The other day I came across this viral video titled ‘Dear Future Generations: Sorry’ from a poet named Prince Ea. In short, the video apologises immensely for all the damage we humans have created in this century due to our own selfishness and ignorance. Towards the end of the video Prince Ea ends his apology, flips the tone of the poem entirely, and reminds us humanity can make change if we get together and start acting together. Prince Ea is an inspiration for many, and his video bounces around a few good ideas as to how to go about change as it ends, yet in permaculture we like to provide practical solutions especially after reading or watching something that is inspiring. So in this article I would like to first take a look at some little-known facts about humanity, and then discuss a few simple ideas about how to put the words into action.
Societies and their inhabitant are the reason that ecosystems (such as the Amazon Rainforest) are abundant in bio-diversity and life. In Permaculture it is constantly reinforced that human disturbance leads to environmental degradation however new evidence strongly concludes that without human disturbance, eco-systems would not be as thriving if humans were out of the picture.
Worldwide, permaculture practitioners adopt positivism as their chosen outlook towards society and for good reason, as focusing on the dire state of many aspects of humanity can be soul-crushing. Yet through my own anecdotal experience, the underlying mentality seems to suggest that nature without humans would flourish and most forms of human intervention is negative. This is far from reality. Whilst we have the capability to destroy eco-systems, we also have the ability to create them – but to what extent?
In the documentary series, EARTH A New Wild: Forests, the astounding discovery by archaeologists shows how ‘The Amazon was once home to vast civilizations of people that once made the forest more productive, not less so.’ Contrary to the common paradigm, the documentary shows how human intervention within an eco-system allows for more bio-diversity to all life forms. The website of the series also says:
There are several examples presented throughout the documentary that show ecosystem productivity increasing due to various agricultural practices, and this is precisely what isn’t understood in the mainstream paradigm – that humans living in harmony with nature can create more bio-diversity then nature could itself. And this isn’t limited to small eco-villages or intentional communities, either. 15 minutes into EARTH A New Wild shows 2000 year old trenches and earthworks that would’ve housed approximately 60,000 people. Without viewing the documentary the scale is hard to comprehend, but what is important here is that a dense human settlement co-existed alongside forests without impacting negatively on the environment.
Bill Mollison writes in A Designers Manual
This isn’t presuming that the above example of a 60,000 person city would be void of negativity, yet, a society within nature that exists in an over-abundance of food, water & resources, would inherently have less socio-economic issues. As Geoff Lawton so famously stated, ‘all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden’ which reiterates the idea that many wars are created by scarcity of resources, and that future conflict ‘are more likely to be fought over water than oil.’ The trend for communities with green spaces, CSA’s etc, is for crime and other socio-economic problems to decrease overall within the first year and rapidly continue this trend as the community expands and connects with likeminded projects in surrounding areas. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that it is plausible for sustainable societies with large populations to thrive without typical issues found in high density living areas.
For further evidence of this, Civic Ecology looks at how people’s inherent love of life and place inevitably leads to the rebuilding of a ‘broken space,’ and how in turn that attributes positively to community rehabilitation, both physically and mentally. I recently watched an online video with Civic Ecologists Akiima Price in which she explains how the rebuilding of a community gardens in Baltimore, USA in commemoration of deceased peoples from her community encouraged drug dealers (who were pushing their products through the communities youth) to give up that trade. In time it was successful – the dealers opened up to their once fearful neighbours and a ‘broken place’ started to heal itself. If green community spaces are encouraged within urban centres, then there is no reason that a city with a large population could not only be sustainable in resources, but a safer environment for all its peoples.
From here I would like then expand on the implications of these conclusions. First and foremost, it allows us to view humanity truly as guardians of the earth with the power to heal ourselves, and secondly, to briefly explore some ways of re-designing and re-thinking our environment and lifestyles to move towards this social model.
Positivism is key when discussing the ‘current state of affairs’ as it is too easy to fall into the trap of helplessness. Whilst an impending doom may be real, the other side of the coin is that humans have the potential to undue all the damage, and to help nature to flourish.
Looking at many areas of high soil fertility (thus bio-diversity) like in South America, North America & Australia, we can directly attribute this to human movement. In North America before European contact, the only lumbricids [earthworms] native to the United States were some lacy species of Bismatus and Eisena, essentially worthless soil builders.’ On settlers boots lay dormant earthworm eggs that were introduced to North America upon arrival and quickly spread throughout the continent. From there, the wonderful little critters got to work munching, pooping & procreating and thus the introduction of the earthworm by humans to the North American continent can be directly attributed to the creation of the lush agricultural lands of New England, the Mid-West, and parts of Canada.
