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Our house is pretty well designed for passive cooling - so it does
well until temperatures rise over 38 degrees. Then we're stuffed. Or rather
par boiled.

But we don't have air con - so in the heat wave of the past few days

I've been looking around for ideas to keep cool when you could fry
eggs on the footpath outside. Heres some of the ideas we tried:

1. Pin up a bed sheet or blankets outside your windows. The key is to
do it outside rather than inside - you want to stop the heat before it
enters the your house - not afterwards. Also try to leave a gap
between the barrier (sheet, blanket etc) and the wall or glass of your
home - that way you'll get less heat transfer. Here's a guy who used
$5 reflective blankets to keep his home cool (just make sure you don't
position the blanket so that it bounces the heat somewhere you don't
want it - you might end up frying your garden).

2. Put a wet blanket over the top of the car and cover all the windows
(this didn't harm my duco at all - but try it at your own risk).

3. Cut the bottoms off water bottles, dig them neck down in the soil
beside sensitive plants and fill with water - this should drain into
the soil gradually throughout the day. You can cover plants likely to
burn with bed sheets too - pick a light colour to reflect heat. Of
course you can always take the attitude of my friend Tim, and see days
like Friday as a form of natural selection - let the heat kill of the
tender ones, and replace them with some tougher plants.

and the best one of all...

4. Run away. Go stay in a 5 star hotel with a pool and air con. We did
this on Friday night, and it was fantastic. I figure that the hotel is
cooling the whole building anyway - and for the 5-6 nights of the year
that are so ridiculously hot that good passive design and fans can't
cope - it's a better option than shelling out for an air conditioning
system which is just going to contribute to pushing up peak demand and

As I've said before in an earlier post - the problem with being Australian is that the seasons are all wrong. Or rather, the problem with being Australian we're all wrong for the seasons.

This is never more obvious than when you find yourself slaving over a hot stove producing roasted turkey and root vegetables on a swelteringly hot 25th of December, and then follow it with steamed christmas pudding and brandy sauce (except maybe when you find yourself wearing a fake beard and a bikini).

How about the way we ignore all the beautiful asparagus, salad greens, strawberries and summer fruits in season in favour of nutmeg, oranges, sultana's and nuts. Or decorate our houses in tinsel and sparkly lights, which just end up looking kind of bedraggled and sweaty in the heat.

And then there's the problem of the Christmas tree. There's really not anything much more incongruous than a Germanic pine tree covered in sparkly lights in the middle of Australian summer. I always think they look a little sad. And worse they make me feel like I'm having a pretend, lets-make-do-since-we're-here-and-not-there Christmas. And that's not how I feel at all.

I love Australian Christmas, and I love the traditions we have which suit our climate and culture. I love the family game of cricket
after lunch out in the back yard, or outside on the street. I love the massive bowls of cherries, and the pavlova, and I especially love the prawns. I just think we have to do a better job of translating the other Christmas traditions so that they move beyond threadbare nostalgia to something that celebrates who we are, where we are, and our connection with our environment.

So this is my attempt to have an eco-friendly Australian Christmas tree. I thought about getting a Wollemi Pine, which is a pretty elegant solution. It not only looks like a traditional Christmas tree - but by planting it you're helping to conserve a native endangered species, you can feel even better about yourself by buying one from here and donating funds to cancer research.

But I didn't go that way because, well, lets face it, you've got to be satisfied with a pretty small tree until it has a chance to grow a little.

So this was my solution - it's on the wall because floor space is a bit of a premium at my place. We collected some eucalyptus branches from a road side reserve (so I figure the council would have cleared them out anyway, and I wasn't impacting on the the habitat value of fallen wood too much). And I sprayed them with a little silver paint. I figure this is a more sustainable option than a plastic or farmed tree (even with the silver paint).

our undecorated Christmas tree
click image to see larger

I haven't decorated it yet - I'd like to do that closer to Christmas Eve and then leave the tree up for the 12 days of Christmas until January 6th.

Will post photos of the tree later when it's dressed.

