ThrivalismOctober 3, 2008
You know I will probably never visit the LATOC discussion board when looking for advice on how to handle the coming upheavel in our way of life and while guns-and-gold are doubtless getting a big look in at the moment, Ran is still dispensing his much calmer advice and generally soothing the troubled waters of those who are prepared to listen. I want to take this direction one step further though and talk about how we’re going to do more than just surivive and for that kind of thinking we need Bill Mollison. Old interviews of Bill are all over the internet and I recommend reading lots of them to pick up on his vibe of ingenuity.
One of the worst paths we can follow at this point is to try to preserve our existing way of life even as it becomes increasingly untenable. Maybe out of habit, but more likely because we don’t know the alternatives, we’ll just struggle on with an ever harder daily grind. I’m pretty sure now however that permaculture has the vision we need to chart a new course – and it doesn’t just come with a new plan for the future but also a new way of thinking that will be especially valuable for a culture that has grown dependant on authority figures to do it’s thinking for it.
One of Bill’s interviews compared permaculture thinking to the marital arts philosophy of Aikido in that it seeks to turn adversity into strength. I have to admit I don’t know much about Aikido that here’s Bill Mollison with just one of a million tales of ingenious inventiveness.
We grow a lot of prawns in Hawaii, [Bill is actually from Australia] and you could grow them in your glass house up in Maine, freshwater prawns, and they eat single-celled algae, so we don’t know how to cultivate those, so we just simply float about 20 ducks to a quarter acre and they do the job of growing the algae. The duck manure is almost immediately colonized by algae and that’s what the prawns eat, the algae. So 25 ducks per quarter acre,100 per acre, and you can produce $60,000 worth of prawns per quarter acre twice a year. Think of that. And that’s just duck shit. Duck’s shit is the basic fuel for that system. Now, what are you going to feed your ducks. Very few ducks enjoy eating much grass. They love Tradescantia and sweet potato but they love snails too, so you can put in lots of water lilies in clumps here and there and in between them you put a lot of horseradish. Snails love living in water lilies but they come out and eat horseradish. And also, if you put a lot of nasturtium in, you get a lot of snails, so if you’re going to grow ducks you gotta grow horseradish, nasturtium, Tradescantia, water lilies and Agapanthus (African lily). You’ll get plenty of ducks which means you’ll have plenty of algae in the water and you can grow prawns, and the prawns haven’t cost you a penny. They’re just a second offshoot of your ducks feeding and enjoying themselves. So the system fuels itself.
Here’s an example I like to use: I call it my chicken model. Take four separate elements: a hen coop, a greenhouse, a pond, and a small forest. Now you can have these on your farm . . . and place them wherever you like, in no particular relationship to each other. In that situation each one functions individually, and they all consume energy. But if you make the forest a forage range for the chickens by putting the coop in or near that forest . . . if you attach the greenhouse to the front of the chickens’ shelter . . . and if you set the pond in front of the greenhouse — as illustrated in Permaculture Two — well, then you’ve got a nice system of interrelating functions, the familiar checks and balances.
Just look at all the ways you produce energy in this system: the chickens’ body heat, the direct sunlight that reflects off the pond and hits the greenhouse, the radiation of the trees at the rear, the decomposition of chicken manure, and on and on. If you sit down and sketch this system out, you’ll find that it’s fantastically complex — with thousands of functional interactions — and will run itself . Operating on its own energy, the system automatically switches on and off. As the sun gets high in the sky, the greenhouse absorbs more heat . . . so the chickens get hot and go out, thus removing the source of animal heat. While they’re outside, the birds forage in the forest and leave their manure to enrich the soil. After dark, of course, they’ll go back inside to keep warm . . . taking their body heat with them.
Look at each chicken by itself and the variety of functions it’s performing in this one simple model: In the coop the hen operates as a radiator, an egg producer, and a manurial system. In the forest the bird acts as a self-forager, a tree-disease controller, a fireproofer, a fertilizer producer, and a rake. One can use chickens to do quantities of useful work . . . in fact, I don’t know what you can’t do with chickens, once you get started!
I tend to have the view that there’s no problem that’s insurmountable if I think about the solution for long enough, but Bill Mollison seems to operate on the belief that there’s no problem that can’t be turned into an advantage if you think about it just right – and it’s that kind of attitude that we’re all going to need as we go about recreating our culture (and saving our butts) over the next few years. I think we’ll also need some of Bill’s attitude just to keep our energy levels high in the dispiriting face of the diet of doom most of us follow.