27 Sep 2009, 7:08pm
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notes from my permaculture course, part 2

more questions from toby:

why are we here (in class) / what are we hoping to solve?
why are so many permaculturists into wicca/paganism/earth-centered spirituality? (hah!)

to answer these questions–a powerpoint presentation, titled “how permaculture can save the planet–but not civilization.”

first off–what is “sustainability”? the UN defines “sustainable development” (an oxymoron?) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” but what are “needs”? this definition lets us get away with whatever we want (”need”). “need” and “sustainability” become words that can be used in whatever way we want.

then, this idea that i remember from the vbc:
degenerative <------- sustainable -------> regenerative.

“sustainable” is not really all that great a thing to be. for example: “how’s your marriage these days?” “oh, it’s sustainable.” uhh…

sustainable over what timeframe?
LIFE has been around for 3.8 billion years.
how long has HUMANITY been around for?
we’ve been using tools for roughly 2 million years.
fire for at least half a million years.
been doing things that make us human for let’s say a million years, give or take… music, crafts, art, shelter, food gathering and production, raising children, etc.

then toby held onto the end of a ball of yarn and passed it through the classroom. unwound, it was 100 feet long. one foot represented 10,000 years of human history. the last foot or so was a different color than the rest of it, representing AGRICULTURE. the last tiny little bit at the end of that foot represented the industrial age. all the rest of the yarn was humanity before agriculture. the point was that we have human genetics and culture that date way, way further back than agriculture.

the five different types of human culture (according to anthropologists, or something):
1) foraging / hunter-gatherers
2) horticultural (tending plants, but not really domesticating them)
3) agricultural (clearing, planting, domesticating; controlling the food environment in a defined space with intense work)
4) pastoral (domesticated animals)
5) industrial

agriculture is civilization as we know it. agriculture is required to have what we call civilization–population density, etc.

the fertile crescent really was fertile once upon a time. it’s the piece of land on which agriculture has been practiced the longest… and it became impossible to practice agriculture there 3000 years ago. agriculture trashed the land after a few thousand years.

greece used to be lush and green, and now it’s full of eroded hillsides and such. agriculture was practicable for a few centuries there.

and land in the midwest usa lasted only a few decades, as agriculture was industrialized, before the dust bowl. and then fossil fuels saved us–we learned how to turn oil into food.

river valleys with yearly flooding seem to be able to sustain agriculture for 1000s of years–everywhere else, it is unsustainable.

toby dared us to name one ecosystem that is better off for having had civilization come into it. of course no one could.

so is “sustainable agriculture” an oxymoron?

farming inexorably increases population:
more food produces more people,
more people need more food!

farming inexorably consumes ecosystems:
it requires:
–crop land,
–land for animals (pasture, growing fodder, etc),
–fertilizer (mulch collected from forests, etc),
–mines, fuel, timber, etc,
–and land for farm workers and their needs.

basically, agriculture is a way of turning ecosystems into people. land no longer serves its ecosystem function, and feedback from a degraded system is too slow–it might take centuries for the land to be totally depleted, so we don’t realize quickly enough that we’re biting ourselves in the ass this way, because in the meantime what we’re doing is feeding us.

agricultural people are not healthy:
–they actually have a shorter lifespan compared to foragers–there is apparently archeological evidence of this from the dickson mounds in illinois–foragers and agriculturalists from the same time period.
–they have more degenerative diseases such as arthritis and other bone/joint problems.
–they have more epidemics–chicken pox, smallpox, swine flu… all from domesticated animals!
–they have regular famine! (or did, before we learned to turn oil into food.) foragers can almost always find food. in animal populations, most population drops are from dramatic reductions in birth rates, not from die-offs. when food supply is low, animals (and non-agricultural humans) just stop breeding. so no one goes hungry.
–they have smaller stature.

agricultural people have less leisure and freedom:
–foragers need approx. 3 hours to gather a week’s food. then they hang out! farmers need 2-3 days of work per week just to produce their food; then, they need a couple more days to pay their rent. (toby mentioned that this particular point is fairly controversial and not everyone agrees with this conclusion.)
–farming societies have less cultural diversity–there is pretty much only one industrial culture: ours.
–agriculture is portable (not dependent on a specific bioregional landbase), leading to conquest, i.e. war on a much bigger scale than it would otherwise be practiced.
–agriculture’s surplus requires a hierarchy to police it. foragers, meanwhile, tend to have pretty flat hierarchies–everyone has access to the leader, who rules through charisma and leadership ability rather than through might.

if your culture requires a legal system to protect the rights of its members–that is weird and means something is broken!

agriculture takes more than it gives / offers a negative return on energy. the point of diminishing returns seems to come when you bring animals into agriculture. it’s a ponzi scheme! you need to grow more to feed the animals, which means more animals to plow the fields…

a brief history of agricultural expansion:
–600 b.c.: persia runs out of soil and colonizes greece.
–greece colonizes italy and a bunch of other places.
–rome’s soil is already exhausted by the time romans come to power, so they colonize north africa etc.
–europe colonizes everywhere (which, incidentally, made the renaissance possible–alright, they got a development loan from their colonies–when’re they gonna start paying back!?)
–manifest destiny in the usa–americans migrate to undepleted soil.
–now, most of the veggies grown in the usa come from some of the last soil we got our hands on, in northern california. (veggies require healthier soil than wheat and other stuff.)

