(Our colleague and African development/Shea Butter cooperative specialist Marlene Elias demonstrates the Native American-designed “poor-man’s solar hot water system” on the roof of the Los Angeles Eco-village. A 30 watt BP Solarex PV panel runs the 12v circulation pump since copper coils don’t thermosiphon well, and the tank is a recycled 40 gallon gas-fired water heating tank donated by another Eco-villager).

Around the turn of the century our good friends Colin and Ronna Filkow invited educational reformer Dr. Sherry Kerr, her daughter Emily, and me to their home in Palm Springs California for Thanksgiving.

Colin was the general manager of Priority Records but had been an inventor who holds patents on Leather Glove making machines in Canada and he shares my enthusiasm for innovations and do-it-yourself technology. He knew I had recently moved into the Los Angeles Eco-Village and wanted to experiment with solar energy systems and he had kindly torn a page out of a recent Popular Science magazine he had been reading that had a cross sectional diagram of a solar hot water system and a paragraph about people building their own heaters.

He presented it to me at the breakfast table Thanksgiving day and said something to the effect of “you know, it doesn’t look all that hard to build”.

“Why don’t we try and make one this weekend?” I asked.

“That could be fun. I have the tools in the garage, we would just need to buy the materials.”

That afternoon, since Ronna and the others were busy preparing the turkey, I took it upon myself to borrow the car and drive over to the nearest Loewe’s hardware superstore, a massive but isolated building surrounded by a huge parking lot in the middle of the desert.

Because it was Thanksgiving the store was as deserted as the landscape around it.

Clueless about solar construction, being more of an academic armchair inventor than a hands-on engineer, and being completely unfamiliar with hardware super-stores, I slowly made my way down the long aisles with the torn page from Popular Science in my hand, trying to figure out what I would need and where I would find it. There were no helpers on the floor.

I thought I would start with copper pipes since they were the obvious and most visible part of the system needed for carrying and heating the water, so I made my way over to the plumbing section and started laying out different lengths and thicknesses of pipe on the floor, trying to match them to the diagram.

“God help me” I thought, “I really don’t have a clue what I am doing. This may be harder than I thought”.

As if in answer to my silent prayer a sudden voice behind me said in a distinctive but hard to place accent, “looks like you’re trying to build a solar hot water system”.

Startled, I turned around to face the only other customer in the cavernous store – a dark copper-tan skinned man with jet black hair wearing denim.

“Actually, yes I am.” I held out the torn magazine page for him to see, “but I only have this to go on. How did you know?”

“I build solar hot water systems. On the Native American reservation nearby, where I live. So I could tell — only somebody trying to build a solar hot water system would lay out copper pipe in that pattern.”

He smiled at my startled look.

“Do you know how to braze?” he asked gently.

I smiled self-consciously. “To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what the word means!”

“So you are a total beginner. That’s what I thought.” He laughed, gesturing at the way I had been building my jigsaw puzzle on the floor.

” Brazing is torch-welding. To make those pipes water tight you will have to braze them and do a good job of it. Here in Southern California a solar hot water system can get so hot it will produce steam that will have to be vented with an over-pressure relief valve. I’ve had systems get so hot they cracked the welds. There is a lot of pressure in that steam. These things really work. But you have to do a decent job of brazing.”

“Is it hard?” I asked

“No, but it takes a little practice. You have to buy an oxy-acetylene torch system and brazing rods and practice a bit.”


I studied the diagram as he pulled out a pen and tore a flap off of a cardboard box.

“Here’s what I recommend,” he said, sketching a system on the cardboard.”What I’ve drawn here is the simplest of solar hot water systems…”

He placed the sketch in my hands and ran down the aisles, pulling parts from various bins. Then he grabbed a 60 foot coil of copper pipe and threw it down on the ground amidst the pile of parts.

“Build a box that fits this coil, about 1 yard by 1 yard, insulate it with styrofoam and place a sheet of aluminum, also about 1 yard by 1 yard, on the styrofoam in the box. Paint the aluminum sheet matte black, lay this copper coil on the aluminum sheet and fasten it in various places to the aluminum sheet with these clamps so as much of the copper touches the metal as possible and it is held down.

“Drill two holes in the box, one for the cold water coming in, one for the hot water pipe coming out. Paint the coil black too, and slap a sheet of glass or plexiglass on the box. Seal it with silicone.

” Now all you gotta braze is one connector to the in pipe and one to the hot pipe. You don’t have to worry about braze joints cracking or leaks.

“The rest is just standard plumbing. A coil won’t thermosiphon all that well, so you have to use a small circulation pump. Connect the pump between the bottom of your water tank and the cold connector and connect the hot connector to the top of your tank.

“If you can afford to buy a solar electric panel — around 30 watts will do — to run a 12 volt DC circulation pump it will turn on when the sun rises and off when it sets. It will cost you 150 or 200 bucks. But that’s a luxury. Any cheap circ pump on a timer will work.

” Voila, you’ve got an automatic solar hot water system! On the Indian reservation people call these “the poor man’s solar collector” because they are inexpensive and easy to build. Anybody can do it. But they are more than that – they are a way out of poverty and misery, a way toward comfort and dignity. A way of getting in harmony with nature so we can take care of our needs ourselves. The sun can do a lot for us once you know how to use her…”

He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “Good luck!”

“Thank you” I said, deeply impressed. “Thanks a lot. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t appeared.”

“Sure.” he replied with a wink, “It’s Thanksgiving”.

With that he turned and disappeared down another aisle. When I had gathered up the supplies he had brought me and returned the other copper pipes to their racks I tried to find him to get his name and contact information. But he was gone. The vast hardware store was empty.

When I got back to Colin and Ronna’s everybody was worried.

“You were gone so long!” they exclaimed. “We were afraid we would have to eat the turkey without you.”

“I feel like one of the first pilgrims, one of the pioneers on the first Thanksgiving” I told them as I poured the contents of my shopping bag on the living room floor.

I told the story of my mysterious encounter with the Native American solar engineer.

“What are the odds?!” I asked incredulously.

Emily said, “Sounds like he was an angel.”

That night we sat down to our Thanksgiving meal and said a heartfelt prayer of thanks to the Native Americans of the past whose wisdom and kindness saved the European pilgrims from starvation that first cold winter, and to the modern Native American from the deserts of Palm Springs who shared his wisdom so that a new Eco-villager could start his pilgrimage toward using the power of the sun to help save the descendants of those Europeans — and all those whose lives they have adversely impacted over the centuries — from the growing nightmares and threats that have come from foolishly using fossil fuels and atomic fission to heat up water.

The next day Colin and I built our first solar hot water system from the design our mysterious Indian friend had sketched on the cardboard box, and that system became my first water heater on my apartment at the eco-village.

When I moved to Egypt in 2003 and began living and working with the urban poor, wondering how I could contribute to the development effort in the land of my cousins Naveen and Hisham, I remembered the Native American angel’s advice: solar energy is a way out of poverty, a way to get into harmony with nature and find our comfort and dignity by being able to take care of our own needs.

I realized that teaching people the simple task of building a solar hot water, as our Native American friend did for me, could be the first step in building capacity and confidence in thinking creatively on how to work with what God has provided us. As the simplest of renewable energy projects, learning to build a do-it-yourself solar hot water heater puts us on a path that leads to ever more sophisticated projects as our understanding of the laws of physics and nature grows. From an understanding of how to work with local materials to provide domestic solar hot water we more easily scale up to understanding all forms of self-provisioning, from household level solar, wind, and micro-hydro electricity production, to solar adsorption chilling and solar air conditioning, to an understanding of ground-source heat pump technology, to home biogas production from urban wastes, to home hydrogen production and water purification, to rooftop gardening, composting and all other forms of ecologically sensible self-provisioning. They all flow from that first small step of learning how to harness the starlight that started all life on earth.

At any rate, it is how I started this journey on one special Thanksgiving, thanks to one mysterious Native American angel, and it showed me, as one who is descended from Irish and French Europeans and Iraqi and Lebanese Arabs yet calls himself by birth and passport “American”, how we could, in turn, also act as true American angels in the lives of others when we go around the world purporting to give development help and U.S. AID.

And thus, inspired by those thoughts, a with the fortune of obtaining a grant from the American People that we wrote through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Solar CITIES project was born…

(A song and slide-show I wrote about the experience, called The Thanksgiving Song (As We Sow so Shall We Reap), can be accessed below:)

I’m a new father with a one-week old baby so you will have to excuse me if I take the newspaper headlines a little too seriously these days.

They will affect my son’s future.

And your children’s.

But for some reason we don’t spend a lot of time connecting the dots, putting the puzzle together, trying, as parents, to figure out how current events are going to play out as our little one’s come of age.

