Archive for January, 2006

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Correction on land to feed the world

January 29, 2006

I have been in the habit of quoting something I recall Geoff Lawton saying to me in an interview along the lines that with permaculture we would only need 2% of the current arable land to feed the world. I have written this here and here. Most people tend to conclude from that statement that we only need 2% of the land to produce the same tonnage of food. By my own admission this seems pretty astounding so I emailed him for a clarification and he said that in fact we can “produce the same amount of nutrition on 2% of the equivalent area now used by the global industrial agricultural system”.This is a crucial difference and makes a lot more sense- especially when you consider the many over-fed but under nourished members of western civilisation.

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Joe Polaischer interview

January 28, 2006

I interviewed Joe Polaischer this week (on my radio show). He is a permaculturist, born in Austria but living in New Zealand where he and his wife have created a model permaculture small farm with low tech solutions. There’s an article here that’s worth reading, or you can listen to the interview here. Joe has travelled widely and experienced many difficult 3rd world situations before settling in New Zealand and building Rainbow Valley Farm. He’s one of the people who figured out where things were headed a generation ago and started working on the problem back then. Anyway, I promised to get him to retell the story of a visit to a shanty town in Peru so here’s the transcript of that part of the interview.

I had this experience in 73 in Lima [Peru] where a person from this shantytown invited me and I said; ‘Yes, what is your address’ and he said ‘What address? We don’t have any street numbers or house numbers, I will actually have to get you from the edge of town – you can not enter the place where I live because people will rob you and kill you. You have to be walking with me – or you wouldn’t find me’

It was an experience for me. So I waited on the edge of the city and this person picked me up and we walked through this shanty town – you know what they look like with all sort of things built – houses out of cardboard and driftwood and corrugated iron and bits and pieces, And no sewers, with water and urine and faeces everywhere. You know, really contaminated. Children everywhere and the animals – it’s an experience!.

This person who invited me he said you’re invited for a family dinner so I thought; ‘Bring them something, they’re probably short of food!’. So I went to the supermarket and made up a little food parcel under my arm and we walked up these steep hills there and we ended up in a little shack and guess what I saw. The table was full of food so I felt really awkward with my food parcel and I actually just made it disappear under the table.

The family said; ‘Sit down and eat with us, this is our food’, The table was full of delicious stuff and I said; ‘Where did you get this? You shouldn’t have spent your precious money on me’, and I felt really bad and they said; ‘What? This is our food – OUR food, we grow it’, and I said; ‘No way!’ and then they took me into the courtyard and showed me how they intensively grow food there.

You know they had these guinea pigs up in cages (and rabbits and pigeons), on the wall – their droppings were immediately going into containers like car tires [which were] full of vegetables – they had all sorts of climbers and beans and so on, squash, all over the place in the courtyard. And the whole courtyard was full of food – they even had fish – Filopia* – which is bit of pig in the water, this fish, but it tastes delicious and the chickens were on top of the 200-litre barrels of water and the chicken droppings went in there and the Filopia was eating it underneath. So a total cyclic system and these people were actually not hungry and I got a real good… ahh, learning there seeing how you can actually grow food in the city

Aaron How big was the courtyard?

Joe Not big if I recall rightly, perhaps maybe 30 square metres or so but every space was used for food growing – I didn’t see any ornamental – well maybe cacti, one or two – but even the cacti you can eat the flower. So most of the stuff that I saw there was edible and that’s what we do in permaculture, creating edible landscapes. Urban permaculture is really an urgency because when you look at New Zealand towns like Auckland with all the green area, full of lawns that need maintenance – fossil fuels to mow it, noisy, polluting – we should have edible landscape instead of ornamentals and grow a lot of food like some 3rd world cities do. You look at Nairobi, I lived in Kenya for a while, Nairobi grows up to 60% of food in the town! – out of necessity out of poverty so there is hope – we can grow heaps of food right around us in containers, even on concrete or tar seal you can grow food, or up on a balcony. That’s what I teach in Urban permaculture.

Aaron So given this experience in Lima do you believe that Suburbia could be converted to be sustainable, self sufficient.

Joe Not completely of course with grain and so on – sure you can grow corn but to grow rice or wheat is really difficult. The research that has been done; to be self sufficient – if you’re a vegetarian its not too much of a problem you only need 100 square metres* in a temperate climate to grow all your food, and the grain included.

Aaron 100 sq metres?

Joe Yeah, 100 sq metres, this was done by John Jevons in the United States – the biointensive method. But I’m not a vegetarian so I would need a little more area, which is of course not an issue here in NZ with 4 million people with all the area that we have available.

Aaron So it’s interesting then, that at a pinch people with an average of 4 people per house needing 100 square metres – they probably have 400 square metres.

