Lean Materials

There are two kinds of solution to the problem of providing materials from limited local resources—making the best use of local resources, and conserving materials in a closed-loop system.


Making the best use of local resources

In this regard, four options are available. First, there are natural materials—materials that can be grown or quarried locally and used in more-or-less their original form. Secondly, there is the chemicals harvest, using locally grown plants as the main source. Thirdly, biomimicry copies natural systems to produce high-quality materials from locally-available ingredients. For a fourth option (not recommended) see GRIN (Genetics, Robotics, Information Technology and Nanotechnology).

1. Natural materials

In the Lean Economy, place matters and, in the case of lean materials, it is decisive. Particular places, with diverse advantages, will develop particular solutions. Once, before being ironed out by the market economy, local distinctiveness was founded on local rock, and on the water and ecology that came from it. The long sequence of connections from geology to craftsmanship that followed is described by the agricultural writer H.J. Massingham in a suitably long sentence:

If, after the geology lesson of walking up the village street, the craftsmanly minutiae be attended to—the chamfering of a waggon in the shed, the carving of a corner-post or of a piscina or a poppy-head bench-end in the church, the ogee curves to the “guide” of a shepherd’s crook, the wrought-iron work of a weather-vane or a chest, the moulding of a dripstone over a cottage window, the geometrical pattern of the thatch below the ridge-board or (if the roof be stone) the “valleying” of the angles of intersection . . . , the shape and colour of a mug at the pub, a carved settle opposite it . . . , the proportions of a pigsty, the raftering of a barn, the brasses on a horse’s martingale, the harr [gatepost] of a field-gate, the pewter inlay of a butterfly bobbin on a lace-pillow, the carved boss in the groining of the church-porch—if the multiplicity of these details be taken in; if, again, another village, ten, twenty, fifty or only a couple of miles off be remembered as totally different in its materials, its forms, its mannerisms, its styles, even the tools (which also will have different names), then it will appear that, if we were a nation of shopkeepers in 1800 and are a nation of card-indexers and committees today, we were a nation of artists in 1500, 1600 and 1700.L162

Building the lean material economy will be a matter of making the inspired best of what is locally available. The most immediately-available material resources consist of the natural fibres that can be grown locally, and others which are part of its geological endowment. These are the familiar materials which shaped, sheltered and clothed the village: wool, leather, bone and horn; wood, withies, straw and reeds, flax and hemp; natural oils and fats; sand, clay, lime, slate, mud. No area is endowed with them all, but all areas have at least some of them, and they become more useful in proportion to the skills—mainly manual skills—that are capable of using them. The need to rediscover and revalue these skills, made briefly obsolete by oil and gas, will be intense. There will be a reskilling of society.

The craft of practical citizenship

It was of the essence of the old system that those living under it subsisted in the main upon what their own industry could produce out of the soil and materials of their own countryside. A few things, certainly, they might get from other neighbourhoods, such as iron for making their tools, and salt for curing their bacon; and some small interchange of commodities there was, accordingly, say between the various districts that yielded cheese, and wool, and hops, and charcoal; but as a general thing the parish where the peasant people lived was the source of the materials they used, and their wellbeing depended on their knowledge of its resources. Amongst themselves they would number a few special craftsmen—a smith, a carpenter or wheelwright, a shoemaker, a pair of sawyers, and so on; yet the trades of these specialists were only ancillary to the general handiness of the people, who with their own hands raised and harvested their crops, made their clothes, did much of the building of their homes, attended to their cattle, thatched their ricks, cut their firing, made their bread and wine or cider, pruned their fruit-trees and wines, looked after their bees, all for themselves.

~ George Bourne, Change in the Village, 1912.L163

2. The chemicals harvest: biomaterials

The second option open to local lean economies whose ability to buy in materials has been drastically reduced is to use farm crops—mainly plants, but animal products are used in this way, too—as sources of the chemicals for which at present we rely mainly on oil and gas. “Biomaterials” are, roughly, of two kinds. First, there are the material products, such as the gums, resins and adhesives, which make useful properties of plants available in a concentrated form. Secondly, there are the chemical feedstocks, derived from breaking down farm products into the organic building blocks from which it is possible to produce a virtually unlimited variety of materials, including plastics, fats and oils, soaps and detergents.L164

Here are some examples. First, material products. The resin of pine trees can be transformed into inks, rubber, varnishes and rosin; seaweed is an ideal raw material for thickeners, flocculants (tufted fibres), lubricants, sizing agents and edible gum. Vegetable oils (especially soy, in warmer climates) can be used in the production of resins, paints, varnishes and plastics, and castor oil for cosmetics, plasticisers, lubricants, binders, inks, adhesive, caulks, sealants . . .L165

Secondly, chemical feedstocks. Synthetic fibres, dyes and solvents can be made from benzene; benzene can be made from phenols; phenols are derived from lignin which, in turn, is extracted from wood. Starches are used, for instance, to produce lactic acid, useful as a sizing agent in the production of paper and cardboard (sizing is applied to paper to keep ink and other liquids on the surface instead of soaking in) and as a source of ethanol (alcohol) which can be processed into plastics and synthetic rubber. More generally, methane, the starting point for the polymers, the joined-up structures of organic chemistry, can be produced by the fermentation of practically anything grown on farms.

