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Published on Peak Surfer on December 18, 2016


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"Most everyone in the class is starting to really “get” quantum entanglement and the ties between holistic management, the three permaculture directives, and How Wolves Change Rivers."

Even here in Xu Ling, where the air is relatively fresh, one needs to shower daily or the scalp itches. Yesterday we were asked in a class making Oregon cob whether you could use bean vines instead of straw. “Yes, but then it would not be Oregon cob. It would be Zhejiang cob,” we replied.

A woman from the Southwestern mountain region tells us she has only rock, not soil. “How do you store carbon in a place like that?” she asks. We ask where her rice comes from. “Far away,” she says. So we tell her that her yard would be a good place to build soil and store carbon. It is not a very satisfactory answer so later we find her and resume the conversation. We ask if her home has wooden doors and window shutters. It does. “That is stored carbon,” we say. We tell her that if she makes biochar and builds garden beds she can grow food almost anywhere and also store carbon. If she has a wood stove to heat her house and modifies it into a wood gasifier, she can be taking carbon out of the atmosphere while making fertilizer all winter. She could even get a little power for her house.

We didn’t bring along the Biolite so we have to settle for showing the Beaner and using the whiteboard to diagram how thermocouples make electricity. We find an old community kitchen wok and make biochar from dried bamboo splits, baking some potatoes while we do. We are informed that the Chinese word for “cool” is “ku.”

It is more than a little odd that some of these crafts have been so recently forgotten. In a recent study of composting practices for the State of Washington Department of Ecology, the authors recall the contributions of USDA scientist Frederick King:



Inoculating mushroom logs

The traditional farming practices of China, Japan and Korea recycled massive amounts of human waste, ash, crop residue and other biomass into agricultural fields. In 1909, the American agriculturalist F. H. King embarked on an eight-month tour of China, Japan and Korea in order to view and document agricultural practices. The resulting book, Farmers of Forty Centuries has become an agricultural classic. Part of King's purpose in the book was to contrast the enduring agriculture of Asia with what he viewed as destructive and wasteful practices then advocated by the US Department of Agriculture (Paull, J. 2011. The making of an agricultural classic: farmers of forty centuries or permanent agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, 1911-2011. Agricultural Sciences, 02(03), 175–180). King declared, "One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries-long and well-nigh universal conservation and utilization of all human waste in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food" (King, F. H. 1911.

Indoor Pyrolysis

Farmers of Forty Centuries. Dover, p. 193). As an indicator of the commercial value of this human waste he found that the city of Shanghai sold concessions to waste haulers, charging one contractor $31,000 in gold for the right to collect 78,000 tons of human waste for sale to farmers outside the city (p. 194). He found compost making to be a high art in Japan where prizes were offered in each county for the best compost. Winners at the county level went on to compete for a prize for best compost in the prefecture (p. 397). Although he did not specifically describe the use of charcoal in these composts, he observed that ash materials were added in large amounts. Moved by the thrift and care for conservation of nutrients that he observed on his travels, King expressed his frustration with the wasteful practices of his own country, "When we reflect upon the depleted fertility of our own older farm lands, comparatively few of which have seen a century's service, and upon the enormous quantity of mineral fertilizers which are being applied annually to them in order to secure paying yields, it becomes evident that the time is here when profound consideration should be given to the practices the Mongolian race has maintained through many centuries" (p. 193). Contrasting these Asian practices with those in America he said, "The rivers of North America are estimated to carry to the sea more than 500 tons of phosphorus with each cubic mile of water. To such loss modern civilization is adding that of hydraulic sewage disposal…" (p. 197).


Marshmallow Challenge

Makato Ogawa, who studied charcoal traditions in Japan, described how biochar has been in used in Asia since ancient times, and that rice husk charcoal has likely been used since the beginning of rice cultivation. Wood charcoal was not generally used in agriculture as it was too valuable as fuel. (Ogawa, M., and Okimori, Y. 2010. Pioneering works in biochar research, Japan. Australian Journal of Soil Research, 48(7), 489–500.)

Nor was mixing biochar into smelly wastes to remove the smell confined to Asia. "Poudrette" comes from a French term meaning "crumbs" or "powder," the main ingredient, after humanure, being powdered charcoal. As European city sanitary standards gradually improved, the contents of "dry closets" (as opposed to "water closets" that flowed into cesspools and sewers and thence to the river) were emptied and their contents hauled to the outskirts of cities and mixed with ashes, peat, gypsum, clay, lime and more charcoal. It seems likely this was also the origin of the dark earths of the Amazon.

“A dead rat, nicely buried in a cigar box so as to be surrounded at all points by an inch of charcoal powder, decays to bone and fur without manifesting any odor of putrefaction, so that it might stand on a parlor table and not reveal its contents to the most sensitive nostrils” (Unknown Author, The Garden, 1873).

 “Charcoal also possesses the property of absorbing and retaining the odoriferous and coloring principles of most organic substances… From this deodorizing property, charcoal is frequently mixed with night soil, and other decaying manures; which it keeps free from smell, and at the same time aids in preserving, by absorbing the gases which would otherwise escape.“ — A Cyclopedia of Agriculture (Morton, 1855)

Translation Team

Here in Xu Ling we are nearing the end of the weeklong ecological module. From the morning check-ins we know that most everyone in the class is starting to really “get” quantum entanglement and the ties between holistic management, the three permaculture directives, and the How Wolves Change Rivers film we showed. What is less clear is how they are going to be able to use this new understanding. The Chinese government is used to taking a long time to decide things and then ordering that they be done immediately, with near absolute powers of enforcement and draconian penalties. When we hear this we think of the IRS.

This exercise of raw power causes all manner of dislocations, as when the time-tested methods of organically farming these terraces for millennia were suddenly reversed by edicts from local authorities, requiring collection and “disposal” of all biowastes. That policy has reduced soil fertility and increased chemical dependencies, as well as burdening the already weak sewage treatment infrastructure.

Another example is when the Xu Ling labor force was suddenly uprooted and sent off to work in Apple and Microsoft gulags in Shenzhen. Now that these earnest young farmers know they must begin to rework the neglected hillsides to manage bamboo and mixed forests in order to restore biodiversity and save the valley’s fragile climate and water, will they be allowed?

We don’t know the answer to that, but we suspect they will. We are told Xi Jinping’s government plans to convert 5 billion square meters of Beijing reinforced concrete real estate into natural buildings. One of the students who has tracked China’s role in the Paris Agreement says that is probably the reason why. Another student has taken a Ianto Evans-style cob course from a US instructor named Leo. Leo apparently was pretty good because the kid knows his stuff. He could teach the builders that will be needed to transform that district in Beijing.

At first we enjoyed the simple diet here, which is predominantly vegan after the tastes of the ecovillage founders. But it began to wear thin after the first week of sameness.

There are more than 40 different kinds of tofu here, but we have to say the real Godsend for us was the kind that is fermented to taste like miso. Chinese are particular about their rice, and since they eat it three times a day we have found it passing strange that while tofu comes in all styles, textures, flavors and colors, rice comes in only two: fluffy and soupy. Never is any salt or other flavoring added. You are supposed to discern the subtle flavors in how rice is bred or grown in much the way a sommelier knows wines.