Joe A lot of people have and if they haven’t got it there is always the option of community gardens and community supported agriculture where you adopt nearby farms and growing areas and get into a barter and exchange system or a LETS system.

*********************************************************

Joe also had this comment to add to a story I posted earlier about life in Austria after the war.

“The good thing was community, there as a real strong community feeling and we supported each other – and only when ‘afluenza’ crept in later on and we recovered. We became greedy again, and competitive. And envy came in again, but after the war people were very, very community minded, helpful and cooperative and I’m looking forward to this happening more…”

But he also said that we really need to build community BEFORE the trouble really starts; “Once you’re in survival mode you couldn’t care any more, then it’s not a question of protecting the environment – its survival that counts and I’ve been in many, many communities where that’s happened.”

And lastly this perspective from someone a generation older than myself.

“I’ve been to many places and I’ve found out one thing, I’ve been through 140 countries of the world and I don’t want to go back any more because where ever I go back to places that I have been to 30 years ago its all deterioration, its all downhill, I don’t want to see that.”

* For those that don’t know; one square metre is roughly the equivalent of 10 square feet.
* I have no idea how to spell the name of this fish – feel free to correct me.

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take it easy

January 27, 2006

When I joined the permaculture v primitive debate I was hoping to work toward a conclusion that answered the question of which approach would give greater survival chances in a post crash world. I think because the exponents of each approach were arguing their case so strongly it felt like I was going to have to figure out which one was correct. Even worse I worried that my future survival would depend on getting the answer right.

Not surprisingly it soon became apparent that a combination of the two might prove to be the best solution of all but what I wasn’t expecting was that it would turn out that both approaches already combine elements of the other to such an extent as to make the debate almost pointless. In fact, the opposing concepts of either being totally in charge of our food production or totally leaving food production to mother nature existed only in my head. In the real world it turns out that:

(a) Many of the cultures that we thought were hunter/gatherers were actively managing their environment to increase levels of natural food production and…
(b) The aim of permaculture is to create an environment where food can be ‘grazed’ at leisure.

Put like that I can barely tell the difference between the two and given the infinite continuum of possible combinations the only significant difference between the primitivist hunter/gatherer approach and permaculture may well be whether your tribe stays put or goes walkabout.

I’ve had another visitation from Toby Hemenway who left recommendations for further reading on the idea that indigenous cultures actively managed their environment. They are his own “Garden in the Jungle” and “1491” by Charles Mann, an article originally published in the Atlantic magazine.

’1491′ suggests that large parts of the American continent has been shaped by a large population of Indian people 95% of whom were wiped out early by contact with European diseases. This sudden loss of people affected the ecology greatly and populations of previously hunted animals suddenly boomed which is why the main wave of settlers who arrived a hundred years later found astounding populations of buffalo and flocks of pigeons that blotted out the sun. It is from this period that most of the information about pre European life came from which could mean that the ‘untouched’ wilderness that environmentalists hanker for may have actually been the result of an ecosystem that was actually going through a period of great disruption.

I am worried that there is a kind of worship of the untouched wilderness concept. For some it does indeed seem to be a religion. Environmentalists have been bitterly opposed to the idea that indigenous people managed their environment because it might lend power to the arguments of our development-culture that we have the right to alter the ecology as we see fit.

It’s a very odd place here at the peak of our civilisation’s toxic and alienating existence. Our view of non-civilised cultures is hopelessly distorted by the distance of time and cultural disparity and for those of us who are desperate for some other way to latch onto I think there is a tendency to worship what we find – especially when what we know and understand of these other cultures is so vague that we can’t help but see what we want to see.

Christians tell me that people have been made to worship and that if we don’t worship God then we are destined to find something else to worship. I’m starting to think they might have a point because I definitely see in the environmental and anti-civilisation movements a tendency to worship the idea of untouched wilderness. I’m fully supportive of these movements but given the wanton destruction wrought by our current hands-on approach to planet management it is no surprise that people have taken their beliefs as far in the other direction.

As a comparison, and hopefully I can get away with referring to Christianity again, what I have noticed, coming from a country where the Christians are not nearly so prone to extreme fundamentalism is that the anti Christian feeling here is equally less extreme. From outside the U.S. it would appear that the fundamentalists, (who certainly appear to be bonkers) have so distorted the religious/spritual landscape that non-believers seem to have equally distorted and extreme views. Or maybe that’s just part and parcel of a culture that is subject to so many stresses. In either case I’m starting to wonder if many people haven’t now entered into a religious worship of the concept of untouched wilderness. It’s reached the point that some people say that they are happy to see the demise of humanity so long as the planet survives. Now I know that humanity is to blame for the state the planet is in, no doubt there at all, but to wish for the demise of your own species is surely a strange thing and just one more example of the corruption of civilisation. (The loathing of humanity is probably an outward expression of personal self loathing but that’s another posting). I’ve already tried explaining how I feel about this and despite the newness of this blog I still managed to confuse at least one reader who thought that by saying I didn’t like the idea of putting the planet ahead of humanity I must want to put humanity ahead of the planet.

