Monday, December 12, 2011

What to do with humanure?

Lets face it, humans are mammals, and human excrement is very similar to that of other mammals. Lets begin by calling it humanure.

What to do with humanure?  We used to simply leave it where it came out – as most other mammals do. Because of our propensity for living close together, and the knowledge gained from science that humanure can transmit disease, a sanitation regime has developed. At least where it can be afforded - approximately 30% of humanity still leaves their their feces lying on open ground.

However, the sanitation regime of the industrialized world is problematic in terms of its environmental impact. What follows is a description of what we currently do in America (or what is done on your behalf after you push the flush button), and how we might substantially improve upon it.

First we use a large amount of potable drinking water (approximately 100 times the volume of the feces) to flush it out of our toilets and into our sanitary sewers. There it is further diluted with household gray water. And then we often mix  in industrial waste (often adding toxic heavy metals, e.g., mercury, adding real injury to what so far could be described as merely environmental insult). 

This witch's brew goes to the regional Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP), often requiring considerable utilization of energy in pumping. There solids are settled out, and suspended organic matter digested by bacteria to the extent necessary for most of it to also settle out. The remaining liquid is treated with chlorine to render it sterile, and then released into our waterways, still bearing substantial organic matter, heavy metals from industrial waste, and copious quantities of non- metabolized pharmaceutical agents and their biologically active metabolites! Approximately 60% of the anti-depressants and their metabolites pass straight through current WWTPs. If your drinking water comes from waterways with upstream WWTP discharge (and most does), and you are taking anti-depressants, your doctor may soon be able to reduce your prescribed dosage because of what is already in your drinking water! If you don’t want to take anti-depressants … too bad - unless you are willing to pay for distilled water (or water treated by reverse osmosis), an option not available to fish and other wild life.

And what do we do with the WWTP sludge (or biosolids) that settle out. We dump most of it on agricultural fields. A green solution you might think? Wrong, it also carries with it heavy metals from industrial waste, contaminating not only the produce grown there but also the soil. There is also concern about pathogens in the sludge. Regulation prohibits direct human consumption of produce thus grown. In the 1990s, hundreds of dairy cows that ate grass produced from sewage sludge from Augusta, GA died of thallium poisoning.

In summary, our so called civilized treatment of humanure is a process that consumes large amounts of drinking water, uses substantial amounts of electrical energy, pollutes surface waters with WWTP effluent, and contaminates soil (with heavy metal laden biosolids).

In addition, we are wasting potentially valuable bi-products! If manure digestion happens in an anaerobic environment, it yields methane-rich biogas which can be used as fuel for producing electric power and/or heat. Also the resulting biosolids (if they were free of contaminants) would be valuable fertilizer for agriculture.

For these reasons, reform is strongly indicated. I’d like to be involved in the development of a   green humanure paradigm that is congruent with American sensibilities. The crucial question is “to what extent can the technology evolve to reach congruence versus the extent to which American sensibilities can or should evolve toward congruence?” An essential first step is to treat residential waste water separately from that of industry. Also, I expect that village scale (or possibly neighborhood) treatment will be more efficient and effective.

An approach of interest for me is the anaerobic digestion of waste materials for the production of bio-methane for cooking and other domestic uses. Such a digester could be feed with controlled combinations of agricultural animal manure, humanure, kitchen waste. and agricultural plant wastes. 

Small scale biogas plants are widely used in China. It would be appropriate to study the Chinese models (there are several, for different climates), and design a system appropriate for local climate and social values.

It would be crucial to develop a process so that the residue left after anaerobic digestion can be used for agriculture locally without substantial health risk, and in compliance with county and state health codes, possibly through Pasteurization followed by aerobic composting.
Separation of humanure from gray water eases the difficulty of  treating both. Gray water could be treated with  a biological system that includes both microbes and plants, possibly yielding effluent water of sufficient quality to be safely used in agriculture, at least for fuel or fiber crops, and possibly also for closed fruits that grow above ground, e.g., blue berries and apples. The system would ideally be passive in that it would be designed to operate without any pumping of water during treatment. 

Findings should be publicized with the hope that such systems will find broad future acceptance in American culture. This technology could provide a major step toward sustainability for the world, as it eliminates the harmful aspects of "modern" sanitation practice mentioned above, and hopefully creates a cost effective sanitation regime that can more rapidly be adopted in developing regions.The proposed technology could also allow us to eliminate our current practices in rural parts of America where septic systems inject effluent water bearing heavy metals and other poisons into the soil where it often finds its way into the ground water.

When Robots Do all the Work, Who Will They Be Working For?

Timothy Travis gave a talk on Sunday, 12/11/11, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fayetteville entitled, When Robots Do all the Work, Who Will They Be Working For? A very lively discussion followed.

I agree with one objection that was raised during this discussion, robots will not be doing all of the work in the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding, this is a apt topic for discussion. Technology will continue to displace human labor while simultaneously enabling processes that will create tremendous new value. What should be done with this value (i.e., wealth) when far less labor is required?