For us that little red cube was the perfect addition to bland, soupy rice. Our chopstick skills that we thought were pretty good (sushi being a favorite food for us) suddenly seemed pretty lame, as the mute testimony of our shirt-front confirmed. While we were dropping greasy asparagus tips and picking our lima beans from the lotus roots and slimy okra stir fries in our lap, our host Haichao was sipping soup with his chopsticks after the fashion of a kitten lapping milk from a bowl. Personal highpoint: the baked lotus tunas that look like sunchokes except that you are supposed to peel them before eating.

The second week we concluded the first permaculture teacher training workshop in rural Zhejiang and left behind a few dozen certified permaculture teachers. We travelled North to Nanjing to attend a seminar hosted by the International Biochar Initiative and the Asian Biochar Research Center at Nanjing Agricultural University. While living in a rustic mountain village has not been easy, spending time in a busy Chinese city is not something we are looking forward to.

On our final day we decide to visit the grandmother who is the village tofu maker and watch her perform her weekly ritual. She starts very early boiling the beans and skimming off the skins, then grinding the milk and bringing it back to a boil. For a small, frail woman with skin like leather, she refuses to let anyone help her as she moves heavy buckets and stirs her cauldrons. The boiling milk is ladled into a wooden basin and she doses it sparingly with a liquified potassium salt to get it to curdle. It takes several small adjustments of the curding agent before it begins to separate the way she wants, and then she ladles off the curds into her pail — an old 5-gallon metal paint can — and carries the full bucket of hot curd out to an alley, where she sets up the wooden press and lines it with a well-worn cheesecloth. After several more trips, the press is full and she squeezes the cloth and sets a wood lid on the press and a full bucket of whey to weight it down. The tofu will sit this way for perhaps a few hours to form a solid block, which she then comes back to invert onto a tabletop, unveil, and slice into half-kilo bricks. As we wait for the pressing, we look around her shop at the tools, the old Mao posters and calendars, an award of some kind from her younger days, and the barred windows that keep thieves from stealing her soybeans.

Seasons come seasons go
Good years bad years all flow
This tofu is excellent

— Xu Ling Village, Zhejiang, October 14, 2016

This is third in a continuing series.


Trophic Cascades

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Published on Peak Surfer on December 11, 2016


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"Chinese youth are starting to wish they had not been lured into where they find themselves. It is best for all our sakes to encourage that impulse."

  We were expecting 25 students but got 40, and on some days it even goes up to 50. Initially our hosts wanted to have a Permaculture Design Course but after we told them such an undertaking would require 2 weeks, including 72 hours of classroom time, and multiple co-instructors, they asked instead for a week-long introduction to the Ecological Key, part of the Ecovillage Design one-month curriculum offered by the Global Ecovillage Network and Gaia Education Associates. We helped author that module so we agreed, but then they needed to cut it to 6 days to factor in the national independence holiday and also asked if we could do an introduction to natural building as part of the course.

Reluctantly, we agreed, since it was only introductory workshop in any event, but then we had our expensive Japanese finishing trowel confiscated by airline security and lost our shiitake mushroom plug spawn to agricultural inspection in Beijing. Undeterred, we pushed on, arriving a day early to sleep off jet lag and get oriented to the venue.

An able team of young Xu Ling villagers and volunteers rushed about cleaning up an old hall in the center of town, laying in bulk food for the cooks, re-wiring everything and setting up wifi, a PA system with bluetooth microphones, and a big projection screen.

As we walked the steep stone steps of the village we saw essentially a ghost town. Eighty large family houses stood empty, abandoned to the elements. Skinny dogs picked through the central garbage bins, scattering plastics and bits of foil into the bubbling mountain brooks that wove through and under the ancient stone stairways. Chickens and ducks, apparently the only domestic animals raised for food here, wandered the streets and picked through scraps the dogs missed, or raided the kernels of corn laid out on cement terraces to dry.

The old townspeople looked favorably towards the arrival of young ecovillagers but knew all too well that they were gardening greenhorns, unused to the seasonal ebbs and flows, city kids with city addictions, so they tried not to get too involved with them, not expecting they would last long. How many winter mass starvations had they witnessed in their long and difficult lives?

The students begin to arrive, coming in from all four corners of the Middle Kingdom. We have a Mongolian student who shaves his head and wears the traditional topknot. We have several from the mountainous Southwest, along the Tibetan plateau, and some from North of Beijing where there are ecovillages being born on splendid and historic royal estates and former monastery grounds. The government is committed to assuring their success by giving them some of the best land in that part of China. Among the students are architects, ecovillage designers, professors, gardeners, post-grad ag students, city recycling activists and engineers. They come because either they support this back-to-the-land movement or they are getting serious about joining it.

Here in Xu Ling the land is not bad, just in need of TLC. The elderly farmers descend to their terraces every day and work them over with hoes and sickles. They bare the ground, again and again, a practice that destroys whatever microbiome is close to the surface and that somehow survived the heavy use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, federally subsidized and liberally applied. The health clinic, still bearing slogans from the Cultural Revolution, is shuttered and padlocked and people go to distant hospitals to die so it would be difficult to look at the chemical fallout of this style of agriculture in an epidemiological way.

After a day of introductions and a village tour, we tackle the harder subjects. We don’t have a subtitled version of the late Albert Bartlett’s famous lecture, so we recapitulate with the assist of our able translators. We put up the equations for doubling times on the board and tell the story of the mathematician who introduced the game of chess to the emperor. This tale resonates well with the daytime TV soaps in most parts of China — a mix of KungFu and Mandarin intrigue. The emperor was very pleased with the mathematician and asked what he would like in reward. “Oh nothing much, sire, only a few grains of rice will do. Just place one on the first square of the board, and then two on the next, four on the next, and so on, until you have covered the board.” The emperor thought him a very foolish man, thinking he had been prepared to offer great treasures but instead the man wanted only a few grains of rice.

“Well, just how much rice is that?” Bartlett had asked his college mathematics class. The answer was, once you got to the 64th square, it was more than 400 times the global rice harvest this year, and perhaps more rice than had ever been grown in all of human history.

Our Chinese students ponder this, as we begin to describe the exponential function in terms of various percent growth rates and doubling times. We point to a few commonly understood rates like coal mining or fish catch. Then we introduce the bacteria-in-a-bottle analogy and the point is hammered home. If you have a bacterium in a bottle and it doubles every minute and at the stroke of midnight the bottle is full, then at what point is the bottle half full? Answer: one-minute to midnight. And we ask, as did Bartlett, when the bottle was 7/8 blue sky, “just yearning for development,” how much time was left? Answer: 3 minutes. Did the bacteria realize they had a problem? Probably not. But suppose by the time the bottle was 1/4 full (2 minutes to midnight) they did, and sent out astronauts in search of more bottles, and were extraordinarily lucky and in the final minute those bacteria astronauts came back with three new bottles. How much time would they have now? Answer: 2 minutes. To go another minute they would need 4 more bottles, and so on.

One hardly needs to hammer home this analogy with the pollution problems being experienced throughout China, or the global Ponzinomic pyramid of financial debt from deadbeat creditors that is knocking at their door.