Firstly, I just assume that we’re all agreed the planet needs saving – anything else is ludicrous. What I was trying to say was the I want to save both humanity and the planet EQUALLY. I don’t have a hierarchy of who I think deserves saving the most, to me the application of hierarchy is the result of bringing civilised thinking to environmentalism and totally unnecessary.
The next level down from wanting to see humanity banished from the planet is the worship of ‘untouched’ wilderness where the only acceptable means of human habitation is the hunter/gatherer tribe that ‘allows’ nature to provide sustenance as it sees fit. OK, I’m probably over-simplifying but I still maintain that for some there is a semi-religious aura around this idea. Again, I don’t mean to belittle, I’m looking for something to hang my hat on too.

And to be totally fair I have noticed that when permaculturists talk about their first experience of permaculture it is often in the same terms that people would use for a religious conversion. Even this telling of my own experiences seem to have that air about it. Again, we shouldn’t be surprised that people are attracted to something that seems to provide a genuine alternative to our current lifestyle of squalid consumerism.

I think this desperation for a knew way (now heightened by the impending collapse) is behind the primitive v permaculture debate, a debate that I now feel is pointless. We never needed that ‘V’ in there.

I also think this is what is behind Aric McBay’s appalled response to Toby Hemenway’s Rural v Urban article. As previously noted I think the fact that he sniped around the edges attacking what was essentially a different political perspective whilst ignoring the central vision of the article was an attempt to stamp out an alternative ‘doctrine’. It’s interesting to note that Toby Hemenway has written a response where he removes any inadvertent political implications and just focuses on strengthening the vision – with some success too.

Personally I agreed with Aric McBay about many of the details because they ran contrary to my political beliefs too, but I didn’t think this made the vision any less worthwhile, probably because it didn’t run contrary to any of my other deeply held beliefs.

So what does this all mean?

Maybe we should just chill out a bit. Given that there appears to be no model upon which we can base a return to untouched, pristine wilderness and given that the earth is going to need our help to get there quickly, and given that the indigenous cultures who we are looking to for guidance often actively managed their wilderness AND given that we need to start repairing the earth now….umm, remind me again what the problem is?

As William Koetke reminds us what life needs is good quality soil, air and water, whether the ecosystem upon which these are based revives through the earth’s natural processes or whether it comes about because we have converted the world into a giant food forest probably doesn’t matter.

 

COMMENTS

I don’t assume that “the planet needs saving”. What exactly do you think the planet needs saving from? (Human destruction?) And who exactly do you think can or should perform this “saving”? (Humans?) Hmmm….

Just to be clear, I don’t loath humanity; I loath the vision and resulting behavior of civilized humanity–the vision/worldview that says humans were pre-ordained to be the rulers of the planet, and now that we’ve screwed up that impossible task, we must maintain the illusion of control as the saviors of the planet.

Since civilized humans see themselves as separate from the world, and now see themselves as possible saviors of the world, isn’t that still a heirarchy with civilized humanity at the top?

If we accept that we have evolved from the web of life, that the planet has created us, one species among millions, perhaps it would make more sense to wonder if the planet will choose to save US.

Posted by: mark | 01/27/2006

Diana – Thanks for your comments, The capabilities of the website are determined by Blogspirit who made the software and host the site. The software lets me put a picture but I don’t think it has a shoutout facility

Mark – you seem to take my posting very personally. Don’t you think it’s possible to want to save the planet for genuine reasons? I have said that the world can save itself but it will take a long time. If it is to happen quickly it will need intervention from us. I want us to interven so that I don’t have to watch my children and my friends (and myself) suffer through ecological collapse

Posted by: Aaron | 01/27/2006

Great work. I think at issue are two competing world views. The first says humans are apart of nature. The second says humans are a part from nature. Written down the difference seems small when in fact the divide is vast.

Posted by: nulinegvgv | 01/28/2006

 

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Permaculture explained at last

January 25, 2006

Permaculture explained at last

This is a relatively new blog and I’ve only been getting serious comments for the best part of a week now but already someone has posted something that says in a couple of sentences what I spent an entire posting trying to get across. Here is the solution to the permaculture v. foraging debate;

“I also find that in a permaculture-designed landscape, I feel more like a hunter-gatherer than a farmer too. I set up the systems, spend 3-5 years to get them running smoothly, and then wander around grazing or grabbing some mulch plants or bamboo when I feel like it.