Buying Nothing Much Day

Queue outside Nike on Buy Nothing Day
click image to see larger

So I did the Buy Nothing Day on Saturday - and I'd love to say I had an epiphany - but really I didn't - not even a little one.

Maybe it's because we didn't really go far from home, and we certainly didn't go shopping (why would you if you can't buy anything?); so we weren't exposed to much in the way of impulse-buying temptation or marketing.

Although I did pass a little festival of consumerism outside the Nike outlet on the way home - they must have been having some kind of sale because the queue to get in was all the way down the block. Apologies for the crappy photos, I used the phone camera, and I couldn't take a better shot because Adrian kept saying "Come on Kate, they're all looking at us".

I also cheated a bit - we didn't have any food in the house, so we went out for breakfast to our local cafe. And then we bought ingredients for dinner at the supermarket later (but strictly food items only).

I'm not sure whether food counts. And I also was talking to a friend who was getting her car serviced and buying a second hand sideboard on Saturday. Is it against the Buy Nothing Day rules to pay for recycled goods, or for services?

Is it 'buy nothing' day - as in spend no money at all? Or is it more like a buy 'no things' day?

I guess it also depends on what's motivating you to do it. In my case I'm less concerned about the social or moral implications of consumerism than I am with environmental impact (although I acknowledge that they're related).

If you're concerned about the ecological 'footprint' of your consumption - then it's arguable that eating out in a cafe is more sustainable than cooking at home. You have all the economies of scale, and the possibility of minimising waste (although whether that actually happens is another thing...).

Paying for services and buying recycled goods is pretty good in terms of sustainability too - certainly much better than a shopping spree at Nike.

Buy Nothing Day

Buy Nothing Day poster - click to see larger
Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good.

Hannah Arendt

So I've decided to take part in Buy Nothing Day this Saturday the 29th.

At least I'll try. It will be interesting to see just how often I have to restrict myself. And it will be interesting too to pay attention to the kinds of things I want/need to purchase, and find out just how much my lifestyle is driven by, or structured around, what I consume.

I guess with the current financial crisis and downturns in the retail sector a lot of community minded people might see this as a good time to be out there spending. And they're right. The problem is that that spending money today is a only ever going to serve as a quick fix to the current downturn, and does nothing to address the underlying fact that our current economic models are fundamentally unsustainable.

Because, of course, our financial markets, not to mention our lifestyles, rely on constant growth and expansion. The definition of a recession, or depression for that matter, is a lack of growth. In order to survive in our current economic structure; a business has to expand. Children are expected to have a better standard of living than their parents, and this usually translates into a larger house, and more consumer goods. The developed world needs to be able to access the markets of the developing world in order to maintain expansion, and when people in countries like India and China access those markets, they are also obliged to embrace the associated behaviors of growth, expansion and consumption.

The problem of course is that infinite growth is not sustainable. It just can't happen. If everyone in the world lived like I do we would need 4 planets to live on. Which means I use up the resources of three other people. Clearly my current lifestyle is not sustainable, or at least it's only sustainable if I can make sure that the other three guys aren't going to ever want more (or take more). And even that's impossible, because in order to maintain my current lifestyle, we need to expand our markets, which means trying to get those three other guys to buy the stuff we make. The more I do that, the more they're going to become like me... and... it's a vicious cycle.

A very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic.

Edward O. Wilson

So what do we do?

I wish I had an answer.

I especially wish I had an answer which I'd want to hear if I was working in the retail sector.

I think we could start the process of change by..
  • thinking about the problem and admitting that things are not working...that they're really really not working.
  • not letting the urgent always take precedent over the important (I think Leo said something like this in the West Wing episode '365 days').
  • growing to understand ourselves; paying attention to our behavior, and recognising the cultural forces which drive us to behave in certain ways. We need to learn to see the paradigms we operate within which function to make some aspects of our lives visible (this deodorant looks cool, I'll buy it), and render other aspects invisible (the product will last a month but it's packaging will last an aeon in landfill).
  • recognising that if we continue to trust in a kind of laissez-faire-capitalism style of philosophy that suggests that if we leave things to their own devices everything will work itself out, we just might end up with a world we don't want to live in...or worse.
  • seeing that the economic system as we know it (with the underlying requirement of constant growth) isn't inevitable. It is a relatively new idea historically (200 years or so) and that there are lots of other existing models for barter and exchange of goods which might be more sustainable.
Buy nothing day isn't about fixing the problem by not buying things for one day. I know that's not going to change anything much. But it might be a way to make some changes in myself.

