The Permaculture Podcast

    Episode 1311: Permaculture and Disasters (Permabyte)


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    This episode is a listener question thanks to a good friend of mine, Tony, sending an email for me to check out a recent video by Toby Hemenway on Redesigning Civilization and a question.

    His question:

    Say, for the sake of argument, that we lived in a fully functional Permacultural society (as to how large a society, let’s consider the question in regards to a local, city, and national sized societies). How would a Permacultural society deal with an extensive drought and/or other longer-termed production destroying situations as opposed to an industrial/agricultural one?

    Before I dig in, I’m going to say that this is a thought experiment at best, and a bit of a rambling one at that. Here is my mind as I’m pulling from various angles to look at various points. I could easily spend months working out more and more intricacies, putting in references to support and refute various pieces, but I’d rather provide a basic response than to fall down the rabbit hole of seeking perfection and never produce something. For the sake of time and brevity, this is what I have for now.

    Given the complexities of any arrangement of people, a clear-cut answer of what this final society would look like isn’t straight forward. Every situation and site is unique, and thus would be every town, city, or nation that make permaculture the primary design system. However, I can speak to how the principles and other core ideas of permaculture potentially lead to a different society that can face this, or other, loss of production.

    To see how that happens, I’m going to walk through Holmgren’s widely publicized 12 principles and be mindful of the three ethics.

    For those of you who haven’t heard them in a while, or if this is your first introduction to permaculture, here are those ethics and principles.

    Care for the Earth
    Care for the People
    Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and return the surplus.

    Observe and Interact.
    Catch and store energy.
    Obtain a yield.
    Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
    Use and value renewable resources and services.
    Produce no waste.
    Design from patterns to details.
    Integrate rather than segregate.
    Use small and slow solutions.
    Use and value diversity.
    Use edges and value the marginal.
    Creatively use and respond to change.

    So, we have the premise of the question: A disaster occurs destroying long term production. Though it could be anything, I’ll focus on Tony’s suggested drought as an illustrating point. The principles, being principles and not techniques, apply in the same way to any other problem encountered, even if that’s a wandering horde of zombies or keeping rebels out of your new planet destroying orbital base. The specific design elements and techniques come in to solve the problem at hand, such as a strong fence to keep out those zombies, if they’re the slow shambling Romero types, or insuring you have good security in place and small enough exhaust ports so some lucky farmboy doesn’t have the skills to hit that now half meter target. Though I don’t know how you’d account for the wisdom of a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi encouraging him to use the force, but I digress.

    Now then, with the 12 principles as a guide for figuring out how this society would differ from the world we have today, let’s go.

    Observe and interact.
    This principle gets us into the world examining the site and what happens there. Through the use of zone, sector, and vector analysis the internal, external, positive, and negative influences become clear, including accepting the unknowns.

    We know what disasters are most likely, can plan for the eventuality, and consider the worst case scenario. We then design solutions into the system expecting that one day the disaster will come. Knowing there is a drought guides how we respond to it.

    Catch and store energy.
    Another reminder to capture and use as much of what’s coming through a particular system as possible in order to slow the progress of entropy. Living systems represent the best way to do that, through the plants and animals, people and their knowledge.

    Considering the impacts of a drought: long term drop in food production, we need to store food, our own energy for the future. When it comes to our plants, that means building nutrients in the soil and in turn water the soil.

    Knowledge is another form of energy storage, if you want to play loose with the idea of energy, but figure this more to be the wisdom of those around us and who came before us. Planning for drought, we can investigate techniques to help in that situation both common, such as mulching, but also more specifically like dry farming tomatoes. Again, with any emergency, the best time to gain those skills are before the problem arises, so we’re constantly learning new things early and often.

    Obtain a yield.
    Whether the disaster occurs today or 10 years from now, preparing ahead of time and considering what yields we want to obtain allow us to still produce something useful from the system.

    It’s possible to spend so much preparing for an eventuality that in the time until it occurs the systems costs us more than we gain. This shouldn’t be a zero-sum game where we win or lose, but rather to be perpetually gaining a little bit more and ever improving. But don’t take that as a commandment to seek ever increasing growth, as the only thing I’ve known of that can grow forever is cancer, and that’ll kill you. Instead, we expand the yields we get from the system.

