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Sustainability Through Ecological Design

Expert recommends using nature as example for future technology. “Design systems that are ‘cradle to cradle’ and not ‘cradle to grave.’

September 1, 2011
Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez

Begun in 2006, Ecological Design International is an O‘ahu-based firm providing water audits, design of ecological engineering services for water and wastewater treatment, and management for commercial developments. She described her company as one that focuses on “Natural System Technologies.”

Basically, that means using nature as an example to make technology more effective, less costly and to eliminate destructive impacts on the environment.

Roth Venu pointed to the Hawaiian ahupua‘a system, unique even among people of the Pacific, as an example of ecological design that partnered with nature. With land designations running from the top of the mountain out into the sea, the ahupua’a system provided all the resources necessary for a village to sustain itself and to thrive.

Article Photos

Lauren Roth Venu, president of Roth Ecological Design International, leans forward to hear a question following her presentation on “Innovative Water and Waste Operations for Small Businesses,” as part of the sustainability series conducted by the UH Maui Sustainable Living Institute and the Office of Continuing Education.

She contrasted this with what she said was the “Western Way,” which was to define the land and have nature fit our wants, leading to today’s problems.

One example she cited was the development of centralized water systems helped along by the passage of the Federal Clean Water Act. Unintended consequences with negative environmental impacts have included sewer spills and leaky pipes.

This system also comes with the high energy cost of moving water to consumers through large pipes. According to Roth Venu, California uses 20 percent of the state’s energy for water infrastructure and utilities.

In response to a question from the audience, Roth Venu said that there are some who propose that “In the future, water will be more precious than energy” and a cause of wars as people seek a resource they must have to live.

Our thirst for water seems insatiable. Currently, according to Roth Venu, “We are using one-and-a-half Earths to sustain us,” and in the not too distant future, that number will grow to two Earths. “Clearly,” she said, “that cannot continue.”

As scientists trying to encourage positive change will often do, Roth Venu quoted Albert Einstein, who is reported to have said, “Look into nature, then you will understand everything better.” That means mimicking natural systems that can move water.

It means seeing the Earth as a biological model. For example, wetlands are the kidneys of the earth, cleaning and purifying our water. Trees and plants are the lungs.

It means using integrated place design, in which one manufacturing plant’s waste becomes another plant’s energy source. Earth model systems would not waste heat, but use it to grow food in greenhouses, which is then sold in local markets.

It’s not pie in the sky, Roth Venu points out. They are already using this model in Burlingame, California, for example.

Burlingame utilizes smaller waste water treatment plants and has stimulated their economy by using the water to grow koi and nursery flowers, all of which create jobs and add to the local economy.

“Design systems that are ‘cradle to cradle’ and not ‘cradle to grave,’” Roth Venu urged the audience.

“We are at a point where we have been taking and taking, and living in Hawai‘i with aloha, we always try to give back,” she said. “For hundreds of years, we have been using systems that are creating global warming and other situations.”

A 2006 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that storm water runoff has seriously impaired 95 streams, 21 estuaries and 56 bays.

According to Roth Venu, this need not happen if we use low-impact development, rain gardens to handle water runoff from roofs and impermeable surfaces, use recycled water for irrigation, encourage plants in canals that filter lead and arsenic out of the wastewater, and finally, conduct the low-tech work of performing a water audit, identify possible leaks, install high-efficiency flow fixtures and clearly identify irrigation needs.

We can choose to create a sustainable future or one that is an ecological disaster. “It’s our choice,” Roth Venue said.



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