The consensus of the discussion on Sunday is that democratic socialism is in order. It was pointed out that socialism has a bad reputation in America. I think this is primarily because it has been conflated with Soviet style totalitarianism.

American democratic socialism should be a DEMOCRACY, where the direction of the state is determined by the will of the people. And the private sector should not be abolished; au contraire, it should be encouraged. Valuable innovation can be expected to continue to occur there.

I think it is important to acknowledge that many aspects of the current organization of American life are indeed provided by all for all, consistent with the essence of socialism. I suggest that many of these should remain public, and that we should make deliberate choices going forward as to what aspects of our lives should be within the public sector, see specific suggestions below.

Can public sector enterprise be managed much more effectively than it currently is? Sure!
Can innovation and excellence happen in the public sector? Indeed!
How did humans get to the Moon? It was a public sector effort!
For excellence in the public sector to be a reality, we  need to cultivate an ethos of excellence and entrepreneurship in public servants. Why not? Greed is not the only motivation that humans can respond to! Look at this recent  research on altruism and empathy in rats. Do you really think that humans aren't also sometimes motivated by altruism and empathy? I think that we could expect much better behavior from individuals if we encourage them to act out of altruism rather than greed!

I. Some activities under state control that should remain under state control

        A. The military
Would anyone advocate for allowing the use of armed force to be a laissez faire situation (À la Mexican drug cartels)? Hopefully enough said!

         B. Transportation infrastructure
Should air traffic control be abandoned? Probably not!

Would many support the privatization of all of the nation's highways? I expect not.
To support the construction and maintenance of roads, I suggest that society should tax private vehicular travel according to the miles driven per month multiplied by the impact of each vehicle on the roads. I suggest below the abolition of  gasoline taxes which now partially support roads.

      C. Public Education
Public education. I think that it should continue to be public, and continue to be free - and should also be free at public colleges and universities through the baccalaureate level.

II. Some venues where publictization should be considered 
A new word is introduced here (for a new era) - definition - publictize: to convert a formerly private activity into a public enterprise. Note the contrast with the existing word publicize; e.g., we need some our best minds to publicize publictization.

         A. Fossil fuel extraction
It should be acknowledged that the private sector was vital to the development of the fossil fuel industries. But continued profligate combustion of fossil fuels now threatens the very existence of civilization (through carbon dioxide emission and consequent global climate change). Thus we should consider the publictization of the extraction of fossil fuels. Public management is appropriate for this new era where we must use fossil fuels very carefully to mitigate carbon emissions and to prolong fossil fuel availability. I think that we should stop burning them for energy as soon as possible. In addition to mitigation of carbon, this will provide for their prolonged future use for other critical applications (e.g., manufacturing of drugs, lubricants, plastics). This should be done in a manner that generates public revenue - so that the price can appropriately moderate demand. Also, this would allow the gasoline tax to be abolished.

Why should we allow the oil companies to continue to make hundreds of billions of dollars of profit each year from peak oil? Petroleum should now be viewed as a public resource while the external costs of its production and combustion should be viewed as the public liabilities that they actually are.

This public fossil fuel revenue would be subject to democratic control. I suggest public initiatives (see B&C below) which would require substantial public revenue.

The private sector should be encouraged to develop new sources of energy. The stable price for fossil fuel energy that would result from its publictization would lower the risk for the private investments required to develop alternative and/or sustainable energy.

        B. Health care
Public sector health care works well in many places, e.g., England, and Canada.
I think that basic health care should be available to all US citizens free of charge. Thought must be given to developing a process to specify what is "basic health care" and what is "elective" (to be paid for personally or with private insurance). And these specifications will need to change with time. I suggest that cosmetic surgery should always be elective, and that heart transplants should also be elective (at least for the time being). American health care professionals could focus their abundant talent on the development of effective and cost-effective medical procedures and on the promotion of wellness. Perhaps the provision of American medical procedures at cost to large numbers of medical tourists from around the world would become a major source of future international good will and national pride. This initiative would allow medicare and medicaid and the taxes that support them to be eliminated.

       C. Public stipend
I suggest that every citizen of the USA should receive a public stipend from the moment of birth to the moment of death. This is analogous to the Alaska Permanent fund (which payed each individual $1174 in 2011). This would allow Social Security and the pay roll tax that supports it to be phased out.

I think that this stipend should be sufficient to support the basic needs of the individual (approximately $1000 per month in today's economy). Desperation would thus no longer need to be a motivation for crime in America! 

Some individuals may thus choose to live a life of simple leisure. Why shouldn't they? Leisure seems to be basically what nature designed mammals for!

Others may choose to live simple, but expansive lives - perhaps making tremendous contributions to the arts or in public service.

Many will work for additional income or participate as entrepreneurs in various enterprises. No problem! They should not be discouraged! And their public stipend should continue - although I would suggest that their additional  income should be taxed. The 2011 1st quarter profit of the 5 largest oil companies was 31 billion dollars -  substantially less than the ~$1 trillion per quarter needed to fund this proposed stipend at the proposed level.

What do you think? Please let me know if you have concerns!

John Mattox, 12/12/11