    Storing water in tanks is a great improvement if it benefits us now and in the future. Capturing rainwater to water plants may aid the recharging of the local aquifer because of the decreased need to use it, allowing that to be an additional resource when the drought comes. Storing food saves us should the drought mean there is less food, but spending money we one doesn’t have to build those reserves could put you in more dire straights. The same goes for spending resources to put away food and then failing to use it. We’ve introduced unnecessary waste to the system.

    Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
    Like a recession, by the time we realize a drought is upon us, we’re already in trouble. This isn’t something that happens suddenly and is gone, like a tornado or single storm, but is a long term disruption that may happen over a large area. As long term planners, after a few weeks with no rain, we being making decisions on how to handle the situation. The community begins coming together to figure out how to get the necessary work done. The nation begins directing any available volunteers where they can do the most good, while under the auspices of the local community leaders and citizens they serve.

    Use and value renewable resources and services.
    We use renewable resources and services because they’re ones that can be managed easier, by individuals and communities. Though the usage could be extractive, say cutting down a tree, planting another one or allowing succession regenerates that loss so it is only temporary.

    In turn, this preserves the limited, scarce, and non-renewable resources so that should a problem arise, a small portion may be used to help solve the problem. For our drought conditions, this could be fuel for tanker trucks to deliver water onsite to those in need, or to move resources long distances should the local ones reach critically low stores.

    Produce no waste.
    For produce no waste, the 5 Rs come to mind: Refuse, Reuse, Reduce, Repair, Recycle, which all tie into the third ethic to reduce consumption and have a surplus to share. For our drought, that means concentrating on what matters most in the landscape and community to move forward and overcome the issues at hand, to refuse to produce any waste, to reuse as much as possible in light of the current problem, reduce the use of water to preserve for the landscape, possibly by asking people to work together to restrict water use to divert that water from other uses into the landscape.

    Similarly, there’s no reason to grow food that the individual or community won’t eat. My wife loves cherry tomatoes, but is the only member of our family who does. One cherry tomato plant is enough for our family. Growing ten doesn’t make sense, even if there’s more than that have currently escaped into the yard.

    Design from patterns to details.
    Patterns help focus our planning, not only in the assemblage of parts, but also in what can happen. Think about a garden you’ve raised, or what you hear in the news about agriculture, if there’s a long dry spell, what are the first plants to begin drooping, wilt, and then die? How would that influence what you grow?

    In the community, you can also find out, through those acts of observation and being involved, who the leaders are, whether they think they’re in charge or not. Ever notice how there’s someone who people defer to when making certain decisions? Or who step up and volunteer when something needs to be done? They become leverage points to turn to when problems arise and also the jesus screws you need to keep tight when they’re called upon. Within my own family, those people are my father on his side of the family, and my maternal grandmother on my mother’s.

    Who can you identify in your own location or family should the wheels come off the system to call on to make a difference?

    Integrate rather than segregate.
    Bring things together, be they the plants and animals in a yard backyard, or the members of a community community. Whether you think individuals are dumb and groups are smart or groups are dumb and individuals are smart, bringing everyone together lends additional intellectual, social, and other yields that help solve problems. Though your neighbor may not be strong enough to lug water down the road to the horticulturist, they may have a wheelbarrow you can borrow to get their water there. Or an old farmer may remember how they made it through a drought years before, aiding your position.

    Use small and slow solutions.
    As the drought becomes apparent, rather than making huge drastic changes, we begin with little ones, looking for those leverage points where the smallest action produces the most good. Again, this will vary depending on scale. The home user may decide to eat through some stored foods that don’t require water to cook so they can continue watering. A large producer may make that choice to abandon one or two crops, but not whole sections of field. As time passes and the conditions continue, the choices made adapt to the situation incrementally. The line “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” comes to mind, because if we completely abandon something for a week and the rains come, then the solution could be worse than the problem.

    Use and value diversity.
    Permaculture abhors monocultures as much as nature. Using a diversity of plants, animals, and people, keeps the system from having a single point of failure. Even though a few parts may not make it, others may thrive, and the overall system survives.

