in Asia, Africa, or Latin America is immediately confronted with a sense of massive unfolding disaster. In Asia, where the urbanization trend is currently the strongest, inadequate infrastructure fails completely to deal with the influx tide of human bodies and the side-effects and wastes of our production and consumption. Untreated sewage flows into rivers, lakes and streams. Municipal wastes litter the landscape and leach toxic chemicals into the environment. Pollution from motor vehicles chokes the air. Over one million new people arrive in the slums and shanty-towns of urban/peri-urban areas each weak, driving up unemployment and driving down wages, increasing competition for the scarce resources of life, exacerbating overcrowding, escalating crime and violence, and generally intensifying the already hellish conditions of existence.

This process is in no way sustainable, nor is it “natural,” “inevitable,” or desirable. The vast majority of the one million people flocking to city slums each week are not choosing to do so because they long to be “modern,” or out of the “desire for a better life” as is commonly supposed by those locked into the mindset of developmentality (except perhaps as understood in the most narrow and reductionistic sense). Recent urban migrants have largely been displaced, often by force and violence, from stable rural existence by the effects of “development,” for example massive hydroelectric dam projects and gas pipelines, and by the spread of industrial (i.e. capital-, energy-, and chemical-intensive) agriculture.

But the ideas that cities are where “culture” resides, and that the “modern” effete urbanite lifestyle is natural and what ought to be emulated, are deeply entrenched in the Western developmentalist mindset. That people could be happy living rural agrarian communities with lifestyles based primarily on local production and consumption of resources is uniformly dismissed by elites – “subsistence” agriculture is everywhere denigrated; “import substitution” (i.e. local self-reliance) is a dirty word in orthodox development economics.

However, as in all cases where nothing short of a metanoic transformation will suffice to produce positive change, evidence contrary to established conventional norms is lacking or is simply ignored because it doesn’t “fit the model.” But even in the US, one of the longest and most heavily urbanized populations in the world, “the fact that most Americans live in metro areas does not mean it is because they want to live there…a recent Gallup poll asking Americans where they would prefer to live found that 24 percent wanted to live on a farm or in a rural area, with 36 percent preferring small-town life…these preferences have changed little in the last 60 years…As a result, over one-third of Americans are living in metropolitan areas even though they would prefer to live in less populated settings. The fact that the location of jobs does not match the locational preferences of people explains why more Americans don’t move to smaller cities and towns.” (1)

If people in developing countries are flocking to cities in droves, it is not because they are enthused about the “opportunities” for employment and modern enculturation that are available there. It is because their former agrarian lifestyles have been made impossible by “development.”

Lester Brown has indicated: “It is widely assumed that urbanization will continue. But this is not necessarily so. The growing scarcity of water and the high cost of the energy invested in transporting water over long distances may itself begin to constrain urban growth. For example, some 400 cities in China are already facing a chronic shortage of water.” (2)

In October of 2007, for the first time in the history of the planet, more human beings lived in cities than in rural settings. This trend of urbanization is unsustainable and has led to disaster as city life has become drastically less desirable while becoming increasingly resource-intensive. Resettlement of rural areas and re-establishment of predominantly “subsistence” lifestyles based on sustainable use of primarily local resources is the ineluctable course towards authentic development and human well-being from our present out-of-balance state. Understanding this basic fact, however, will require an Einsteinian metanoic shift, in particular among Western educated elites who have the hardest time comprehending ideas that run counter to professional training and urbane social conditioning.

Myth #3: We need more education.

Lastly I would challenge the common orthodoxy regarding the unalloyed benefits of “education.”

[The sustainable community development class professor's] current email tagline quotes Mark Twain: “Never let school interfere with your education.” This quote affirms a basic feeling that most of us “educated” folk have that school sucks. In other words, this expresses an irony that even the highly lettered often viscerally feel that school is mainly an impediment to real learning. Why then do we so unhesitatingly affirm the provision of “education” and the building of schools as noble goals in development projects?

