Opinions Are Not Facts – Failing the Aircraft Test


A wild apple tree, on the side of the road

Not far from where I live, there is a wild apple tree. It is an old, well established tree that is in such an odd location that it can only have ended up there by pure chance alone. As you can see from the photos, it reliably produces plenty of apples, which are crisp and tasty. A few days ago I picked about 10kg of fruit and have since begun converting them into the very useful product apple cider vinegar. Even so, there are still more apples remaining unharvested on the tree.

Apples are a staple fruit here with a variety of uses (apple cider vinegar is just one example) so I included 26 different varieties of apples in my own young food forest. The food forest itself has about 300 mixed fruit trees. In the past year or so I have occasionally opened the farm for visits with the local seed savers and food producers groups. It is always a pleasure to share the farm with them and hear their feedback.

However, a number of recurring observations about fruit trees seem to come from members of these two groups, including:

  • They are hard work;
  • They require constant watering;
  • They require annual spraying as a preventative against various pests and diseases;
  • They require regular applications of fertiliser;
  • They require annual pruning; and
  • They require netting otherwise you will be unable to harvest any fruit.

This all sounds a bit discouraging, really. But then I think about that wild apple tree, which receives none of those services, exhibits none of the problems and yet in only a few minutes I managed to harvest enough fruit to produce a 20 litre bucket of apple cider vinegar.

The only conclusion I can take from my observation is that people can confuse facts on the ground with opinions.

Ordinarily, this way of thinking wouldn’t present a problem because I’m still harvesting plenty of yummy wild apples (let alone the apples produced at the farm here) despite people’s opinions about fruit trees. However, it is a problem when this way of thinking is applied to larger issues, such as global warming.

I’ve noticed over the past few years that articles on the permaculture news website regarding extreme weather events, climate or climate trends tend to attract a fairly predictable response from commenters denying the existence of those trends, or questioning the validity of the facts presented in the article.

Without rehashing all of the boring details and the to and fro arguments, I’d have to suggest that those deniers comments fail what I like to call the aircraft test. The aircraft test is as follows: If 95% of experts suggest that an aircraft is likely to crash on its next flight, would you get on that flight? The aircraft test is a blunt but useful tool when a person has a need to assess risk.

Deniers generally shop around until they find an opinion which tells them what they want to hear and then they repeat that opinion. As an observation, I’d also have to suggest that deniers are insecure in those opinions, otherwise why would they frequent a permaculture news website?

If deniers were secure in their opinions, they could simply let the facts on the ground prove those opinions to be correct and there the matter could rest.

Yet like the wild apple tree and its reliable production of fruit, contrary to people’s opinions, the facts on the ground regarding global warming are disproving those deniers’ opinions.

At this point it is worth mentioning the three permaculture ethics:

  • Earth care;
  • People care; and
  • Return of surplus into the system.

I would imagine that the people who read this permaculture news website have an interest in permaculture, so by extension I would imagine that they have a greater than average interest in earth care and people care.

To be a denier of climate change when the evidence points that the change is occurring, shows a lack of both earth care and empathy for people who have to deal with the pointy end of these changes.

The facts on the ground for the farm here in the south-east of Australia are:

  • 2013 was for Australia the hottest year on average since records began. At one point in that season, the Bureau of Meteorology had to introduce a new colour gradient to their maps to be able to record these new temperatures, which broke records in every state;
  • In addition to this heat, between mid-spring of 2012 until late February of 2013 the usually historically reliable rains failed here; and
  • This summer which is not yet over, had even more 40+ degrees Celsius days than the previous record breaking summer (currently standing at about 9 of these hot days). Some of the days were just shy of 45 degrees Celsius. As I write this article, the month of February 2013 has been 4.3 degrees Celsius hotter than the long term average.

The picture that I am presenting above is that the facts on the ground are consistent with global warming, and to deny these facts is insulting.

