October 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.

That’s from a very long and inspiring interview at Seeds of Change. This next example is from another long interview at Mother Earth News

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.


  1. >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.

    Truly. Why try preserve a way of life that works so badly, when there are better ways of doing things?

    For those readers who haven’t heard of it, Rob Hopkins’ Transition Initiative movement is deeply informed by permaculture, as Hopkins is a permaculture designer himself. This movement is about unlocking the collective genius of the community creating an attractive and enticing vision of how the community could be: “The future of less oil could be preferable than the present if we can engage with enough imagination and ingenuity in the process.”


  2. I don’t think it possible read anything quoting Bill Mollison and not be inspired!

    Even when I think things are at the point where they’re f@cked up beyond repair, I stumble across another interview and it puts things back into perspective.

    I’ve read a few transcripts of courses he’s taught and it’s amazing how he verbalizes all that info in a logical, understandable way (as opposed to lots of people who rattle off facts and figures that don’t really add up to anything or support any argument or conclusion).

    Thanks for posting this!

  3. Brainstorming is fun.

    Get out and apply your computer concepts immediately rather than talking about them.

    Don’t just talk- do.

    BTW- ducks eat shrimp, and the chicken/forest/greenhouse/pond will set you in contact with reality very quickly, but doing them will teach you much, and funnel that imagination into more realistic applications in the process.

  4. Ian, Thanks for reminding me about that course material, Kevin at Cryptogon had a link to it the other day.

    Batguano, I’m not sure if you mean it that way but your comments are a little on the wrong side of patronising. If you read a few of my other posts it might become apparent what I spend most of my time doing.

  5. Ian, Thanks for reminding me about that course material, Kevin at Cryptogon had a link to it the other day.

    Batguano, I’m not sure if you mean it that way but your comments are a little on the wrong side of patronising. If you read a few of my other posts it might become apparent what I spend most of my time doing.

  6. Aaron-

    The objective was to encourage you, yet not sign on as believing the energy needs balanced in fact.

    The multiple interactions of different systems and processes interacting to benefit one another is excellent thinking.

    The practical application of them well worth putting into practice, and that is where the problems and imbalances or impractical aspects that just did not work as planned would become apparent.

    I have no doubt whatsoever that you would look at the problem(s) you run into, try good imaginative alterations or alternatives, and come up with solutions.

    So do not take my remarks as patronizing, but applauding, and in doing that encouraging you to do them.

    I think the phrase- it runs itself- might have influenced the tone.


  7. Hey Aaron, long time no talk —

    The idea of systems running themselves is certainly appealing, but I’m afraid he makes it sound way more simple than it actually is. The amount of knowledge and length of time required to get such a system established is out of reach for the vast majority of people. How many people have ponds nearby that they could float ducks on? Where do they get the ducks? Where do they purchase these species, and how did they know what species to purchase? It’s not as simple as it sounds, and designing a successful system like that, for the average layperson, is going to take years.

    I read the first interview and thought it was mostly interesting, though I don’t care for his simplistic analysis of the benefit of division of labor or the work involved in being self-sufficient. By dismissing it as “stupid” before thinking it through from several different perspectives, he does himself and his followers a disservice. He does appear to still be stuck in the individualistic mindset, assuming that people who are interested in meeting all their needs themselves would attempt to do all the work alone, rather than with the support of a community — and he juxtaposes that with the idea of a strict division of labor where everyone would have a particular niche, his being “food” of course. By keeping his analysis and application of closed-loop systems limited mostly to food production, water, and other natural resources, he’s severely limiting the range of application of “permaculture” principles.

    It’s not difficult to extrapolate from his writings that he’s NOT imagining a different culture, just a different way of meeting the needs of the current culture. I find this unfortunate, really, as his vision could be much more inspiring, if only it were broader.

  8. Where does he claim everybody needs to discount the divion of labour economy? I read his suggestions as being directed to specialists (farmers, and perhaps homesteaders) as a way to enhance THEIR niche in a division of labour economy via diversification and multiple systems.

    The suggestion that everybody could do everything is obviously inane, so why suggest he’s making such claims?