the Green Revolution: how to make food from oil.
in which scientists learned to select for crops that responded to enormous amounts of fertilizer (which is made from oil). this massively increased wheat yields in developing countries. two graphs from this time period–one of wheat yields, one of worldwide oil production: both go up with roughly the same slope. a graph of population would look similar.

and now… the soil looks like the surface of the moon. totally depleted and salinated. really no way to clean it up short of using lots of fresh water to flush out all the salt–and we don’t have that much fresh water.

the green revolution was sold as a solution to the world food crisis, but it was really subsidized food production. and when the subsidies dried up, these third world countries were just left with crappy soil and more mouths to feed.

so we come to…
the end of the oil age / peak oil.

we’ve been moving on an upward slope (oil, population, etc) for a long time. but soon, we’re gonna see the slope start to fall and things are gonna change.

where do we go from here?
some possibilities–

(image from energybulletin.net)

toby reminds us again that population decreases usually happen through attrition, not deaths. europe’s birth rate is in decline–currently approx. 1.2 children per woman. if the whole world’s population had that birth rate, the earth’s population could be down to 4 billion in 50 years, 2 billion in 80 years.

currently 7 billion–the UN believes it will peak at 9 billion. current estimates of the world’s post-peak-oil carrying capacity range from half a billion to 2 billion people.

chemical farming is already almost too expensive to do because of the rising price of oil.

1 tbsp oil = the same calories as one person working for eight hours.

as far as doom and gloom goes, we haven’t even gotten into pesticides, global warming, etc.

we’ve been through something like this before. in the bronze age, we had “peak wood”! (making bronze takes a lot of wood fuel–4 or 5 big trees to make a kg of bronze!)

so, are we doomed?
permaculture to the rescue!

permaculture = rebirthing a horticultural society.
horticulture–from hortus: plant. agriculture–from ager: field.
–a garden, not a farm
–the hoe, not the plow
–small scale, mixed crops
–encourages succession
–ecosystem function is retained
–less hierarchy
–and horticultural societies tend to imagine earth spirits (we are one among many creatures) vs. sky gods (we are “chosen,” special, of all the creatures on earth–i.e. the earth is here for us to exploit)
(voilà the reason, says toby, that so many of his students are pagans etc. they “get” the one-among-many thing already. this is a sort of amusing but also potentially alienating point to make in class, though. another student raised her hand and asked, “well, is there a place for us monotheistic sky god worshippers in permaculture?” for me, it’s a chicken or egg thing, trying to trace my evolving spirituality vs my interest in this sort of thing.)

“culture” does not require agriculture. foragers have “the original affluent society”–all the land and resources you want/need! foragers and horticulturists have art, music, crafts, ritual, etc. and a shorter work day! more time for culture!

what does post-industrial horticulture look like? how do we create a permaculture society?
–”bend the grid” (ex: city repair intersections) (how many times have i linked to city repair from this blog? i love them.)
–recreate human settlements in natural patterns (vs grids)
–models already exist: the Amazon Rainforest is an ancient food forest!! plus, tropical agroforestry, temperate food forests, savannas

historical horticultural societies include the hopewell culture (pennsylvania area), which lasted for 4000 years; the northwest coast peoples; ancient oaxaca, the owens valley paiute; and more… lots of evidence that horticulture is not a brief transition period before agriculture, like anthropologists used to think–in fact, horticulturists exposed to agriculture sometimes chose not to become agriculturists, because they saw what they would lose.

but we don’t want to go “back” to horticulture. we want to create the next thing–having learned lessons from everything that’s come before. i.e., permaculture!

sustainable technology–this transition doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing a lot of stuff. we can have technology and abundance and “stuff” if we get better at recycling the rare earth materials that go into that tech. (we have to get better at it ’cause right now it’s a huge pollutant, too!)

then we discussed (in small groups) toby’s list of permaculture design principles. i found a few different versions of these with a quick google search, so they are hardly set in stone. toby’s list is conveniently reproduced here on his website. guess what #1 is. observe!

in our discussions, we noticed that it was hard to talk about one of the principles without taking about several of them. redundancy in the design–another principle!

that was day 1. whew.

to be continued, and then continued again, and then reevaluated, and then reevaluated again.

The ecosystem and civilization question is an interesting one. Some ecosystems only exist as a result of human involvement. The Great Plains were maintained as a grassy plan of vast expanse by the regular burning done by the Plains Indian tribes, who burned the plains to maintain the grass–otherwise they would have been forest. That created an ecosystem which allowed the buffalo to flourish. Many migratory birds flourished in the edge communities created as a result of the burnings.

Of course, cities represent a kind of ecosystem as well. There is a semi-invisible biologic community that is maintained by the existence of cities; the Norway rat could be considered a cornerstone species. While this clearly is not an improvement over what was there before, it is an ecosystem that would not exist at all without civilization as we know it.



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