It is very difficult to be involved in working with natural systems whilst at the same time ignoring the indicators that unusual things are going on in those same systems. Therefore, I challenge the climate change deniers to get off their computers and get active in the natural world and start telling us their stories about actual activities promoting or practising permaculture (or sustainable agriculture or other related systems) in the real world.


Despite the extreme conditions, there is much that can be achieved.

The truth is that a properly designed and established food forest takes very little work to maintain. I spend less than a handful of days per year maintaining that system. What does take most of my time is: developing and improving the built infrastructure at the farm here; trialling and propagating various new plants, guilds and systems for resilience to the changing climate; animal systems; and involvement with a few of the locals and community groups. At the same time the return of surplus goes towards spreading useful information to interested people about what is working and what isn’t as well as accommodating the often not considered local diverse wildlife which calls this farm its home.


Resilient infrastructure takes time and effort

Just in case I was not blunt enough before: People, get off your couch and go and do a PDC (Permaculture Design Certificate course) and get involved. Go and plant something and observe its growth cycle and interactions with the rest of nature. Go spend some time in a natural setting. Get some animal husbandry skills. Join a community group involved with plants and/or animals. There is just so much that people can actually be doing.

Talk, as the Chinese proverb goes, does not cook the rice.

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25 thoughts on “Opinions Are Not Facts – Failing the Aircraft Test

  1. John Chapman (September 26, 1774 – March 11, 1845), often called Johnny Appleseed, was an American pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as the northern counties of present day West Virginia. He became an American legend while still alive, due to his kind, generous ways, his leadership in conservation, and the symbolic importance he attributed to apples.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonny_apple_seed

  2. Bravo! Thanks for your wise article. I am often amazed by the commenters who seem to be carrying the prevailing attitudes of the general population, how did they get here? If “Nothing changes, nothing changes” as they say. We hope for change but have to make it ourselves.

  3. The term “global warming” is leading to some misconceptions: every time there is an extraordinary flood or cold it is used by some as a counterargument against global-warming.

    But the effect of global warming are easier understood in terms of more chaotic weather events: more global warmth leading to more energy in the global weather system leading to statistically more chaotic weather events globally – sometimes locally unusal heat, sometimes more floods, sometimes more intense cold.

  4. Two of the most researched and practical people on this planet go by the names of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Both are convinced that this planets climate is changing. That is good enough for me. They are joined by a whole host of just as researched and practical people such as Stuart Hill, Peter Andrews, and Lawton, just to name a few. All of these people, by example, are showing the way with working practical solutions. I do not know of any denier who is out there providing inspiration on how to live. I know who I would rather listen to. I agree with the authors assertion that opinions are not facts. As someone who in my 50’s is now a qualified Hortie, I know only too well all about the opinions on pruning, netting and spraying. With the help of my friend Grant, we have recently set up a mini tucker forest here in Blackheath and it is just stunning that in less than 4 months we have managed to create fruit tree guilds that are well on there way to an ecological balance. I have advised the new owner of the property not to prune and she need not net. While the neighbours net and stake their tomatoes, the wild tomatoes on this property are left to grow as tomatoes will, in a sprawling manner and in doing so they provide a great summer time ground cover. Shortly there will be masses of fruit. Many an expert gardener would advise us to stake and pinch out the laterals and net the crop. I just think, why? They are doing fine just as they are. As the apples, pears, plums, cherry and fig trees come into maturity, it will be the same deal. There is that much understory diversity happening including bird attracting species. A problem for the experts perhaps, I just reckon there will be enough for all, as the years go by, just as in your wild apple tree example.

  5. Climate disruption is perhaps a more descriptive term. I detest the term climate weirding. It is the new normal, nothing weird or mysterious about it.

  6. I think the thing that is missing is that Global Warming isn’t as easy to believe in the U.S.. Take a look at this map from NASA it shows that the entire earth is mesurably warmer but the U.S. is actually cooler. Of course I think that weather manipulation is at play, what else can explain the peculiar cooling limited to a single country.

