Scott Kellogg, author of Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-It-Ourselves Guide, took the time to let me pick his brain. He’s also agreed to check out the comments below himself; if you’re lucky, he might even answer some of your questions there.
A sketch of a floating trash island from Scott’s book.
1. What project have you built that you’re most proud of?
If I had to pick one, it would be the floating trash islands [water-loving plants growing on a
raft made of plastic bottles]: they’re beautiful, utilize trash and recycled materials, create wildlife habitat, and remediate urban stormwater runoff, which is a nasty problem. It’s a synthesis of trash to mimic nature: chunks of river banks will sometimes float away naturally. Slaughterhouses use a similar concept to filter cesspools, but theirs relies on expensive components and chemicals.
2. What one project, from your book or otherwise, would you recommend as a good introduction to DIY sustainability?
For a general audience, the thing i would recommend to most people to do is keep a worm box: it’s simple, doesn’t smell, and you can do it in your apartment apartment. For the more technically inclined, I want to see people play with autonomous energy systems, especially efficient small-scale wind turbines. I want to see people really try to push the envelope on how to build safe and efficient turbines producing significant wattage using recycled materials. Also passive solar technology, specifically parabolas. In general, making sustainable technology more practical, simpler, and cheaper, using your intelligence and skills in ways that benefit people who don’t have access to tools, information, know-how…
3. In your book, you criticized the use of solar cells because of a lack of affordability and long-term availability, while others say we should use tech and high-embodied energy resources, like concrete, while they’re still available. And, others are paralyzed into inaction by the many downstream impacts of any project. Do you have any heuristics to quickly decide when a technology makes sense to employ in a project, to differentiate between necessary sustainable tech vs. technofetishism?
I don’t have cut-and-dry criteria: there’s a lot of gray areas. Generally I try to make things that can be built quickly and cheaply using recycled materials, user-serviceable, and whoever is using the technology can process the waste in the end. It’s sort of a continuum, transitional strategies like solar panels in the middle. They’re much better than coal or nuclear, but they’re not the magic bullet to energy problems. Nothing against them, the Rhizome Collective has a 3,200-watt system from the Austin Energy rebate program. We did it because it’s better than burning coal. I want to caution people not to be looking to solar as the solution to all their problems, because active solar will never be affordable to those in the global south.
4. Do you see a gap between permaculture movements and and the DIY technology scenes? If so, how can we bring them more together?
I look at both of the groups as same but different: there’s a lot of crossover. I mean, food is primary to everything, we all have to eat, we all have to have drinkable water… that’s our greatest commonality across barriers, the need for food. we can think of this as the base of the pyramid, and work together to teach each other about both the technology and the traditional knowledge of the land.
5. You wrote about inspections of composting toilets, and I’m going through the same bureaucratic mess w/ some of my projects. Is this worth the time, or should we all be moving to the West Texas Desert or a different, less-developed country to spend more time on building and less on bureaucracy?
They both need to happen. Basically, the systems need to be first experimented with, tinkered with, to figure out what works so that by the time a system’s ready to get approved through all those roadblocks you’ve got the details worked out and have the data ready to present. There’s plenty of need to do this work on a clandestine level as well as on a broad-scale, more mainstream level.
6. A theme of many of the questions in the comments was ‘that’s all well and good for extremists, but what can I do now without quitting my day job doing engineering in corporate America?’
If I had a better grasp on calculus, I would totally become an engineer myself. I think there needs to be a lot more radical engineers out there, a league of radical engineers. In order for a lot of these systems to be applied on a broad scale, the legal obstacles to their application need to be removed. By having these systems approved, by having an engineer put their stamp on it, that clears the way. This is a lot to think about with time and money constraints; we just this year got a composting toilet approved by the City of Austin. As far as I know, it’s the first user-built composting toilet to be code-approved. It took us 4 years to do this, and the only thing that made it possible then was that an environmental engineer I worked with put her stamp on it. People are understandably concerned about liability issues… if we get more radical engineers out there, there’s hope.
7. How can i convince you to open-source this book?
Well, The Humanure Handbook’s online and free… it’s really up to our publishers, we don’t own the rights to the book. We’ll try to talk to them about the possibility.
Thanks again for your time, Scott. Makers: let me know who else you have questions for and I’ll do my best to get to it!