Working with Nature to Sustain Life

There’s a fatal flaw in the traditional definition of sustainability—meeting today’s needs without jeopardizing future generations’ ability to meet their own needs.

The problem? This notion leaves out every species besides homo sapiens.

The truth is, “Human beings don’t sustain shit,” sustainability consultant Brandon Pitcher declares. “Nature sustains us. We fool ourselves into thinking we sustain the planet, but it’s the other way around.”

But Fritjof Capra’s view of sustainability is more integrated:

“A sustainable human community is designed in such a manner that its ways of life, technologies, and social institutions honor, support, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”

By Alaricmalabry (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

By Alaricmalabry (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Pitcher, a certified practitioner of ZERI (Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives, a global network seeking solutions to world challenges), spoke at the Irvington Green Hour Tuesday night. He gave two scenarios of solutions patterned after nature’s wisdom.

The Power of Shrooms
The first involves using mushrooms to address multiple issues, such as in the case of an invasive species troubling poverty-stricken parts of Zimbabwe. There water hyacinths choke waterways, to the point that people can’t take their boats down the river, jeopardizing their livelihoods in an area already strained by high rates of HIV.

However, once harvested, dried, and sun-sterilized, this invasive species is ideal food for mushrooms. Villagers take the work on, and native mushrooms thrive on this biomass. Reintroducing mushrooms as a food source demonstrates how tasty and nutritious these powerhouses are—and they can provide enough protein to sustain a community in two to three weeks, Pitcher says.

Mushrooms also figure in food security efforts in Colombia, where the coffee plant forms a substrate for edible fungi. Typically 99.8 percent of coffee is thrown away or burned on its way to our morning cuppa. But “waste” is opportunity.

Coffee Plant, by Jo N, via flickr Commons

Coffee Plant, by Jo N, via flickr Commons

The Wisdom of Water
Pitcher’s second example is a natural way to treat wastewater.

In Indiana, 92 cities, including my hometown, have antiquated combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Combined sewer overflow effects, by Christopher Zurcher, via flickr Commons

Combined sewer overflow effects, by Christopher Zurcher, via flickr Commons

Never heard of a CSO? You’re lucky. Here whenever it rains a fraction of an inch, raw sewage combines with stormwater runoff and runs straight into waterways. So pathogens and toxic chemicals are dumped into my neighborhood’s Pleasant Run and other sweet little streams.

The remediation plan involves drilling enormous pipes deep underground to hold the excess sewage. To Pitcher, this represents a wasted opportunity—and a sad ignorance about the way water naturally purifies.

“Water does not move in a straight line in nature,” he points out. Its natural flow creates vortexes that clean it. “It’s very ignorant of us to think we can move water through pipes in straight lines and think that water’s going to be healthy.”

An integrated system of rain gardens and wetlands harnesses the power of algae to treat wastewater. In Indy, such a system could have resulted in a decentralized network, providing jobs and clean water in perpetuity, Pitcher believes.

For more information, see the ZERI site, or The Blue Economy—or attend Pitcher’s upcoming  sessions at Trade School Indy.

3 thoughts on “Working with Nature to Sustain Life

  1. I am signed up for the Blue Economy series through Trade School Indianapolis. I would love to work with others in the city to start a project using these principles. I believe starting something locally is part of the class, so if this excites you, please consider joining us in November.

  2. Pingback: DIY Food, Medicine, Soil: There’s a Shroom for That | Shawndra Miller

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