    Please see the following image for more.
    http://data.giss.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/gistemp/nmaps.cgi?year_last=2013&month_last=11&sat=4&sst=3&type=anoms&mean_gen=11&year1=2013&year2=2013&base1=1951&base2=1980&radius=1200&pol=reg

    God Bless,
    Josh

  7. Hi Alex. Thanks for the link. He would have been an interesting character to sit down with, share a cider and have a bit of a yarn.

    Hi David. Thanks very much. The commenters amaze me too. They are an annoying distraction from the actual task at hand.

    Hi Thomas. Too true and exactly correct. The heatwaves here this summer have moved right across the entire Australian continent, yet there are still locally unusual and very extreme weather events going on. Adelaide for example smashed its summer record a week or two ago with 12 days above 40C degrees. It’s not good.

  8. Just check out the glacial evidence – glaciers are long term repositories of climate if they’re extending long term it’s warming up; but if as is presently the case they’re retreating and retreating at faster rates than ever before and losing mass faster than ever recorded before then the local climate is warming up and if that is happening globally then global warming is surely occurring. Yes there have been flips up and down but globally based on terminal moraines the present warming phase has been going on for about 9,000 years but definitely it’s been relatively very rapid in the last 50 years QED -. Each of us believers needs to set an example (and forget about the naysayers who obviously live on a different planet from us) – set an example by only using new low power globes, put in a solar power sytem, use a bicycle for work local travel, get an electric bike or electric car for long distance travel, get rid of your energy consuming home – build a cob home – recycle, reuse, reduce consumption – choose the low energy alternative in whatever we do – why live in a 200m2 mansion when 60m2 is more than enough.
    Love our only planet Earth and encourage others to do the same.

  9. We should not forget that some of these deniers will have been paid to trawl through sites like this one and post adverse comments.

    1. Do you seriously believe that? Where is this money coming from? Where’s the evidence that even a single skeptic is being paid to comment on this site?

  10. Hi Dean. I reckon a lot of advice of that sort stems from commercial production activities. There are plenty of other methods can be utilised. Often people confuse efficient commercial practices with that of resilient agricultural practices. Efficient is rarely resilient. Respect for your work, I kept imagining the old hedgerows. A Permaculture perspective is that of resilience.

    Hi Anthony. Fair enough, that’s as a workable a descriptive as any other.

    Hi Josh. I’m concerned that you don’t consider California and most of the west coast to be part of the US.

    Hi Abrahim. Well spoken mate!

    Hi Peter. Thanks. That thought has occurred to me too.

    Hi Tom. Thanks man.

  11. Well done Chris and all good men we’re already on the plane anyway with our families and had best enjoy like Johnny Appleseed the same Direct Action Activism he did see Naiomi Klein : How science is telling us all to revolt (Dec 2012).

  12. Well put Chris. I enjoy your farm updates on YouTube.

    Josh: Take a look at the USDA’s long awaited update for their hardiness zones. Obvious warming trend there.

    Or the fact that while the US is seeing a particularly harsh winter, folks like us in the Nordic countries are seeing a record warm winter. We didn’t seriously dip below freezing here in southern Finland until after the new year. And then we only had about 3 weeks of below freezing temps. The snow is all but gone as warm weather blows in from the southwest.

    Look beyond your borders. It is called global warming or anthropogenic climate change for a reason; not America warming or American climate change.

  13. I would just like to say it is acceptable to practise permaculture without taking on any belief one way or the other about man’s impact on the planet’s climate.
    I would also like to say that in my view there is no requirement for leaders in permaculture. Sepp Holzer is a man who just got on with designing and implementing what he thought was right for him, his family, the plant, animal and insect life that shared the land with him. He had never even heard of the word permaculture and yet there he was doing it for decades when the term was coined by Bill and David.
    The cult of the leader is one of the things which is keeping most of mankind anchored to consumerism.