Funding educational programs, building schools, and in particular getting more girls and young women into the classroom currently has tremendous cachet among WWLs (wealthy white liberals), and subsequently has a “sexiness” that has not gone unrecognized by the courtiers of philanthropy. However, while there is much talk about the need for increased provision of education, there is precious little discussion of substance regarding the quality of that education, or just precisely what we are advocating be taught in these schools for developing communities.

A documentary critiquing “development” in Ladakh (5) depicts children reading Wordsworth and Shakespeare in an English-style boarding school classroom. When the filmmakers visited the home village of some of the children and were invited to dinner with their families, they became ill after eating a poison weed that the schoolchildren inadvertently picked when asked by their mothers to gather vegetables for the meal.

A generation ago this never would have happened, since all Ladakhi children, having grown up on the family farm, would easily distinguish and avoid poisonous varieties of the local vegetation. Attending far-from-home Western-style boarding schools has had the effect of supplanting Ladakhi young people’s traditional knowledge – knowledge relevant to the local social and ecological context – with forms of knowledge valued by Western institutions. This is one of the more insidious effects of developmentality – an unconscious derogation and dismissal, and thus destruction, of local and indigenous knowledge forms. And yet, the fact that most Ladakhi children now attend such boarding schools is widely touted as a success by the statisticians of “development” as they tabulate increased enrollments.

Following Aldo Leopold, we are led to ask, “Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?”

David Orr has pointed out that “it is a matter of no small consequence that the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read.” Orr notes that the destructive effects of globalization and development upon the climate, ecosystems, and traditional cultures, “is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.” (6)

This is a clear indictment of Western globalist educational institutions, which are predicated upon the myth that our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement – what Orr identifies as “a cultural arrogance of the worst sort, [representing] a gross misreading of history and anthropology.”

So the metanoic shift called for in education must begin with a re-envisioning of what education is for. It’s conventionally held that the purpose of education is that of giving students the means for upward mobility and “success.” Thomas Merton identified this as “the mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade.” (Merton went on to admonish his students to “be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing – success.”)

TS Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" Much of contemporary education is comprised by a protracted cramming of all manner of disembodied facts, techniques and information (“data”) into students’ heads. Presumably this is to equip them to more effectively compete with one another and society at large in a race to accumulate status and wealth. Extension of this pedagogy to developing communities thus represents the broad-scale ensnarement even greater numbers of children and young adults into the squirrel cage as they, like us, strive for “professional success,” and to “be competitive in the global economy.” It is a likely eventuality, then, that they also will come to the conclusion that school sucks.

The metanoic shift in education thus represents a turn towards pedagogy for the development of ecological conscience and appreciation for local and indigenous knowledge systems. Education must come to be seen as a tool for students to use in the forging of their personhood, in their processes of discovery of themselves and the world, and in their understanding of their place in the greater biotic community. My experiences among the “uneducated” farming folk of South Asia suggests that they have much more to teach us than we them when it comes to redefining our educational systems around students’ development of ecological conscience, a storehouse of local knowledge, practical competence and labor skills, native intuition, and wisdom.


1.) Atkinson RD. Reversing rural America’s economic decline: The case for a national balanced growth strategy. Progressive Policy Institute, 2004. (

2.) Brown LR. The Ecology of Cities. The Globalist, 2006. (

3.) Daly, HE. Economics in a Full World. Scientific American magazine, 2005. (

4.) Global Footprint Network. September 25 is Overshoot Day 2009. (

5.) International Society for Ecology and Culture. Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh (film). (

6.) Orr, D. What is Education For? Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them. The Learning Revolution, 1991. (

7.) Rockstrom et al. Special Feature: A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, p. 472-475, 24 September 1990. (

8.) Woodward D and Simms A. Growth Isn’t Working. New Economics Foundation, 2006. (

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Atrazine weed-killer in US drinking water supply

See also the Huffington Post, EPA fails to inform public about weed-killer in drinking water

...and DemocracyNow's coverage of the story.