    Use edges and value the marginal.
    Permaculture systems allow for more diversity and ways to integrate the pieces together by looking for the little places to make and use change. Everyone and everything within the system contributes something, it’s up to our imagination and observation to find it, to look where others might not, and then to make use of it. Not in an extractive way, but in a functional, regenerative one.

    Creatively use and respond to change.
    With this idea, we can engage the artist and the creator rather than the engineer and logician, to move this problem from something negative and life defeating to something positive and abundant.

    As a drought occurs and deepens, we can use the drier conditions to our advantage. As certain previous plants die off, their passing creates new space for others, which could include bringing in plants with low water requirements or work in poor compacted soils, so we again build for the long term. Techniques that seemed unnecessary in a world without a drought get tried and tested, be those a changes in mulching, something like zai where we plant in the bottom of a shallow hole, or smoothing out the soil surface and direct it so that dew gets caught and directed towards plants on now barren spaces.

    We could use this as an opportunity to bring together our community with more meals cooked and eaten collectively within a neighborhood to reduce the amount of water used, and to use an economy of scale to cook food for many.

    And that’s just a shotgun approach to looking at a drought and how these different principles allow us to prepare and respond to the disaster. Hold onto those for a few minutes, as I want to walk through a quick rundown of the agricultural/industrial model.

    The agriculture/industrial model that currently exists suffers from a few problems in regards to responding to something a disaster like a drought. One is the reliance on machines, some of which have limited applications for what they can and cannot plant or harvest. Needing to retool a farm because of ongoing crop failures is an expensive prospect. Now multiply that over many many farms and the impact on food prices and stability. Heck, look at the exploration of corn based ethanol in the United States and impact on world food prices. I recently read an article discussing whether or not it’s worthwhile to subsidize and produce ethanol to add to gasoline given the recent impact of drought on food production in the US this year. Ending that usage may keep food prices down, but what about next year, or the year after, or the year after, if changes aren’t made now.

    Which leads to another issue: short term thinking. Market forces and the demands placed on farmers, as I understand things, limits how far out someone can plan. Also a demand for financial profit, especially among multinational corporations that require a profit to satisfy shareholders, produces short term gains at the potential expense of the long term. The head of a company may have the best intent for implementing a 30 or 50 year vision, but when they need to go before a board once a year or quarter and talk about losses as part of a long term plan, unless everyone involved including those investors, are on board, what’s the likelihood that leader keeps their job?

    Another short term issue that comes to mind is a reliance on extractive and functionally non-renewable resources. Initially the drought may not appear that bad to the farmers in the current model because they can turn on well pumps and pull water from the aquifer to irrigate fields. But if the recharge rate of the aquifer is lower than the irrigation rate, the ground water can become depleted. This also occurs in areas with high water tables and shallow wells. The these areas may be to sink a deeper well, but this further exacerbates the issues for others.

    If you wonder why water rights are such an issue in some areas, and conversations about future resources conflicts could revolve around water, imagine a world where someone doesn’t have water to irrigate crops or an inability to access fresh clean drinking water. However, methods exist for reducing this problem.

    The agriculture/industrial model by itself, doesn’t do much to build topsoil. Drive by a field at the end of harvest and look at the stubble sticking up and all that bare ground exposed to the elements. A hard late summer rain turning the runoff first clear, then tan, then brown, and finally almost black as erosion carries away the stuff food grows in. Importing fertilizers can help feed plants as fertility is lost, but what happens when there’s nothing to grow in? Look at images of the dust bowl for an idea of how bad things could get in the long term.

    Short term thinking leads to management issues for how we use and value resources. Markets, as I understand them and recognize that my viewpoint is limited, work largely around the economic role of resources and financial capital. Without being able to assign a fair financial value to resources, or failing to assign a value at all, exacerbates management of limited resources.

    As I study Natural Resources Law and policy, I’m beginning to see the broad view and why we run into so many issues between industry, economists, conservationists, and activists in the current model of agriculture and industry. The resource section below includes additional links for related topics of interest.

    So, those are just a few of the problems I see within the current model. Within the bounds that it exists, it works more or less. Billions of people get fed off this system and the response to issues work because of the resources available to do so. However, my biggest concern as it relates to Tony’s question, is whether or not there’s sustainability in the long term if any of the pieces required for this to work goes away. Which is what leads me to the permacultured society.