    Equally as bad in my view is the division that is forever being thrust upon us all. For permaculture to become the design system of choice for the majority this division has to be healed not propagated. Permaculture offers anyone, who tries to implement it in any way, a method of proving to themselves and just as importantly, showing those around them that consumerism is not the only option for life. It is up to the individual to either go with permaculture or reject it, however once it becomes clear that this lifestyle design system demonstrates to enough people that it is possible to ignore or give up on consumerism and life ‘goes on’ then consumerism and the corporate world of governance it creates will be revealed as ‘the dead man walking’ it really is. Mankind can leave the devils embrace and move to a better quality of life.

  14. Hi Chris, another good article to read.
    And I totally agree – far too many people, in general, love to sit at their computers and read and ‘talk’ rather than getting upright and into their garden. It irks me when certain people write long articles frequently. Once a month should be the maximum.
    Best regards
    Dylan

  15. Hi Peter. Your question neatly dodges the central argument of this article which is: are those comments that both you and I refer to, aligned with the ethics of permaculture? Answer that question first and then your question – which is a fair question by the way – sort of looks a bit more murky than at first glance.

    Hi Frank. Thanks for the good wishes.

    Hi Joshua. Thank you about the farm updates, it is always interesting to see what is working and what isn’t working. I’m currently doubling the area under strawberries and fencing off a thornless blackberry (also known as bramble berry) patch to increase summer fruit production. The wild varieties in the area are very stressed by the heat and only producing small berries and every year it is a little bit worse than the previous year. I’d heard that the winter had been very mild in Northern Europe. I wish you a productive spring.

    Hi Bill. I don’t think anyone is calling for leaders in permaculture. The Aboriginals in Australia had a unique culture and outlook to land management in that they established and maintained over countless generations, landscape templates. A template was an area in the landscape of varying size that was an living example of how to go about managing the country, plants and animals in it for various outcomes. Edges were maximised – a fact which most permaculturalists would recognise. The templates provided established guidance on how to maximise production of all manner of ecosystem services from yams, grains to even water harvesting and animals (eg. wallabies, kangaroos for meat etc). They were literally dotted across the entire continent.

    A permaculture site is just like a template in that it is a living example of what is possible. It is not talk but, a person/s actions in actively designing, establishing, maintaining and then possibly modifying that landscape and systems to achieve abundance. Such actions generally teach humility not arrogance.

    I disagree with you regarding your assertion in relation to consumerism and the cult of leadership. Consumerism is merely the dominant culture because the benefits for the population at large of complying with consumerism exceed the benefits of not complying with it.

    It is an interesting discussion, but seriously off topic.

  16. Excellent essay, thank you. We put in four species of apple tree in our garden this winter, plus five cherries, to supplement the citrus we already have.

    The citrus was neglected for a decade until I started to care for them, I’ve found the amount of work you do on an ongoing basis is more a reflection of how easy you want to harvest. Being able to walk underneath, reach up and pick fruit means frequent work.

    Well worth the effort when you pick fresh fruit and hand it to a friend, then they then say, “I want to be able to do that…”

  17. I know what you mean about wild apples being productive despite not being cared for in the way the ag extension (US) says we should. Pruning is one thing I plan to do less of this year! But the netting … I don’t net and the squirrels get almost every apple and nut from all trees most years. Only when their population crashes do I get some of them. You don’t have squirrels there, do you? Lucky you in that case.

    Your photos are very inspiring. They are one of the images I have in mind when I contemplate how I might make changes to my gardens to make them work better.

  18. Hi Dylan. Thanks. Actions do speak louder than words.

    Hi Paul. Exactly. Get out into the environment and do some good.

    Hi Bill. No worries. Just trying to give you a different perspective.

  19. Hi Chris, I followed your shameless link over here from the ADR. The pictures here at this article are lovely and I really emphasize with the problem you describe. However, I’d like to suggest a refinement to your theory.

    The problem I have been noticing lately is less that people confuse their own “opinions” with “Facts on the ground”. The problem I see is that people get (at first, useful) rules lodged inside their heads; then they convince themselves the rules are so useful that the rules have no exceptions; and then they deny the “Facts on the ground” right in front of their eyes when they confront something which appears to contradict the rules.