Stoneleigh and Ilargi tell us:

China property prices rose at the fastest pace on record in September, fueling fears of a market bubble in the world’s second-largest economy. Property prices climbed 11.2% on-year in September in 70 major cities while prices were up 2.1% from August, according to Reuters calculations using data from the National Bureau of Statistics. In August, prices rose 9.2% from a year ago. Home prices in the second-tier city of Hefei recorded the largest on-year gain at 46.8%, compared with on-year gains of 40.3% in August. Top August performer Xiamen posted an on-year rise of 46.5% against an increase of 43.8% in August. Prices in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing rose 34.1%, 32.7% and 27.8% on an annual basis respectively, according to Reuters.

Since 7% annual growth gives a 10-year doubling time, property values in Xiamen are currently doubling every 20 months. Want to invest?

We discuss with the class the concept of anti-fragility, as opposed to robust or resilient investments. Anti-fragile investments do well when things go south. Ecovillages are a good example. If you lose your net worth, you still have food security. If you produce a surplus in hard times, the world is your oyster. That leads to a discussion of organic gardening and soils.

After lunch we construct a compost pile near the kitchen. Our host community had been mixing organic wastes with the plastics and other non-renewables and just trucking it all down the mountain to the city landfill. We give our usual talk on epigenetic coevolution and quantum entanglement — we are our microbial selves — much to the consternation of a whole team of translators trying to keep up. We talk about the spiderwebs of biomes, fermentation, sick buildings, and end the day screening a subtitled version of The Man Who Planted Trees.

It was a lot to digest, but these kids are no dummies. They asked tough questions. They sat on the edge of their chairs. They got it.

When we think of the stereotypes of Red China that pass for most USAnians as good reasons to vote Republican, we had best remember that this giant over there is largely our doing now. They are starting to wish they had not been lured into where they find themselves. It is best for all our sakes to encourage that.

The fourth day began with a mixed blessing. Walking back uphill from breakfast — indistinguishable, really, from the other two meals of the day — and pining for a Starbucks double espresso, we heard the shouts of a farmer down in the terraces below. He was pointing up to the village, shouting, and running. We watched in amazement as this man in at least his sixties sprinted up the steep stone steps, his conical bamboo hat bobbing behind his head as he shouted and pointed. Turning our gaze to where he was pointing, we saw the column of black smoke rising from the center of the village while around us other elderly villagers were rushing uphill, some passing by us at a dead run up the steps, carrying empty pails and plastic dish basins.

When we reached the fire, huffing and puffing and feeling pain in our knees, the students were already there, organizing themselves into a long chain to pass buckets from one of the many streams or taps to positions surrounding the building. It was clear that the first building, which had been storing winter firewood, was a lost proposition, as flames extending up through the roof now reached twice the height of the building. The attention of our makeshift fire brigade, led by our young cadre of engineers and architects, shifted focus to the adjacent home, and started dousing the outer walls and roof of that with all the water that could be brought to bear. When the Hangzhou fire department arrived, after about 45 minutes, the students and villagers already had it under control.

This was a blessing in unexpected ways, because it allowed the old resident villagers to feel the strength of our youthful ecovillage spirit. Where they had been running in ones and twos back and forth to the spring, we had set up a bucket brigade and delivered a lot of water where it was needed in a hurry. We responded rapidly and self-organized efficiently. It also let us feel our strength as a group in a pretty profound way, even though most had only met three days earlier. Lastly, it gave a good reality check to city kids accustomed to having things like fire departments they could speed dial on their smart phones.

Rather than jump back into the planned lesson, we chose to take an hour or two and let the adrenaline subside. We went around the circle and let everyone release what they wanted to say. It was a good chance to talk about planning for catastrophe, a standard element in any permaculture curriculum. We looked at how we had responded, what could have been better, and what was missing in the village’s own response.

We closed with a short think and listen in groups of three: what do you fear about the world your grandchildren will inherit? The results were unexpected.

Normally, when we do this virtually anywhere else in the world, the greatest concern is always climate change. Not one of the fourteen or more groups even mentioned that.

We had our work cut out.

Ripe persimmons and chestnuts
leaves starting to fall
summer heat lingers too long

— Xu Ling Village, Zhejiang, October 2, 2016

A Mountain of Gold

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Published on Peak Surfer on December 4, 2016


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"The Chinese ecovillage movement is mostly retrofuturist, showing deference, if not nostalgia, for lost culture."

  It is Wednesday September 28 and we are sitting on the plane in Nashville waiting to take off for Hangzhou via Detroit and Beijing. This China trip is merely a warm-up for our Fall itinerary that has us traversing four continents in four weeks, including six ocean crossings. It is almost like a presidential campaign whistlestop tour, except they never utter a word about the thermometer in the room and everywhere we land we are making our pitch for reversing climate change by the redesign of the built environment. It is understandable that politicians won’t touch this subject. We are shredding the mystique of the land use patterns, collectively called civilization, that have served humans so poorly for the past eight millennia.

We spent August in Tennessee developing the lesson plans for the introductory workshops that will train a couple dozen soil activists in the People’s Republic and we are feeling pretty good about this stage of the trip now.

Then, in the run-up to blast off, we were tagged teamed by John Dennis Liu and Daniel Wahl, who wrangled us into cancelling scheduled events for late October and going straight from China to London for a meeting to assist British Commonwealth countries to prepare a new plan for COP-22 in Marrakech, one that will raise international ambition and stake out “plausibly impossible” but attainable goals to push the envelope of the Paris Agreement and the UN multilateral process. On October 28-29, a design charette, dubbed Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change, will give us the opportunity to make our elevator pitch to a very receptive audience of big wigs.

Now it is September 29 and we have left Hangzhou airport and driven 3 hours up winding roads into the mountains at night, eventually arriving at the Xu Ling village where our workshops will be held. Quail are singing to each other in the terraces, frogs croak from the creeks, and from the forested mountains there is the sound of a distant owl. Three hundred years before Lao Tsu, this small village was home to a sage named Wu Xixu, later to become the first Premier of the country. The mountain pass above the village is a relatively low one, so for thousands of years the main stone road between Shanghai on the coast and inland Nanjing, capital city for many empires, ran through here. When the pass was blocked in winter, porters would use a cave passage that crossed from Zhejiang to the adjacent province under the mountains.

As we rose the morning of October 1st we jotted a quick Suessian limerick:

There was a young man named Wu
Who came from the village of Xu
They thought him so fair
They made him Premier
This fellow they called Wu from Xu

XuLing village is at 29 North so having 29C days in October is not unusual, kind of like Mississippi or Alabama. They get snow in winter but they also have thatch palm and heliconia trees. The valley is a South-facing parabolic with mountains backing it to the North. The upper slopes of the valley are very steep but varied with different woods and bamboos. There is plenty of water; it flows through stone channels everywhere. Some of the trees we see are more than 1000 years old.

The stonework is of varying age; the oldest being most mostly massive freestack and then smaller, cut freestack, then fine mortared walls, then mud brick and cinderblock. Mud brick is illegal now — an overworked resource that has left ugly scars in many places. Cement brick and block is mandatory. Not even fired brick is permitted unless it is imported.