Today’s headline, “Biosprit macht Nahrung teurer” infuriates me because of what the ensuing article doesn’t say. The english translation of the headline is “Biofuels make food more expensive” and the article goes on to tell us that biofuel production is being charged guilty for raising food prices by up to 75%. The figure comes to the German WAZ from the British newspaper “The Guardian” and all I can help thinking is that all of these newsrags are acting as the guardians of the status quo — a status quo that puts my newborn son in mortal danger.

The irony is that this headline, from July 5th, comes one day after Americans had their yearly “get drunk on biofuels (primarily beer) and gorge yourself on the barbecued flesh of dead animals fed on soybean from destroyed Brazilian rainforests” party, celebrating their independence from the British. Independence day. Hooray, we’re still independent from the British! Not from oil, though! Not from radioactive rocks! Not from foreign dictators! No, we wouldn’t want to celebrate that, now would we? Maybe in 200 years?!?

Another irony is that the headline appears a mere 4 days after Germany finally decided to (loosely) enforce the “you can’t poison other people’s air with your smoke” law that was supposed to go into effect last year (they wanted to give people time to adjust to the idea that pregant women and babies like mine might want to sit in a restaurant and not be asphyxiated).

How do all these events link together?

For one thing, with all these articles indicting biofuels as the culprit in the rising food price drama, development experts wagging their fingers and saying “shame shame for trying to use corn or rapeseed or grains for fuel when they could be used to feed the hungry” NOBODY is saying “shame on the tobacco farmers for using land that could be used to grow food for the hungry to grow a toxic weed that kills millions”.

Not one word is mentioned about competing land uses that are vastly more profitable than food or fuel crop growing that are taking arable soil out of production for nutritious products.

Nobody talks about how the growing of non-nutritive cash crops causes food prices to rise.

The public is being fooled into thinking that there are fields that grow corn and fields that grow tobacco and that corn should be used for food and tobacco should be used for cigarettes, and you violate some sacrosanct principle by using some corn for ethanol. The critics of biofuels never mention that for every acre of corn you plant for fuel you could simultaneously take an acre of tobacco out of production and grow food corn there.

To make it worse, Presidential candidate John McCain talks about the Brazilian success in using sugar cane for ethanol fuel production, criticizing Barack Obama’s support for the midwestern farmers who are experimenting with corn fed ethanol but nobody mentions that sugar is also a non-nutritional cash crop that does more damage than good for society, or questions why we allowed so many millions of hectares of fertile rain-forest to be destroyed just so that people could sweeten their coffee and eat candy bars. Last time I visited sugar can plantations in Venezuela, Hawaii and upper Egypt I noticed there was nothing for the peasants who grow the sugar cane to eat for miles around. In the book “Death Without Weeping” Nancy Scheper Hughes documents how the sugar cane industry caused misery and starvation. But nobody said, “hey, stop! Growing sugar cane on this land drives the price of real food up by 75% — you can’t grow this garbage here!”

Likewise, nobody talks about how much corn goes into making “corn syrup sweetener” — America’s challenge to the sugar cane industries of the south. Did you notice when coca-cola and other soda pop companies switched from using sugar to corn syrup sweeteners? The fact is that we don’t grow corn only for food in America or anywhere else in the world — we grow it for sweeteners. Sweeteners that destroy people’s nutrition, wreck their teeth and make them fat. All while raising the price of real food.

Oh yeah, and we grow it to feed factory-grown animals that we can barbecue on “Independence day” — animals that could be wandering around the plains happily munching on cellulosic feedstocks like grass and other weeds that we can’t eat and that happily grow on land that won’t produce food crops for us.

But all the corn used for corn syrup and all the corn used to fatten animals for slaughter never makes it into the headlines as an “evil” or “bad” or even “competitive” use of our crop land.

What is more, corn fed ethanol is made from — guess what? Corn syrup! The stuff that is in the candy and sodas and other junk food crap that makes kids hyper in school, makes cavities grow to the size of craters, makes Fat Albert fat, and causes the twinkie murderer to go on a killing spree. Some sacrifice if we have to use that garbage for fuel instead!

In California we had a visitor to the school I taught in (Jefferson High School in South Central L.A.) from a representative of the California Energy Commission who drove an ethanol fueled car. The ethanol came from the recycled waste of a local soda pop factory — the liquid effluent waste from the corn syrup used in the soda that would otherwise have been dumped in the local rivers or sewer systems (to end up in the ocean). So it wasn’t even a competitive use of the corn syrup — it was just what was left over. Other ethanol came from a cheese factory, after they had made the cheese, taking the sugars in the whey they had to separate out. That would have been dumped down the drain too.

The fact is that an enormous amount of the sugar content from our corn production and other agricultural industries is being flushed down drains every day. But that doesn’t get talked about in the alarmist articles criticizing biofuel production.

I am NOT a fan of food for fuel, and I certainly was disturbed when I visited Malaysian and Guatemalan rainforests that were being burned down to make way for vast oil palm plantations, some of which is now going for the production of biodiesel. But oil palm isn’t food either — the oil palm plantation boom began before the biofuel boom (I saw it with my own eyes as a rain forest researcher from 1985 when I was with a Harvard team in Borneo to 2003 when I was working in Central America with the L.A. Zoo) and most oil palm products ended up in cosmetics, as lubricants, in soaps, and in desserts. Desserts are not food. They are luxuries that make us fat and give us heart attacks. Sure they are fun to eat, but don’t tell me you are outraged because fats and oils that would have ended up in your arteries are now being converted to run through your car engine!

Naturally I favor switch grass and other cellulosic feedstock for my biofuels. I have long been a critic of using food crops for fuel, but I have also long been a critic of using land that could be used to grow food in order to grow non-nutritional cash crops for cigarettes, coffee, tea, snacks and sweets. There is an obesity epidemic going on around the world because we don’t eat right and their is a cancer epidemic going on because we let people poison our air and water with the polonium 210 and tar and nicotine that tobacco plants produce. This is hardly the time to be bickering when farmers look into ways of using their land that can help us kick our addiction to fossil fuels. It isn’t as if we are going to stop growing food to get our fuel. First we would convert the land that we are using to grow tobacco and sugar cane and all that corn and wheat and rice that goes not into food for the hungry millions but into snacks and cookies and cakes that are killing us, and use that non-food crap to drive our cars right? Wouldn’t we? We would use this time in history to end our addictions to not only OIL but to drugs like cigarettes and coffee and tea and other stimulants and junk food, right?

No, no. I get it. We aren’t going to do either. We are beholden to our addictions. The articles waging war on biofuels are really an attempt by the party of the rich to knock the good Senator from Illinois out of the race. Because Obama is a smart man and gets it, and McCain is a panderer to the oligopolists who just wants to make sure they stay in power. McCain, a man who thinks war is a joke and sings “Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran“, makes offers of prizes for battery makers for electric cars, but his real agenda is to get us hooked on massive quantities of electricity that he will argue can only be provided by nuclear power plants. Since domestic energy can so easily be provided by wind and solar and other renewables at a much lower cost than building and maintaining and securing nuclear power plants, the nuclear lobby needs a massive turn-over from oil fueled cars to electric cars to make the argument for their latest centralized energy distribution scheme. And biofuels threaten that.

I see this as a bid to keep centralized power in the energy industry — the same fight that Henry Ford had to wage with his chemurgists against John D. Rockefeller and William Randolph Hearst when he launched his Model A alcohol powered cars and proposed that every farmer could be both an energy and a food provider. Ford lost his battle when the oil lobby got desperate enough to force congress to enact prohibition. That killed the alcohol car. The resurrection of the electric car (which both Ford and Edison worked on and drove together in the late 1800s), while admirable if fueled by electricity produced by renewables, is, in the Republican’s hands, merely an attempt to monopolize electricity through their ownership of uranium mines and nuclear power plants.

Heaven forbid we should use real plants, which are powered by the sun, to power our cars.

Smart do-it-yourselfers know that when push comes to shove we can distill our own ethanol fuel or cook up biodiesel or make biogas in the backyard using garbage and animal plant food waste. We know there is no competition between food and fuel. We know that making fuel is not going to drive up the cost of real food.

What the scaremongers would have you believe is that people are going hungry because we are turning away from oil and exploring different sources of solar powered energy, some of which involve using biomass. But if you let a poor farming family decide how to use their land they will wisely grow enough food for themselves and enough cash crops for the market. It usually matters little to them whether that cash crop is ending up being burned with a match to provide the cough in someone’s lungs or burned as calories providing the sugar high in somebody’s dessert or candy bar or bringing the buzz into somebody’s beverage cup. Or putting the “vroom” into somebody’s gas tank. That isn’t what determines whether they a farming family goes hungry or not, and it isn’t what is driving up food prices for the non-farmers.