Tribes from all over the globe that practiced selective culling & burning of trees, which freed carbon and precious minerals to be reabsorbed back into the soil leading to a sharp increase to ecological productivity which would not have been possible without human intervention. To increase productivity in an Old Growth Forests, the selection of specific trees for burning allows for a stagnant eco-system to have more available nutrients, more sunlight to the forest floor, and more niches in the forest for young trees (which are greater in productivity, typically) to grow. It takes a keen observer to know which plants should be removed and which to leave as is, and is regarded as a sophisticated from of tribal agriculture.
So whether it is the unintended introduction of the earthworm into foreign lands or conscious burning in delicate forests, humans have a vast potential to be the creators for nature.
The focus for Social Planners, Permaculture Designers, Civic Ecologists, Council Members and the public in general then becomes an issue of how to effectively integrate this knowledge in practical fashion. This topic is far too broad to be succinctly condensed into a short article however herein lies a short list of obvious practices we can, should, and need to communally support to move towards a healthier, green society.
Urban Food Forests/Replanting of Nature Strips
At the very least, nature strips should be planted with indigenous species, not ornamentals. Food Forests in recreational parks have been discussed throughout Melbourne. Progressive councils might allow the planting of fruit trees which is common (and at one point compulsory) in the inner suburbs of Canberra, Australia. Better yet, if we rally our neighbours support enough people can convince the local council to turn the sidewalk into an edible landscape as is seen throughout the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne – one street hosts an annual ‘Most Edible Sidewalk’ prize to encourage the community to pitch in with communal gardening!
The legalisation of urban apiaries in New York 5 years ago marked a massive milestone for beekeepers of the city. Societies are seeing the benefit of such policy with many cities following suit since. Nowadays it is fairly easy to cut through the red tape of establishing hives on rooftops, and as awareness spreads around the harmlessness and importance of bees in urban environments, neighbours, housemates, etc, want to contribute their energy towards beekeeping if someone (like you!) leads the way.
Environmental Education (in all levels of schooling)
‘Alternative’ schools lean towards incorporating gardening as part of their curriculum though it’s unfortunate that this has been labelled alternative. All schools, regardless of the level of education, should have an element of permaculture/environmental education as part of their compulsory curriculum. As a permaculture teacher, I have taught children as little as 6 years old how to grow veggies and was always surprised just how willing the kids were to get involved if they were encouraged to do so. The brightly lit faces of the kids when they harvest produce from their own garden is about the most heart-warming expression in existence.
Urban Restoration Projects
Every city has degraded land, and a cycle observed by Civic Ecologists is that a community will tend to come together to restore and rebuild what was once a useable, green space. Common examples are city creek clean-ups, restoring urban plots into community gardens/spaces, rebuilding landscapes after natural disasters. Such projects are always looking for more volunteers. Civic Ecologists observe that such projects connect likeminded organisations in time, and most importantly have a huge positive impact on the individuals, and the neighbourhood at large.
Divesting in Unethical Banks
Most big banks invest in fossil fuels/mining companies – most likely you are indirectly investing in unethical companies if you are a member of a big bank. Market Forces has a wonderful website that shows most Australian banks & credit unions ethical and environmental statements, and rates which companies are ethical, and which aren’t. Also from the site, you can directly email your bank threatening your divestment if it doesn’t reconsider to whom it invests in – I wrote to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia who responded promptly saying they are re-considering their current investments in fossil fuels, surprisingly. Check it out, it’s a great website!
Attitudinal Shifts Towards Society
Perhaps this is the first issue we should be addressing – our own internal revolution before expecting anyone or anything to progress. For anyone involved in permaculture we understand that excessive conversation about the ‘state of the world’ leads to a negative state of mind, but it really is our duty to share all the excellent doings of successful projects. Focusing on the progress of successful micro-projects is key here – and there are countless examples in nearly every neighbourhood. Always keep in mind that there is an exponential growing number of people pushing for change and progress who are winning. By shifting our focus will inevitably allow us to view the truth already staring us in the face: that humans are both biophiliacs (lovers of life) and topophilacs (lovers of our surroundings).
My first permaculture teacher once said ‘Humans need nature, she doesn’t need us’ – and whilst the message of that saying is loud and clear, the evidence clearly suggests that the nature of humanities relationship with the earth is co-dependent. The more we care for her, the more she takes care of us – so, it is time to stop seeing ourselves as the destroyers of the earth, and to realise our full potential as earth’s allies.
Joshua is a Certified Permaculture Designer & Teacher from Australia, globetrotting the world designing urban environments under his primary project, HIVE Co-Operative. He first studied permaculture at CERES Community Farm in Melbourne, completing a second PDC and started construction of a garden forest at Odanadi Orphanage in India – and recently was a teacher at Rak Tamachat Farm in Central Thailand. He also has his own Permaculture blog site located here.
1. Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers Manual pg 523.
2. Peter Tompkind & Christopher Bird, Secrets of the Soil pg. 41-42, 58.
3. Secrets of the Soil pg. 42.