As we meet some of the villagers and students who have arrived for our workshops we observe that Chinese clothing is very westernized. Shoes are almost always state-of-the-art Nikes, Converses, Adidas and T-shirt slogans are usually in English even if the wearer doesn’t speak a word and may have no idea what it means. But surprisingly, many have done at least a year at a US university. Sometimes the ensemble of hair, glasses, clothes and iPhone 7 is so western you think the kid is USAnian except that when you ask them something they can’t comprehend a word. In contrast, there are kids who’ve learned almost perfect English just by watching internet movies and TV and prefer to affect old-style Chinese dress and hair styles, even the round glasses from a century earlier.

This contrast between the old and the new will be a recurrent theme of our month here. While many Chinese youth are enamored of consumer culture and willing to make great sacrifices to attain it, the Chinese ecovillage movement is mostly retrofuturist, showing deference, if not nostalgia, for lost culture. They seek as much a return to villageness as a breath of cleaner air and sip of cleaner water.

They are bucking a big trend, but lately they have been finding support in unusual quarters. Eleven years ago, the current President of China, then Governor and Party Committee Secretary of Zhejiang, went on a State visit to the rural villages to assess the needs of the people. What he discovered was a brewing catastrophe.

Globalization has been drawing people from the country to the cities for many decades, and until recently government policies encouraged it in order to fill the need for a gargantuan factory labor force. It recognized that this policy meant sacrificing agricultural capacity, but like most developing countries, was willing to make that trade-off because it figured that it could import food with its newly favorable trade balance, and a whole lot more.

What Xi Jinping saw nearly broke his heart. Long a champion of “Chinese values” and the “Chinese Dream,” Xi had hoped to revive Taoist practices of harmony in culture and nature. "He who rules by virtue is like the North Star," he said at a meeting of officials last year, quoting Confucius. "It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage.”

What he saw in the rural countryside was that all the teenagers, young people and middle-aged had left. There were only the very elderly — the grandparents — and the very young — the grandchildren — being supported by a combination of welfare services and remittances from distant families working in the cities. The terraces, on land too steep to use machinery, were in disrepair, overgrown with weeds and emergent forest. Buildings were crumbling and stray dogs roamed the streets. Food production had plummeted. The old hand tools were rusted and broken. The forests on the hillsides had been raided by timber companies and now mudslides wrecked the streams and threatened the villages.

The villagers said to Xi, “Look what we have lost!” They wanted back the forests and wildlife that made this a good place to live. Thus was born the two mountain theory.

Back in Shanghai, Xi gave a speech calling for two mountains. The first was development, including basic services to make peoples’ lives better. The second he called his “mountain of gold” — return of nature. Pure forests and pure water was what he called the real gold of China.

This was 11 years ago. In 2013 he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People's Republic of China, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the most powerful consolidation of power since before the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

We are told that one reason the Sunshine Ecovillage Network has been successful in winning official support for its plan for rural revitalization in China, with a goal of 100 ecovillages by 2021, is that it chose to launch here in Zhejiang province, where the two mountains were first revealed to Xi Jinping.

This is first in a continuing series. 

Inman couple seeks backing for eco-village

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Published on GOUPstate on October 1, 2016


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Wendy and Aaron McCarty of Inman believe the lifestyle many of us enjoy today could be completely upended if a major disruption ever occurred in the energy grid.

They dream of building a self-sustaining eco-village, complete with energy-efficient geodome structures, vegetable gardens and bamboo stands, and self-made clothing and goods.

They hope to partner with local schools to teach students the dying trades of blacksmithing, candlemaking, looming and more, she said.

“We’re hoping this will bring in tourism — breathe new life into the community, and jobs,” said Wendy McCarty, an artist and photographer.

The couple has sought the support of local leaders, and needs about $1 million and a 100-acre property with a running stream to get the sustainability park project off the ground.

They’ve gotten moral support. Now comes the hard part — raising the funds and finding the right piece of property.

“It would be great to have this in Inman,” said Tom Plemmons of the Inman Area Chamber of Commerce. “I am proud they have tentatively selected Inman as a host site. I hope to help them turn this into a reality. The hard thing is turning from paper to reality. It takes a lot of hard work.”

The McCartys hosted a barbecue last week in Saluda, N.C., which was attended by local officials as well as the president of SUN (Sustaining Universal Needs) Foundation, the nonprofit that is working with the McCartys.

SUN’s mission is “to assist people and the society in general in transitioning off the fossil-fuel based economy that currently is winding down around us,” according to John Litter, president.

Wendy and Aaron McCarty of Inman believe the lifestyle many of us enjoy today could be completely upended if a major disruption ever occurred in the energy grid.

They dream of building a self-sustaining eco-village, complete with energy-efficient geodome structures, vegetable gardens and bamboo stands, and self-made clothing and goods.They hope to partner with local schools to teach students the dying trades of blacksmithing, candlemaking, looming and more, she said.

“We’re hoping this will bring in tourism — breathe new life into the community, and jobs,” said Wendy McCarty, an artist and photographer.

The couple has sought the support of local leaders, and needs about $1 million and a 100-acre property with a running stream to get the sustainability park project off the ground.

They’ve gotten moral support. Now comes the hard part — raising the funds and finding the right piece of property.

“It would be great to have this in Inman,” said Tom Plemmons of the Inman Area Chamber of Commerce. “I am proud they have tentatively selected Inman as a host site. I hope to help them turn this into a reality. The hard thing is turning from paper to reality. It takes a lot of hard work.”

The McCartys hosted a barbecue last week in Saluda, N.C., which was attended by local officials as well as the president of SUN (Sustaining Universal Needs) Foundation, the nonprofit that is working with the McCartys.

SUN’s mission is “to assist people and the society in general in transitioning off the fossil-fuel based economy that currently is winding down around us,” according to John Litter, president.

The gathering was attended by Inman council members Ray Rogers and Ginger Morrow McGuire and chamber members Plemmons, Bessie Fisher and Cliff Newmark. Also attending was Missy House, a representative with U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg.

Litter estimated it will cost $1 million to get the eco-village up and running, with more funding needed later as it grows.

Fisher, an experienced grant writer for Inman, said she could help by exploring grant funds.

Rogers said he was impressed by the proposal Wendy McCarty delivered to council earlier this summer, and he’s found a real estate agent to help her look for available land.

“I’m amazed they selected Inman as a prototype,” he said. “I’m glad she selected Inman to do it.”

Newmark said he believes the McCartys could succeed in drawing more business and tourism to Inman. “I’m certainly open to ideas,” said Newmark. “I’m excited because Wendy is so excited. Her enthusiasm is so infectious. I want to learn more.”

The McCartys think communities should start becoming self-sufficient — free of fossil fuels and powered by the sun, wind and water, and able to grow their own food and make their own goods.

“We aren’t preppers,” said Aaron, a professional landscaper, referring to doomsday survivalists who build underground shelters stocked with canned food and guns. “And we’re not hippies.”

Residents would produce their own food, including meat and vegetables, cider, bread, cheese and butter. They could even generate income by producing enough to sell.

“It will be as self-sustaining as possible,” he said.

The farm would not be totally devoid of modern conveniences. It will have electricity — generated by sun, wind and water — and plumbing.

In fact, the inside of a geodome home can be built with all the amenities found in any other new house.

