CAN SCHOOL COMMUNITIES EMULATE CLOSED-LOOP SYSTEMS

In an article from July 1996, about the “Green Machine” from www.fastcompany.com, I found it fascinating to read about Gunter Pauli’s eco-factories and how he pursued the elimination of pollution.  Gunter Pauli said:

“On June 1 we’ll start brewing a new beer, using sorghum, in Tsumeb, in Namibia’s northern desert area.  Meanwhile, we’re building the zero-emissions system around the brewery.  The creativity of our researchers is incredible.  We’ve got 40 different biochemical processes to reuse everything: heat, water, solid waste, carbon dioxide.  These processes will create 12 different products in addition to the beer.  The first thing we do is treat spent grain as a resource rather than as waste.  We’ve figured out a way to grow mushrooms on it.  So in addition to selling beer, this operation will sell mushrooms – and Namibia has imported all its mushrooms until now.  But growing mushrooms is just a start.  We’ve also devised a way to extract protein from the grain.  What’s the secret?  Earthworms.  We introduce earthworms into the grain. They eat it, converting vegetable protein into animal protein.  Then we use the worms as chicken feed.  They make high-quality feed – the chickens love it – and you can produce lots of it.  Now we’ve got mushrooms, chicken feed, and chickens – which, of course, create their own waste.  We collect that waste and put it in a machine we call a digester, which generates methane gas that produces steam for the fermentation process.  We use the waste from the digester as feed for fish farming.  A brewery pumps out lots of water.  That water will flow into ponds, and the ponds will support eight different types of fish that we can sell.  This isn’t just a brewery.  It’s a fully integrated biosystem.  We estimate this complex will produce seven times more food, and fertilizer than a conventional operation, and create four times as many jobs.”

If you follow the reasoning from this biosystem, it is not difficult to imagine other conservation aspects being added to the mix.  For example, other animals such as pigs and cattle could be added to this operation and similar looped systems incorporated around the production of food.  Thinking about the possible pollution from the waste of empty beer bottles, Alfred Heineken came up with a solution for sustainable housing.  He had a Dutch architect, John Habraken, design the World Bottle, or “WOBO”.  The beer bottles were designed in the shape of an interlocking and self-aligning brick that could then be reused to build homes.

Gunter Pauli was asked what his technology advantage was in being able to come up with so many “out of the box” ideas?  Even back at the turn of the century Pauli’s answer was:

“Our core technology isn’t biology, chemistry, or engineering.  It’s the Internet.  The zero-emissions movement faces big technical challenges.  So we use the Net to support a global team of experts who swap ideas, brainstorm about problems, conduct experiments.  It totally changes the technology paradigm.  It’s like creating the Stanford Research Institute without putting anyone on the payroll.”

It is amazing what opportunities exist today for collaboration around real world problems.  We are continually asking our teachers to use “real world problems” in our schools when designing their Project Based Learning activities.  I would like to give one more example of this type of thinking that comes from ZERI.ORG which is the home of the Global ZERI Network (Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives). I will use a quote from http://www.AskNature.org that describes the establishment of a coffee farm system in the coffee growing region of western Colombia.

“Coffee consumed by the coffee drinker represents only 0.2% of the biomass generated by the coffee plantation.  The remaining 99.8% of the coffee plant and bean is considered waste.  ZERI wanted to find a way to make use of that waste to generate additional income for the coffee farmers.  But they also sought to create more of a closed-loop ecosystem, in which rather than having waste products that end up in rivers or landfills, or are burned, those wastes are themselves used within the system.  The key to the success of this system was research showing that shiitake mushrooms grow very well in a readily available mixture of local “waste” that includes wet coffee pulp, sawdust from coffee bush stems, and coffee hulls, and the mushrooms could be sold domestically.  Up to 60 pounds of shiitake can be produced on 100 pounds of coffee waste.  There is a local market for shiitake mushrooms, which is another advantage of choosing that species over oyster or reishi mushrooms.  Organic residues left after the coffee harvest are fed to cattle and pigs, or are broken down by earthworms, which in turn serve as feed for chickens.  Manure from the cattle and pigs is converted using a digester into biogas and slurry.  The biogas provides heat for the mushroom farming, and the slurry serves as organic fertilizer for vegetable gardens and coffee bushes.”

 Gunter Pauli explains that “in natural systems, there is no such thing as waste.  Everything that’s excreted, exhaled, or exhausted from one organism is used by another.”  Could communities in our Sun West School Division be considered as or compared to “natural systems”?  We certainly have many communities within our school division (19 rural communities and 17 Hutterian Colonies).  What if our schools thought of themselves as being at the “epicentre” of a needed “Learning Revolution”? What would then naturally follow?  I would be very interested in hearing from others on this question.

I think it might be very interesting to have local School Community Councils (SCC’s), school personnel and community members discuss, deliberate and examine how their communities could operate as a “closed-loop system”.  What types of projects could be implemented that would have students research ways their school could be the catalyst within their community to examine possible benefits of the community coming together as a “closed-loop system”?  Can we imagine a community that has all of the businesses, organizations, services and people inextricably linked so as to capitalize from each other’s existence?  What would that look like?  How could the school building be used to help create such a social ecosystem?  What benefits would there be for student learning within this mélange?

I would like to challenge schools and their SCC’s to think outside of the box and come up with ideas that would bind their school within the very fabric of the community.  If we could generate human processes that would capitalize on every human function and interaction within this social ecosystem, how would that shape our learning environment?  How would our PeBL journey fit within such a structure?  How could we generate a list of questions that might drive such ingenuity?

Thinking outside of the box,

Guy G. Tétrault, EdD
Director of Education/CEO
Sun West School Division No. 207

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