If it were then there would be a simple answer for people worried about the food vs. energy debate, given how much land on this planet is devoted to non-nutritional cash crops:

Let them eat cake.

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by on July 4, 2008

It’s all entertainment, really. Especially where people are so fat, even eating is simply entertainment.  Certainly sight-seeing is entertainment, going to museums is entertainment, even reading books is mere entertainment.  Education beyond vocational school is entertainment.  Little productivity is gained for every unit investment; people learn musical instruments and languages for entertainment.  What then makes one entertainment superior to another?  It’s status value certainly, and spin-off benefits.

For example, If I have a child who plays the guitar, and does so well, I tolerate hours spent “practicing” (enjoying entertaining himself) because my friends and neighbors will go “ooh” and “aah” if he is any good at all, and may even give him an “A for effort” if he isn’t, because they feel it is an admirable thing.

But if I have a child who spends his time perfecting his “Guitar Hero” skills on the Playstation I can’t impress my peers. They will say my kid is wasting his time with video games. So I will discourage that behavior, even if in my child’s mind this quest for Playstation perfection promises the oohs and ahhs and admiration of HIS peers.  So like Einstein said, it is relative to one’s frame of reference.

My experiments so far show a pronounced ambivalence about this decade’s perception of the new media by the cultural hegemonists, and a reluctance to explore how values are shifting.  People still flock to a static representation of Caspar David Friedrich’s 19th century paintings and drawings, somewhat for the enjoyment of the visual panoramas themselves, but somewhat more to nurture the satisfaction of knowing that they will impress peers (and maybe trump or at least keep up with them) at parties, or at least earn more “sophistication points”.   With new media, particularly mass produced media, sophistry points are harder to earn.

However, as John Culhane showed with animated cartoons, over time a new respect is awarded the new media, and those who recognized it first and saw its significance and stuck with it are rewarded and honored.

The field of emergent technology analysis and adoption paradoxes is a fascinating one.  Few people will see the link between air conditioners, solar panels and video games or appreciate the theoretical drama of commodity flows as they go through early adopters to late adopters.  Where on the curve to be? That is one question.

The difficult drama to navigate is to define “value” and “productivity” since most people are tyring to gain both immediate and delayed gratification through the same activity and are performing gymnastic feats of mental calculus in a desparate effort to outcompete their peers.  There is always a shifting penumbra around the activities that might impress your peers and everyone thinks they are at ground zero.  There is a dynamic tension between consumption and serving others to earn status points that can be used for later consumption.

If you serve up a dish of quality entertainment you will get rewarded.  In your efforts to serve a poorly understood meal of entertainment you will be ridiculed or dismissed, particularly if you demonstrate your own enjoyments as you serve.  Yet in the technology adoption literature it is clear that the only way to introduce a new technology to the reluctant masses if you are an innovator and an early adopter is to demonstrate your own almost obsessive enjoyment and addiction to the new thing, and show that its merits supersede and obviate the old.  But then you have to demonstrate that you can also appreciate the old, and contextualize the new within the framework scaffolding the old. To defend the new you must show that you are sophisticated, not puerile, so that late adopters will wonder why someone who clearly can untilize the old tech well would consider abandoning and replacing something they considered tried and true.

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by on June 26, 2008 and tagged ,

“Each year the United States spends nearly a billion dollars a year importing natural rubber. In 1993 global consumption surpassed 5.5 million tons.  Eighty-five percent of it was produced in Southeast Asia. Decades ago, scientists warned of the danger of leaf blight being deliberately introduced into the plantations. “None of the planting material used in establishing millions of acres of plantations in the east has any appreciable degree of resistance to the disease,” wrote Loren Polhamus, a leading rubber authority at the USDA. Fundamentally, the situation has not changed.  To this day a single act of biological terrorism, the systematic introduction of fungal spores so small as to be readily concealed in a shoe, could wipe out the plantations, shutting down production of natural rubber for at least a decade.  It is difficult  to think of any other raw material that is as vital and vulnerable…. After a century the threat of South American leaf blight and the vulnerability of the Far East plantations continue to hang like a Damoclean sword over the neck of the industrial world…” (p. 371, Wade Davis, One River).

“The accidental or deliberate introduction of this disease could within two years devastate nearly all the closely planted areas in the Far East.  Since it takes seven years to bring a rubber tree into full production, the outbreak of leaf blight in the Far East could precipitate a natural rubber crisis at any time, as the Far East supplies over 70 percent of the world’s rubber needs.” (p. 366)

“The first blow to synthetic rubber came with the 1973 oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which more than doubled the price of raw materials for the industry.  Plantations consume roughly half a ton of oil to produce a ton of rubber, whereas a petrochemical plant needs 3.5 tons to make the same volume.  The increase in oil prices also affected consumers, making them far more conscious of gas mileage.  This prompted the d far more serious challenge to the synthetic industry: the rapid and widespread adoption of the radial tire…This, in turn, provided an immense boost to the plantation industry, for only natural rubber has the strength required for the sidewalls of radial tires…”

“There is today no product that can match natural rubber’s resilience and tensile strength, resistance to abrasion and impact, and capacity to absorb impact without generating heat.  Today the tires of every commercial and military aircraft, from the 747 to the B-2 bomber and the space shuttle, are 100 percent natural rubber.  Half the rubber in every pickup tire in America still comes from a tree.  The enormous tires of industrial machinery are 90 percent natural.  Nearly half of the rubber in every automobile tire originates on plantations located thirteen thousand miles away.” (p. 370)

“Incidentally, Dr. Schultes, do you have any idea what would happen if leaf blight broke out in Southeast Asia?…  It  would mean the end of the industry,” Sorenson said, “Twelve million acres, and I tell you it would go quickly.”

Schultes looked over toward mayer.

“They could never control it,” Mayer said.

“I had no idea,” said Schultes.

“All that has saved us so far is the thickness of the spore wall of the fungus.  The fastest ships can still take several weeks to get across, and the spores can’t survive the voyage. So the blight has never gotten over there.”

“But eventually,” Grassl said, “every disease gets everywhere.” (p. 336)

Last night I watched a prize winning film entitled “Unser täglich Brot”, a.k.a. “Our Daily Bread”. It is a brilliant and moving documentary by Nikolaus Geyrhalter that shows industrial food production in all its mechanised glory.

It made me think of The Meatrix, the disturbing spoof of the Matrix films that uses animation to show the horrors of the way we get our food, and of Erwin Wagenhofer’s We Feed the World, another depressing look at agro-industry that I watched a few weeks ago.

Indeed, like the other films, it made me depressed. The scale of the problems we have created with our capital intensive systems of farming dwarf even the giant scale of the industries themselves. Agroindustry is a juggernaut, consuming behemoth proportions of water and energy and poisonous chemicals. It operates with an appetite so voracious that when you actually confront the mess we are in, you feel paralyzed into inaction. How can we even begin to talk about reducing resource consumption as citizens when the food industries that sustain us use quantities of the same materials we are trying to conserve that make our efforts look like those of valiant ants? I get the same feeling watching documentaries on the scale of our energy operations, but in that sector I feel much more confident in my ability to fight back and make a difference– in our home we have solar hot water and photovoltaics and even a small wind generator. I’ve lived off the grid for several years and know I don’t depend on the energy companies for my light, heat or electricity. I’ve ridden a bicycle as my main means of transportation (and otherwise taken public transit) so I don’t feel helpless in the face of so called “oil shocks” — go ahead and raise the price of a gallon of gasoline another 4 dollars — won’t bother me a bit! And I can do without a lot of cheap consumer goods — my wife and I buy our clothes and books and CDs used when we want to own things, and meet friends in the public library where they have more “food for thought” than we could possibly consume in a lifetime. But when it comes to the price and availability of food for eating, when it comes down to giving us “our daily bread”… well, this one bothers me alot.

I’ve tried to grow my own food as an urban resident. Very, very difficult.

My fondest bittersweet memory is when the garden snails ate all the soybeans I planted. I turned around and made escargot. Such sweet revenge! But then I found out that the snail populations couldn’t keep up with my predation! It takes more than a suburban stamp sized lawn to support a top predator! Yeah, we had tomatoes and hydroponic lettuce and strawberries and whatnot. But getting protein is tough for a city slicker.

Thus, when I think global crisis, I don’t think about energy prices — I think we’ve got that one solved when it comes to domestic consumption. My computer, my electric guitar and even my Sony Playstation all run off of photovoltaics just fine. No, domestic energy isn’t the problem. You can raise the prices or cut off the supply, and we will hardly notice here at home. Make a sunk investment in household level renewable energy and you can weather a lot of storms, environmental and financial. So it seems to me that the biggest threat of the current recession is what it is doing to food production and food prices, and until we find a way beyond “business as usual” in the wasteful and resource intensive food sector, we had better consider finding ways to ration as much of the rest of the “cheap” fossil fuel supplies we have as is possible and devote them to investments in better food production techniques.