To be fair the comment is by Toby Hemenway, author of the Urban vs Rural Sustainability essay (and follow up) so he knows what he is talking about. – I don’t think there is any more I can say.


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attack is the best form of defense

January 24, 2006

I see that there is a bit of a debate starting to develop between Ran Prieur and Jason Godesky over the permaculture v foraging issue. I worry that this is getting personal because the argument is really about which basket we put our post-crash eggs into and both of them have not only declared their position but started acting on it too – I think it’s important to note that there’s a lot riding on the outcome.

The debate has also generated a lot of email traffic at both ends as well and maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, we’re talking about a matter of life and death here. It’s probably the most important issue facing anyone who can acknowledge the coming crash.
From has comments I gather than Jason is a bit suspicious about permaculture and has taken Ran to task for coming over all utopian. In doing so though he has uncharacteristically made a few errors and is being a bit black and white about things. I also notice that in attacking the idea that we will need to actively grow our own food he has forgotten to defend his position from the criticism that we need healthy ecosystems if we’re to rely on foraging. I hope he does this because if there is a good rebuttal I want to know about it. Like I said, lives are at stake.

I’m going to address some of his incorrect comments (although I note that some of his readers have already done so):

He seems to be implying that permaculturists want to use permaculture to prop up civilisation. Well, who cares if some are (and it should be blazingly obvious that Ran is not one of them, by the way), it’s too late. – all I’m interested in is spreading the word far and wide because most people where I am only know how to grow food using chemicals and they’re all going to starve if they don’t learn some new tricks.

Jason said: “Permaculture can not be used everywhere” and “But, what is good for me and mine may not translate well as a society-wide strategy”

Permaculture is a system of design so it most certainly can be used anywhere but also permaculturists emphasise spending as much time as possible observing the site and local ecology before making any decisions – what is good for me will depend on where I am and what is good for the rest of society will depend on where they are – it is not a one size fits all solution like we are used to in civilisation.

From a response in the comments section “…can permaculture heal the land, and feed humans, at the same time?”

Yes absolutely, for the ultimate example I again recommend this animated item (1.5MB)– which one of Jason’s reader’s did. Jason’s return comment was that some parts of the world are meant to be deserts. To be clear this was not one of them, this was a salt encrusted wasteland at the start.

One other thing, as can be seen from the above link, permaculture mimics the system of a forest by having multiple layers – tree canopy, smaller trees and shrubs.  I attempted to ask Geoff Lawton in an interview if this would be enough to repair the ecosystem but was immediately sidetracked when he said that with permaculture only 2% of the current arable land would be required to feed the world’s population and the rest could go back to being wild. He said they had the stats to back it up but maddeningly we were out of time to discuss this. I think I will chase him up to see if he can provide them because frankly it just sounds unbelievable. One other thing, If permaculture is that good then clearly the world’s population would likely just keep on growing until it reached the limits of this new threshold – but again that’s not going to happen – it’s too late.

Jason does end by saying that foraging and permaculture can work in companion and this will undoubtedly be the case. Regardless like everyone else reading these exchanges it’s got me thinking about my crash escape plan and now I have a few vague ideas:

+Attempt to get my small town to adopt permaculture principals and generally prepare for the crash so that I have total security in my district. Where I live this will probably work believe it or not.

+Start an Ecovillage. If civilisation wasn’t crashing I’d would want to do this anyway. We’d have to be aware that we might have to leave it all behind one day but while we are there we will have the space to learn foraging techniques and, just as importantly, we will learn how to live together as a tribe and how to resolve internal conflict -  something civilised people are very good at. After a few years of this I hope we will be a tight-knit community. If Ecovillage history is anything to go by becoming a successful functioning tribe is unlikely to happen if we leave it to chance.

+Ideally we would position the village backing onto a large area of native bush which we could even pre-plant with food crops although doing this in a National Park might be a tad risky. Either way it’s a place to go foraging in the event that we are overrun with hungry citizens or the government sends men with guns and big dogs or who knows what else. It would also give us a chance of coming back as well.

Anyway I’m giving William Koetke the last say. here’s something from chapter 16 of ‘The Final Empire’ that might be worth taking note of:
 As the planetary ecological crisis has deepened, anthropologist have focused their attention more clearly on the ecology of natural culture and are beginning to suggest that some “wild” rainforest environments are looking more like managed environments”