Maybe after Saturday I'll understand more about how I operate; what's driving my needs, desires and behaviors? What and who am I now, and what I want to become...

Maybe. Anyway - will let you know how I go.

Are you doing it? Let me know if you're doing an event (especially in Melbourne) or otherwise tell me how your BND goes!


We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth.

— William Anders

William Anders left Texas faster than any human had ever traveled before - rockets launched him into space and he and the other crew of the Apollo 8 traveled for three days before reaching the moon and becoming the first people ever to see its hidden side.

On Christmas Eve 1968, while on the dark side of the moon William Anders took this photograph of the distant earth rising over the horizon. Originally labeled image AS8-14-2383, as it captured the public imagination it became known simply as 'Earthrise'.

This photograph triggered a fundamental paradigm shift; it changed the way we thought about ourselves and our relationships to each other and the environment. This image allowed us to conceive of 'the planet' as opposed to 'the world', and seeing the earth floating; beautiful, tiny and fragile in the void of space inspired a movement of environmental consciousness which is still active today. This Christmas Eve will be the fortieth anniversary of breaking of that old gestalt - which is worth a little reflection perhaps.

No one, it has been said, will ever look at the Moon in the same way again. More significantly can one say that no one will ever look at the earth in the same way. Man had to free himself from earth to perceive both its diminutive place in a solar system and its inestimable value as a life -fostering planet. As earthmen, we may have taken another step into adulthood. We can see our planet earth with detachment, with tenderness, with some shame and pity, but at last also with love.

— Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 'Earth Shine,' 1969.

click to see larger
There's a lot that can be done on a neighbourhood level to clean up stormwater before it enters the stormwater pits and ends up in the Yarra. And one of the bonuses of treating and capturing stormwater is that one of the best ways to do it is to create nice lush green garden beds.

A lot of developers building new subdivisions out in Doreen or on the dry Western Plains, love treating stormwater because it's pretty much the only way they can create green public landscapes with current water restrictions. And really, it is crazy to let all that water drain directly into the Yarra when we could have it soaking into our soil right here.

The image above shows a section of Charlotte Street showing the existing road profile, and stormwater treatment. So basically the water runs over the road, picking up pollutants on the way, and then falls directly into the drain, where it flows on into the Yarra and does significant damage.

There's lots of ways to introduce stormwater treatment, and some of them require very little changes to the existing kerb and road layout - but the solution I've drawn up here is a little more elaborate.

click to see larger
What we could do is remove the kerbs altogether and allow the road and footpath surface to slope gently down to a vegetated swale (or mini wetland) on one side of the road . The green strappy leaved plants in the swale act to clean and filter the water before it reaches the drains (click here to see plan showing possible location of swale). We could store our stormwater in underground tanks so that we can use it for watering public landscapes. And the whole system can be designed so that in a storm event any overflow will be carried away by the existing stormwater infrastructure.

image of a stormwater treatment swale in the docklands from WSUD an organisation dealing with water sensitive urban design in Sydney, which provides lots of useful practical information.

I was sitting at home working a moment ago when I heard the sound of what I thought was a tennis ball hitting the window high up on the side of our house.

I looked up as a bird fell into the court yard, and I watched it as it lay on the ground where it landed and twitched a little before lying still. A indigenous Little Wattlebird, dead.

And I feel faintly ridiculous about this, but the bird dying has upset me a little. I'm not used to watching a creature die. And I'm not used to being confronted by my impact on the natural world as directly as this.

This whole blog is supposed to be about how to make my neighbourhood more ecologically sustainable, but for this bird the fact my house existed at all, with it's unnatural glass surfaces, was enough. And right now, faced with the reality of this little prone body, the life of even one wild bird seems like a high price to pay.