Once, all these technologies had a collective name: “chemurgy”. Not many people have heard of it, and the reason is that the use of farm products as a raw material for industry has been decisively overtaken by oil and gas. Farm crops remain a significant source of industrial materials—35 percent of detergents still come from plant material, for example—but, in the case of chemical feedstocks, the advantages of gas and oil have been decisive: their quality is more consistent, and they are supremely easy to handle and store. So long as their supply is reliable and their price is low, farm products cannot compete.L166

“Chemurgy” is derived from the Greek roots, Chemi (their name for Egypt, source of the “black arts” of chemistry) and ergon (work). It began as a serious study in America after the First World War, when the United States seized many of the patents of the German chemical industry. It was driven along by fears of oil depletion (at a time when the global endowment of oil was still unknown), by doubts about international trade as a reliable source of raw materials, by the deep depression in agriculture and an urgent search for other ways of keeping farmers in business. And, of course, chemurgy neatly provided a new and urgent job for chemistry to concern itself with, now that it had become a well-developed science keen for new things to do.

The man who did most to drive chemurgy along was William (“Billy”) Hale, a brilliant and prolific chemist, chairman of the US National Research Council’s Chemistry and Chemical Technology Committee—and, in due course, husband of Helen Dow, daughter of H.H. Dow, founder of the Dow Chemical Company. There is no doubt about it: he was in love with chemurgy, and in his book, The Farm Chemurgic: Farmward the Star of Destiny Lights Our Way, the chemist grows lyrical. Thanks to chemurgy, he wrote, agriculture is . . .

. . . no longer a pursuit to supply man with food and raiment, but a pursuit that shall bring into existence a vast array of chemical compounds to fit a myriad of ends. It presents the most fascinating of pictures and the most awe-inspiring of nature’s wonders. The tearing asunder of composite matter, heretofore known and used generally under such prehistoric names as “corn”, “wheat”, “potatoes”, “straw” and “wood” and the like, the allocation of several homogenous components thereof under their proper and clearly defined chemical characteristics, opens up a new world to man. It is the alphabet of a new knowledge; a knowledge that nature is now to inculcate in man.L167

His enthusiasm was catching. During the 1930s, some 1,300 institutions were involved in research into chemurgy and in 1935, 300 leaders of industry, science and farming met in Dearborn, Michigan to sign the Declaration of Dependence Upon the Soil and the Right of Self-Maintenance: “When in the course of the life of a Nation, its people become neglectful of the laws of nature, . . . necessity impels them to turn to the soil in order to recover the right of self-maintenance”—and that right was asserted to be an inalienable right and part of the Divine Order. Chemurgy was unquestionably showing itself to be useful: sawmill wastes were turned into wood products and plastics; solvents (butanol, acetone and butyl alcohol) were produced from sugar beets and Jerusalem artichokes. Paper was made from flax, hemp and rice. Cellulose for synthetic fibres was derived from sweet potatoes, peanuts and cotton. Wastes that remained after processing were used for road-building materials. At the height of the war in 1944, half a million tons of synthetic rubber was produced from alcohol derived from crops.L168

But there were snags. The new crops, in many cases, had to be transplanted from abroad, bringing trouble with pests and acclimatisation; the supply of raw materials could be irregular. From the point of view of our time, the critical snag would consist of the competition for land which could otherwise be used for the production of food. The decisive problem in the past was the increasing competition from cheap, convenient and abundant oil and gas.

But the end of chemurgy, which came quite quickly after the war, is not really the end of the story. For one thing, many industrial materials are still made from farm products. And this is a technology which can make a decisive contribution to the task of converting waste products of all kinds into the materials—and energy—that will be needed with intense urgency in the future.

There were two men who proved this with particularly dramatic effect. One of them was George Washington Carver (1864–1943), the legendary black scientist based in Tuskegee, Alabama. He manufactured silk from sweet potatoes; he made face cream, dyes, and plastics from peanuts. He insisted that nature produces no waste, and he demonstrated this by producing soap, not just from peanuts, but from the waste scraped off the floor of the plant where they were shelled. And late in life, he became a friend of Henry Ford.