“Even the Amish are dependent on many industrially produced farm implements and tools, as well as industrially produced milled lumber,” Wendy McCarty said.

Plemmons said the idea of a self-sufficient community isn’t new to Inman. In the years before automobiles, residents had to be self-sufficient, he said.




RIP Bruce Charles “Bill” Mollison: 1928-2016

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Published on The Daily Impact on September 27, 2016

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I never knew Bill Mollison. I have known of him for only a few years. But his vision has touched — in fact, transformed — the core of my being. As long as I live I will honor him for a vision that has vastly improved the way I understand and react to the world, a vision that could have vastly improved the world itself, had we listened to him in time.

Mollison, along with Boll Holmgren and others, was a principal founder of the  Permaculture movement, a way of looking at agriculture with emphasis on symbiosis among plants, including trees and other perennials; the soil, with its myriad components and organisms; and the climate with its gifts of rain, wind and sunshine. This contemplative way of farming — permanent agriculture — has since its advent in Australia in 1968 morphed into a way of looking at life itself — permanent culture.




Bill Mollison, father of Permaculture

The most important thing about the way Bill Mollison thought about the world, in my view, was this: he was not an expert. In his life he was a baker, a trapper, a fisherman, a forester, a cattleman, a bouncer and a mill worker. Sure, he got an academic degree, and spent time in academia, but not, as experts do, learning more and more about less and less. He was a generalist, who when he looked at life saw a marvelous web of relationships, not a simplified, straight-line diagram of causes and effects.  

What Bill Mollison saw when he looked at the world was what the native American Lakota called “Wakan Tanka” — the Great Mystery. Permaculture teaches us to study the processes of nature at great length, but not, as modern humanity supposes, thinking we can understand it completely and take over its management, but in the hope we can learn enough to get out of its way, avoid destroying it, maybe even one day make a contribution to its well being.

The practice of Permaculture as codified by Mollison requires us to shed like old snakeskins many of the attitudes and assumptions that are so basic to modern life we seldom think about them, let alone question them. Before we can even begin the practice, for example, we and our family have to make a multi-generational commitment to live on and work with a piece of land, because much of the abundance to be had from Permaculture may not appear in our lifetimes. In a country where people move every three years, on average, this is a strange concept.  

The practice of Permaculture, Mollison taught us, requires less and less work over time. One puts things in place, and then lets them be. One gradually returns to the life most familiar to the human race over hundreds of thousands of years, that of the hunter-gatherer. And instead of the life of grueling labor and frequent famine, described by the apologists for chemical-industrial agriculture, it turns out to be a life of ease and plenty. Sort of like the Garden of Eden, before we brought in Monsanto.

The prospect of surviving the crash of the industrial age is more than daunting when we think about growing our own food (and defending it) in the ways that have become familiar to us in the past two centuries. But those who have a mature food forest with which to face the days after tomorrow have much less to fear from either deprivation or depredation. (It’s what made the potato the staple food of Ireland; hay and corn and livestock and preserved food were easy for the omnipresent British soldiers to steal or destroy, but it was just too much damn work to dig all those potatoes.)

So thank you, Bill Mollison, for opening my eyes to the Great Mystery, for relieving my mind of the lust to comprehend nature in order to control it, freeing me to simply sit in the midst of the Great Orchestra and hum along with delight. You came to me too late, as you came to the world too late, to save us from the consequences of our arrogance and greed, but not too late to give us, in what would otherwise have been an unbearably Dark Age at the closing of our lives, a lustrous hope for renewal.

Accept the thanks of a grateful world, Bill Mollison, and rest in peace.

The Myth of Self Reliance

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Published on the Toby Hemway Blog on August 1, 2011


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A mass emailing went out a while back from a prominent permaculturist looking for “projects where people are fully self sufficient in providing for their own food, clothing, shelter, energy and community needs. . .” There it was, the myth of “fully self sufficient,” coming from one of the best-known permaculturists in the world. In most US permaculture circles, the idea that anyone could be self sufficient at anything past a very primitive level was abandoned a while ago, and the softer term “self reliant” replaced it. But even self-reliance is barely possible, and, other than as way of expressing a desire to throw off the shackles of corporate consumerism, I don’t think it’s desirable.

I took a Googling cruise around the internet and found that “self sufficient” shows up as a desirable goal on several top permaculture websites. I’d like to hammer a few coffin nails into that phrase. My dictionary says that self sufficient means being “able to maintain oneself without outside aid.” Who lives without outside aid? No one. Let’s unpack that a bit further. The meaning of “self sufficient in food” is something most of us can agree on: supplying 100% of your food needs from your own land and efforts. I have never met anyone who has done this. I’m sure there are a few people doing it, but even subsistence farmers usually raise, alongside their food, a cash crop to buy the foods that are impractical for them to grow.

I hear people say they are growing 30%, 50%, even 70% of their own food. What they usually mean is that they are growing fruits and vegetables that make up some percentage of the total cost or weight—but not calories—of their food. Vegetables are high in wet weight, but low in calories. If you are growing 100% of your own vegetables, they provide about 15-20% of your daily calories, unless you are living mostly on potatoes or other starchy veggies. Most daily calories come from grains, meat, or dairy products. So if you’re not raising large-scale grains or animals, it’s unlikely that you are growing more than one-quarter of your own food, measured honestly by nutritional content. In that case, it’s not accurate to claim you are “70% food self-sufficient.” If you are getting most of your calories from your land, you’re almost certainly a full-time farmer, and I salute you for your hard work. Now we begin to see how difficult, and even undesirable, self sufficiency is. You won’t have time for much else if you are truly food self-sufficient, even in a permaculture system.

But even if you grow all your own food, can you claim you are self sufficient if you don’t grow all your own seeds? Provide all your fertility? Where do your farm tools and fuel come from? Permaculturists understand as well as anyone how interconnected life is. At what point do you claim to be disconnected from the broad human community in anything? Is there really a way to be “fully self sufficient” in food?

Let’s take a quick pass at clothing, shelter and energy. Even if you sew all your clothes, do you grow the cotton, raise the sheep? If you milled all the lumber or dug the stone for your home, did you forge the glass, fabricate the wiring? In the off-the-grid house, what complex community of engineers and factories assembled the solar panels? We’re reliant on all of that.

Claiming self sufficiency in almost anything insults and ignores the mountain of shoulders we all stand on. US permaculturists are a pretty politically correct crew, and it became obvious to some of us that “self sufficient” was not just impossible, but was a slap in the face to all those whose sweat provides for us, and was another perpetuation of the cowboy ethic that puts the individual at the center of the universe. So the term morphed into “self reliance,” to show that we know we are interdependent, but are choosing to be less reliant on others. At its best, self reliance means developing skills to provide for basic needs, so we can stop supporting unethical and destructive industries. But I see much less need for self-reliant people who can do everything themselves, and much more need for self-reliant communities, where not everyone knows how to weave or farm, but there is clothing and food for all.

There is still a deep prejudice in permaculture, as websites and emails show, that doing it all ourselves, and on our own land, is the most noble path. And insofar as our skills make us less dependent on corporate monopolies, developing the abilities that we think of as self-reliant is worth doing. However, the more we limit our lives to what we can do ourselves, the fewer our opportunities are. Each connection outside ourselves enriches us. When we create a web of interdependencies, we grow richer, stronger, safer, and wiser. Why would you not want to rely on others? To fully probe that would take us down a psychological rabbit-hole, but some of it is grounded in a belief that others are unreliable or unethical, and that we weaken ourselves by interdependencies. But the old saying “if you want a job done well, do it yourself” simply shows poor management skills.