I'm feeling a little guilty.

I stumbled across this car parking stand-off in Calton. The cars are parked behind an apartment block. The laminated note attached to the toy car reads:

"DO NOT REMOVE. This is the property of unit one. We pay rent for this carpark and thus shall utilize it for whatever vehicle we see fit".

Mind you, when it comes to sustainability I guess the space occupied by car parking is often hotly contested. The battle lines are drawn a little like this:

Trees + bikes + pedestrian friendliness & walkability + safety
car parking spaces

Sometimes we have to choose between a street tree or a car parking space. Of course trees provide obvious environmental benefits; they reduce green house gases, filter pollution in the air, and reduce the amount of heating in summer. A car parking space on the other hand is probably never going to contribute much to sustainable suburbs - although whether providing a car park is actively 'bad' depends on how many of them are available. If you provide 'enough' car parking spaces, then by definition you're facilitating the use of the private cars; the easier it is to get a park, the more likely you are to drive and the less likely you are to use public transport. But by strictly limiting the amount of parking available then you can begin to tip the balance the other way.

At other times we have to choose between having a row of parking or a dedicated bike lane. You can guess which one of those two options wins out in the green stakes.

Christopher Alexander suggests that no more than 9% of any neighbourhood or development should be given over to parking. He recommends this partly to reduce the amount of traffic (and encourage pedestrian life and public transport use), but also because higher concentrations of parking (on ground level) tend to have a negative affect on the urban fabric. Walking through big expanses of parking is nowhere near as pleasant an urban experience as walking past a row of shops, or along a leafy footpath. And it's no coincidence that on TV the bad guy is always shown kidnapping innocents in the car park as they're walking to their car...big car parks feel exposed, dangerous,
and alienating.

At the moment all the fresh drinking water we use to shower in and to do our laundry is going straight down the drain after a single use. On top of that, most of us are using more fresh drinking water to water our gardens.

This is a shame - because treating greywater on a neighbourhood scale is pretty straightforward - in principle at least.

Possible 'footprint' of an integrated water treatment system. The vertical green line is a stormwater treatment swale. The green rectangle marks a possible location for a grey water treatment system, while the larger pinkish square shows where a blackwater system (and wormfarm) could go.

Click to see images larger

Here's a plan showing a possible integrated blackwater, greywater and stormwater treatment system. I’ll run over the possibilities for greywater now, and cover blackwater and stormwater in later posts.

There's a lot of greywater capturing & storage devices out there which individual households can use for their own gardens. Because the greywater isn't processed, each household would have to manage their choice of laundry and toiletry products so that the water was suitable for their garden, or else use the unprocessed greywater on ornament plants which are tolerant of the salts and chemicals it contains. Subsurface delivery systems are recommended (less health risk).

But if we think on a larger scale we can do a lot more with our greywater. We could divert the water we use for washing from entering the main sewerage system and have it carried from our laundry and showers by underground pipes to a series of reed beds housed in a greenhouse located in the existing community garden area.

This reed bed will be capable of processing our greywater, regardless of products used in it, to a level where it is safe for use on all plants (including edible plants). Strictly speaking it would be potable, but the recommendation is that you use this kind of water for everything except drinking.

This wouldn't be a cheap intervention, and I imagine the main cost would be in upgrading the existing sewage infrastructure. Of course it depends on who is paying the bill. If we cover the cost as residents, then it will probably take a long time before it pays for itself (assuming water stays as cheap as it is) - but if state government decided to invest in the local treatment and recycling of our water then it would have the benefit of helping to relieve the pressure and cost of maintaining and upgrading our major centralised infrastructure, and maybe then it's not such a bad deal.

In terms of infrastucture the most complicated aspect would probably be setting up the plumbing to capture the greywater in individual houses - some houses in our neighbourhood have suspended timber floors and would be pretty straightforward, but others would be quite difficult. Digging down to the existing sewage and running an greywater pipe alongside wouldn't be technically difficult, but would require a significant amount of earth works.