“Catherine Caufield, in her work, In The Rainforest, tells of the Lawa living in the rainforest of northern Thailand bordering Burma. As Caufield describes them, the Lawa are shifting cultivators who live in settled villages and have been in the same place for many centuries. She states,
“They grow more than eighty food crops, plus another fifty for medicine and ceremonial and household uses. In addition, they collect and use more than two hundred wild plants that grow in their fallow fields. Their system supports about 80 people per square mile, taking fallow land into account. One square mile of cultivated land supports 625 people, a ratio that compares well with, for example, Britain, which has one square mile of agricultural land in use for every 750 people. Britain, of course imports 60 percent of the fresh fruit, 20 percent of the grain, and 23 percent of the meat its people consume, whereas the Lawa are self-sufficient in food.”4
Caufield goes on to explain that they take great care of their land in terms of fire, soil erosion and soil disturbance.
The Cultural Survival volume, Indigenous Peoples And Tropical Forests, summarizes the, so far, limited observations that have been made of true rainforest food growing, called swidden. (This is distinguished from the destructive and ignorant temporary agriculture practiced by “frontier” settlers at the edge of rainforests…) First, the matter of soils is known precisely by most indigenous people. Soil quality is judged by the type of vegetation growing on it. It is judged by its color, taste, smell and by examining its subsoil moisture during various seasons. This means not that any one spot will be chosen for a plot but that each area is appropriate for plots according to the plants that will subsist best in that environment.
The food growing regime will not necessarily involve one or several plots, but may encompass many smaller ones according to the needs. During clearing of the plots, some of the plant species may be saved. Some of the tree species may be saved also for shade, wind breaks, to attract wild animals or for later use. In the planting one does not simply sow seeds but may use seeds, seedlings, cuttings, tubers and roots. In arranging the plantings, shade, light, soil, soil moisture, companion plants, nearby trees and other considerations will indicate the creation of micro-climates within the plot. All of these combinations will be transformed according to the different ecological zones that each plot has been located in. As the plot is “feathered” into the mature forest the matter of local animals is keenly considered in terms of attracting them to the area by having plants in the locale that the animals like and utilize.
The anthropologists have discovered that many plots remain in some kind of use for many years. With use, the soil and the growth of different plants in the plot changes. As the years go on, different plants are emphasized, often tending more and more toward bush and tree crops. There is mention in the literature of use of plots for 20, 30 and more years. One very important observation made by a few of the anthropologists is that this transformation from cleared plot to mature forest follows to a great extent the phases of ecological succession of the natural forest- except the tribespeople substitute useful relatives or plants of similar life habits for the plant that would ordinarily be in place during ecological succession.”

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Why Permaculture

January 24, 2006

I have a confession to make, despite my promotion of permaculture I have never ever practiced it, or even attended a course, so here’s a few things to explain how I got to this point of view.

+ 2002 My Aussie aunt gives me a copy of ‘Introduction to Permaculture’ by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay, My wife is interested but I flick absentmindedly through the pages and leave it at that.

+ In the 2004 Ecoshow I interviewed David Holmgren because someone told me he was one of the originators of Permaculture. I have to laugh at myself over this; I did the interview in the principal’s office of the school that was helping host the Ecoshow. We sat around the desk with the speakerphone on while someone else back at Raglan Community Radio fed the call through to the listeners. I must have asked pretty lame questions too because I really didn’t understand who I was dealing with and I certainly didn’t get permaculture.

+ At the 2005 Ecoshow, having spent the year noticing that a lot of people in my town practice permaculture I’m ready to pay attention. One evening there was a forum on permaculture. The audience asked questions of a panel of 7 permaculture experts and I can’t explain this but the atmosphere was electric, the audience was asking questions like ‘Can permaculture bring about world peace’ It sounds really silly now but no one left the room. Geoff Lawton (who has worked on aid projects in places like Kosovo and Iraq) said afterwards that he had to sit on his hands to stop himself leaping up and grabbing the mike. There was, as they say, a lot of emotion in the room.

+ From the same Ecoshow I learn how Geoff Lawton ran a project that managed to get food growing on the desert in Jordan. And we’re not talking about a natural desert either, this was a piece of land that was utterly barren with a hard packed salt layer over it. All it should have been good for was parking cars but within 3 years they had a self sustaining permaculture project in action. I have recordings of Geoff talking about this but the best way to see what they did in Jordan is to go to this site. Scroll down a bit and on the right is a logo that says “Greening the Desert’ which will download a little production. It’s 1.5 MB which took me 5 minutes to download on dial-up and it’s absolutely riveting.
Note that in the production you’ll see that they used irrigation. What we now know is that they were able to turn is off after 3 years.

After reading a thread at the Anthropik Network where people were discussing how we needed to learn to be hunter/gatherers to survive the crash I emailed Ran Prieur for his thoughts, he posted this on his site;

“Growing your own food is a much more realistic survival strategy than foraging/hunting, because that requires a healthy ecosystem with lots of edible wild plants and animals. The more nature is depleted, … the more we must survive by building up the soil and water locally”

Good point!

I said this in a previous posting and I’ll say it again: I’ve tried talking about this (permaculture) with peak oilers but my suggestions were met with disbelief, outright rejection and plain old confusion, doing something like that just didn’t seem to fit into their world view.

