How to Completely Change our Story

permaculture_chickenby dt

There is a reason why you see a chicken above. Keep reading ;)

The cross-roads

There is no doubt in the mind of scientists and environmentalists that the excessive exploitation of all kinds of resources in the past centuries have created much damage to the biosphere we live in. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has recently updated their Planetary Boundaries model

The three high risk areas – Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Genetic Diversity are interlinked. Nitrogen and Phosphorus are needed for plant growth. Nitrogen gets depleted in the soil through planting of the same kind of crop every year, and phosphorus is provided by animals. Monoculture farming pushes out natural ecosystems, and we now know that we have lost half the wildlife population since 1970.

Though not in the mood to celebrate, I’m an optimist, and believe that we can build a better world if we want to. It’s that “if we want to” bit that makes me worried. Nevertheless, I’m here to tell you a new story. One where the ones who wish to make positive change go out, and build. This is without waiting for politicians, governments, banks, etc. This is because this story starts with our needs, and outputs. Just like the chicken above. Let me explain.

What does a human need? I propose, that based on common sense and some publicly available research, we need:

  • a shelter
  • healthy food (and air, water, etc)
  • energy to heat or cool our shelters, and to cook our food
  • positive social interactions

What is our basic output?

  • poop – in terms of physical connection to the ecology of the biosphere that’s our biggest contribution.

The way we provide our needs and dispose of our products affects the environment. The problem we have now is that for too long we thought of ourselves as separate to the ecosystem. We thought that we are above it. Having reviewed the research, we can see that this is not the case. We are a part of the ecosystem, whether we like it or not. That fly in your house is there for a reason. But there is hope. There is a system of providing our needs that looks at our place in the biosphere and promises to restore the imbalance we’ve caused. It is called permaculture.

The problem is the solution

Bill Mollison coined the term in the ’70s. Working with David Holmgren, they created a methodology of design, that interlinks disparate subjects, like physics, geology, biology and ecology. As much as the division of labour has proven beneficial to us, most of the time it’s beneficial only in economic sense. To allow it to benefit us, and allow us to once again take our place in the biosphere, there needs to be a web of connections applied between disciplines. Otherwise we could end up wasting more energy building artificial trees to suck up the excess CO2, instead of restoring forests, which are disappearing by the hour.

That holistic approach allowed Geoff Lawton (a student and business partner to Mollison for more than two decades), to be chosen as project leader in humanitarian relief missions in poverty and war stricken countries. He is now well known even outside the permaculture community for his greening the desert projects in Jordan. The sequel to that first project has been running for more than four years, and is a stunning proof that we could provide sustenance even in some of the harshest desert environments. I was lucky enough to learn from Geoff, and completed my certificate course in August last year (2014).

Permaculture is a holistic design system for human habitats. It looks at the resources available, and allows to design local support systems, eliminating the need to transport food at great distance. The real value starts with the ethics. Permaculture is the only design science we think we know of, that always treats the biosphere as the first client. The three ethics are as follows:

  1. Earth care – care for the biosphere, the system we live in, and all its inhabitants, which naturally leads to:
  2. People care – care for the economic and psychological well-being of fellow human beings.
  3. Fair share – we take what we need and return the surplus to the earth and to other people.

Permaculture designers apply themselves by looking at what a particular piece of land would be naturally inclined to provide. The current industrial thinking is on the line of “we have a problem to solve and we will use technology, energy and money to solve it“. Bill Mollison has become famous for turning this on its head: “the problem is the solution” is one of the principles he teaches. This allows farmers such as Mark Shepard to run a multi-produce farm with little to no inputs. This is mainly because he started off looking at what will grow in the climate he is in. In fact, he describes his approach as S.T.U.N – Shear, Total, and Utter Neglect. He would plant large quantities of trees and allow the weak ones to die off, leaving the resilient, adapted to the local conditions to produce. Water is not pumped from underground, but harvested and stored in the soil when it rains. Animals clean up the fruit which are not fit for sale and control the bugs. 128 species of migratory birds that have been appearing in ever greater numbers, provide an input of phosphorus, and in the nitrogen depleted areas, Mark grows peppers, because that’s what peppers prefer.