We simply can’t be consuming oil and gas (and oil and gas fired electricity) to do simple things, like keeping our lights on and heating our food and water, for which we already have simple non-fossil fuel substitutes. We, as citizens, have got to help redirect energy supplies to the food industry, instead of asking them to provide us with even more fuel (we are wasting resources during this debate about “food for fuel”, with corn being wasted on ethanol production when we should be using switchgrass and other cellulosic waste feedstock, while making biodiesel and biogas from animal wastes, crop residues, and city garbage). Meanwhile, we need to be sending strong market signals to our food producers that we prefer healthy local, organic, pesticide free products, and encourage a redesign of the way food is made and distributed.

What was most disturbing about watching “Our Daily Bread” for me was the conflicting memories it conjured up of my years in Cairo, Egypt, working with the “Valley Foods Corporation”. Living with the family that runs the company on their plantation, adjacent to their factories, I saw first-hand how they, like all big food companies, feel trapped into a protocol for how they must treat their workers, their animals and plants, and their plantation environments in order to remain competitive and profitable. Don’t get me wrong — “Valley Foods” is a model of a good company with good practices, especially relative to other big agroindustrial corporations; they follow international ISO and HACCP standards, have great leadership, are run by a caring family. They put a lot of money and time into environmental improvements and into health and safety and dignity improvements for their workers. They even run an Educational Environmental Science Center, on whose board of directors I once sat. Among companies I’ve seen they are the best. It isn’t the family or staff that runs the corporation I fault for what will ultimately prove to be socially and environmentally unsustainable practices — I have great affection and respect for them and know they are trying harder than most other corporations to do the right thing. No, it is the nature of the beast – the logic of capital accumulation when it meets industrial scale operations and the constraints of the market. To be competitive they have to engage in practices that, when viewed even dispassionately can turn your stomach (and you can’t get much more dispassionate than Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Unser täglich Brot”, which shows the same practices all over Europe, and does so with a complete absence of music or narration or any other biasing production techniques.) The mass production and commodification of life forms (including laborers) and the monocultural landscape required to keep prices low and increase profit margins, feels as wrong at the gut level as it is ecologically and socially unsustainable. James C. Scott labeled such practices in his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed as part of “the dummification” of people and landscape.

But though well-intentioned corporations try to make marginal improvements in the way they do business (because their leaders have families and care about the future too) they are trapped in an endless merry-go-round of bad practices that feed on one another. Here is just one example I witnessed of the catch-22 corporations get themselves into: in the industrial chicken industry baby chicks need to have their anal pores closed to prevent salmonella. The cheapest way to disinfect and close the anal pore of thousands of chicks hatching every day is to bathe the chicks in mists of carcinogenic formaldehyde. The formaldehyde makes the chicks turn bright yellow as a side effect and farmers who go on to produce “broilers” who must buy the chicks from a wholesale supplier have come to use the artificial bright yellow feather color of the chicks as an indicator of health. Thus they will only buy yellow chicks. Now, if an Egyptian company decides to invest in changing their operations to be more worker and environment friendly, and switch to non-carcinogenic iodine based treatments (which is mandatory in California and the EU to protect workers health) their now not-so-yellow chicks will no longer be competitive on the market. Since the costs of switching away from formaldehyde are not offset by a reduced need for protective gear for the workers (because low wage Egyptian workers are provided with little or no protective gear to begin with, which helps keeps labor costs down) there is no cost advantage to changing this terrible practice. In fact the company could lose market share in the competitive chicken market. So people running companies feel forced to hang on to such terrible practices to stay in the game. The logic applies not only to deadly chemicals (biocides) used by agro- industry, but to the fuel-use practices fueling their competitive success. While it is easy for us to preach that agrobusiness should return to being completely solar powered (remember that agriculture is, essentially, a photosynthetic solar powered enterprise!) there is not a modern farming enterprise in the world that is going to abandon industrial scale practices and the fossil fuel dependency that it entails. That much is evident in all the documentaries on how we get our daily bread. Fossil fuels will probably be needed by most large scale agriculture firms for a long time to come.

So who will be the game changers? And if we find a few companies led by visionaries who decide to take the risk, will they be able to change things quickly enough to create a band-wagon for everybody else to jump on? What about the energy industry? Can we look to the energy sector itself to be able to provide agro-industry with safe, clean, inflation resistant fuels? We know that in the case of U.S. Coal burning utility plants for example , according to a recent Herald Tribune article entitled “Carbon-capturing technology is stalled by a Catch-22″, nobody in that industry is apparently ready to take the lead and be the first to invest in carbon sequestration technology that could reduce the ecological footprint and CO2 burden of coal fired electricity or coal liquification. Meanwhile, Shell Energy, actually one of the largest of the oil companies investing in renewable energy, is investing billions more in exploiting the “trillions” of barrels of oil found in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. Their contribution to renewable energy, while substantial by the standards of their own industry, is negligible compared to what Shell is doing to exploit even more dirty fossil fuels. BP, calling itself “Beyond Petroleum”, is also a player in the RE field but is now shedding most of its investment in favor of tar sands; Exxon, despite the exhortations of the Rockefellers themselves, has yet to even turn their corporate heads in a sustainable direction, and is banking on more fossil extractions to please their shareholders. The real money is going into “business as usual”, and worse, into building nuclear power plants to provide the energy needed to get energy from the tar sands that is supposed to provide us with energy!.

When it comes to wholesale investment in renewable energy and eco-friendly practices, we are still at the “prototype stage”. When it comes to large-scale substitution of climate and civilization friendly fuels, everybody is waiting for the other guy to prove long term sustainability investments have enough of a short term advantage that those who use them will be able to remain profitable. But by then it will be too late for many many people suffering the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, and certainly for much of the biodiversity that keeps our unique planet magical and healthy for humans — go to Mars if you want to picnic in a world without an ecosystem — no ants to bother you — and make sure you bring a six-pack for a cool one, I hear they have ice… But if you want to keep up the picnic here on earth…

Chillingly, there is today an even closer link between agro-industry and the fossil fuel industry than ever before. Not only is the former completely dependent on the latter (for everything from the fuel for its tractors, its machinery, and its transport, and for the raw materials for its fertilizers and pesticides) but both are now the major part of stock market speculators’ profiles (driving up prices in both sectors in a dangerous self-reinforcing spiral). And given that our industrially produced food is so intimately dependent on fossil fuels, and that food price hikes and energy price hikes will continue to cause immiseration and social unrest (witness the recent food riots in Cairo) we have to do everything we can immediately to decrease fuel consumption elsewhere in the commodity chain; if we reduce fuel demand in one sector, we increase supply for the other.

For this reason, Solar CITIES has been vitally concerned with finding ways to reduce domestic demand for fossil fuels (and fossil fuel derived electricity) in Cairo. We would like to see our friends and the families we know there have the same advantages we have in our solar powered apartment here in Germany. Fuel and food prices will continue to rise, and with them immiseration and social unrest. We can mitigate a lot of these problems by ensuring that urban Egyptians can utilize the abundant sunshine and city garbage to provide for all their lighting, electricity, cooking and air and water heating needs.

Egypt needs to be able to export its oil and gas for hard currency at market rate so it can invest in its infrastructure and its peoples’ education. It needs to supply its agro-industries with fairly priced fuel so that food prices can stay low. Thus it needs desparately to remove its fuel subsidies for domestic consumers.

But once the price of a tank of cooking gas and heating gas and electricity go up to market rates (about 5 times what people are paying today) the data from our surveys indicate that most of the urban poor (who make up the majority of Cairo’s 20 million) will be forced to do two very unpalatable and unfair things — 1) our surveys indicate that they will be forced to radically reduce consumption (which is something we wish bourgeois consumers would do, but do not wish on the Urban Poor who are at subsistence to begin with, for example using as little as 10 liters of water per capita per day) 2) our surveys show that they will go back to using the cheapest fuels available for their heating and cooking — using kerosene in dangerous and smoky pump stoves (baburs) and burning garbage in Kanouns — practices that drastically reduce indoor air quality and cause many health and safety hazards. They will do this so that they can devote what little money they have to buying ever dwindling quantities of ever-more-unhealthy cheap food.