So what are the benefits of having a greywater treatment system? Well, we'd reduce the amount of drinking water we use for watering the garden (and possibly, for flushing our toilets) which would in turn reduce the pressure on the existing infrastructure, and it would be easier to keep our gardens and street tree's alive in summer. And we'd also reduce the amount of water entering the sewage system, with flow on benefits to existing treatment systems, and the amount of water entering the bay.

Possible location of greenhouse housing reed beds

Precedent: Image below is of a 'Living machines'; a type of biological treatment systems based on the processes of wetlands which are housed in greenhouses, and can be used in small urban areas.

Outside view, and reed beds inside a 'Living machine'

Public Enemy Number One

Do you ever wonder if it might be easier to generate the sort of massive changes we need to make to our lifestyles if we were engaged in some kind of war or a pitched battle?

The problem is that when it comes to environmental issues there really is no enemy. We can direct our aggression to a few amorphous corporate entities, and maybe people who drive massive 4x4 SUV’s if you're so inclined. But really, the actual enemy is ourselves.

This poses a dilemma because we’re really not good at coping with the ‘enemy within’. The enemy which is us.

Improving our sustainability is more like going on a diet than it is like going to war, and we all know how successful the average diet is.

We’re simply better at initiating changes to our attitudes and lifestyles when we’re at war – which is probably why we try to cast problems into that mould even when it’s completely counter productive to do so, perhaps we create the war against drugs, or attack Iran and Afghanistan as part of a war against ‘terrorism’ because that's the only way we know how to respond.

So anyway. Good news. I think I found someone who can be our scapegoat...our environmental bogey-man.

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” – fascinating and entertaining in equal measures – and he recounts the story of an engineer come chemist called Thomas Midgley Jr.

Thomas Midgley Jr. is the devil. Except he's not really. He's just a scientist with few scruples who was well respected by many in his day, and that is what makes this sorry tale so scary.

If you ever get a chance to borrow a time-machine to travel backwards in history in order to ensure someone is never born, consider visiting Mr and Mrs Thomas Midgley Sr.

Thomas Midgley Sr. was an inventor, and his son Thomas Midgley Jr. initially trained as an engineer, but eventually took after his father to become an inventor as well.

The first problem Midgley turned his attention to was engine knock and associated fuel efficiency. His unfortunate solution was to add a lead solution to the fuel (tetra-ethyl lead or TEL). There were less toxic solutions available which he discovered at the same time, but lead was the cheapest, had the least offensive odour and was the most efficient, so Midgley ran with it. And the evidence indicates that he ran with it while being fully aware of the toxic affects of lead in the atmosphere and in the human body.

People started dying almost immediately from the affects of his innovation. By the mid 1920’s more than 40 factory workers who produced the lead fortified fuel for Ethyl (the corporation who produced the product) were dead or deranged. The Ethyl factory in Deepwater was nicknamed the 'House of Butterflies’ by the workers because of the hallucinations they experienced while working there.

Midgley’s crime is that he knowingly introduced a "creeping and malicious poison" into the environment, and also that he then deliberately assisted in the large scale corporate cover up which followed for the next 50-60 years.

TEL is still being produced, although we stopped adding it to fuel in the 1980’s. Of course we’re stuck with the lead; which is now in the atmosphere forever.

So just in case you think that’s not enough to earn Midgley some kind of serious enemy-of-the-planet status – just wait, there’s more...

The second problem Midgley addressed was the serious one of poisonous gases leaking from early refrigerators.

“Midgley set out to create a gas that was stable, nonflammable, noncorrosive, and safe to breathe. With an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny, he invented chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.”

So first he flooded the atmosphere with lead, then created the ultimate ozone annihilator. The man was a planet killer!

A postscipt: In case you'd prefer a hero to inspire rather than someone to revile - there's no shortage of those, and we could do worse than to look to a man called Clair Patterson. Patterson discovered a method of measuring lead in the atmosphere and then sacrificed his career by carrying out a courageous long term campaign against Ethyl and other large lead producing corporations. It is largely due to his efforts that lead was finally banned from food containers and fuel in the 70's and 80's.