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Shanty Towns Rule

January 20, 2006

I recorded a talk by Joe Polaisher – an Austrian born permaculturist – at the Ecoshow last year in Auckland (New Zealand) He’s lived all over the place but has spent the last 17 years in New Zealand with his partner Trish Allen turning a formerly dodgy piece of land into a permaculture paradise and using it to educate people about permaculture.

It’s useful to have some real experiences to refer to – He talked about what happened during WWII when people had their houses bombed and he talked about an experience in South America in a shanty town – it’s a great story but unfortunately it didn’t get recorded – Joe isn’t used to holding a microphone when he talks and some of the talk was missed. I’ll try to remember what he said but I will also try to interview him soon and get him to re tell the story.

Here’s his experience as a boy after WWII in Austria (starts 20:16)
My first 10 years in Austria after the war, the first 10 years that shaped me – on a peasant farm that was so isolated we had no road access, we had no electricity,  no fossil fuels, for my first 10 years – and it was an excellent time because we were functioning up there self sufficiently.

“We had all of a sudden all these relatives came out of Vienna and all the big cities because they were bombed and they had nothing to eat. And they all said ‘we are related, do you remember we’re second and third so and so’ and we said ‘bugger you, we never saw you – what do you want?’ – (They said) ‘I’m hungry, can I stay here’ and ‘our house was bombed’ and we said ‘OK’ and all of a sudden we had 15 to 20 people in that household and then we said we can’t actually support you, move on’ so people started moving and then we got into trouble.

That was after the war – because we had no infrastructure, no economy, no money in the lat 40’s and into the 50’s  – we were occupied by the British where I grew up until 1956. So. It was interesting then, those people became dangerous – they turned the necks of our free range chooks and they disappeared. We planted potatoes, it was our staple food – we planted them in daylight and the people were siting in the forest waiting for darkness – came out, dug out the seed potatoes, boiled them and ate them and we waited for our staple food crop to come up and they wouldn’t sprout – potatoes didn’t come through the soil and we looked – No potatoes! – and the same thing through the rest of the neighbourhood.

That’s what I remember very well – that these became dangerous unsustainable cities – like in New Zealand 86% of all the people live in an urban environment – that will keel over with the end of cheap energy. Those people will be helping themselves  – I can’t sit there with a shotgun on my edible landscape and say bugger off. – NO help yourself, sure, I go under with society…”

As for the South America story. Joe was over there and was invited to dinner by a guy he had met who lived in a shanty town and the guy said come to dinner but don’t enter into the ‘town’ until my friend comes to get you or you will be beaten up. So Joe gets ready to go and then realises; ‘hey these are poor people living in a shanty town, they have nothing, I can’t just turn up and eat their food’. So he goes to the supermarket and buys enough food to feed everybody for the evening. When he gets to the tiny house that his friend and his family live in he finds a table laid out with food for dinner and he says ‘Please, you can’t give me all your food and they insist that there is no problem. Joe explains that being a naïve westerner he thinks they have no food so they take him out the back to a tiny back yard where Joe is astonished to discover a full on high intensity permaculture system supplying the family’s food needs.

I’m definitely going to interview Joe, he’ll tell the story much better.

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Suburbia Rules

January 20, 2006

More on this urban v rural debate - last thing I have seen being  a comment from Jason Godesky on Heretic Fig seeming to challenge the idea that being able to grow food in the city is not that great a trick because we need to grow ALL our food in the city. I think I can agree with both sides of that particular argument. Long term our aims do indeed need to be total self sufficiency and a complete absence of civilised technology, hierarchy and behaviour. It’s where I want to go but I don’t expect to get their in my life time. Where I agree with the other side of the argument is that the first step is to find a new way of living that will work post peak oil and I’m interested in how the masses will survive because a well fed population means security for me and because I’m not going to be happy watching most of the population dropping like flies.

There are references to how Cuba in it’s recent peak oil experience is growing 30% of it’s food in the city. First of all I want to know how built up their cities are, because from what I have seen it is more built up than suburbia and second of all; isn’t that great? 30% sounds like an ideal first step – enough to enable people to survive until the next stage can be worked out.

Back to suburbia though, I ranted in my previous post about how it could be adapted to a post-peak lifestyle and again this is a only a step along the path to our uncivilised utopia. Even if it proves to be too densely populated to feed all the people I don’t imagine that all the people will actually stay there – many will clear off to the countryside and other’s will perhaps die, but at some point post peak suburbia must reach equilibrium and become sustainable – for a time, maybe a very long time.