The nature and scale of agro-industry and the energy industry and the current fever of speculation that is driving prices in both industries up and up is having devastating effects on the poor. Helping provide safe, clean, affordable and inflation resistent heating and cooking alternatives for the poor (such as “city solar rooftops” and “city garbage-fed biogas” ) are two of the simplest things we can do to help households weather this storm of price surges with security and dignity, so they can devote their scarce household resources to the actual and ever more expensive food and water that feeds and cleans their families, instead of paying through the nose for the means to heat these ever more precious basic commodities.

We may not be able to quickly change the nature of the game of how we get our daily bread and our daily bath. But we can immediately change the way we heat them.

While working on relating the graphs from this survey and its data to the literature, we find that one of the strongest questions here is: “why do the Zabaleen community and the historic Cairo communities differ so much in water heating preferences when the mean incomes and many other variables are so similar for the two communities”.

Zabaleen mean income 676 LE per month; SD 367.8, N= 170.

Darb Al Ahmar mean income 606 LE per month; SD 339.8, N = 213

Average monthly electric costs: Zabaleen 42 LE, Darb Al Ahmar 40 LE. Curiously, despite the greater dependence on electric heating in Darb Al Ahmar the community on average isn’t paying more than the Zabaleen!

Average monthly gas costs: Zabaleen 21 LE, Darb Al Ahmar 13 LE. Here we do see an effect of more families heating water with gas stoves in the Zabaleen; the Zabaleen average is approximately 1 gas bottle more per family than Darb Al Ahmar.

If the Zabaleen are paying more in gas than Darb Al Ahmar and the same amount in electricity, without having a preponderence of electric heaters, what accounts for the large difference in heater types present, and in desire to embrace heating alternatives?

When we look at our Winter Survey we see that both communities reported the same average estimated monthly cost for heating water, between 19.3 LE for the Zabaleen and 19.8 LE for Darb Al Ahmar:

When we sampled an additional 200 households in each area in the spring we got roughly the same results, 19.7 LE for the Zabaleen and 23.5 LE for Darb Al Ahmar:

In both surveys the estimated cost of heating water was slightly higher for Darb Al Ahmar, so apparently families in the Zabaleen community don’t think that they are paying more for heating their water with their stoves, even though they report using more gas. The estimates could have to do with the larger family sizes in the Zabaleen and involve cooking. Or it could just be that people are not very good at estimating how much it costs to heat water.

None of this explains why the communities are so different in their preferences.

Part of the answer could go back to Abrams (1964), Mangin (1967) and Turner (1976) and the notion of “housing being a verb”:

The idea is that the Zabaleen are incrementally working on their dwellings in the informal community, and have to settle a lot of other priorities before getting to luxuries like heating APPLIANCES, and they come from a tradition of cooking water on various stoves, being recent immigrants from the countryside. So their culture and their housing situation makes them put special appliances for heating water that require their own expensive and, in an incremental
housing situation, non-existent, complementary goods (infrastructure, pipe installation
etc.) “on the back burner” (if you will excuse the pun).

In Darb Al Ahmar there is a long tradition of using the kerosene pump babur, but because
it gives off so much smoke, people within the past few years, as affordable heating
appliances have hit the market, replace it with heaters when they can, mostly because the
houses there are, for the most part, “finished” – i.e., plumbed and wired for easy
installation of appliances.

The prices people are paying for heaters are close in both communities, and the market
offers items well within the range of both communities to afford. It seems that it is
more a case of everything that goes with having a heater that is the prime deterrent to
purchase or, in many cases, use (because many people have them and don’t use them).

Applying lessons from “An Empirical Comparison of Self-help Housing and Contractor-driven Housing” byLochner Marais, Nicolaas Van Rensburg, and Lucius Botes (Urban Form 2004) one could hypothesize that the Zabaleen, being in a self-help housing situation, and the Darb Al Ahmar community, in a contractor-driven housing situation, face different sets of dilemmas that result from these situations and which could affect willingness to pay for solar hot water systems or other kinds of technology changes.

I do think the data I have points to the differences between these two communities being the
biggest driving factor in hot water demand and interest in alternatives, but it is unclear WHAT in the communities drives the difference.

Let us look first at ownership versus rental housing:

78% of the Winer survey sample of Zabaleen claimed to be the owners of their households (76.7 % sole owner, 1.3% shared owner).

The Winter survey of Darb Al Ahmar showed almost exactly the reverse: 77% of the Darb Al Ahmar sample claimed to be renters (72.7% old renters, 4.3% new renters).

Here is how it breaks down in terms of current water heater type:

This in itself isn’t so instructive, but provides a base to look at Willingness to Pay for Solar Hot Water, since it appears that the same ratio of conventional hot water heater types occur irrespective of ownership. Let’s see how ownership affects Willingness to Pay for a solar hot water system:

When we look at the cross tab of ownership vs. willingness to pay for solar hot water, we see nothing at all remarkable about owners versus renters:

In the Zabaleen community the ratio of household owners saying “no” to “interest in participating financially in a solar hot water program” versus those saying “yes” is 1:2, for new renters 4:7 and for old renters 2:9. In all cases the “naysayers” are aout half or less of the sample.

In Darb Al Ahmar we get quite the opposite, with naysayers among owners being 2.25:1, among new renters 9:1 and among old renters 3.5:1. If the hypothesis that building ownership had an effect on willingness to participate in solar hot water adoption had much merit, we should see at least some greater enthusiasm for participation among owners in the Zabaleen. The effect can’t be entirely ruled out, since the proportion of naysayers in Darb Al Ahmar is lower among owners, but this doesn’t tell us much.

A future survey might look specifically at the issue of contractor built vs. self-built housing to see if this can tell us more than ownership; ownership does not necessarily mean that the owner has control over the built form of the dwelling. Perhaps the Zabaleen indeed have a more flexible building situation that can accomodate change.

Notes from relevant articles in the literature will be posted here for easy retrieval:

1) An Empirical Comparison of Self-help Housing and Contractor-driven Housing:
Evidence From Thabong (Welkom) and Mangaung (Bloemfontein)
Lochner Marais, Nicolaas Van Rensburg, and Lucius Botes
Urban Form, Volume 14, Number 4 / October, 2003

“The contributions of Abrams (1964), Mangin (1967) and Turner (1976), as
well as others, were instrumental in changing mental approaches to housing during
the late 1960s and early 1970s (Bromley, 2003; Harris, 2003). Although JFC
Turner was not the only contributor to the self-help school of thought (see Bromley,
2003; Harris, 2003), his contributions are probably the most widely recognised,
since he theorised and published extensively on the matter–more so than most
of the other advocates of self-help in the 1950s and 1960s (see, for example,
Turner 1976; 1978). Thus, although specific attention is given to the views of
Turner, we also acknowledge that many other researchers and consultants had
similar ideas. Turner advocated ideas like “housing as a verb”, “housing as a
process”, “dweller control”, “housing by people”, “freedom to build”, the “value
of the house”, and the “functionality of the house”.
The first aspect to be highlighted is that Turner emphasised that the housing
concept should be used as a verb, instead of a noun. With the emphasis on housing
as a verb Turner stressed that housing should be seen as a process. He argued
that a shack is a house in process. Provided that the correct environment has been
created, the house will be consolidated over time. Turner reached these conclusions
from working in informal settlements in Latin America and collecting evidence
of the natural process of housing construction by low-income households.
Gilbert and Gugler (1992:118) reflect Turner’s views when they state that “In
favourable circumstances, the poor could produce substantial, spacious, and reasonably
serviced homes.” These favourable circumstances, according to Turner,
would include, amongst others, appropriate tenure, basic services, access to employment,
and housing finance. In this regard Betancur (1995) indicates that informal
settlements today stand as testimony to the ability of the poor to find their
own solutions–no matter how rudimentary–for their problems.
Furthermore, Turner (1976) argued that a house should not be seen simply in
terms of its physical characteristics. He asserted that the importance of housing
is not “‘what it is” (the physical characteristics), but rather “what it does” (interms of its meaning for the people who use it and its functional value). The
physical characteristics of housing structures are only one aspect amongst a number
of other indicators that contribute to housing. According to Turner, these
functional aspects that play an important role in housing include, inter alia, the
access that housing provides to employment, services, facilities and tenure.
Thirdly, Turner was of the opinion that the value of the house to the user is of
great importance. He distinguished between the “oppressive house” and the “supportive
shack” in a case study (Turner, 1976). The household in the “oppressive
house” (which is a modern house with services provided by the government) had
been resettled there from an informal settlement. However, the members of the
household had conducted a business in the informal area, whereas they were not
allowed to continue doing business in the new area. They subsequently lost a
major part of their income. Expenditure on their house had risen from approximately
5% in the informal unit to +55% in the formal house. Turner’s argument
was that, despite the standardised building materials of the current house, the
house was actually problematic to the household as it impacted negatively on
(especially) the financial situation of the family. In contrast, he used the “supportive
shack” as an example of an instance where people were provided with
access to the city as well as to job opportunities at low cost. According to Gilbert
and Gugler (1992:119), Turner’s comparison was not meant to justify bad housing
but rather to “demonstrate the futility of poor people living in shelter of high
architectural standards when it does not match their needs and incomes”.architectural standards when it does not match their needs and incomes”.
Owing to a change in the housing needs of people over time, as well as the
different needs of people, Turner (1976) was of the opinion that government and
other large organisations were unable to address these needs. The main reason
for the inability of large organisations to address the housing needs of households
is that these organisations usually have standardised procedures and products
that do not adhere to the principles of variety and individual needs. Therefore
Turner emphasised the concept of freedom in the building environment 2 . However,
Turner did not argue that, by means of the freedom to build, everybody
should build their own houses; rather, he emphasised that individuals should be
able to make decisions about their own housing (dweller control). He was of the
opinion that when the beneficiary was able to make decisions about the planning,
construction and management of the house (irrespective of class), the housing
problem would be addressed effectively. Furthermore, Turner argued that houses
that are built where people have had the freedom to build are often superior to
those built by governments or major contractors. Turner argued that if you give
individual families greater choice regarding the location and design of their houses,
their houses will match their needs more closely. In his own words: “When dwellers control the major decisions and are free to make their own contribution to the
design, construction and management of their housing, both the process and the
environment produced stimulate individual and social well-being. When people
have no control over, nor responsibility for key decisions in the housing process,
on the other hand, dwelling environments may instead become a barrier to personal
fulfilment and a burden on the economy” (Turner, 1976:xxxiii).
Turner suggested a changed role for government in the housing process. He
argued that governments should provide those aspects which people cannot always
provide for themselves (for example infrastructure). Furthermore governments
should, according to Nientied and Van der Linden’s (1985) assessment of
Turner’s perspectives, provide and actively promote access to the elements of
the housing process for the user. These elements include, amongst others, the
laws, land, building material, tools, credit, know-how and land tenure.
It should also be recognised that Turner’s perspectives changed over the years
(Mathey, 1992; 1997). For example, he shifted from the concept of “self-build”
to that of “self-organisation”–people should be able to organise themselves in
the building environment. He also refuted criticism which erroneously perceived
his perspectives as being tantamount to a claim that governments should not be
involved in the housing process at all. There also seems to have been a shift from
promoting individual responsibility to promoting community responsibility and
community development in his writings. Furthermore it is important to note that
the concept of self-help has also changed dramatically since the early 1970s. The
major change relates to the fact that “self-help” is used in a much broader context
than merely that of housing (Pugh, 1997).

