A Conversation With Dave Hamilton, Self-Sufficiency Expert

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Hamilton-Post.jpg Whether you're looking to make your life just a little bit more green or to dive head-first into sustainable living, Dave Hamilton can serve as your guide. For several years now, Hamilton has been running Selfsufficientish, a website dedicated to providing advice and information on self-sufficiency. The site, which has also been turned into a book that Hamilton wrote with his brother, a gardening columnist, touches on a number of subjects, from urban homesteading to home-brewing to sheep-reading to natural remedies for ailments. "From those who want to just dip their toes into the deep waters of self-sufficiency, to those who want to have a full-on underwater dive, we've got it all," according to Selfsufficientish's about page.

Here, Hamilton discusses vertical farming, or the method of growing plants in a soil-free environment with just the required amount of nutrients and water; the trend of greenwashing, in which corporations fool consumers into believing that they're doing truly sustainable work; and why it is that he wants to spend more time doing comedy science fiction writing like that of one of his heroes, Douglas Adams.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

It depends on what day of the week it is. I would like to just call myself a 'doer,' but to narrow it down I say I'm an author, gardening tutor, lecturer, website owner, wild food tutor, magazine journalist, scriptwriter, and soon-to-be-father.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

I think the Transition Towns movement will continue to make an impact in the coming years. The beauty of the Transition movement is its simplicity and adaptability. Transition aims to face the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change by (amongst other things) facing these problems on a local, rather than national or international scale. Unlike many movements which follow a one-size-fits-all principle, Transition aims to make sense wherever it is set up.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Knowledge doesn't need to be pigeonholed. Most subjects will spill into others. For example, there are links with quantum physics and plant science.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Vertical farming. This is a method of growing currently in development in which plants are grown in a soil-free environment and fed just the required amount of nutrients and water. This saves energy and water but it is far from organic food production. Many feel the plants grown will not contain the same range of nutrients or the same quality of nutrients as soil-grown plants. It could be seen as the difference between eating an orange or taking a vitamin C pill.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

The trend of greenwashing, or corporations trying to fool consumers into thinking that they are being green or sustainable, really annoys me. Degradable bags will not biodegrade, carbon offsetting is like beating your wife up and then giving money to a battered wife charity, and made from 50 percent recycled paper means that 50 percent of the paper is not recycled.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I'm becoming more and more interested in anthropology, the study of what makes us humans tick. It has been a distraction from my regular work but far from taking me off track it has given me some great insights from a perspective I wouldn't normally have come from.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Ken Thompson. In his book No Nettles Required Ken turned wildlife gardening on its head. He decided, rather than going along with assumed knowledge, he would put much of it to the test and approach it as a scientific study. So age-old practices, (such as growing nettles to attract caterpillars and growing only native plants) may well be seen as actually harming the numbers of insects and birds return to a garden, rather than helping numbers rise.

Jon Cousins, organizer of the Off Grid Festival. Jon is not very well known in the sustainability field, but he should be. He is perhaps the most uncompromising greenie I've ever met. A vegan who only buys food from sustainable sources, Jon will only wear clothes bought second-hand or from ethical sources and he will only work for ethical companies. He has no television and each year he organizes the brilliant Off-Grid Festival in Somerset England, which brings together the best minds in the permaculture movement.

David Attenborough, author and presenter. David is still the best presenter on television. He has now inspired three generations with his thoughtful and gentle style. He goes to show that people will tune in to intelligent broadcasting and there is no need for shock presentation.

And if we can include people no longer with us who were an inspiration in their time I would have to include Douglas Adams, who is famous for his novels, but who also did a lot of work for wildlife conservation.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I would love to get into writing comedy science fiction like Hitchhickers Guide to the Galaxy. I'm currently working on something in my spare time but it may well remain a hobby.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I find Plants for a Future an invaluable resource. It is a very extensive database set up by Ken Fern quite some years ago. It is tragic that Ken no longer works in this field as I think he has achieved so much by putting this free and easy-to-use resource together. What really amazes me is that he did so way before fast processors or the Internet were even thought of.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"If You Wanna," by The Vaccines.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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