    In the case you describe, these seed savers and food producers have adopted rules about apple trees which probably contain some significant degree of truth — if we are talking about large-scale orchards in an industrial food production context. In the natural setting, where pests, diseases, and apple consumers are basically kept in a state of checks and balances, their rules do not apply. Yet they will look at your roadside natural apple tree, and consider it a trivial exception to the rules, because it doesn’t fit their experiences and their preconceived set of rules. They will seize upon any tiny bug blemish and any trivial difficulty you encounter harvesting the roadside apples, and blow those small things out of proportion, because those small things conform to their preconceived rules.

    The climate deniers have their own set of rules of course, and in my experience they are a far more blatant example of willful blindness in the face of contradictory evidence. Their rules, which we must acknowledge have served them well for most of their professional lives, include such statements as “Industry is always good” and “The natural environment is man’s to exploit without any cost or backlash”. However, I suspect most of what motivates climate deniers to visit sites like yours, is a derivative rule of the above, which contains a lot less truth: their ingrained rule that “The dirty, libertine hippies and environmentalists are always wrong in anything they say”. That’s why we call them reactionaries.

    However, although we can talk about how people on the Rightward end of what passes for the US political spectrum tend to exhibit a lot of willful blindness to facts on the ground… that blindness is certainly found on the Left as well. Perhaps the blindness is more subtle, and I’m not suggesting its magnitude is equivalent. But some of the Leftist blind spots might include, “People will make the right decision if they’re just given the facts,” and both sides certainly partake in the blind spot that “Technology can fix all the problems it creates”.

  20. Hi Harry. Thanks. Inspiring by example is a great approach. Best wishes for your apple and cherry trees. Citrus trees are real givers.

    Hi Claire. Thank you. Your herb and coneflower photos look great too. You’ve inspired me to try some coneflowers for the next summer season. Squirrels sound like the nemesis of all fruit and nuts. Fruit predation can be a bit of a nuisance. I share a fair percentage of the produce here with the local wildlife and so far it has been reasonably balanced, with the occasional exception. Possums are active in this area and they fall into a similar niche as squirrels, except they will eat the leaves and young shoots as well as the fruit. They aren’t a problem because the boobook owls regularly keep their population in check. Perhaps some higher order predator needs to keep the squirrel population in check? I was reading recently that back in the 1920’s in the US they were considered to be game.

    PS: The wallabies here perform pruning functions with all fruit trees other than citrus. The marsupials prune the understorey and maintain the ability to walk around underneath the fruit tree canopy. However, they are sometimes overzealous at that function, so that I have no option other than to cage every single fruit tree until the tree reaches about 3m in height at which point the wallabies can no longer over prune the tree and the problem ends there. The wild apple tree avoided this problem because it is on a steep-ish natural embankment and wallaby’s would be unlikely to go to that area.

    What I’m trying to say is that there may be other ways to exclude squirrels from your place, it may be a case of observing areas where they aren’t a problem and asking, the question why? On the other hand, I’m no purist and if you need to net your fruit trees to get some fruit, then please do so too. Your neighbours actions can sometimes impact your fruit, vegetable and herb production sometimes as much as your own actions.

    Hi Thomas. Thanks very much. I don’t buy into the whole left – right political spectrum thing because there are very few differences in Australia between the two major parties. The differences are trivial. That is the last thing I’ll say on the subject as it is way off topic.

    You are exactly correct in that it is a problem of people’s internal narratives not being able to adapt to differing contexts. Dean – above – mentioned this problem too as much of the advice we are being given in relation to agriculture stems from commercial practice. Commercial practice, as you rightly point out, is efficient in its context of a commercial farm.

    However, the question that rarely gets asked is, efficient at what? I’d have to suggest it would be output. However, if that commercial farmer took into account the long term impacts of their practices then it becomes questionable as to whether the term efficient could even be applied. People rarely think beyond the next season.

    Even science, which I have a great respect for, tends to fall into that trap too, in that: if it cannot be observed and hasn’t been researched, then it must not exist.

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