…The consequence was that, according to Potter and Lloyd-Evans
(1998:148), “The most positive message promulgated by Turner was that if left
to themselves, low-income settlements improve gradually but progressively over
time.” According to Gilbert and Gugler (1992), the perspectives of Turner and
others were also instrumental in showing that the reaction of poor people to their
circumstances was rational, despite the causes of poverty being beyond their
control. At the time, Turner’s perspectives played a vital role in converting the
conventional wisdom in respect of a “culture of poverty” (to the effect that people
are poor, will remain poor, and can hardly do anything positive with regard to
their circumstances), to an understanding that poorer households can make a
significant contribution to their own living environment (Gilbert and Gugler,
1992; Potter and Lloyd-Evans, 1998).
Despite these positive contributions by Turner, some assessments of his ideas
and work were more critical. The criticism came mainly from two sources: firstly,
from academic (mostly net-Marxist) perspectives; and secondly, from practitioners
involved in programmes (Mathey, 1992).
On a theoretical basis, Turner “debated” his ideas extensively with Rod Burgess
(Burgess 1977; 1978; 1982; 1985; 1987), who had a net-Marxist perspective
(also see Nientied and Van der Linden, 1985; Devas, 1993). Mathey (1997)
summarises the major net-Marxist criticism of self-help housing and the thoughts
of Turner as follows:
• Self-help programmes in principle still serve the interests of capital accumulation through
the effects of double exploitation. The argument is that self-help programmes prolong
the working day as people need to build after hours or during weekends.
• Self-help housing is a mechanism for disciplining the workforce by means of credit and
work-time commitments. Self-help housing leads to commodification. Commodification
means that land and the self-built processes and products start to obtain an economic
value and a link to the market.
• Turner had an individualistic view of the self-help process and ignored the socio-political
context in which self-help housing takes place.
• Although Turner was of the opinion that the self-help sector was able to generate its own
resources without interference from capitalist relationships, this view was, according to
Burgess, a myth.

Burgess, R. 1987. Some Common Misconceptions about Self-help Housing Policies in
Less Developed Countries. African Urban Quarterly, (2):365-376.

I found a website up and running where the author,   J.L. Bourne, a former officer in the U.S. Navy, describes his experiences with the outbreak in detail.

The site is “http://www.tacticalunderground.us/journal1.htm

His account differs slightly from what we heard here in Europe, suggesting a Chinese origin to this disease (we were told Africa) but I think all media accounts were biased at the time by what the spin-meisters felt would make the best story for their publics.  The author doesn’t claim that his military status gave him any special insider knowledge into the zombie plague, just as he points out that he doesn’t know anything  more than the rest of us about Area 51 or the asssasination of JFK.  But he does give us a first hand account of how things transpired in the U.S. and what the local military response was.

It is possible, of course, that what he has posted — even the photographs — are all a work of fiction. My wife argues that the copyright symbols on his site “2004/2005″ prove that this was a work of art, not fact, and that he thus cannot be a fellow survivor.  I counter that he could have copyrighted his website years ago, and, just like a sig file on an email, the original date stamp pops up on every page he created thereafter.

My wife finds this to be wishful thinking of the most “touching” kind; a natural but desperate desire to want to believe others of my countrymen made it, particularly those of the literary species.  She says I should be thankful enough that we just found out, after all these uncertain and anguished months, that my brother and his wife are both alive (and writing!) and pass on the fantasy that the blogosphere is filled with authors.  She says that because my father and mother are (were? we haven’t heard from them yet!) published writers, I have a kind of authorial hero worship syndrome going on — as though those who document and narrarate are always the survivors.  She says it also comes from reading too many post-apocalypse fictions — obviously it is the narrator who is the survivor, else who would be writing the narrative?

Real life, she says, just isn’t that way.  The literate tend to be the least equipped to survive a disaster, being armchair adventurers, while the real heros in the Darwinian struggle for survival would be the least likely to write their experiences down, much less start up a blog to help others.

I counter that chroniclers have historically been both participants and sideline observers, and tend not to do the stupid things that would get themselves killed; one has only to read the historiographies of Tacitus, the ancient  Roman author of Germania and Agricola, to see how a historian could be both witness to  and writer of tragic events.

I also counter that J.L. Bourne’s account is too realistic to be a work of fiction.

My wife points out that I also found Max Brooks’ World War Z to be realistic as hell but  that was definitely a work of fiction (if only because it sits on our bookshelf in front of me in paperback; it was published in book form years ago when there were still publishing houses, and  it takes place when the war is over and the zombies have been vanquished. Yeah. “War is over, if you want it”  goes the John Lennon song that was just playing on ITunes.  Ironically it has been followed in shuffle mode by the Aerosmith song  “Dream On”.. .

Regardless of whether J.L. Bourne’s site is for real or not, I read it with great interest and would highly recommend it to any surfing survivors, because he gives great tips on how to get through the continued crisis (I should also say here that Max Brooks first work, “The Zombie Survival Guide” , while ostensibly written as a comedy, has been extremely useful to us; my brother had given it to me as a present soon after our son was born, jokingly playing off the slogan  on the cover “Organize before they rise — don’t wait for them to come to you” with the inscription, “if anybody in our family  is pre-adapted to the coming of the zombies, if anybody is ready to survive, it would be my off-the-grid solar obsessed kid brother!”

He didn’t turn out to be all that wrong. And neither was Max Brooks.  The book can save your life.

So can J.L. Bourne’s site.  His descriptions of how he set up his solar panels and refurbished his deep cycle submarine batteries  and secured his home are all tips to live by.  He also gives valuable advice on how to arm oneself (and how to load weapons to keep them from jamming).  Hey J.L., if you are out there still, thanks.   I consider your site to be downright educational!

A rather strange thought occured to me as I was reading J.L.’s narrative and contemplating all the fictional zombie-preparedness sites and books and films out there:

Is it possible that my brother’s claim that I was “pre-adapted” for the zombie plague is in some teleological sense true?  Could the rash of fictional zombie narratives that began to grow exponentially before the real plague hit have been part of a sort of Jungian collective consciousness, a collective premonition, a kind of world wide memetic prophecy that pre-adapted some of us to survive?