Atrazine is the most commonly detected pesticide in groundwater and surface water.

The Pesticide Info Database maintained by the Pesticide Action Network identifies atrazine as a carcinogen, suspected endocrine disruptor, and posing a very high risk for groundwater contamination. For these reasons they classify the herbicide as a "Bad Actor." See the Pesticide Info entry for atrazine for more information about its ecological and human health effects.

For more information on pesticide environmental toxicology, see the following:

Pesticides in the Nation’s Streams and Groundwater, 1992 – 2001 Report by the US Geological Survey.

Pesticide Degradates of Concern to the Drinking Water Community Report by the American Water Works Association.

The Human Toxome Project Datasets on the human body burden of hundreds of industrial chemicals and pollutants including pesticides.

Agrochemicals, Health and Environment Directory of resources from the World Health Organization.

TOXNET Toxicology Data Network A cluster of databases on toxicology and hazardous chemicals, including pesticides, gateways to search engines for both research literature on health impacts, and guidance/policymaking materials from the US National Library of Medicine.

Agricultural Health Study A study of over 89 000 people that explores the health impacts of pesticide use among farmers and their families, and among commercial pesticide applicators, in the US. Many links to papers on aspects of health risk from use of pesticides, including risks of cancers and premature mortality. National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Environment Health Sciences, USEPA.

Pesticide Safety Data Sheets Basic information on toxicology and use of pesticides. World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

A Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide Residues in Food by the Environmental Working Group.

Do You Know What You’re Eating? An analysis of US government data on pesticide residues in food by the Consumers Union of the US.

What’s On My Food? Guide to pesticide residues in food.

EXTOXNET The Extension Toxicology Network. A database providing a variety of information about pesticides, toxicology, and environmental chemistry. Compiled and maintained by University of California-Davis, Oregon State University, Michigan State University, and the University of Idaho.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

NEW short video intro to Aq

Check out the Aqueous Solutions website for a new short video introduction to our work!

Monday, July 06, 2009

Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. -- Go see it.

See also The Global Food Crisis: The End of Plenty, National Geographic Magazine, June 2009.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Some days I am a preta.....

Pretas = hungry ghosts, chronically frustrated spirits. Creatures with enormous bellies and tiny mouths, i.e. huge appetites and limited means for satisfying those appetites.....

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Natural building workshop this July in Colorado

Sign up now! Spaces are limited...

Natural Building in the mountains of CO

July 10-13, 2009

The workshop will include:

Introduction to our "compound", our vision and tour of the other strawbale house on site as well as our present project, an earthship under construction

Basic design principles for environmental citing, climatic considerations, and aesthetics

Adobe brick making

Adobe wall construction

Intros and smaller projects using other earthen building techniques including wattle-and-daub, cob, and earth bag

Earthen plasters for earthen walls and strawbale walls

Natural clay/starch paints, linseed oil, beeswax and other options for finishing sealants, etc

And more...

Evening/afternoon activities and exchanges will also be included. These include; an introduction to earthen building, introduction to Thai cooking, Thai massage, seed saving and our work in Thailand at Pun Pun organic farm, sustainable living learning center and seed center.

See for more info.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Meet my new gal...

I need a name for 'er. Suggestions?

I was thinkin maybe "Lola," reminiscent of the sexually ambiguous character, noted for his/her surprising strength, a la The Kinks...

...or maybe "Rocinante." That was the name of Steinbeck's truck-camper, featured in the peerless work of travel writing Travels with Charley. It was also the name of Don Quixote's horse, which is where Steinbeck got the name. Incidentally, rocin in Spanish means "work horse"...

Ideas for names for my gal? Leave 'em in the comments section...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jobs at Aqueous Solutions

Looking for an opportunity to work internationally in water and sanitation?