If you’re still skeptical, I’ll resort to scripture: a quote from the Book of Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture, page two: “We can also begin to take some part in food production. This doesn’t mean that we all need to grow our own potatoes, but it may mean that we will buy them directly from a person who is already growing potatoes responsibly. In fact, one would probably do better to organize a farmer-purchasing group in the neighborhood than to grow potatoes.”

As veteran permaculture designer Larry Santoyo says, go to the highest generalization to fill your needs. Thinking “I must grow my food” is painfully limited. Thinking “I must satisfy food needs responsibly” opens up a vast array of possibilities, from which you can choose the most stable and appropriate. Individual efforts are often less stable and resilient than community enterprises. And they’re bad design: self-reliance means that a critical function is supported in only one way. If you grow all your food and get hurt, you are now injured, hungry, and watching your crops wither from your wheelchair. That won’t happen in a community farm. And for those worried about an impending collapse of society, the roving turnip-bandits are much more likely to raid your lonely plot while you sleep exhausted from a hard day of spadework, and less likely to attack a garden protected by a crew of strong, pitchfork-wielding farmers who can guard it round the clock.

Creating community reliance gives us yet another application of permacultural zones: Zone zero in this sense is our home and land. Zone one is our connection to other individuals and families, zone two to local commerce and activities in our neighborhood, zone three to regional businesses and organizations, zone four to larger and more distant enterprises. Why would we limit ourselves to staying only in zone zero? We can organize our lives so that our need for zone-four excursions—say, to buy petroleum or metal products—is very limited, while our interactions with the local farmers’ market and restaurants are frequent. This builds a strong community.

Self reliance fails to grow social capital, a truly regenerative resource that can only increase by being used. Why would I not want to connect to my community in every way that I can? If we don’t help fill our community’s needs, there’s more chance that our neighbors will shop at big-box stores. An unexamined belief in self reliance is a destructive myth that hands opportunity to those who are taking our community away from us.

If you love being a farmer, then yes, grow all your own food. And sell the rest for the other things you need, in a way that supports your community. But is there really a difference between a farmer exchanging the product of her labor—food—for goods and money, and me selling the product of my labor—education—for goods and money? We both are trading our life energy within a system that supports us, and I’d like to think that we are both making wise ethical choices.

A good permaculture design is one that provides for the inhabitants’ needs in a responsible and ecologically sound manner. But there’s nothing in permaculture that says that it’s important for all yields to come from the owner’s site! If I can accomplish one thing in this essay, it is to smash that myth. Permaculture design simply says that our needs and products need to be taken care of responsibly in our design, not on our own land. That design can—and must—include off-site connections. If you are an acupuncturist whose income is provided by your community and you are getting most of your needs met from mostly local sources you believe to be ethical, then that’s excellent permaculture design. Your design will be stronger if your needs and products are connected to many off-site elements and systems.

It’s very permacultural to develop skills that will connect you more deeply to land, home, and community. And sometimes the skills that we gained in search of self reliance are the same ones we need to be more community-reliant. But self reliance, as a goal in itself, is a tired old myth that needs to die. It’s unpermacultural.

Epiconomics 102 : The Sunlight Economy

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Published on Peak Surfer on May 15, 2016


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"It is green capitalism, we admit, but the gene expression for capitalism must and will change."





The adoption of The Paris Agreement by 195 countries on December 12, 2015 marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping 90 percent or more of remaining coal, oil and gas in the ground. The final text still has some serious gaps, and the timetable will have to speed up, but the treaty draws a red line on atmospheric CO2 we cannot cross. As science, economics and law come into alignment, a solar-powered economy is barrelling at us with unstoppable force.

Nafeez Ahmed, a former Guardian writer who now blogs the System Shift column for VICE’s Motherboard recently pondered the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) problem with renewables and came up with something that might form the basis for smoothing the transition.

First, you have to get a sense of the scale of the driving force behind this change. Ahmed observed that since the crash in oil prices (underlying causes here) and the Paris Agreement, more than 65% of the world’s oil companies have declared bankruptcy. The Economist puts the default at $2.5 trillion. The real number is probably much higher. Following Paris, Goldman Sachs surveyed over $1 trillion in stranded assets out in the fracking fields that will never be booked. Carbon Tracker puts the likely cash that will be thrown down bad wells by the still standing 35% of fossil industry dinosaurs — and never-to-be recouped — at $2.2 trillion.

In our book, The Paris Agreement, we described why the fossil shakeout is likely to liberate huge cashflows into renewable energy, but with one giant caveat. There is significantly lower net energy (EROEI) in renewables than the fossils provided in their heyday. That augurs economic contraction no matter how you slice it.

Degrowth is already happening. Carbon Tracker identified Peabody Coal as one of those energy giants unable to pass a 2C stress test. Peabody scoffed. Six months later, Peabody went bankrupt.  There are now more solar installers than coal miners in the US and the gap widens each month.

Mark Harrington, an oil industry consultant, tells his clients now the cascading debt defaults will shake the global economy by late 2016 or early 2017 and could make the 2007-8 financial crash look like a cakewalk. Utilities are the new housing bubble.

The EROEI on Texas Spindletops was 100 to 1. The net energy produced from Canadian tar sands or Bakkan shale is less than you can get from green firewood, maybe 3 to 1. Oil rig count in the Bakkan as of this morning: zero. Lost investment exploring and drilling there? billions.

Nafeez Ahmed says:

The imperative to transition away from fossil fuels is, therefore, both geophysical and environmental. On the one hand, by mid-century, fossil fuels and nuclear power will become obsolete as a viable source of energy due to their increasingly high costs and low quality. On the other, even before then, to maintain what scientists describe as a ‘safe operating space’ for human survival, we cannot permit the planet to warm a further 2C without risking disastrous climate impacts.

Staying below 2C, the study finds, will require renewable energy to supply more than 50 percent of total global energy by 2028, “a 37-fold increase in the annual rate of supplying renewable energy in only 13 years.”

Let us leave aside the 2C discussion for now. Two degrees is in the bank and 5 degrees is what we have a slim chance of averting, assuming we can muster the collective will to plant enough trees, make soil, and stop dumping carbon into the atmosphere. Whether 4 degrees, which is likely to be reached by about mid-century, give or take 10 years, is survivable by mammals such as ourselves remains an open question. The odds do not favor our collectively recognizing the risk in time, all of us must acknowledge.

Those odds get even longer once President Trump, taking advice from the Koch brothers, Dick Cheney and Mitch "Black Lungs Matter" McConnell, appoints an Energy Task Force sometime in the first hundred days. Within a few months, Congress will attempt to bend energy economics around their political gravity well. They will superincentivize coal, nuclear and fracked gas and raise even more impossible hurdles for solar power, responsible biomass waste conversion and energy efficiency. Chances then of humans surviving another century: nil.

Trump's tweet has now been retweeted 27,761 times.

