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September 2013 Crossroads, My Personal Transition Story...

Taner Aksel I am a civil engineer with a masters degree from the University of Cincinnati, OH, USA on 'dynamic behaviour of structures'. I am an expert on rating buildings & finding out their behavior/resistance under earthquakes. Since Turkey is an earthquake country, my profession is supposed to be important.

Until the age of 40 I had no idea on how seriously we wer degrading earth's natural systems. During university years I had realised the deep divides between the rich and the poor - there was something utterly wrong with the system. I hated the overly crowded, polluted cities. I had to wear masks during winters because air pollution was so severe. The Marmara sea once I swimmed in, fished was quickly becoming polluted and dying. My daughter could never swim in that sea.

But I was young, had no powers to change things. I initially had to make a living, start a life. Years passed by ...

In 2008 the mortgage crisis in USA was spreading throughout the world. I had an engineering design & consulting office and my business slowed down considerably due to this global crisis. As an engineer I had no interest in economics, the

stock markets and how they worked. But I wanted to understand why a mortgage crisis in USA would affect me, my country so far away. Upon researching on the internet, I came up with a NY Times article on how this crisis occurred. There was a graph on US average house price change in 20 years between 1987 and 2007. Interestingly, this graph looked very much like the graphs I had obtained during my research on dynamic behavior of structures. So I continued reading and researching.

House prices until 1997 were somewhat stable, not much price changes in those years but then started incresing exponentially and since exponential growth can not continue forever, it had to crash - as it did in end of 2007. What's more interesting is the behavior that lead to this crash. Economists call this 'herding' - people en masse start behaving in similar patterns - like investing in housing market. Then more and more people start benefiting from this - construction companies having more work, more jobs, banks giving more credits... Even though some concerned economists had warned numerous times that this behavior was not sustainable, these were ignored.

The reason buildings collapse during an earthquake is that the buildings get into resonance at certain times during an earthquake. Earthquake is simply waves that travel in the soil. When the waves hit the building, it starts shaking. Sometimes the period of the waves cause many elements of the structure to move/shake in the same direction/manner and this is called resonance. In resonance, each element affect each other and the shaking increases exponentially. If the building is not designed carefully against such behavior, then there is a serious risk of collapse. In 1999 earthquake thousands of modern reinforced concrete buildings collapsed in Turkey killing some 18000 people.

There are surprising similarities between how structures collapse in an earthquake and how multitudes of people's behavior leads to economic crises. I explain this in detail in this page: Critical Threshold.

Realizing common behavior pattern, I started researching whether other sytems have similar behavior patterns. After 2 years of research I compiled all the things I learned into a book named 'Critical Threshold' (turkish: Kritik Eşik).

I found out that deforestation, extinction of fish or of many other plant/animal/insect species, exponential loss of clean water, increase in fossil fuel consumption, increase in atmospheric concentrations of CO2, methane & many other pollutants, loss of fertile soil and many other events exerted similar behavior: exponential increase towards peaks that can not be sustained for long.

And I realized that I was also part of the problem. Until that day I did not know that 'asking for more' was really not correct. More income, better house, nicer vacations, better car, etc... If you are hardworking then you would deserve these - there is nothing wrong with this, right? But if 7 billion people also desire these and desires increase exponentially, then it is inevitable to have problems because the earth has boundaries, limits and has limited resources.

For people living in industrialized world fossil fuels are a must (or so we are made to believe). Upto 90% of all energy needs are met from fossil fuels. But burning fossil fuels cause numerous problems from pollution, to sicknesses and to climate change. The atmosphere has already warmed up almost 1 degree centigrate and if business as usual, then the heating is likely to continue up to maybe 4 more degrees - and this would mean the end of earth as we know it.

I did not want to be part of the problem any more, so I initially started researching on clean energy. Since I have engineering background, clean energy systems design, calculation, etc. were not difficult for me to comprehend. First I installed photovoltaic solar panel on my house's rooftop and started generating most of my electricity from the sun. Then I installed 'heat pump' system to heat the house during winters and cool it during summers. The ground source heat pump system captures soil's heat, concentrates it and heats the house during winters - for each 1 unit of electric energy it uses, it captures 4-5 units of heat energy from the soil, so it becomes very efficient and cheap for heating.

Then I found out that certain diesel engine cars could be converted to use vegetable oil as fuel. I had a Mercedes Vaneo mini van, I researched about the conversion, found the conversion kits on the internet, ordered them and with a proficient car mechanic, worked together to convert the car. This car ran with waste vegetable oil for three years until it was sold.

So I had gained good experience &knowledge on clean energy but I also wanted to produce my own natural food. In late 1990's I had bought a 1.4 hectare land on outskirts of Uludag mountain in Bursa city. The land was a grain field that had lost most of its fertility due to ongoing harvesting year after year. I initially planted some fruit trees and a couple hundred grape vines. I decided to go organic and not use any chemicals in the land. But years passed by and many disappointments followed. I could not get fertility in the land. And after all efforts & money spent, I was not happy with the outcome. So in 2010 came a turning point - it would even be better not do anything with the land and give it up - maybe try to sell it. Or I would have to learn the right way to farm. As I started searching on the internet for courses on natural farming, I came up with Permaculture and to my luck in 3 weeks time Bill Mollison & Geoff Lawton were coming to Istanbul (November 2010), Turkey to give a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course. I enrolled and my life changed.

The first day of the course, Bill Mollison drew a hill on the blackboard and then a guy on top of the hill. 'The guy looks at the view and says how nice, let me buy this land and build a cabin here. But then the problems would start...' Bill Mollison was talking about me. I was hooked on at that moment. The PDC course layed a roadmap in front of me that I could follow and it fit in with my engineering way of thinking. It had a solid, logical design process that could be followed.

After the course I immediately started redesigning my small garden in front of my house in Istanbul. Made mulch, compost, bought chicken, built a small chicken coop inside my green house, etc. Here is what I did with the garden (youtube movie)

Experimenting with the small garden helped me learn what works and gain experience. 6 months later I was ready to design my land in Uludag and started the Belentepe farm project in early 2012. Since then our farm has been attacting interest and has become a permaculture research & activity farm.

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