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Enriching the economic gene pool

March 8, 2012

A seemingly unrelated constellation of issues led us recently to a meditation on the value of diversity in human as well as ecological systems. The first, discussed in TRR’s February 23 article on Dairy Day, was the problem that, though growing switch grass as an energy crop seems like a good money-making idea for local farmers, high-quality switch grass may prove difficult to grow here. The second issue was the difficulty of managing manure, detailed in a recent series of TRR articles. The third was the concept of “bio-energy villages” in Germany, presented by Meta Brunzema at the SkyDog Supper Club (the same Brunzema mentioned in our February 16 editorial).

Bio-energy villages are communities that have created centralized biomass generators. These generators simultaneously provide heat and electricity for the village’s entire population, with enough electricity left over to sell to the grid. And they don’t use just one fuel, but a variety, of just the type that can be expected in a rural area—including manure.

Could biomass generators solve that pesky manure problem? Could the manure problem solve the need for fuel in local biomass generators? Could the whole thing be an environmental panacea?

Well, no. It’s not that simple. For instance, because of the need for pipes, the heat from the biomass generators is best used in a tightly massed group of houses, while most local hamlets seem to have a lot of stragglers. And while the slurry left over after a biomass generator has processed manure can be used for land application—meaning farmers who provide it for fuel could still use it as fertilizer—that slurry would still contain nutrients that create environmental runoff problems. Meanwhile, bringing in manure piecemeal from people who own one horse or a few chickens might prove carbon-negative when transportation is taken into account.

So bio-energy villages are not a cure-all for the manure and energy problems.

But should we be looking for cure-alls in the first place?

Maybe one reason modern civilization is currently in crisis mode is that it is based on giant, monolithic solutions—from Big Oil to a global financial system run by a handful of super-banks—whereas resilience and adaptability in human affairs, just as much as in ecosystems, rely on diversity and variety.