Last year the G7 set the goal of decarbonization by end of century, which, like Trump, is a formula for Near Term Human Extinction. At the Paris gathering 195 countries agreed to bounce the date to 2050, with a proviso that it could even accelerate more if needed. More will be needed.

The Bright Shining Hope

Analysts like Stanford’s Tony Seba say that solar power has doubled every year for the last 20 years and costs of photovoltaic power have dropped 22% with each doubling. If you believe these numbers, eight more doublings — by 2030 — and solar power will provide 100% of the world’s electricity at a fraction of today’s prices with significant reductions of carbon emissions. But there is a hitch.

The EROEI of solar power is not improving as quickly as the price. Energy efficiency, especially the embodied energy of components like turbine towers and rooftop arrays and the mined minerals for crystal manufacture, is substantially less than the concentrated caloric punch of oil and coal. Fossil sunlight is to sunlight as crack cocaine is to coca leaves.

And a decarbonated SMART is not your daddy’s muscle car.

That is not to say a civil society living on sunlight can’t still be very nice, and nicer, in fact, than the dirtier industrial civilization, especially if you only have a generation or two left before you go extinct to enjoy it.

All of this revolution could be accomplished, and paid for, simply by a small epigenetic hack in the DNA of central banks. They need to express the gene that prints money. As Ellen Brown explains:

"The combination of fiat money and Globalization creates a unique moment in history where the governments of the developed economies can print money on an aggressive scale without causing inflation. They should take advantage of this once-in-history opportunity . . . ."

Don't panic, and it might be a good idea to follow Ford Prefect's example of carrying a towel, in the unlikely event that the planet is suddenly demolished by a Vogon constructor fleet to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Despite the paucity of intelligence in the throne room of the Empire, there is, however, a faint glimmer of light coming from a corner of the dungeon, should we peer farther. Ahmed latches on to Eric Toensmeier’s new book, The Carbon Farming Solution, that quotes a Rodale Institute study:

Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture’… These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.

As we described in our books, The Biochar Solution and The Paris Agreement, it is possible to unleash the healing powers of the natural world — not by tampering further but by discerning and moving with its flows the way indigenious peoples did for eons — that doesn't just halt climate change but restores it to the pre-industrial. By using a permaculture cascade — regenerative cropping to food, feed and fiber; to protein and probiotic extracts (from waste byproducts); to biofuels (from waste byproducts); to biochar and biofertilizers (from waste byproducts); to probiotic animal supplements and industrial applications like fuel cells (from biochar) — bioeconomics can transform a dying planet into a garden world. But, again, there is a hitch.

Ahmed says:

According to a 2011 report by the National Academy of Sciences, the scientific consensus shows conservatively that for every degree of warming, we will see the following impacts: 5-15 percent reductions in crop yields; 3-10 percent increases in rainfall in some regions contributing to flooding; 5-10 percent decreases in stream-flow in some river basins, including the Arkansas and the Rio Grande, contributing to scarcity of potable water; 200-400 percent increases in the area burned by wildfire in the US; 15 percent decreases in annual average Arctic sea ice, with 25 percent decreases in the yearly minimum extent in September.

The challenge climate change poses to bioeconomics is where epigenetic agents come in. There is a permaculture army waiting in the wings. We have been training and drilling for 30 years. Cue marching entrance, stage left, with George M. Cohan’s arrangement of Yankee Doodle Dandy.



This will require more than Busby Berkeley. First, as we described here last week, we will need a change of the command switches that express civilization’s genes. This is unlikely to come from Hillary Clinton, central banks, the G7 or the International Monetary Fund — just witness the debacle at Doha in April.  It will more likely arise spontaneously from the grass roots, led by regenerative farmers, treehuggers and degrarians, but funded — massively — by institutional investors in search of safe havens from petrocollapse and failing confidence in a stale, counterproductive paradigm.

It is green capitalism, we admit, but the gene expression for capitalism must and will change.

"If you think about it, economic growth could happen through dematerialization," says Jack Buffington, a researcher at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and author of Progress, Technology and Seven Billion People: A Solution to Save Capitalism and The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment.

"Think about all the different things your smart phone can do that 20 years ago you had a computer, you had a telephone. you had an alarm clock…. So, I think there is a way to transform things through the use of materials to dematerialize while at the same time leading to economic growth. Even if you tried to stop innovation you won't. What we have to push for is a model that between the environment and the economy is complementary, so we achieve goals of improving people's lives at the same time as improving the environment."

A bioeconomy is coming. Fast. There are demonstrations of it, large and small, popping up all over the world. The DNA for the global financial marketplace — our social customs for nations, currency systems and trade — has not changed. What is being transformed is the histone that occupies the space between the helices and flips the switches to turn expressions on and off. Who are the radical free agent proteins that are moving in to transform the histone?

You are.


Closed loop agriculture for environmental enhancement

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Published on FEASTA on April 26, 2016


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Returning biomass nutrients from humanure and urine to agriculture

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Closed loop agriculture is farming practice that recycles all nutrients and organic matter material back to the soil that it grew in. This forms part of an agricultural practice that preserves the nutrient and carbon levels within the soil and allows farming to be carried out on a sustainable basis.

Current farming practice (as shown in Figure 1) relies heavily on imported nutrients to sustain high production. We eat the food; and then the nutrients and biomass from faeces and urine are flushed away via our toilets. The sewage is treated, to a greater or lesser extent, to limit its potential to cause water pollution, and then discarded to groundwater, rivers or the sea. This practice requires high fossil energy inputs for fertiliser manufacture, causes pollution to our waterways, and strips organic matter from the soil which in turn reduces productivity, overall soil health and structure.

Most of the sludge arising in the EU is of agricultural rather than human origin, and this is returned to the soil as part of standard farming practice. Biosolids (treated sewage sludge) are also increasingly returned to the land. However, the process of sewage treatment reduces the potential biomass and nutrient resource available for recycling, so current practice still essentially wastes these resources, while adding to the pollution of our waterways. By capturing the nutrients that currently make their way into sewage, we can feasibly eliminate water pollution from this source. By composting humanure (and farmyard manures) and converting it to humus before application to the fields, the soil can hold more moisture and withstand erosion more effectively than when artificial nutrients or even uncomposted slurry or manure are used. Also, by incorporating humus into the fields the filtering capacity of the soil is maximised. Thus we can dramatically reduce our water pollution from agriculture as well as from sewage.

Note that manures from animals comprise roughly nine times the quantity of potential humanure (human manure) in Ireland. The management of this farmyard manure and slurry can be improved for energy generation through anaerobic digestion or can be composted for greater carbon sequestration. Other regenerative agriculture techniques may also be used for greater soil building and sustainability. However for the purposes of this report, the focus is upon returning the biomass and nutrients from humanure and urine to agriculture.

From a climate change perspective, agriculture is the greatest single source of greenhouse gasses in Ireland. In order to meet our international greenhouse gas reduction targets we need to explore every angle possible, and adopt every measure that works to lower Irish greenhouse gas emissions. Closed loop agriculture not only stops the waste of nutrients to watercourses as pollution, it can also reduce the high energy inputs needed for artificial nitrogen production and could go a significant way towards reducing overall agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 1. Conventional farming practice

Figure 2. Closed loop farming practice.