I don’t know how evolution really works, despite having studied it at Harvard for 4 years with great professors like E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Burt Holldobler, David Pilbeam, Terry Deacon and Irvin Devore, to name just a few of my great professors.  I know that we were never supposed to invoke post-hoc propter hoc arguments.  The dogma was that RANDOM mutations led to some organisms being configured such that when the environment changed it JUST SO HAPPENED that some were PRE-ADAPTED to the changes and could therefore be positively selected for survival.  Natural Selection echoed Voltaire’s “Chance Favors the Prepared Mind”.

The question is, how is it that some of us were so busy preparing our minds for zombie infestations years before Zombies were anything more than works of pure fantasy?

It is no accident that both my brother and his wife and I and mine are alive and that prior to the fall of civilization we were obsessed with all things zombie.  Because we grew up on a steady diet of zombie lore, we didn’t suffer the same psychological shock and physical paralysis others did when our worst nightmares came true.  We just sort of went on autopilot, doing things we had rehearsed in our role playing games since childhood.

Now you could argue that the human imagination could and did model a million different disaster scenarios in its fictions  and that it was  the laws of stochastic process that permitted one of those wild fantasies to come true.  Evolution’s random choice of a single famous monsters scenario allowed some of us, by chance, to turn out to be pre-adapted to the world that was to come.

But I have another theory, one that let’s me live comfortably with my Harvard trained skepticism about teleology, yet permits me to see some “intelligent design” in all this:

I think we created the factual Zombie phenomenon because we had created the fictional zombie phenomenon.

Let me put that in other words.

I think the reason the zombie plauge bears such similarity to what we had all been expecting from our works of art is because we designed it to be that way.  I think we created a culture mythos about the living dead that encouraged  us to help make the dead live, and live in a particularly gruesome way.  I think the evolution of the zombie has a partially anthropogenic origin.

No, I don’t think they were created as potential superwarriors, as in films like Planet Terror or the Return of the Living Dead series.  I don’t see evidence that they were designed as WMDs.  But I don’t think they are a random mutation of some preexisting life form either — some virus gone wild.

What I am losing sleep wondering about is whether or not some people, playing around with the same kind of  suitcase sized gene sequencing computers and gene splicing machines I saw in Dr. Barada’s lab in the hospital at 6th of October in Cairo, with access to various tissue samples, stem cells, lab animals and human corpses, might not have hacked together a plausible zombie parasite, not because they were Dr. Evil and wanted to do malevolent deeds or destroy the world or make a bid for power or for “one million dollars”, but for the same reason that people say they climb Mt. Everest: Simple because they think they can.

I have no proof for this theory yet, but at least I have what may be a testable hypothesis for how it all began…

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by on June 10, 2008


Since the proportion of male to female respondents was different in each community and during each survey, we must ask whether or not gender plays an important role in the answers respondents gave to some of our questions.

When we conducted our first survey in the winter we got the following responses when we asked “how important is hot water to you?”:

Asked to choose between “very important”,, “Important”, “Not so important” and “Not important at All” the majority of the Zabaleen (98 %) chose “very important” while 75% of Darb Al Ahmar chose “very important” with 22 % choosing “important” and 2 % choosing “not so important”.

Not surprisingly, the families that invested in hot water appliances were among the majority of those who claimed hot water was very important, but we see a distinct difference between the communities with a majority of stove users saying hot water is “very important” in the Zabaleen. The Zabaleen have a majority of kitchen stove users even though they are the community with the most respondents claiming hot water is at the top of the scale of importance. This suggests that the stove is generally considered an adequate source of this important amenity, given our other findings.

Does the gender of the respondent influence his/her answer to questions about hot water?

We would think so, given that women form the segment of the population who generally must deal with hot water issues, preparing the baths for the children, washing clothes and cooking.
We even had interviews in which the male head of the household would answer that hot water was “not so important” only to be contradicted by his wife, who made him change the answer to “very important”. These anecdotal experiences, however, are contradicted by the data:

It is unfortunate that we did not ask this same question in the Spring Survey but we felt that since the first survey showed that the majority of residents in both communities felt hot water was very important and that both males and females seemed to have similar perceptions, the burden of adding an additional question and risking respondent fatigue was greater than the benefit.

We had seen in the following graphs that 17 % of Zabaleen families who had claimed hot water was “very important” still only used hot water in the winter, while in the Darb Al Ahmar case 35.5% of respondents claiming hot water was “very important” only used it in the winter — almost the same number as those who used it all year, and 7% of those who claimed it was “important” only used it in the winter. Only where respondents claimed hot water was “not so important” did the number of winter only users exceed the number of all year users (4 to 1), but even here, with this tiny number of records, we see that there are potentially more families who would say hot water is not so important yet would use it all year round.

For this reason it didn’t seem that further elaboration of this question would yield much useful information about the household economics of hot water use.

We did, however, in the second survey, ask about seasonality of hot water use, and it is worth cross tabbing this with gender:

While the Winter survey for Darb Al Ahmar was suggestive that perhaps in that community Gender influenced year round use (due to the greater proportion of women responding they use water all year than men), the Spring survey contradicts that this can be generalized to the entire community.

It is thus more useful to pool the data and look at gender in each community when the sample sizes are increased:

We need to normalize this data by the proportion of males to females in the samples and do statistical analysis before we can say anything about the significance of a gender effect; naturally this is far more complex because the respondents are assumedly reporting the entire family’s seasonal hot water use, not just their own, and thus gender is not expected to have much influence.

When asked about seasonal use of hot water, our first survey of 463 households (232 in the Zabaleen community and 231 in Darb Al Ahmar) gave us different results from our second survey of 413 households (200 in the Zabaleen community and 213 in Darb Al Ahmar).

The first survey was conducted in the winter, between December 11th of 2007 and January 29th of 2008. The second survey was conducted in the spring, between April 14th and May 2, 2008.

We can see, by comparing the responses for hot water heater type that there isn’t much difference between the winter sample and the spring sample — any differences appear to be due to chance and are expected when you draw randomly from a large population:

But when we look at the graphs for respondents reportage of when they use hot water, the two surveys look quite different:

When we conducted the first survey it was very cold and rainy. During the second it was rather hot. My advisor, Lois Takahashi, had suspected that seasonality might affect responses about questions pertaining to hot water use and importance.

It looks like there is quite a difference:

In the Zabaleen families reporting all year use of hot water fall from 82 % to 60%, while families reporting all year use of hot water in Darb Al Ahmar fall from 56 % to 32 %. In both cases we see a drop of about 23 % (22% in the Zabaleen case, 24% in the Darb Al Ahmar case).

This could lead one to believe that there is about a 23% difference in people’s perceptions of how they use hot water depending on whether they are interviewed during cold and hot seasons.

It should be noted, however, that the respondents are from different households within the same population, so we cannot state for sure that seasonality is responsible for the difference in responses. This is not a “before and after” test. The differences could genuinely reflect the different use patterns of these households and perhaps the data should merely be pooled.

If we examine reports of seasonal use by heater type for both communities, we can find an argument for pooling the data and treating both samples – winter and spring – as coming from the same populations in each community:

In both communities it appears as if the bulk of the respondents who are reporting winter use only are those who heat their water on some kind of stove. This would make sense given the amount of time and labor that goes into heating water on the stove, and the fact that leaving the stove on for the requisite 15 to 30 minutes for warm weather heating has the great disadvantage of heating the entire house at a time when you least want room heating.

Users of appliance heaters do not add heat to the home environment, do not have to worry about time spent tending a hot stove when ambient temperatures are hot, and simply turn the faucet or press a button to get their hot water.

Thus it may be that further analysis would need to explore whether appliance users keep their responses of water use patterns constant while users of stoves change theirs seasonally. This is beyond the scope of this study, however.

عايز تغير نظام تسخين المياه الحالي نعم لا - 3.15 You want to change your current water heating system yes, no

We see a greater desire among the Zabaleen to change their hot water heaters than the residents of Darb Al Ahmar — 32.5% vs. 13.6 %. It is tempting to conclude that all of this can be accounted for by the greater number of Stove users in the former community and the greater number of Electric Appliance users in the latter. Thus we must crosstab heater type with desire to change the system:

Looking at the above graphs we see that while the majority of Electric and Gas Appliance teachers are not interested in changing their systems, the same goes for the majority of stove users, and their are appliance users in both communities who are interested in changing the systems they are using.