Aqueous Solutions is seeking a qualified individual to serve as program coordinator for our projects in Thailand in the Burma border areas.

See to download a job description and information on how to apply!

This and other opportunities to work with Aqueous Solutions' research and field projects projects are listed on our Get Involved page.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Safe Haven Children's Home

Aqueous Solutions completes rainwater harvesting and filter systems for Safe Haven Children’s Home - an ethnic Karen community for displaced persons, widows and orphaned children on the Thai-Burma border.

See our photo galleries for images of the community and the water systems project. (Photography courtesy of Line Ramstad...for more about Safe Haven and Karen life see also Line's blog.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

DN! spots on the economy.....

Chomsky drops some science on the global economic crisis:

...and a town in central NC is ahead of the game, creating local living economies....

Monday, March 30, 2009

Line's blog rocks!

My friend Line: landscape architect, people person, adopted by the Karen people of Burma/Thailand....see her blog.....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Aqueous Solutions 2008 Annual Report online

The Aqueous 2008 Annual Report is now online and available for download - check it out!

And don't forget to visit our new online photo gallery!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Friedman gets it?

OK, so normally I think NYT columnist Tom Friedman is a total douchebag. But check out this quote from his recent op-ed piece:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

Holy crap. If Tom Friedman is willing to call into question this fundamental axiom in the reigning economic dogma, then (1) we really are up sh*t crick without a paddle, and (2) things may be fixin to change - and fast.

So hold on folks! If Friedman is starting to get it then we're in for a ride. When he starts preaching local (bioregional) self-reliance then we'll know we're on our way....

Read the full piece on the NYT website.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Sunday, March 01, 2009

sick climbing in ton sai!

Last month went rock climbing in Railay and Ton Sai in the south of Thailand. It was totally sick.

My camera's still busted, but thanks to my climbing partners, the beautiful and talented Line and Birgit (from Norway, pictured just below, Birgit on the left), we have these fantastic pics to enjoy...

Line gets strapped in to belay me on some totally manky undercling.

Has anyone got a needle and thread? Cos I am ripped! Ha!

Our climbing guide, P'Nuang. He's awesome.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mitch Hedberg The Great

Totally sweet website for downloading Mitch Hedberg recordings and memorabilia -

If you have trouble sleeping, count sheep. Do not count endangered species - you will run out!

     - Mitch Hedberg

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ruminations on Appropriate Technologies and Ecological Education

I recently submitted an application for a PhD program in “environmental engineering for developing communities,” wherein I’m hoping to continue my research activities in simple water purification systems.

For part of the application I had to make a statement about my professional and career goals. So I felt like I needed to say something about appropriate technologies, and an ecologically informed pedagogical philosophy. What follows is an adaptation from my personal statement, just for your potential reading enjoyment. Comments are always welcome!

I envision a career that spans academia and the non-profit/NGO sector as a researcher and educator in the natural sciences, focusing in the multidisciplinary fields of sustainability science and appropriate technologies. Briefly outlined below are the commitments that shape my intentions and motivate my pursuit of this as a career:

I am committed to the development of appropriate technologies that empower households and communities to meet their basic needs – such as that of safe drinking water – using materials that are ecologically apposite and naturally abundant. I strongly advocate techniques that engender local self-reliance and decentralized, democratic control in their creation and operation, and moreover, are conscientious of the local culture and traditions and thereby operate as means of harnessing and celebrating local wisdom and labor skills.

Furthermore, I am committed to facilitating the development of an ecological conscience and broadened cultural worldview among Western science and engineering students through holistic, multidisciplinary, and experiential approaches to education.

I also hope to continue my professional development within academia and in the non-profit/NGO arena through my work as director of science and research for Aqueous Solutions. I intend to be an integral part of the collaborative effort to develop the capacity, breadth and capabilities of Aqueous Solutions as a service organization.