The reason I am talking about these steps is that I’m not entirely comfortable with that idea that large sections of the population will just die-off. I know that if they do the planet will be better off. (As an aside I also imagine that certain sections of the global elite will be happy for this to happen so that they might be able to maintain civilisation a while longer with a much smaller population base). Logic says that the planet would be better off if the human race was dramatically reduced and I am well aware of this but only a psychopath could ever act on that knowledge – hence the reference to the global elites

I am a human and no matter what logic I bring to the situation there is an overriding instinct (called caring I guess) that demands that I lookout for other humans and because of that I want to put myself in a position where I can do that rather than have to repress the urge like civilisation makes me do already. I don’t want to be the sort of person who ends up in a bunker with a small armament defending my lifetimes supply of tinned spam and clinging grimly to my love of  civilisation but nor do I want to be someone who would see humanity sacrificed for the sake of the planet. Personally I think that’s civilised thinking applied to environmentalism.

I know a lot of people, especially primitivists will take issue with this because I’ve heard people say as much (I also know I’m a little off topic…)  but  I think to be fully human demands that we attempt to find a solution whereby we save the planet and all of the people. Even if it’s not possible.
And don’t we want to be fully human? Isn’t that what getting away from civilisation is all about? Peak Oil is our first chance at heading in that direction en masse but so far everyone but the permaculturists seem to be enjoying the prospect of death a little too much for my liking.

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Future Visions

January 16, 2006

Ran Prieur has bought up the issue of urban v rural survival again and I’m glad because it gives me an excuse to bang on about a few things that have been bugging me lately.Aric McBay from In The Wake has written a critique of an essay by Toby Hemenway about post crash survival in rural v. urban environments. The essay essentially presents a positive vision of survival in a suburban setting. David Holmgren has promoted similar ideas but Toby Hemenway has managed to conjure up a particularly appealing vision, even if he has left himself wide open to criticism in some areas.

Aric didn’t really acknowledge this vision and I think the fact that he was still worried by the essay several months later when he had enough time to prepare a response tells us a lot about his underlying beliefs. I don’t however, want this to be an attack on Aric (who’s manual for post crash survival could be extremely important) I only want to use his comments as a springboard to deal with a few wider issues

Generally speaking; amongst the peak oil community there seems to be a kind of religious belief in the die-off scenario; “There’s going to be a sudden crash and it will be anarchy”, well, chaos really. Like I said Aric’s work is tremendously valuable but I think his need to demolish the essay comes more from a desire to destroy an opposing belief than the need to get to the truth. I say this because he doesn’t acknowledge the central vision on offer but instead snipes around the edges at the details. What I would like to see, would be an attempt to deal with the imperfections and to correct them, thereby strengthening the vision.

All bets are off when it comes to predicting the future of post peak oil society but if we all spend our time getting ready for a dog eat dog, survival of the fittest (or best armed) future then that is probably what we will get. If on the other hand we are prepared to consider other possibilities then a future that involves fully functioning communities (which I presume we all want) becomes much more likely.

Ran is a bit of a voice in the wilderness on this issue but I think he’s right. Other people writing on these topics usually gravitate toward the descent-into-chaos scenario but they are often just repeating a belief that the elites of our society have managed to get us to internalise which is that we can’t survive without ‘the system’. That we, the slaves cannot survive without the master (in actual fact it’s the other way around but that’s another subject).

Just look at the phrases I used above. ‘Dog eat dog’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ are myths of civilised life and odds are they will disappear along with civilisation. Certainly the few chances we have to observe people in post-crash situations suggests this will be the case. Media coverage of Hurricane Katrina tried to convince us that it was chaos in New Orleans but reports from the inside, suggest that the first thing that happened was that people actually started to help each other out.

For further evidence of this idea check out this article and also the comment posted at the end of this Ran Prieur essay which is from a radio interview I did with permaculturist Geoff Lawton about his experiences in Iraq.

Derrick Jensen has written about the culture of death that pervades modern civilisation and I think this is another contributor to the love of the die-off scenario, essentially people just can’t wait for the whole edifice to come crashing down. But people with a love of life want more than to see the end of civilisation, they want more than mere survival too, they want the full-on satisfying life that the end of civilisation will actually make possible.

All this talk of the die-off does is feed into the desires of the neo Malthusians who also think we need less people on the planet. Only problem is they might be arranging for us to be in the die off category while they and their elite mates are left amongst the survivors.

In another interview with Geoff Lawton he talked about the abundant future that small scale permaculture could provide us and told me that with permaculture we would only need 2% of the current arable land to feed the world’s population, It sounds crazy but if you look at the figures that biointensive gardeners are talking about then it provides some support. I’m presuming this is not going to involve large scale industrial agriculture in any way but realistically we’ll never know. What I’m sure of though is that with these sorts of gardening systems a kind of urban ecovillage situation holds great possibilities for a ‘post carbon age’. Consider for the moment the possibilities of a great series of interlocking and overlapping mini communities taking over suburbia – after all thats where all the people and houses already are! Excuse me while I get all utopian for a moment but I’d rather do that than visit the die-off site one more time.