  9. Post try #2

    David Blume has a permaculture cycle based on alcohol fuel: http://permaculture.com/ (read chapters 8,11,12 and 26)

    Free site with cycle based on alfalfa:

    Also check out his cool housing design: http://ecosyn.us/ecocity/Proposal/proposal1.html

  10. Batguano – thanks for the explanation.

    Hi Devin, good to hear from you. Permaculture’s a lot more complex and flexible than you seem to be giving it credit for – and has even been used specifically for community building. What’s important to remember though is that it is a system of design.

    Plus most permaculturists will tell you that there is plenty of work in the setup of a permaculture system but that the key point to remember is that once it’s up and running there is a lot less work than conventional agriculture. With the pond example he was using, I’d say that was a discussion about a commercial system in which case the comparison has to be made with conventional commerical systems where people typically expect an up-front set up cost. If someone didn’t have the ability to set up something like that they would just use permaculture principals to design something that was within their means.

    And yes specislist knowledge is required – but isn’t it always required with any endeavour?

    Anyway, those are all side issues. The point I was trying to make was that Bill Mollison gives us an attitude and a vision that sounds worth living for – as opposed to a lot of crash-survival advice which kind of a assumes a desperate struggle to just stay alive.

    The thing that most people in the peak-oil-crash preparation-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it movement forget when they are attempting to get people active by shocking them with stories of how awful life is going to be is that encouraging people with a postive vision is a lot more effective than frightening them with a negative one.

    That was the main point I wanted people to take away from what I wrote.

  11. Hey, I totally understand where you’re coming from with your main point. I do appreciate the emphasis on the creation of a positive alternative out of interest and curiosity, as opposed to preparation for a world of fear and insecurity. I see the latter all the time, and rarely the former, and perhaps I ignore it more readily than others. I was talking to my mom earlier today about what I was visualizing in terms of preparation — all the systems that we’d need to transition to off-grid, what kind of timeframe, and so on. I was surprised when she became troubled — where I was excited about the creation of alternative systems, she was overwhelmed with the idea of the potential breakdown of her current way of living.

    I apparently wasn’t clear in my post, apologies for the misunderstandings. My point about how much work there is in setting up a permaculture system was not a complaint about how much work it is; my only beef was that he made it sound unrealistically simple. Float 20 ducks on a pond and make $120,000 a year! lol. Of *course* the whole goal is to design the system so it runs itself, and of course I’d much rather design a closed-loop system than a system requiring tremendous effort and continual input like conventional agriculture. But it’s not easy and treating it as such is false advertising.

    At any rate, I’m not attempting to contradict Mollison, far from it — I’m merely attempting to build on the framework he’s helped to establish, because from my perspective what he’s saying/proposing isn’t complete. Again, while permaculture principles can be applied in any direction, Mollison himself seems to lack vision with regard to the necessity of a complete cultural shift.

    So I’ll use his books and his knowledge, but I don’t really have much respect for his vision with regard to culture change. Permaculture as he articulates it could be so much more powerful than it already is.

    I don’t mean to come across as overly critical, though, so I better stop.

  12. I’m going to argue that his point about that system being simple was in terms of it’s on-going running costs compared to that of a conventional system which would have required energy inputs in terms of food for the fish and cleaning of water (amongst other things). But I’m too lazy to go back and confirm it :-)

    I would concede though that he does make it sound easier than it probably is but on the other hand if he was overstating the case by too much Permaculture wouldn’t have spread as far and wide as it has.

    I don’t know how much you have read about Permaculture and if these articles are the first you’ve seen but I suspect Bill Mollison has the cultural vision covered – the book I have, which is fairly old discusses amongst other things the issue of the money system.

    However for you Devin I might reccommend David Holmgren’s recent book Principals and Pathways which has greatly added to the scope of the Permaculture vision. (For those who don’t know David Holmgren is the co-founder of Permaculture)

    Here’s a quick summary of Holmgrens’ book and here is the amazon link

  13. It was $240K a year, lulz. He uses conversational english, which doesn’t spell everything out. Designs ARE simple. Just not for any one individual. Rather, he uses the term “you” not as you, the person he is addressing, but rather you, the talented duck+shrimp farmer which has a ready market for the typical crop-per-acre retail market value yield. Nothing in this world is ever really simple. But not everything is brain surgery either.