Appropriate technologies

The term “appropriate technologies,” like “sustainability,” is a currently fashionable buzzword and is thereby in danger of becoming clichĂ©. Hence I feel a certain responsibility to evince careful consideration and a more thoroughgoing approach in my research and advocacy of “appropriate technologies.”

As I understand it, an appropriate technology must at a minimum exercise propriety of scale; embody humility, caution and compassion; respect the integrity of local ecosystems and the limits implied therein; adapt itself to life rather than the reverse; and enable good work by humans in community and in place.

The need for a distinction of “appropriate” technologies arises in the first place given the justifiable skepticism felt by most people today about the capability of more and more advanced and bigger technologies to remedy the manifold social and ecological breakdowns which have themselves been brought about in large measure by the willy-nilly proliferation of powerful technologies over a vast (global) scale. This has occurred as a result of the industrial revolution and the industrial mindset. Today there is a growing skepticism of the conventional notion that science is self-correcting – a notion which has so far prompted the conventional industrial mind to the homeopathic prescription of more and better science and additional technological developments to cure the present ills originating primarily as by-products of past science and technological developments.

One of the principal characteristics of the modern industrial mind is its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thereby to put too much at risk. The worldwide overhauling of traditional and local economies to fit the narrow orthodoxy of Western corporate globalization and “free trade,” accompanied by the forceful refashioning of diverse local cultures into a global consumer monoculture, is perhaps the most obvious evidence and blatant expression of this tendency. From the perspective of human civilization, this is the equivalent of “putting all our eggs in one basket,” and thus ultimately puts all ways of life at risk through their homogenization. An “appropriate” technology, on the other hand, recognizes the extent to which as a species our ignorance exceeds our knowledge and therefore limits our ability to responsibly and harmlessly control. An appropriate technology respects the patchwork of diversity in human cultures and natural ecosystems and therefore is necessarily small in scale.

It is tempting, especially given our Western cultural biases, to seek giant “solutions” to the giant (global) ecological and social challenges facing human society today – but there is a conspicuous shortage of large-scale corrections for problems that have large-scale causes. As Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry has written, “our great modern powers of science, technology, and industry are always offering themselves to us with the suggestion that we know enough to use them well, that we are intelligent enough to act without limit in our own behalf.” Thus the issue of propriety of scale is typically overlooked in our super-heroic quests to “save the world.” But as author and environmentalist Bill McKibben has surmised, there almost certainly will be no “silver bullet” to take out our manifold global maladies – though perhaps many “silver buckshot,” each targeting a relatively small portion of the whole.

It is for this reason that the employment of “appropriate” technologies requires our humility of spirit – in light of the expanse of our ignorance regarding the complexity of the universe and our inability to foresee all outcomes and unwanted consequences. “Appropriate” technologies subscribe to the precautionary principle, a kind of Hippocratic oath for scientists and engineers to “first do no harm,” and to limit risk as much as possible when potentially damaging outcomes and side-effects are unforeseen and frequently unforeseeable.

The contemporary touchstones of “appropriate” and “sustainable” find their mutual support when we consider the implications of limits to our economic expansion and the scope and application of our technologies. An economic system whose health is predicated upon indefinite expansion in the context of a finite planet and ultimately restricted material and energy flows is, as ecological economist Herman Daly has frequently remarked, “an impossibility theorem.” A durable economy cannot be based upon the continually accelerated degradation of its ecological base; moreover, a technology which does not support a durable economy cannot be considered “appropriate.”