I’ve been a long while getting to the point but the best thing the peak oil community could be doing is to help ‘seed’ permaculture knowledge into the suburbs. A bit of a challenge right now in most suburbs but as time goes on people are going to be more and more receptive to it. I’ve tried talking about this with peak oilers but my suggestions were met with disbelief, outright rejection and plain old confusion, doing something like that just didn’t seem to fit into their world view.

As an experience I found this very draining so in the future I intend to hang out with permaculturists and enjoy their visions of abundance. I don’t mean to ignore the possibilities of a die-off but I don’t want to be in an environment that embraces it either. Our society is in a pretty sad state and this is the result, only the people on the fringes can see past it’s central myths to the possibilities that an alternative might hold. Only the people on the fringes can see the opportunities for community. Everyone else just seems challenged by it.

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Disciplined Minds

January 13, 2006

NOTE: this was published in Uncensored Magazine – At least I’m told it was – I never saw the actual issue it was in (issue 4 I think)

Disciplined Minds – A critical Look at the Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives.
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Every time I read about issues like alternative health or fringe science there always come a point where the author attempts to explain why mainstream professionals in their particular field can not see the truth as they have presented it. Usually these explanations vary from hopeless right up to about average.

The best of these explanations show, for instance, how scientists in a particular field all receive their funding from corporate sources and may even go on to refer to research about the percentage of scientists who admit to being asked to falsify their data. They might point to one of the many examples of scientists who have had their careers destroyed because they spoke out at the wrong time but even with this argument (which is above average) I have always had this nagging feeling that the explanation hasn’t gone deep enough.

Well, I can now announce that that nagging sensation is gone. I discovered Jeff Schmidt’s ‘Disciplined Minds’ on the net one night and even before I read it I was pretty sure it was going to answer my questions for me. For one thing Jeff Schmidt was fired from his job at ‘Physics Today’ magazine for writing it and I figured that was a pretty good sign that he’d doing something right.

The basic thesis of ‘Disciplined Minds’ is that the first role of the professional is to serve society’s elites by maintaining and defending the status quo. Thus a doctor will defend ‘standard medical practice’ rather than do something different that will help a patient, a scientist will explore within the limits of mainstream thinking without daring to look at what’s happening on the fringes, or even take into account what is happening in other fields and a journalist will always filter out inconvenient facts and frame an article in a manner that suits their employer.

All of those examples sound slightly absurd on the face of it but also somehow familiar as well. Jeff Schmidt goes on to explain that while professionals may have liberal attitudes in many areas of their life they are actually very conservative when they’re at work – which is where they spend most of their waking hours and where they have their most effect on society. He also points out that despite their protestations to the contrary the role of a professional is actually a highly political one.

Disciplined Minds also deconstructs professional training by explaining that the main purpose of the training is to produce people that will take on their employer’s ideology and value system. A good professional will do this with ease and their employer can rest easy, safe in the knowledge that the decisions their professional employees make will be almost always be in accordance with their wishes.

As soon as I read this I was immediately able to explain the many insane and counterproductive things that occurred during my own professional training. I might add that despite my training being a miserable experience it failed to break me in and as a consequence I then spent 5 futile years working in a professional environment before finally giving up in disgust.

Jeff Schmidt himself trained as a physicist and uses that experience as a case study throughout the book and I have to say that I came away from reading it appalled at the implications for modern science since it would appear that virtually no one graduates without first being neutered of their curiosity and fascination. He says that the only way to properly survive the process is to actively resist and in an amusing last chapter he describes his own experience resisting his professors.

Also amusing, but at the same time alarming, is the chapter that uses US army prisoner of war resistance training as it’s main source of advice for students in professional training.
Disciplined Minds explains why many of the most innovative inventions of our time come from people with next to no training, people who are supposedly just ‘tinkerers’ and who always seem to say after they’ve invented something wondrous that they didn’t realise they weren’t supposed to be able to do what they did. It also explains why these inventions are so easily suppressed.

Disciplined Minds provides far and away the best explanation for the behaviour of professionals that I have seen and does so with sufficient academic rigour to prevent, I believe, any plausible objections being raised. Don’t let the idea of an academic book put you off though – Jeff Schmidt has, ever mindful of the need to enjoy our work, provided anecdotes and cartoons that compliments the academic nature of the text very effectively. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Aaron Mooar

Recovering Professional

There is also a letter that people can sign asking that Jeff Schmidt be reinstated to his old job at www.disciplined-minds.com/ . Just follow the ‘Update and Plea for Help’ link

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