Monday, March 4, 2013

Sustainable Jobs Viable? Conviction versus practicality

I have a friend, who owns a small solar consulting business in Cleveland. During a conversation, I objected about the cost of solar projects, and the long payback threshold  He said, "It's not about the cost. You have to be willing to take a stand."

That's great. If you're Amory Lovins.

Most of us are not martyrs. Me, I want my sustainability with Internet access, an I-Phone and Ohio State football.

And I have no doubt that I am speaking for the majority of us. We want real lives. And have commitments. We  cannot take the hippy solution, turning on, tuning in and then dropping out. See what that got the Boomers (end game, The Tea Party? Yikes!).

The relevant question to me seems to be, "How can a person earn a living, integrate with the community, and be sustainable?" And, in an economy like this. there is little doubt "earning a living" is more complex. The current unemployment statistics seems to indicate that, unlike in the past, layoffs have impacted all levels and all occupations according the the latest BLS statistics. So, across the board, there are more applicants than jobs.

So, the Green livelihood in question MUST fulfill the following...


  1. ...Be Green: Goes without saying, but it should be a job related to lowering human kind's carbon footprint on the planet.
  2.  ...Be enjoyable: This varies by person, but going to an office you hate is silly. 
  3. ...Make a difference: Dreamy idealism? Maybe. but at my age? Ironically, I still think this is possible. 
  4. ...Be integral: Health-focused. No making money selling addictive substances like tobacco. 
  5. ...Create instead of destroying community: Too often in the recent past, business has stripped people from their families and friends "all for a buck." This is short-sided and, frankly, ridiculous. 
  6. ...Be a small business with low capital requirements: The middle classes income has been shrinking an alarming rate. So any business that most of us buy must be reasonably low-cost. So failure will hurt, but not completely bankrupt you.
  7. ...Have a reasonable chance of success: All business entails risk. But smart risks are worth taking. After all, life without taking risks is boring. But putting your family in jeopardy by placing a second mortgage on the house seems silly. 
  8. ...Be something you are familiar with, and are interested by: Most of us in the world are not in our 20's. We are adults with responsibilities. We know what we like. We have chose our interests for a reason. 
  9. ...Affordable to train for: We all want to be a doctor. Even if we've got the brains for it, let's get real. Do you really want more student loans?
With that said, I found some really cool ideas that work FOR ME. I want this to be clear that it is for me, and not for everybody. None of these is "pie in the sky." Unfortunately, right now they are not within my reach. But every success comes with a good idea.

1) Urban Farming

I've been amazed to find out that people in Cleveland are making money farming tiny urban lots for money. Turns out this is a major, nation-wide trend. Urban land is growing affordable. And it is easy to grow "peasant" crops -- lettuce, onions, carrots and greens -- on that land.

And, best of all, urban farmers have access to a lot of things that rural farmers struggle with. There is no need for irrigation wells -- just attach a hose. And they are ridiculously close to their markets. Now that "farmers markets" have become something of a yuppie necessity, a centrally located farm can have several within easy driving distances. Other nuisances, like deer and rabbits, are further reduced in urban areas. 

The best method I found is something called SPIN Farming: Small Plot INtensive. they appear to have everything "worked out." From crop selection to marketing. Here is their website: spinfarming.com. 

I have always been a fan of  smart, well thought-out systems with easy to follow rules of thumb. That is, I suppose, why franchises work. A Big Mack tastes that same in Los Angeles as it does in Cleveland. And why I was a Square-Foot gardener when growing my own veggies organically last time I live in Ohio.And SPIN Farming seems to be a weel-thought-out method for urban farmers to follow.

2) Aquaponics

Combining the aquaculture with hydroponics, ironically, seems like a pretty neat sustainable idea. Even with the necessary air and water pumps pulling electricity. It promises to combine protein production with a low-labor way to grow those same "stoop crops" that SPIN farmers grow. 

From my readings, it seems better to focus upon the vegetable growing as the main business due to the cost of the fish food. The idea is that their poop provides nutrients that bacteria on plant's roots liberate, making it possible for the plants to utilize. At its best, this is a closed-loop system, with the exception of the fish food and seeds. 

A lot of the "back yard" systems you'll see on the Internet are clunky systems that pump tank water over gravel beds. There are a lot of moving parts to this. And the originator of the method, the New Alchemy Institute from the University of North Carolina actually used the "float" method. Which means that plant roots actually dangle from a floating, Styrofoam raft.  And this seems to be the most viable option for success since their are less moving parts. 

So far, I have found two promising looking outfits. Both are "Do-It-Yourself" operations. And, like SPIN Farming, you only get the instructions. And it is up to you to follow up. 

The more expensive system has been developed by a long-term aquaphonics farmer who began his studies in the 70's at UC Davis. His system, which he calls a Portable Farm (portablefarms.com) seems feasible. Though the price tag for the training -- $2,500 makes me gulp. further, there are restrictions: you can only have a 1000 square foot operation for that price. To add capacity, you need to purchase another licensing fee. 

The most promising seems to be Friendly Aquaponics (friendlyaquaponics.com). Not only is their system more affordable, it may actually be better thought out. And they seem like genuinely nice people. Who have one goal: to make this technology "third-world prided." 

So people in Africa and Bangladesh can eat.. And you've got to like people who think like that. No?  Below is the video that brought them to my attention.

Now, back to my dreaming. Salting away money. Thinking "farmers market..."


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