Currently we measure everything in money. Every business in the supply chain makes money, and the more elaborate it is, the more money can be made. But the real cost in the biosphere is energy. A permaculture designer defines sustainability as an energy equation: energy in to energy out. If the system produces more energy than it uses, it’s sustainable. Currently only natural systems are able to harvest, store and cycle sun’s energy efficiently enough. Human industrial systems use energy to produce money. It’s insane.

A permaculture designer looks at a piece of empty land and observes the rainfall amount and frequency, the soil type and level of compaction, fire vectors, animals and plants already present. They will take that and will be able to advise where to place a home so that it uses the least amount energy and water. They will advise, what local materials are available for the house build, and the type of the house to build from these materials, and for the climate of the region. Then they will redirect the rain water into plant systems, from a diverse annual garden, through to food and energy forests. They will include animals, so that their needs are met with the plants, insects, etc, and that their outputs are put to use in the system and the surplus can go into the house.

Each element in this system, be it animal or plant, or in fact infrastructure (a house, a greenhouse, a windmill, etc) has an input and an output. Nature has evolved a diversity of species, which ensure that each element provides the inputs for the next. And yes, we are treated as an element too. As designers, we get the privileged position, but none-the-less, our output can and need to be put to good use. There are simple technologies, which make recycling of our main output safe, and in a way that uses no water whatsoever.

And this is where the chicken image comes in. We take elements, look at their needs and attempt to pair them up into supporting guilds in an effort to remove our work, so that we could just take the cream off the top. You see, deep down, us permaculture designers are simple lazy gardeners. We know we can be, because we work with nature, rather than against it.

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If you are new to permaculture, but this is something of interest to you, and you would like to learn more, starting with Geoff’s website is an idea – he has tons of interesting videos of real-life examples (and he doesn’t spam the inbox, either). If you wished to chat to someone about it, perhaps even have a piece of land to look at, then drop me a line on Linkedin, or add as a contact. You can also find me at danieltyrkiel.co.uk, or view my profile on Permaculture Global.

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6 thoughts on “How to Completely Change our Story

  1. Hi Daniel, Great article. I have been rethinking the “house” bit and looking at ways of sliding a room in and out of the permaculture garden depending on the desired temperature. Gets the occupant closer to the natural systems and I get you get to feel more like a chicken ! Shrinking the shelter shrinks the land space and cost so much that it might be possible to blend in with the environment so much that you might not even be noticed.

    1. Sounds great. Depending on the sun aspect, one might have a room like trellis with vines around it, making grapes, tomatoes and other fruit and veg available on the spot. what decadence :)

  2. I’ve suggested the mechanism for how to go about that change at the Facebook page, Count Me In—Money’s Out. I agree, Daniel, it is insane, in the sense that Einstein noted: we keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome.

    1. I liked your page Steve. Couldn’t agree more. Although we have this system now, and it is so heavily engrained in the collective psyche, we can carve out alternative niches. At the same time trying to pull that promised trickle down through worker coops and other mutual structures, and reinvesting in permanent value of land and ecosystems. Happiness is my goal. :)

  3. Hey Steve. I am not too sure you are correct in your initial analysis of the situation. It is not too little nitrogen but too much nitrogen that threatens biodiversity. In natural systems nitrogen does, as you say tend to be limiting. Man made industrial processes , including farming, increase atmospheric nitrogen compounds or amonium compounds. These compounds are readily dissolved in rain water being washed out of the atmosphere by rainfall. As soil nitrogen increases it is in effect no longer limiting. In otherwords the stochiometry has changed and this leads to the next limiting factor. This could well be phosphates. Plants are able to remove and deplete available soil phosphates.
    Plant diversity can also be reduced through the competetive influences of increased nitrogen availability. Complimentarity and overyeilding in polycultures as described in permacultures only realy works where resources are compartmentalised and to some extent limiting. This allows plants using different strategies to access different resource partitions without being too heavily hampered by competition. Nutrient gradients and root zonation spring to mind here but there are many others.
    So in conclusion ; nitrogen is a threat but it is not for a lack of it.

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