All Roads Lead to Permaculture
Eight years ago when Peak Oil became a part of my life, and my DIY spirit kicked into high gear, I had no idea about the journey I was about to embark on. From the beginning, food security and providing for my family had always been my main concern. While it is true that the effects of Peak Oil will be far reaching, long term, and in some instances painful, nothing is more important than food and water security, with shelter coming in a close second. Unlike food, clean water, and a dry place to live, we can survive without cars, iPods, high fructose corn syrup, industrial agriculture and so many other modern luxuries that people take for granted and think they need. Admittedly, I love being comfortable. I like staying warm on cold winter nights, and eating food when I am hungry. I love hot showers and cold beer, and I like knowing that by washing my hands and having good hygiene I will not die prematurely from a preventable disease.
But what I dislike, or even to be so bold and say HATE, is the way humans have squandered our natural wealth and resources. I hate that for one rich person to be luxuriously comfortable, thousands of others live in squalor and go to sleep at night hungry. I hate how a person can be morbidly obese in a food desert, and I hate Monsanto and Bayer Corp for murdering honey bees and enslaving farmers! That is a whole lot of hate, and though it is genuine and aimed at the right targets – that hate, anger, and negativity does nothing good for me. I learned early on as a radical environmental activist that it is damn near impossible to change this corrupt and destructive system.
So after “retiring” from trying to stop highway construction and timber cuts, I was left with an empty feeling, a disenchantment with life, and a sense of powerlessness. It was a dark place, and it wasn’t until I met my wife and we planted our first garden together that I was able to start seeing the light again. Those first years and gardens were full of mistakes and missteps, but we kept at it and those gardens and our love have only grown and flourished.
It was at the same time as when Peak Oil entered my vocabulary that I started to hear about an idea called Permaculture (Permanent Agri/Culture). Already having a few good gardening seasons behind me, and starting to crawl out of that dark hole I had found myself in, Permaculture began to fill in some of those blanks left over from my days as an Eco-Warrior. Not only does Permaculture question and confront the path modern civilization has gone down, it also offers a whole interconnected web of ideas and solutions that coalesce perfectly with the converging crisis of Peak Oil and climate change. And while I am glad to know that there are still people out there putting their bodies in front of bulldozers and chainsaws to stop the destruction of the wild, Permaculture gives us the tools to create and live in the world we want, and to help heal the one being murdered.
Like many other people, when I first encountered Permaculture I thought it was just about gardening – incorporating fruit, nut trees and other edibles into your landscape, using mulch, and composting. And yes it is true that all these are a part of Permaculture, it is also so much more! Permaculture is an ecological design system that helps to connect all aspects of our lives. From the food we eat, the water we use, or the fuel that keeps us warm, Permaculture can help us obtain the necessities for life in ways that work with the Earth and promote the long term health of the planet.
The techniques and solutions offered by Permaculture are as diverse and unique as all the ecosystems and landscapes that surround us. What works in one place may fail in another, but despite the differences, it is Permaculture’s bottom-up approach and adaptability that allow it to be used the world over. The challenges we face from Peak Oil and climate change are epic in scale. In the case of Peak Oil everything about our modern, fast paced lifestyles rely on abundant supplies of cheap oil. Cars, plastic, hamburgers, industrial agriculture – you name it, are all either made up from or use huge inputs of oil. If the tap gets turned off because of economic or social turmoil, or the price skyrockets and makes petrol unaffordable – kiss convenience and disposable culture goodbye and say hello to hard times!
Climate change is a different monster all together. Where Peak Oil has some predictable outcomes, climate change, whether human influenced (a most likely scenario) or part of some cyclical system that the Earth goes through every couple of million years (which has happened many times throughout the Earth’s 4 billion year long life), we are headed for territory where no modern person has ever been. 100 year floods happening every few years, wildfires of epic proportions, drastic temperature swings and repeated seasons of severe drought are just the beginning. While there are plenty of climate models and predictions, how the long term effects of climate change will actually impact the Earth are unknown. What we do know is this – the planet is warming, atmospheric carbon is on the rise, polar ice caps and ancient glaciers are melting, aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be replenished, forests are still being cut down at unprecedented rates, and we lose more topsoil each year. All of these add up to a potent cocktail that is sure to leave us with one hell of a hangover when we decide to wake up from this binge!