    Let’s take those bits and pieces from the principles and tie them all together with a more complete vision of what this society looks like and why permaculture in this case leads to people less impacted by the problem.

    I think that a permacultured society ultimately leads us towards, to borrow the term from Chuck Marsh, a neo-horticultural revival which creates resiliency and regeneration as the underpinnings of society. To make that happen, a shift needs to occur where more people produce food on a local scale. Figures I’ve seen and calculated on my own comes to a minimum of 10 percent of a society’s population, would need to be producing food via horticulture. Whether on their own property or their neighbors, space needs to be opened up to allow tending where we are, not far away.

    Because we focus on the local, and generating a yield and a surplus, we take care of those located close to use spatially, reducing the need from someone else far away to do the same. However, should the conditions allow it, we can transfer some of those resources to a place that needs eat. For the drought, that’s food to feed the hungry. But, if we’re in an OK place, we can move that food to where it needs to go. The focus on local and renewable saves the use of non-renewable resources so that we can use them when appropriate, reducing the feeling they are scarce, and allowing for the feeling of abundance from what we have ready access to.

    Governance, in my mind, would also be largely on a local scale to make decisions meaningful for the people in a given community. Just as the needs of someone in one country and with one culture may not meet the needs of someone halfway across the world, the same goes from state to state and city to city, or town to city, or nation to city, and all permutations. However, because of a focus on cooperation, the usefulness of a state or nation doesn’t go away. The ability to coordinate on a large scale and shift and move resources around on a large scale is useful, but it could be considerably smaller if the communities involved aided and worked with one another while keeping what they have. Which re-localizes economies and lessens the impact of larger scale disasters from occurring, but if they do, there’s the will and direction to work through and move forward. When larger scale help arrives they should, to borrow from Ethan Hughes, meet the community where they are and work together, not assume control of the situation.

    So, bringing that to the issue of a long term drought, here’s my permaculture society narrative. As the drought begins because of water conservation techniques, soil building, integrative pest management, and other permaculture standards, the food system is already resilient to many basic problems. A mild drought may elicit no change to practices at all or any noticeable impact. But, as the the lack of rain begins to take a toll, the individuals tending to the horticultural plots see what plants are starting to fail and which ones thrive. They speak with their colleagues, the other growers, to see what’s working where and what’s not to begin sorting out solutions in their own space and helping those around them save what they can. This early stage also begins the communication process to other communities to find out the extent of the issue and begin seeing where there the drought is localized and who is, no pun intended, weathering this the best.

    As that information comes together and begins to worsen, the information is passed to community leaders who can help put together broader scale plans to help the growers get food to market. The community can be informed and keep fear from growing by being honest and informed about what is and isn’t happening, as well as how everyone can help work the plan.

    From there, as shortages do arise and become long term, different communities can see about shifting members to other areas nearby where there’s more success to help increase food production, or to move resources from one area to another on an on-needed basis.

    This interconnectivity of the permaculture designed system to inter-operate on many different levels plays a key role in allowing for the resiliency that permeates a design stemming from the principles of design.

    But, all this is fun to put together because it’s predicated by removing the hard part: I didn’t have to work out how we get to a permaculture oriented society. That seems to be the big question. I got to assume that it already exists. As of yet, I don’t have an answer to that idea, but I do have ideas bubbling up from underneath. Once they mature, I’m sure to share them.

    In the meantime, do you think that permaculture could lead to a more resilient and regenerative society? Do you have any insight into things I missed you feel are important to the conversation? Let me know.

    Leave a comment in the show notes.
    Email me: show (at) thepermaculturepodcast (dot) com
    Call me: 717.827.six-two-six-six.

    Redefining Civilization with Toby Hemenway (YouTube Video)
    Ogallala Aquifer (Wiki)
    Water Losses in the Middle East (ABC News)
    NASA Information on Middle East Water Losses
    The Tragedy of the Commons A copy of the original Garrett Hardin article that started this conversation.
    Common Pool Resources with Elinor Ostrom (YouTube Video)
    Externality (Wiki)
    Extractive Resource Definition
    Non-renewable Resources (Wiki)
    Precautionary Principle (Wiki)
    The Precautionary Principle (YouTube Video with Caroline Raffensperger. Bioneers)
    Sustainable Use (European Commission)

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