Peak Oil, loss of diversity, species extinction, conspiracy, oil spills, food insecurity …. the problems that we face seem to increase both in size and complexity every day. However we can simplify all of these global issues and emphasize three primary concerns. In order of increasing priority, the three biggest issues are:

  • Pollution
  • Deforestation
  • Soil destruction and erosion

Old growth forest we visited in Tasmania

Biology is remarkable in its ability to break down and lock up pollutants. Mushrooms have been shown to be effective in breaking down hydrocarbons and even nuclear waste. However, without soil and without forests, we are unable to support the biology required to deal with pollution.

We continue deforestation at record rates, which further emphasizes soil loss. In addition, removal of our forests is removing the planets most important energy transducer and climate stabilizer. Without forests we will not have a stable climate.

Last year the world lost 83 billion tons of topsoil. Healthy topsoil is the most biodiverse ecosystem we know of. Without it, life could not be sustained on this planet.

I like this simplification because many of the other issues are second generation issues to these primary factors. What this exposes is that unfortunately, recycling, biofuels, CO2 sequestration, wind turbines and solar panels aren’t going to cut it unless we deal with soil loss. In the end it really all comes back down to healthy soil.

The good news is that teachers, designers and grass-roots activitists around the world are spreading the word that all our problems: pollution, deforestation and soil loss, can be solved in a garden. This is such an empowering message as we can forget about being paralyzed by fear and focusing energy into negative issues we have no control over (i.e. peak oil, climate change, etc) and we realize that each and everyone of us has the opportunity to profoundly shift the course of humanity with the simple act of stewarding soil. 

And now that I’ve laid out what the problems are, why do these problems persist? Why do we drive big trucks that only use 1% of the energy consumed to transport passengers? Why do we design our cities to concentrate and dispose of water? Why are we drawing down fresh water aquifers to irrigate crops that won’t grow with the annual rainwater budget? Why is the average North American house size and energy demand continuing to climb? And my personal favorite – why do we defecate into drinking water then wipe with toilet paper made from old growth forests?

The answer is sentiment. I’m making a generalization here, and I’m referring to the the sentiment held in common in overdeveloped countries. We believe that “it’s better that way”, “there’s no other way”, or “we like it that way” but there is no fundamental reason or underlying logical explanation. In fact, many of the design decisions make no sense whatsoever. Sentiment leads to poor design and we pay the price in extra energy usage and pollution.

Here’s the interesting thing. Sentiment is dissolved with a common ethic. In permaculture, our common ethic is: Care of Earth, Care of People and Return of Surplus. Our decisions are not based on frivolous beliefs, but based on practical and natural constraints, ultimately allowing us to live in harmony with the ecology. And this is how we create permanent cultures.

And so, tackling cultural sentiment is the most important thing we can do and would have the largest positive impact on the above mentioned problems.

Here’s why.

  • Currently, approximately 30-40% of the energy consumed by society is invested into the delivery of potable water and the removal of sewage. Pumping fluids is extremely energy intensive. If cities adopted rain water catchment, graywater, composting toilets and landscape water harvesting we could stop this monumental misallocation of finite energy resources. 

  • If consumers started demanding that architects, engineers and city planners face homes to the sun, rather than to the direction of the best view, we could eliminate 30% of a households heating energy. Add in super insulation and efficient design and we further reduce heating and electrical needs by up to 90%.

  • It has been estimated that 10 units of hydrocarbon energy are used to produced 1 unit of food energy (i.e. calorie). This problem could largely be alleviated if we converted the most energy wasteful icon on the planet (the lawn) into food production. 

I’m not saying it is going to be easy, but  we must dissolve sentiment so that we can install composting toilets, catch rainwater, use smart home design, and start growing food in our yards.

And we must tackle this first, before going out to seek “solutions” to energy supply or pollution, such as biofuels or using CO2 sequestration. The reason; technological solutions driven by sentimentality will never work because they perpetuate a broken system, where as technological solutions driven by design and ethics yield appropriate technology and leads us in a sustainable direction.

I know that changing the sentiment of a culture seems nearly impossible, unsurmountable, unbelievable. However, as a permaculture educator, I have found that this is not the case. When students are exposed to the facts, and empowered through simple design concepts and strategies, the move past sentiment is almost instantaneous. This is the power of the Permaculture Design Course. We know that it is so effective that we have made teaching permaculture our life mission! Get the word out, educate, inform, teach more teachers and as my good friend and mentor Jesse Lemieux says, “we need practicality not sentimentality.”