Ford used soybeans as raw material for paints, lubricants and plastic car parts, including bodywork which was so strong that it did not dent when he swung an axe at it. He found ways of reducing the wood wasted in the production of his cars “to negligible quantities”—and with those negligible quantities he proceeded to produce acetate of lime, methyl alcohol, charcoal, tar, heavy oils, light oils, creosote and methane. The New York Times of 1930 was impressed: “After the raw materials—and even the smoke—have served their purposes in the production of automobiles, they are made to yield vast quantities of still other raw materials which are either employed in the plants or sold in the market.” The annual value of these by-products, it noted, was $19 million.L169

In the future, biomaterials will be a major source for local industry, substantially replacing oil and gas. Sophisticated chemistry is needed, but local lean economies will not have to invent their way into it, nor to build large plants. The essentials—the knowledge and the small-scale equipment—may be within the means of orderly localities, which are not in a position to buy in their daily material needs. Small, local-scale plants will affirm localities’ “Right of Self-Maintenance”. The technology is better than it was in the prime of chemurgy in the 1930’s, while the alternative source of hydrocarbons as the primary raw material is no longer secure and will soon be spluttering towards deep decline. Biomaterials will provide part of the solution. They can never be available on a scale to replace the fading of oil, gas and coal, but they can open the way to localities growing their own materials.

3. Biomimicry (aka biological processing or “green chemistry”)

The third option is ambitious, and in its early days. It may never happen on a large scale, but the technology is there, potentially. The intention is to copy the ability of animals and plants to produce materials with properties very much better than the best that our own industrial processes can manage, and to do so with no energy apart from a little sunlight, no special raw materials apart from what is available in the local soil or seawater, and no pollution.L170

One well-studied example of this is spider silk. Compared weight-for-weight, it is five times stronger than steel; it is five times tougher than Kevlar (used in bulletproof vests); it is 40 percent more elastic than nylon; and it is energy-absorbing, in the sense that when a spider web is stretched, it recoils so gently that it does not trampoline the fly back out. And the manufacturing process is neater: you do not see spiders pouring derivatives of petroleum into pressurised vats of sulphuric acid, boiling and then extruding the product under high pressures—and producing, in the process, large quantities of toxic waste. Similarly, the high performance of nature’s ceramics—the hardness of seashells and the self-repairing horn of the rhino’s tusk—is better, more sophisticated, more fit-for-purpose, than anything we can make, as is the variety of proteins which are present wherever there is life.L171

So, the question is, can technology imitate this? This is the field of “biomimetics”, or “biomimicry”. It can at first be confused with “biomaterials” but is in fact sharply different and far harder to achieve: biomaterials technologies make industrial use of materials that are already made available by nature; biomimetics learns from the principles of natural processing to produce new material supplies in new ways. If it could be done, there would be immense advantages. Local economies would be able to make practically any material they needed from their basic natural endowment of, for instance, soil, water, sunlight and air. They would be left with no industrial waste. And they would have materials ideally designed for their purpose with the qualities of being both durable and biodegradable.

In fact, the technology is not all as unattainable as it sounds. For instance, one of the processes of biomimetics is fermentation, which has been used for as long as people have made bread and wine. Fermentation depends on enzymes to guide and catalyse the chemical reactions, and it is these large protein molecules—already used in industrial processes to produce vitamins, antibiotics and single-cell proteins—that give biomimetic processes their typical benign characteristics. They happen at room temperature and pressure, they are quite easy to control, and there is a good chance that the enzymes may survive the process to be used again. This is a technology that could in principle make local economies self-sufficient in (for instance) polymers, which could be made to grow slowly and cleanly into all the proteins and starches that the locality might need. As the materials scientist Kenneth Geiser writes, the biomimetics industrial plant would look radically different from today’s factory:

The vision of materials factories of the future that look like large greenhouses with long tanks of microbially infused carbohydrates in which tiny organisms manufacture well-tailored materials from recycled organic wastes is intriguing and attractive.L172

Whether biomimetics will be available in time to be of substantial help to local lean economies in the first half of this century is another matter. It does not look likely. One problem is that the organisms that do the work do not, in general, like to be crowded; they prefer low concentrations, rich with a wide variety of other organisms and other compounds which have little to do with the process that you actually want. This means that, though you may well get the product you want, you may then have to try to separate it from all the other products that you do not want. The process must in principle be possible, because molluscs do it, but what the Lean Economy will inherit will not be a scintillating set of solutions to material self-reliance but a long research agenda. The market economy does not have the time; the Lean Economy just might.