  14. I’m sitting with Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual right in front of me, if that gives you an idea. His vision, his analysis simply doesn’t go far enough: Chapter 14, “The Strategies of an Alternative Global Nation” is laughably utopian, attempting to cling to a highly populated, highly complex society that magically does everything different. Give me a break, man… the only way a vision like that is inspiring is if you’re half-blind and so disempowered as to pray for human limitations to suddenly disappear. He has the ecological side of things down but with regard to a feasible cultural transition, the premise of a globally integrated network of bioregional systems is irrevocably flawed. I really don’t want to belabor this criticism, since you wrote your initial post for an entirely different reason, but saying that “I suspect Bill Mollison has the cultural vision covered” is giving him quite an undeserved blank check.

  15. Devin

    If you’re really, really interested in chasing this issue down there are a lot more permaculture writers you’d need to read these days. As I said David Holmgren’s new book may be worth a look, although I’ve only read a few snippets of it so can’t promise anything. He appears to be more rigourous than Bill though.

    I suppose you could always try http://www.transitionculture.org, although when I read their publication myself I thought they had unconciously bought a lot of our existing culture into it.

    Actually, now that I’ve had a look around you can read a lot about the princples of David Holmgren’s book here: http://www.permacultureprinciples.com

    On another topic entirely, is that blog of yours still dormant?

  16. Yeah, my blogging days are done, I didn’t really like the one-to-many, “broadcasting” aspect of it.

    I’m not too clear why you continue to give me suggestions as for what I should read or check out, I was talking about the impression I get of Mollison. Obviously every resource is different, and all useful for their particular strengths — Mollison definitely has a strength in his understanding of ecology, but lacks in other areas, most noticeably the application of that knowledge toward something I can get behind. I still fully intend to use the tool, but tools in themselves are not inspiring — it’s the vision that accompanies the tool that makes all the difference.

    And this is an important point for me. The area of vision is where I diverge from almost everyone else — everyone who just by looking at “what I’m doing” wouldn’t see any difference at all. I couldn’t care less about eco-anything, I don’t care about saving the planet, I don’t care about feeding the current population, I don’t care about reducing my carbon footprint, I don’t care about (in my best neo-hippie voice) “Being One With Nature” — none of that bullshit matters, and it’s alternately hysterical and enraging when people think it does.

    For example, I’m designing a cob house to build next spring if all goes well. I’m going to be using methods similar to those that I learned while visiting Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage a few years ago. But there is a huge and unspeakably important distinction between someone who is building a cob house because they feel guilty about growing up a white middle class American, and someone building a cob house because they want to live in a place they built with their own hands, out of the land that they have a relationship with. It might look the same when it’s “finished”, but the vision, the process, the feeling are all completely different. I can’t DO it the first way, even thinking about it makes me feel all vomity and gross. I can’t do ANYthing that way. It has to be real.

    I didn’t mean to get worked up about this, it’s just infuriating how common and ubiquitous it is to do things for puritanical and activistic reasons and how rare and invisible it is for people to just do things for the shared relationships and experiences involved. When people are inventing hugely grandiose fantasy epics of everyone holding hands and singing kumbaya at the same time they’re stonewalling their estranged parents, something is sincerely, utterly fucked up.

    I think I’m going to go mutter about fairy tales and enlightenment and popular culture in my sleep, I have a headache.

  17. Devin, that’s why I love hearing from you. That’s a mini manifesto I can totally support there.

    To be honest I’ve partially forgotten what I set out to achieve here – except that my personal experience of permaculturists is that they are very genuine, which is why I tend to promote them in the face of every other answer to the peak oil crash scenario that people are peddling. I would for instance rather be surrounded by permaculturists in ten years time than the people who spend time at LATOC.