3.16- إذا كانت الإجابة بنعم فما أكثر مبلغ ممكن تدفعه لتغيرك لنظام تسخين المياه ……………………………….. 3.16-If yes, what is the highest amount you would pay for a new water heating system …………………………….. …

The graphs above, and the responses given by the respondents to this question indicate that at least some of the choice of heater type can be explained by infrastructural constraints, and show that even families that currently rely on baburs and stoves are willing to pay more than they are currently paying for a new heating system. This suggests that the choices reflect more than merely price and economics. To explore this further, we look at perceptions of problems and dangers associated with hot water systems.

3.17- هل الأنظمة اللي استخدمتها قبل كده والحالية سببت لك مشكلة أو ضرر 3.17-Has any hot water system you have used ever caused you any problems or dangers?

نعم لا Yes No

3.18- إذا كانت الإجابة بنعم فما هي : - 3.18-If yes, what were they:

السابقة Former System Caused Problems

الحالية Current System Caused Problems:

3.19- إذا كانت الإجابة بنعم فما هي: 3.19-If yes, what were they:

1 1

حروق جسدية Physical burns

2 2

اشتعال Fire

3 3

ماس كهربائي Electricution

4 4

انفجار Explosion

5 5

هبب المكان Structural damage

6 6

أخرى : أذكر- Other: I recall –

Former System Caused Problems

Current System Caused Problems:

أنت عارف أن سعر الكهرباء والغاز في ازدياد يوميا

You know that the price of electricity and gas is increasing daily

3.20- طيب لو الزيادة وصلت لمبالغ باهظة هتغير النظام نعم لا 3.20-Ok if the increase reaches an exorbitant sum would you change your system? Yes No

3.21- لو نعم لنظام اية ……………………………………………………………………….. 3.21-if yes to which system?

3.22- هتغير النظام لو سعر الكهرباء أو الغاز لتسخين المياه وصل لحد أية……………………………………….. 3.22-You would change if the price of electricity or gas to heat water arrived to what sum? ……………………………… ……….

It is interesting to note that the stated average change price is more than twice as high in Darb Al ahmar as it is in the Zabaleen, 52 LE vs. 23 LE. This is corroborated by focus group conversations in the communities. It may reflect a greater willingness among the Zabaleen to return more readily to practices kept current by incoming immigrants, or a belief that there are more options in a housing situation that is never quite “finished”. But it could also be more easily explained by the number of people in the communities who say they “do not know”

مجموعة (4) ممتلكات و أجهزة منزلية: Set (4) property and household appliances:

رقم السؤال Question No.

الأجهزة Devices

يوجد There is

لايوجد No

الوصف Description

4.1 4.1

بوتاجاز Butane

4.2 4.2

ثلاجة Fridge

4.3 4.3

غسالة Wash

4.4 4.4

تلفزيون Television

4.5 4.5

تليفون Telephone

4.6 4.6

جهاز استقبال القمر الصناعي Satellite Receiver

4.7 4.7

تكييف Air -

4.8 4.8

كمبيوتر Computer

Kitchen Stove:


Washing Machine:



Satellite Receiver:

Air Conditioner:


Since our first survey did not include direct income information we can use the data set from our second survey to see if variables such as the size of stoves, refrigerators and Televisions can be used as a proxy for income:

We can see if the few families in the sample who posess an air conditioner have common characteristics in terms of heater type use and monthly income:

The sample size is too small to pull meaningful information out but it is interesting that in the Zabaleen sample, 2 of 9 air conditioner users use the kitchen stove to heat water, with the rest using Electricity, while in Darb Al Ahmar almost half the sample of 7 air conditioner users use Gas Heaters. with the rest using electricity.

While the families with the lowest incomes don’t have air conditioners, and the families with the highest incomes do, it is interesting that some families with low incomes also have air conditioners.

We can do the same crosstab with computer owners:

Computer owners can also apparently be kitchen stove water heater users too, as evidenced by data from both communities.

Also, income ranges are large for computer owners too, although, again, the families with the highest income are among the computer owners.

مجموعة (5) طرق وأنواع أخرى لتسخين المياه

Group (5) other types of water heating:

5.1- أحب أعرفك أن يوجد نظام صغير ،خفيف في الوزن وهو مكون من بستلة ممكن وضعها على البوتاجاز الخاص بك وموصلة بخرطوم موصل بمواسير الحمام أو الدش مباشرا ولا يأخذ أكثر من دقيقتين في التسخين وتكلفته من 250ج إلي 300ج. 5.1-I Know that there is a small, light-weight water heater, which is composed of a bucket with copper coils (see picture) that you can put on your butane stove. It has flexible connectors which attach to the bathroom pipes or directly to the Shower. It does not take more than two minutes to heat water and the cost is 250LE to 300 LE.

هذا النظام مناسب ويستاهل ثمنه . This system appropriate and worthy price.

موافق تماما Agree/Approve completely

موافق Ok/Agree/Approve

محايد Neutral

غير موافق Disapprove/Disagree

غير موافق تماما Disapprove completely

5.2 5.2

ملاحظات إضافية Further observations

طيب لو أمكنك الحصول علي نظام لتسخين المياه بسرعة، امن، المياه الساخنة ،200 لتر، موجودة 24 ساعة وهو عبارة عن ألواح شمسية ويوضع فوق سطح المنزل وممكن أن يستخدم الغاز أو الكهرباء في فصل الشتاء بسبب قلة ظهور الشمس وتكلفته الشهرية حوالي 3ج ، تكلفة تصنيعه الإجمالية 1500ج . * Ok if you can also get a water heating system that gives fast, secure, hot water, 200 litres per day, with 24 hour service , which consists of solar panels that are placed on the roof of the house and also uses supplementary gas or electricity in winter when there is no sun. The monthly cost to use is about 3 LE, the purchase price is about 1500 LE.

نعم Yes

لا No

1 1

2 2

5.3 5.3

تقدر تشترك في هذا النظام Would be interested to participate in this system

5.4 5.4

حتى لو بالتقسيط Would use microcredit loan

5.5 5.5

في حالة الإجابة بنعم تدفع مقدم أد أية If yes, would make the following downpayment

5.6 5.6

قسط شهري أدو أية Would make the following monthly payments

5.7 5.7

مدة القسط بالسنة Term of payments

5.8 5.8

ملاحظات إضافية Further observations

As in the first survey we see a much larger proportion of families in the Zabaleen interested in a solar hot water hybrid system than the Darb Al Ahmar population, despite the fact that this time we raised the base cost from 1000 LE to 1500 LE.

Would use MicroCredit Loan:

في حالة الإجابة بنعم تدفع مقدم أد أية If yes, would make the following downpayment

قسط شهري أدو أية Would make the following monthly payments

مدة القسط بالسنة Term of payments

Total Willingness to Pay (Calculated by multiplying the monthly payment figure by the number of reported months and adding the downpayment):

The WTP appears quite low when we include all those families who reported a value of 0. We see an average WTP of 470 LE for the Zabaleen and 211 LE for Darb Al Ahmar. So we need to remove the people who were not willing to pay.

When we remove all the entries of 0, the picture looks quite different. Both communities’ mean Willingness to Pay values are virtually identical — 1044.27 for the Zabaleen and 1045.81 for Darb Al Ahmar (N = 90, N = 43 respectively; SD = 688.47 and SD = 603.64 respectively).

This is consistent with the figures we got from our first survey and with the price of purchasing and installing an average appliance heater.

This shows us that the target price for a solar hot water system has to be near the purchase price of a conventional system and suggests that subsidy transfers will need to be used to bring the price point down to this level.

When we inquired of people WHY they would not be interested in participating in the purchase of a hybrid solar hot water system as described, after explaining the advantages, we find that there are community specific objections.

In both communities roughly 7 % object that costs are too high. 10 % of the Zabaleen reported they would need to see the system first and 13 % of the Darb Al Ahmar sample reported they would have to see the system first.

But the greatest proportion of objections have to do with infrastructure (housing would need to be renovated before such a system could be used) and with worries about performance ( concern that it wouldn’t work in winter or is impractical) and worries about collective action or permission of the landlord.

Objections by income:

There may be a very weak correlation between income and Willingness to Pay for an improved hot water system among the Zabaleen, but that trend does not appear in Darb Al Ahmar.

Since the values for Total WTP were calculated from the monthly payment values and downpayment values it is not surprising they show similar trends. Income shows positive correlation in the Zabaleen and negative in Darb Al Ahmar.

WTP was calculated by multiplying the offered monthly payment by the number of months, and it is interesting to see that, if anything, the number of months people in the Zabaleen would be willing to make payments seems to decline with income. This is apparently made up for by the relatively more positive slope of the r sq line correlating the downpayment with income.

In any event, it seems hard to explain Willingness to Pay by income in either community.

This may reflect the extended family nature of Egyptian society — the individual family incomes may have less to do with the purchasing decisions for household consumer durables, and their purchase may have more to do with perceptions of overall long term utility.