The other problem is that serious advances in biomimicry will require work at the molecular level; it will be, in some aspects at least, a product of nanotechnology. The trouble is that nanotechnology is not a well-behaved science; it is hard to contain; it is very powerful: it could take biomimetics well beyond the innocent aim of imitating nature.

Thinking systems: conserving materials in a closed-loop system

Whatever the source of lean materials, systems fluency with regard to them requires the application of the Seven R’s: reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, re-grow, re-skill, review.

1. Reduce. The big reduction in the scale of local lean economies will not be an achievement; it will be an unavoidable, unwelcome inheritance. The response is to make a virtue of necessity: small-scale elegance will bring a greatly reduced need for the intermediate goods and services that sustain the infrastructures of life and citizenship. There will be reduction to the point of virtual elimination in (for instance) travel and transport, packaging and handling, the structures of bureaucracy and regulation. This reduction is the point of entry back into the real world of resilience and consistency with the ecology on which life in all its forms completely relies.

2. Reuse. The first essential condition for closed-loop system materials management is small scale, opening the way to effective sorting. The smaller the scale, the more realistic it becomes to sort and reuse goods rather than dumping them into the recycling stream.

3. Repair. Repair, too, becomes a realistic option on the small scale. In the market economy, there is material affluence and time poverty, and little patience for the slowness and deliberateness needed for repair: wasting materials saves time. In the local Lean Economy, there is time-affluence and material poverty.L173

4. Recycle. Effective recycling, like reuse, depends on effective sorting—or, better still, on preventing materials from getting mixed up in the first place. This detailed orderliness has potential: not only does it mean that recycling meets the crucial requirement of working with uncontaminated materials, but it is also a materials-ethic in its own right—looking towards the guiding, if unattainable, ideal in which recycling itself is unnecessary, because goods remain intact and in use.L174

5. Re-grow. Organic materials—food waste, human waste, wood and textiles—can be contained within a closed-loop system by being composted, returned to the soil and re-grown, either as the raw materials themselves, or as the chemical feedstocks needed to produce them. Local lean economies will aim for all the materials they use, other than ceramics and metals, to be biodegradable, supplying material for compost systems, including digesters, which leave long-chain molecules of nitrogen to recycle into the soil, and supply methane fuel as well.L175

6. Re-skill. Manual skills have the potential to be very efficient in their use of materials, since their attention to detail enables them to keep waste to a minimum. At the other end of the technology spectrum, the most advanced digital technology also has this potential, because of the small size of much of its equipment, and its accuracy. Comparisons of the materials-efficiency (and eco-efficiency) of different kinds of production have the difficulty of not comparing like with like, but there is persuasive evidence that both manual skills and the advanced technologies have at least the potential to be more materials-efficient then the industrial production which built, and still sustains, our economy. In fact, local-scale economies will have little use for large-scale production; instead, they will naturally tend to turn to manual skills, supplemented, where it is available, by digital equipment. The extent to which digital equipment will be able to make a contribution is uncertain—at present the world of microchips is embedded in, and needs, a global industrial establishment. But the manual crafts and the best of the digital tools make a natural pairing as the material foundation of the Lean Economy.L176

Regrettably, the market economy has had a disdain for the manual skills, seeing them as signs of failure in the equal opportunity contest for prestigious roles. The consequent shortage of such skills will mature to a famine when the task of building the resilient economy begins in earnest. The skills of even those craftsmen who remain tend to remain frozen and untaught. Yet the closed-loop materials system of the Lean Economy will value them intensely, as it works to forge a pragmatic alliance of science and hands, engaged at the level of Massingham’s “craftsmanly minutiae”:

The craftsman’s relation to nature was non-predatory from first to last, from raw material to finished product. He did not conquer nature but married her in husbandry.L177

7. Review. This last stage—step five in the sequence of lean thinking—examines the progress to date critically, and works out ways, incremental or radical, of doing better. Sometimes, the force is with you. Each step opens the way to the next one, so that we have the iterative improvement which can be applied, too, to a locality, moving step-by-step towards a closed-loop system. Fewer goods are thrown away, so there is less to recycle, so recycling systems are reduced to a manageable scale requiring minimal transport, so goods can be properly sorted, so high quality materials can be produced, so the goods that are made from them are built to last, so fewer goods are thrown away, so the flow of materials declines while the materials stock endures, and the locality begins to recognise its materials, at every stage in their life-cycle, as being a permanent part of their wealth.


Related entries:

Invisible Goods, New Domestication, Energy Prospects, Lean Education, Expertise, Abstraction, Lean Economics.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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