    Anyway, I have a question about Dancing Rabbit if you’re still coming back to this thread. I watched a little video I saw on the net about it and I seem to remember there was a lot of stuff about their solar panels and eco this and that and I kind of came away under-whelmed. Sort of for the same reasons you’ve just outlined about your motivations. I’m wondering if that was just the video or if it was really like that?

  18. Hey, I’m glad you could hear that. It really does frustrate me to no end, the reasons people do things.

    If it’s a question of preference of who I’d rather be around in 10 years time, I’d rather it be my family than anyone else. I guess if there were an imaginary scenario where I had to pick between survivalist-types or permaculturist-types, I’d choose the latter, but only because I think all the hippie bullshit is going to disappear almost immediately in any kind of life-threatening situation.

    As far as Dancing Rabbit goes, they had several things going for them, but their Vision as expressed in their own words is one I had hang-ups about months before I visited. There’s a lot there to peruse through so let’s look at one segment:

    “Dancing Rabbit intends to create an environment and overall social structure which encourages sustainability. One reason for the desire to have Dancing Rabbit reach a population of 1000 (much larger than many intentional communities) is to enable us to provide for many of our own needs, social as well as economic.”

    The desire for population growth in order to meet needs was one I thought bizarre, and in my mind betrays a number of unspoken premises about what they’re defining as a human need. It was clear to me that they simply hadn’t thought things through far enough. One snippet I recall reading still makes me laugh out loud (or cringe, depending on my mood) — one of the reasons they mentioned for doing outreach was so they can get a bigger population so they’ll have a bigger influence on elections. *Facepalm* doesn’t even begin to cover it.

    If you’re referring to the video tour they have on their website, that’s pretty much what it’s like there. The main focus is eco-this and eco-that, though they have built a somewhat successful community framework centered mostly around everyone having their own place and not interacting all that much — except with their polyamory partners and their food co-ops, of course. It seemed stable enough while I was there anyway, even if the love triangles are somewhat barely-contained chaos.

    They don’t use much of the land area they have (over 200 acres), they want to concentrate their population and their pollution to one area and avoid interacting with the rest. (Humans are a disease on the planet, etc.) Their gardens are smaller than I thought they would be and not zone-hip with regard to permaculture. They don’t intend to grow all (or even very much of) their own food (they only want to be regionally-sufficient, not locally-sufficient), and over half of them are vegan and/or vegetarian, so there will be no chicken or rabbit-raising either. They do have solar panels though! And an extremely high-efficiency woodburning stove! And a 25,000 gallon poured concrete cistern with a rainwater replenishment system! lol. It’s definitely not for me, but they’re into that sort of thing with about the same intensity that most people aren’t, so … to each their own I guess.

    And there were a few bright spots. I enjoyed Thomas, who lives in a wigwam and plays a mean game of table tennis (I was delighted to discover a ping pong table there; and, I might add, not mean enough heh heh >:) ) and doesn’t have the aura of a guilty-environmental-activist. Tereza was fun too.

    I don’t know why I’m going on and on about this. Probably because I haven’t revisited this story in a while, I’ve spent most of the last year or so completely avoiding anything to do with peak oil, permaculture, rewilding, and whatever the fuck else people talk about in ways that piss me off.

    I’m pretty clear on why I’m doing what I’m doing, though, whenever I care enough to remember. Just makes me sigh a bit when so few people seem to be doing things for similar reasons. I don’t even care if they’re in my community, necessarily, just having a shared perspective is very refreshing. I’m looking in all the wrong places, though — the internet is not a very good place to look for people who recognize the value of local communities and relationships. But neither is any other place, either, I’ve found, and I’d rather search from home than expend all that energy looking around the country again.


  19. David Holmgren’s ‘Principles & Pathways’ is indeed a great book. He is great at articulating and exploding into great detail his ideas.

    As a matter of fact, I actually read it at the end of last year while holidaying in NZ!

    I’ve been to David’s residence on open days a few times – it really is amazing, the way everything interacts.

    If all you’ve read regarding permaculture is Bill’s work, David’s is an excellent complimentary piece.

    Definitely a different approach to Bill Mollison’s – I guess more of a philosophical one (but written in plain english), rather than hands-on, nuts and bolts.

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