Thus an appropriate technology perforce recognizes and respects ecological limits and is preservative of ecosystem integrity. It does this by adapting itself to natural patterns rather than attempting to refashion nature to suit its own ends. Innovation under the rubric of “appropriate technology,” as Wendell Berry has written, seeks to promote “a better adaptation of the human organism to its natural habitat, [the improvement] of our fundamental relationship to the earth, [and] harmony between our human economy and the natural world.” Appropriate technologies adhere to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, wherein “the role of Homo sapiens changes from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”

The last criterion for a technology to qualify as “appropriate” is that it enable good work by humans in community and in place. The common conviction in our society today is to justify nearly all work on narrowly economic grounds; in other words, any work one is paid for qualifies as “good work.” I would like to expand this thinking along ecological dimensions, and thus define “good work” as that which tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the land and the greater biotic community in which the work and the worker are situated. It is in this spirit that Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet concludes, “Work is love made visible.”

Ecological conscience in science and engineering education

The recognition of “ecological good work” and its pursuit as distinct from conventionally defined modes of social and material “success” thus implies the development of ecological awareness and an ecological conscience. Over the past few years I have attempted to give expression to these traits through my teaching and project work in the appropriate technologies program of the learning center at Pun Pun Organic Farm in northern Thailand. My ultimate professional aspiration is to facilitate their proliferation and development among Western university students of science and engineering.

In this vein, then, the term “environmental engineering” is deceptive in that it suggests that our surroundings – the environment – are what can and ought to be engineered and managed. But given the complexity of the planet and its living systems, “the environment” can never be safely “managed” or “engineered” by humans as one species among tens of millions. What might be managed is ourselves – our human desires, our economies, our built environments and communities, our modes of thinking about and interacting with and modifying natural systems.

I believe a similar inversion of perspective – from the outward-looking to the inward-looking – is required in contemporary education. It’s conventionally held that the purpose of education is that of giving students the means for upward mobility and success. Thomas Merton identified this as “the mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade.” (Merton went on to admonish his students to “be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing – success.”)

TS Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" Much of contemporary education is comprised by a protracted cramming of all manner of disembodied facts, techniques and information (“data”) into students’ heads. Presumably this is to equip them to more effectively compete with one another and society at large in a race to accumulate status and wealth. This, however, progressively impoverishes our society in terms of wisdom and reason, which Edward Abbey defined as “knowledge informed by sympathy, intelligence in the arms of love.”

I see education as a tool for students to use in the forging of their personhood, in their processes of discovery of themselves and the world, and in their understanding of their place in the greater biotic community. The development of ecological awareness and ecological conscience as an outgrowth of the educational process is what connects knowledge and information with context – context is that which imbues information with the qualities that permit the development of sympathy, understanding, compassion and love. These characteristics in turn augment the storage of mere disembodied facts to facilitate the accretion of authentic wisdom.

Knowledge therefore carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world. My commitment as a professional educator is to imbue students with this sense of responsibility, towards their fellow humans as well as the myriad other members of Earth’s biotic community. Research and design in the field of “appropriate technologies” implies this sense of responsibility and its attendant ecological conscience and provides a situation for their cultivation and development.

Experiential education in appropriate technologies and cultural exchange

As an educator, I strive to embrace a holistic approach to learning that stresses the development of students’ worldview, philosophy of life, and connection with nature equally with technical proficiency and competence in the relevant disciplinary subject matters. Hence my approach aims to provide the requisite factual knowledge, technical tools and the scientific theoretical and conceptual comprehension within a learning environment that is conducive to students gaining key contextual understanding that situates their practical and scientific education within the complex ecological and social realities of our world.

My vision of an effective means to promote this kind of education is through the facilitation of international exchange programs between science and engineering university students and traditional, agrarian, locally self-reliant and subsistence cultures in the “developing” world. I envision myself as a mentor for university students in these potentially life-changing and transformative experiences involving international travel and working together with local communities – for example through connections with groups such as Engineers Without Borders. Such programs provide cultural exchange and opportunities for experiential education that contribute to holistic learning and the development of ecological conscience, and furthermore often profoundly affect the way students view themselves and the career decisions they face. It is my commitment as an educator to create such opportunities for students’ spiritual transformation and intellectual development.