This is an overwhelming list of of problems we face as a planet. Dealing with energy descent alone will be difficult enough, but when you throw climate change into the mix, it almost seems hopeless. It is an uphill battle we face, and one that we could quite possibly lose as a species if we stay the present course, but Permaculture offers solutions to this predicament. It is getting late in the game, but humans are resilient and have proven in historic times of hardship that it is possible to pull through and adapt to new circumstances.
An idea I have had recently is that “All roads lead to Permaculture”, and in this sense of the word – Permaculture is the destination we need to aim for if we want any chance of surviving and moving human culture into the future. The largest challenge we face is going to be scaling down every system, industry, and all the other myriad endeavors we participate in to a human scale. What does this mean? It means we need to stop relying on fossilized solar power (oil, natural gas, and coal) to do the work for us. We need to design simpler, smaller and more diverse and efficient systems of agriculture, industry, commerce, city planning, living arrangements, community and civic dynamics, waste management, and all the other aspects that contribute to the human project.
Permaculture gives us the tools we need to accomplish this task. As mentioned earlier, solutions will manifest themselves in different ways for different locations and different cultures, but the underlying ethics of Permaculture are universal and will form the foundation for a world transitioning into energy descent and a changing climate. Many of the ideas, solutions, and principles offered by Permaculture are not new to human culture, and find their inspirations and origins in traditional and indigenous cultures that date back to before the agricultural revolution that started 10,000 years ago.
A good example of this is the idea of polyculture, or growing more than one crop in any given location. Nature doesn’t grow just one plant (especially in straight rows) in an ecosystem, but a mix of many different plants that all play different roles within that one ecosystem. Before the dawn of modern agriculture, native people across the globe relied on and, in many instances, participated in these diverse landscapes. They were as much a part of them as the plants and other animals. There is strong evidence that suggests that the continent of North America, prior to European invasion and conquest, was a highly managed and diverse ecosystem that contained thousands of edible fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, greens, and animals that the First Nations people tended, cared for and influenced through their actions and choices.
This idea of polyculture in todays world does not differ too much from the example above, and when it does, it is only in a matter of scale. While it would be foolish to think that we could go back to the world of pre-European North America (at least anytime soon), there are things that we can do right now to add more resiliency and diversity to the way we are growing our food. A good example of this is happening in Wisconsin. Mark Shepard is a Permaculturist who is attacking conventional agriculture in the heart of Corn Country. On his New Forest Farm, that only 18 years ago was a dying corn field, he is now growing chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, apples, currants, gooseberries, cane fruits, pigs, cattle and many more edibles in healthy polycultures that work with the land, rather than against it. Through the use of keyline land design, he has created ponds that retain massive amounts of water which in turn have increased the amount of wildlife and vegetation, has begun to rebuild the soil, and has also started to recharge the aquifers that are underfoot.
Rather than relying on a rotation of corn and soybeans (and enslavement to Monsanto and the other BIG PHARMA corporations) for his income, he now has multiple sources of revenue because of his diverse selection of perennial crops and meat animals, he is producing real food that can actually nourish the human body, and is helping to heal the land. He has coined his idea and way of growing food“Restoration Agriculture”. He is taking Permaculture to the next step, and showing how it can be done on a large scale and be a viable option that can compete with conventional agriculture and help to feed the world’s population. Mark Shepard is doing something few rural farmers even consider as an option – he is trying to insure a livable planet for the generations to come by leaving the land in better shape than when he started. We can all learn something from the projects he has going, and adapt them to our own scenarios.
