Moving humans and materials around the planet comes at a very energy intensive consumption rate. Our reliance on fossil fuels has sped the reticulation of materials and created new complex lines of movement and production. Processing that was once powered by flowing water or wind and bioregional in its scope, has now gone wayside for global shipping fueled by fossilized energy and other synthetic inputs. Furthermore, human transportation has evolved thus diluting the cultural phenomenon known as pilgrimages. What once would have taken so long to travel, has now become routine and taken for granted. For example the famous pilgrimage of the Camino De Santiago in France, Spain, and Portugal is a luxury taken now by backpackers rather than one that had function both in spiritual and material realms. Imagine walking from the subtropics of Southern USA to the far reaches of the east coasting the USA, it is called the Appalachian Trail. These trails were once what humans and sometimes their animals took to move materials around, to facilitate trade, and follow seasonal rhythms. No wonder people lived more local lives. As an experiment, put in a maps app your daily commute or to your best friends house. Put it on car or even public transport like bus or metro or train. Now switch it to walking. And you will get the enormity of what fossil fuels does to our movement. The reduction of time spent is astounding. And is it worth it? See pics below
Furthermore if we zoom into the context of agriculture, one of the biggest uses of animals beyond transportation was to plough the soil. Anyone that has dug garden beds or built a descent sized swale by hand knows this is labour intensive. One of the reasons humans chose to domesticate animals was to also utilize their “horsepower” to achieve tasks like ploughing. Now a days a tractor, throttled by
fossil fuels, ploughs at will reaking havoc on the soil. Part of this is because the frequency at which we plow and the subsequent alterations of diet. If you did it by hand you would never do the size spaces nor the frequency which we achieve now in modernity. If you did it with animals, you would do it once or twice a year at most, and then also have to take care of these solar powered animals (eating plants that grew partly through photosynthesis) the entirety of the year, 365 days a year. Fossil fuels have given us so much yet so little as consciousness and fossil fuel use have been on opposite trajectories of bell curves in my humble opinion. Fossil fuels removed people from farming landscapes and the pilgrimages that brought so much awareness of nature through migration. This lack is part of what is starving humanity from a chance to evolve because we know longer know nature and time scales are far fetched in the face of modern business; immediate return on investment vs building natural capital. Yet we can and will return to this rhythm as civilization returns to humanity. And we can leverage fossil fuels for regeneration like using the subsoiler on a pattern known as keyline.
The bicycle is a staple in our movements around urban areas for the most part, especially in flat cities. Some Northern European cities are absolutely clogged by
bicycles as it is a primarily flat region. The Chinese once relied immensely on bikes before the car became the nation. Fuel prices are also very high in Northern Europe making the bicycle a wise choice. It is also easier there because there is a critical mass. When biking movements restarted in new places such as my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, which is not a flat place, the unusualness of someone on a bike in urban zones is frankly dangerous and sometimes lethal. This is a true shame because people have perished from wanting a healthier lifestyle and one more sustainable. Furthermore, bikes can be a mode of transporting materials by hooking up a bike cart. They are also a quicker way to travel long distances than foot and do have gears to outfit a bike for such a purpose. Bikes rely on paved roads which have huge amounts of embedded energy in them and come at a great financial and environmental cost. However if bikes and cars can coexist it does make the investment in the concrete/asphalt more holistic through the multifunction principle. Traffic is both a waste of time, energy, and fossil fuel resources so cities have been giving more attention to this topic. Beyond bike lanes they have also created infrastructure for bike rentals, akin to a subway pass with stations. Some cities are utilizing bikes or other modes of transport that are powered by electric, our next topic. In essence the central element could be the bike, and then the guild is the bike lanes, bike parking, bike rental, bike repair shops, and bicycle clubs and hangout spots.
Bicycles have also been used in directly powering blenders, washing machine and even connected to inverters to create power to go into batteries. I even have seen off the grid festivals having solar panels, wind and bikes with people quasi dancing while biking to create power.
Electric transport and tools are such a blessing yet they also pose a huge risk still towards humanity. Yes fossil fuels are damaging and an electric switchover does not save humanities peril unless the electric is powered through renewable
resources. This is important to realize because going electric is not green at all unless powered alternatively. In fact electric has a lot of embedded energy inside it that fossil fuels don’t because of the batteries, with their complex metals involved. Lithium still needs to be mined and refined and we all know the cascading consequences of mining. However if done so the world will continue to be revolutionized because a simple bicycle becomes an even more efficient mode of transportation, especially in hilly areas. Electric cars, scooters, all not only have this questions of how the energy produced but also how is it stored. Batteries still continue to be polluting and not that great of technology as their energy conversion still is not that great. So we must temper this reality but using an electric chainsaw instead of a petrol powered one is a totally different sesnation. The electric one is much smoother and while you can carry expensive extra batteries you can’t carry an inexpensive and lightweight can of fuel mix like conventional ones draw from.
Transportation assisted by animals has long been employed by humans. The camel, the donkey, the horse all can be imagined or remembered through images we see. Even when we think of the picturesque Native American riding into the sunset, actually it was the Spanish who brought the horse and the Native Americans didn’t have the tradition of using animals in transport but evolved with it quickly. Animals eat grass and create energy. We use that solar power to move us more quickly. They not only carry us but also our belongings, timber logs, our harvests, and more with the right setups.
Animals, like the buffalo or the horse, have long been powering the ploughing of fields. They were teamed with implements, most often the wooden or bronze plough that don’t have the same detrimental effect as the steel plough coupled with a tractor has. Their power is slower, less precise, but their compaction is nothing like a tractor and they defecate manure, a great farm resource while tractors emit tons of energy that alters climates, which is not a great farm resource.
Beyond ploughing I have also seen animals used in the pumping of water which has been discussed in a different article. But the setups for such mechanical driven devices powered by animals is very similar to those systems. Donkeys mainly were used to walk in circles to also grind grains, mash grapes, or even press olives into olive oil. Food processing requires energy and long have we relied on natures symbiosis to create grass so we can utilize the power of animals. From pressing sugar cane to helping to process cereals, there is infinite ways in which our imagination can team engineering with biology, machine with beast.
In order for urban areas to become more bikeable and walkable we need pathways of holistic urban planning. Cars were given priority and now urban planning must be designed for mass transportation including walking, biking, and even electric scootering. New channels of movement based on pattern thinking must be created and one of the toughest parts of that is the transportation of materials in and out of the city. Materials like food or products for sale, in, and garbage, out (functional analysis). There is definitely more consciousness around this but the legacy of bad design, centered again around the car, are crippling cities slow transitions. Also on a more ecovillage scale if you do have resources like a golf cart or some other electric powered device for movement, how will we power it? If I were to buy a fossil fuel ATV right now I would burn gasoline. If i buy an electric one, the power comes from coal or our energy provider does allow you to buy solar power at a premium. We need to design in the production of electric with renewables and also where to store important tools.
Also if we involve animals into factors such as transport or ploughing, we need to design in systems for their feeding in a holistic permaculture way. From rotational grazing to keep pastures healthy to other system such as cut and carry or feeding with alternative fodder crops stacked in space and time, we must design for healnty animals and a healthy landscape. Burdening animals with such tasks really requires us to give them top notch lives through this diversity of foods and well balanced nutrition. We have to design to meet their basic needs and also storage of winter foods, what to do with their wastes, and storage of any associated equipment like a plough or a cart.
This is how these elements or systems become an appropriate technology, only when holistic design is brought forth. Its the end game not just the immediate switch. If we use and abuse our animals and their manures pollute and they damage pastures, what have we really done?
Written by Doug Crouch
Header Art by Nathan Maggard