Pigeon Towers: A Low-tech Alternative to Synthetic Fertilizers

pigeon-towers-iranPhoto credit: Beazley, Elisabeth. (1966) “The pigeon towers of Isfahan.” Journal of Persian Studies: 105-109.
Bekleyen, A. (2009).

Many societies, ancient and contemporary, have innovated ways of supplying their fields with fixed nitrogen and phosphorus—two crucial ingredients for crop productivity. One is crop rotation, which alternates nitrogen-fixing and nitrogen-exhausting crops. Farmers around the world make use of chickens, ducks, and geese to add “fresh” guano to their fields. Cattle manure is another useful alternative—although it often lacks in phosphorus. Much more labor intensive than simply adding fossil-fuel derived synthetic fertilizer, these practices tend to build up soil, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and lead to less run-off into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Persian pigeon towers are one of the more elegant solutions to the nitrogen-phosphorus problem. These are essentially castles built for thousands of wild pigeons, strategically placed in the middle of the fields. Their droppings were shoveled up once a year and sold to nearby farmers. While most pigeon towers existing today are in disrepair, the oldest still standing are dated to the 16th century (but they are assumed to have existed over 1,000 years ago) and helped fuel the cultivation of Persia’s legendary orchards, melons, and wheat production.[1] [Read more…]

Smart lamps can use more energy than incandescent lights


“Combining wireless communication, intelligent controls and light emitting diodes (LEDs), smart lamps offer end-users features like colour tuning, dimming, changing lighting scenes, remote control, motion sensing control, daylight control and other features. But these features require energy even when the lamps are not providing light, but are instead waiting for a wireless instruction from a smartphone or remote control unit. Tests conducted on a limited number of smart wireless LED lamps reveal that these products can have substantial standby power use – which, depending on hours of use, can even be higher than the energy consumed when the light is switched on.”

“Domestic light sources… typically operate 1-2 hours per day. The smart lamps producing 200 to 1000 lumens of light tested in this project had an average standby energy consumption representing 51 % of the total daily energy consumption when these lamps are operated one hour per day. That corresponds to an overall efficacy of 9 to 51 lumens per watt, meaning some smart lamps had the equivalent performance of incandescent lamps [16 lumens per watt]. If the lamps are switched on for two hours per day, standby energy represented 35 % and the efficacy is approximately 16 to 64 lumens per watt, much lower than the non-smart LED lamps already on the market today.”

Read more: “Solid State Lighting Annex: Task 7: Smart Lighting — New Features Impacting Energy Consumption” (PDF). Summary. Picture: Lucid. Thanks to Noel Cass.

Communal Bathing

communal bathing

“For most of the history of our species, in most parts of the world, bathing has been a collective act… But communal bathing is rare in the modern world. While there are places where it remains an important part of social life – in Japan, Sweden and Turkey, for example – for those living in major cities, particularly in the Anglosphere, the practice is virtually extinct. The vast majority of people in London, New York and Sydney have become used to washing alone, at home, in plexi-glass containers – showering as a functional action, to clean one’s own private body in the fastest and most efficient way possible.”

“The bathhouses of the future, by reinventing the historical social functions of their ancient originals and combining their most attractive aspects to build a new model, would compensate for the erosion of public spaces elsewhere… Politically, too, they could be part of a wider effort to construct sustainable economic models. Last year at the UN climate change conference in Paris, countries agreed to phase out gas boilers and replace them with carbon-friendly alternatives. Although boilers do not pollute to the same degree as cars, aeroplanes or cattle farms, our individual commitments to private washing is part of an unsustainable burden on the planet. Solar-powered public baths could lighten the load.”

Read more: “Why we need to bring back the art of communal bathing“.

No Tech Reader #8

Equestrian Travel

horse travel

The Long Riders’ Guild is the world’s first international association of equestrian explorers and long distance travellers. [Read more…]

Rethink, Retool, Reboot: Technology Justice

rethink retool rebootPractical Action, the international NGO that uses technology to challenge poverty in “developing” countries, has published a new book that is freely accessible online. Rethink, Retool, Reboot: Technology as if People and Planet Mattered is written by Simon Trace.

A fifth of the world’s population lacks access to technologies fundamental to a basic standard of living, while unfettered use of technology by those who have it brings its own problems. Inspired by EF Schumacher’s 1973 book Small is Beautiful, Trace argues that ending poverty and achieving environmental sustainability cannot be realized without radical changes to the way technology is developed, accessed, and used:

“Humanity has lost control of technology, or rather relinquished it to the vagaries of the market, assuming its ‘invisible hand’ will ensure the most efficient development and dissemination of technology that best meets people’s needs – an assumption that is wrong.”

The book is divided into three sections. Part 1 starts by looking at notions of technological progress and the relationship between technology and human development, demonstrating the need to ‘rethink’ how we use and provide access to technology. Part 2 goes on to explore the idea that we need to ‘retool’ — to re-examine our innovation processes — in order to focus on driving technology development towards, rather than away from, the twin problems of poverty and environmental sustainability. The book closes with a third section that sets out a series of radical changes required to ‘reboot’ our relationship with technology.

No Tech Reader #7

“Are we fixing the right things? Are we breaking the wrong ones? Is it necessary to start from scratch every time?”

Wind Power System Made from Plastic Buckets

A wind power system made from plastic buckets is seen on boats at a floating village in Hanoi, Vietnam June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

A wind power system made from plastic buckets is seen on boats at a floating village in Hanoi, Vietnam June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

“Vietnamese families living in slums along the Red River in Hanoi are using red plastic buckets and old printers to help light homes, cook meals and slash electricity costs by as much as a third.

The recycled goods form the blades and motors of electrical generators that power old motorcycle batteries to illuminate lamps with a brightness equivalent to a 45-Watt light bulb.

Though the output generated is small, it makes a significant difference for families previously denied power because they lived too far from a power station or had to ration supply because of the expense.”

More pictures and information at Reuters: Plastic buckets, broken printers shine light on Hanoi’s poor. Via Playground Magazine.

See all our low-tech windmill posts.

Adapted Tools for Organic Farming

horse plough

L’Atelier Paysan is a French-speaking collective of small-scale farmers, employees and agricultural development organisations who design open source farm tools.

Based on the principle that farmers are themselves innovators, they have been collaboratively developing methods and practices to reclaim farming skills and achieve self-sufficiency in relation to the tools and machinery used in organic farming.

They have an English language website, which includes about a dozen tool descriptions with technical drawings. All tools can be appropriated and modified by farmers. [Read more…]

Lamella Roofs

lamella roof

A lamella roof, also known as the “Zollinger roof” (after Friedrich Zollinger), is a vaulted roof made up of simple, single prefabricated standard segments (mostly in timber) as a way to span large spaces. The individual pieces are joined together with bolts and/or plates to form a rhomboid pattern. Wooden sheathing covers the structure on the outside. The lamella roof was patented in 1910 and became popular between the World Wars, especially in Germany when metal for construction was in short supply. Some of these structures are now almost 100 years old and many of them remain in very good condition.

Read more: Lamella Roof, Open Source Ecology.