While Mark Shepard is a rebel farmer surrounded by monoculture rotations of corn and soybeans, where does that leave the rest of us? How do those of us in cities and suburbs utilize the tools of Permaculture to the benefit of our families, communities and ultimately the planet? How do we design systems and landscapes that start to heal our suburbs and cities and leave them in better shape for our children? These are big questions, and rarely are they answered honestly or comprehensively.
I recently had the pleasure to see Mark Shepard speak in person, and he addressed this very issue, among many others. Urban sustainability is a hot topic right now (as it should be), but it is all too easy to come up with responses to the challenges we face that make us feel good, but have very little real life impact on improving the conditions we find ourselves in. The first step we can take is to stop candy coating the hard realities we face. Human culture and the planet are on the brink of major change. I am hesitant to say extinction, but it is within the realm of possibility that we may not be here in a few generations if things continue on with business as usual. Our planet is a finite one, ruled by limits of resources, populations, and physical land. When the balance of these limits are thrown off by reckless consumption, overpopulation on a given landbase, and depleting resources, some form of collapse is unavoidable. This is where we are headed if we do not radically change the way we inhabit this Good Earth.
The above example of Restoration Agriculture is not only needed in the countryside, but in the city as well. We need to start taking the basic principles of Permaculture more seriously and applying them to everyday life, in real settings. We need to stop shitting in our drinking water, we need to figure out better ways of heating our homes, and we need to shorten the supply chain of the food we eat. We need to realize that the economy cannot grow for ever, and that the true economy is the household economy – real products made by and for real people.
We need to do the unthinkable – rather than the continual encroachment of civilization into wild areas, we need to start ripping up parking lots and building garden walls with them. We need to start dismantling the Mcmansions and expansive suburbs and replanting the land in orchards, food forests, prairies, and unmanaged wilderness. Every lawn needs to be made over into diverse gardens of annuals, perennials, medicinal herbs and forage for livestock, and we need to get over the phobia of keeping livestock in the city. We have the knowledge and the resources to turn all forms of (hu)manure into a resource for our gardens, let’s do it! Rain barrels are great, but they won’t change the world. We need to rethink how we catch and retain water in urban (and rural!) settings. We can take keyline design, along with grey water systems and scale them appropriately to fit into smaller settings and start to rebuild our watersheds and wetlands on a micro scale. We need to revive the age old craft of tree coppicing (and planting), there by adding an element of energy resilience to our home heating bill with a renewable source of fuel, light building materials, and ultimately the reforestation (and sequestration of carbon) of our planet.
All this, and so much more has to be done to insure a livable planet for the generations that are to come. As it stands, we are not leaving much of a legacy to them. It is us, those who have the chance right now to start the healing process, who will be held accountable for the fate of the planet and human culture.
We have a long row to hoe if we decide to take on the challenges of energy descent and climate change. It will be the hardest task we as a collective human culture have ever been faced with. It will require patience, open ears, and the ability to work through our differences. It will require cooperation on a scale never imagined, and it will be EPIC!! It is truly hard to imagine what the world could be like if we succeed. It will NOT be utopia! It will NOT be perfect! It will NOT be easy! But it could be infinitely livable, sustaining us with all the basics we need to live comfortably in communities that have roots. It could restore what it is to be human, and give meaning back to our lives that seem to be lacking so much in today’s world.
Permaculture, a place where we use the examples of nature to shape, guide, influence, and design the ways we live on this Earth, is the destination. It is the place, the idea, the action, and the inspiration that we need to successfully heal our planet. Permaculture is restoration and stewardship of the natural systems that support all life on Earth, and the acceptance that we are part of these systems, not their masters.
Permaculture is the hope and dream that someday in the future, our grandchildren’s’, grandchildren can look back and know what we did was not for us, but for them. That they can look up at a forest of giant chestnut trees and know that we loved them! That they can drink the water because we loved them! That they can breathe the air because we loved them! That there is a planet to live on because we love them …. Peace & Cheers