Closed loop agriculture has direct benefits for biodiversity also, within the soil itself, in the aquatic environment, and within the context of climate change:

1. Soil ecosystems are amongst the most diverse on earth, hosting c.25% of all of the species on the planet1. A single gram of grassland soil may contain over one billion organisms with as many as ten thousand different species of bacteria and fungi2. Healthy soils are vital for biodiversity, human health and climate regulation. Our own species derives 95% of our food from the soil3, whether directly or indirectly. Closed loop agriculture can build a healthy soil ecology by reducing artificial nitrogen inputs and by returning soil organic matter.

2. The health of the aquatic environment and aquatic biodiversity in Ireland is directly related to protection from water pollution. Key indicator species such as the freshwater pearl mussel live only in high quality rivers and streams. High status water bodies have fallen in number from almost a third of all monitoring sites in the mid 1980s to under one fifth4. Clean water, free of pathogens and the chemicals added to kill them, is also vital for our own health and wellbeing. Closed loop agriculture can protect and enhance water quality by eliminating pollution from sewage and by returning agricultural nutrients to the land in a way that is bound up in humus, and thus more stable and resistant to erosion in field runoff.

3. Climate change has already had a significant impact on biodiversity. Many animal species on land, in rivers, lakes and seas have moved geographical ranges, changed seasonal activities and migration patterns and have altered abundances and species interactions5. The long term impacts on biodiversity may be devastating as temperature range movement outstrips the ability of plant species, small mammals and freshwater molluscs, for example, to migrate; as oceans face dropping oxygen levels and greater acidification; and as coastal and low-lying areas are lost to sea level rises (IPCC, 2014). Closed loop agriculture can help to reduce the degree of climate change by cutting back on energy intensive artificial nitrogen production as well as by sequestering carbon in the soil. It can also reduce the impact of climatic extremes by building healthy, humic rich soils which provide greater resilience to drought and flood conditions, both within the field scale for food production, and within the wider catchment scale for ameliorating flooding.

This report is set out in three sections, as follows:

Part 1 Nitrogen:
The impacts of artificial nitrogen manufacture on the climate, the impacts of its use on the soil, and the potential for closing the loop and reusing nutrients from human excreta to grow our food.
Part 2 Carbon:
The impacts of excess atmospheric carbon on the environment, the potential for sequestering carbon in our farms as soil organic matter, and the opportunities for adopting soil-building farm management practices.
Part 3 Implementation and Policy:
The methods of humanure and urine separation and recovery, overview of international best practice, current Irish policy and proposed policy amendments to facilitate closed loop agriculture in Ireland.

This project was facilitated with the financial support of the Irish Environmental Network under the Biodiversity Policy Funding package from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

Footnotes for introduction

1. European Commission (2010) The factory of life – why soil biodiversity is so important. European Commission, Luxembourg.
2. Richter A, R Cramer, D O’hUallacháin, E Doyle and N Clipson (2014) Soil microbial diversity: Does location matter? In: Teagasc Research, Vol. 9; No. 3, Autumn 2014
3 FAO (2015) Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, Italy.
4 Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (2015) Public Consultation Document – Significant Water Management Issues in Ireland. DECLG, Dublin.
5 IPCC (2014) Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva, Switzerland.

Download full report (pdf, 2.1 MB)

Featured image: Running water. Author: Lynn Haas. Source:



Too Big to Scale

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Published on Peak Surfer on April 3, 2016


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"We’re looking at The Cloud from both sides now."

While it is not likely that the heterodox economist E.F. "Fritz" Schumacher was the first to use the term “appropriate technology” — he preferred “intermediate technology” — he certainly had a big role in defining it. In Small is Beautiful he described it as the “middle way,” which dovetailed nicely with his elucidation of Buddhist economics, or what Mohandas Gandhi called "Economy of Permanence." 

According to Schumacher, a technology is appropriate to preserve, adopt and adapt if it is truly village scale, lying in that mid-range between individualistic technology (toothbrush, smartphone, coffee cup) and industrial-scale (pharmaceutical laboratory, steel mill, railroad).

Examples of village scale are the old bakery, perhaps a large stone or brick oven where families bring their doughs to become breads; the bicycle repair shop; or a family-run tofu shop (as in the 10,000 or more in any large Japanese city) because handcrafted tofu is much to be preferred in taste, texture and nutrition over machine-produced.


James Earl Jones as Locust-Man

As early as the 1960s Schumacher, as president of the UK Soil Association, was correctly diagnosing what was wrong with the atom as an energy source. In 1977 he published A Guide for the Perplexed as a critique of materialist scientism. It was also a foray into the nature and organization of knowledge. He championed the style of Ivan Illich's conviviality: user-friendly and ecologically suitable; applicable to the scale of the human and natural community.

Born in the late 1940s, we were witness to Moore’s Law from its birth. We watched electric typewriters replace manual portables, then IBM Selectrics arrive with their changeable font-balls and auto-erase tape. We were there when punch cards and tape readers began to type form letters like a player piano. From the days of our youth, hand calculators kept getting smarter than we were. 

In the late 70s we automated our Plenty Office and the Book Publishing Company with arrays of linked, part home-brew, part off-the-shelf, CPU-and-dumb-terminal minicomputers. Soon came inexpensive personal computers that put desktop publishing and spreadsheets into the hands of the masses and made small fortunes for Apple, Atari, Dell and Texas Instruments.

Office networks of linked hard-drives using first ethernet and then wireless LANs and WANs were middle scale appropriate technology as long as you could service the devices or maybe even build them yourselves within the village. All was well on this good earth. Desktop computers were like tractors or teams of oxen, shortening the time it took you to furrow your inbox or do your taxes.  

Then came The Cloud upon the land. Cut to the scene in The Good Earth where the Chinese farmers look to the sky as their faces darken — the locusts are here! That was about 10 years ago, or 5 generations in factor-four Silicon Time.

Boston-based research outfit Forrester calls cloud computing—that’s public cloud computing—a “hyper-growth” market. In a recent report, it predicts the market for cloud services will grow to $191 billion by 2020, a 20 percent leap from what it predicted just a few years ago. “The adoption of cloud among enterprises, which is really where the money is, has really picked up steam,” Forrester analyst John Rymer recently told us. “It’s a big shift. The cloud has arrived. It’s inevitable.”

– Cade Metz, Wired 12-22-15

Getting back into our annual workshop schedule here at The Farm, we find ourselves stuck without a middle way, with no “village scale” with regard to either email or accounting. We have always suffered the digital divide by electing to live in a rural area in a country without Net Neutrality, but we take clean air and birdsong more seriously than ones and zeros.

What passes for broadband in rural Tennessee would be laughable in Romania or Thailand. We live beyond the profitable reach of the cable companies, or even DSL from the quasi-federal phone monopoly. Getting a dumbphone mobile connection here can be challenging, never mind G3 or G4. We pay far too much for far too little connectivity, but then, welcome to the unpaved precincts. Have you seen the stars at night?

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

— Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now (May, 1969)

We’re looking at The Cloud from both sides now. Many, if not all, of the email and accounting packages that have the capabilities we need have discontinued stand-alone functionality and hard drive data storage on your personal device in favor of wireless subscription plans. An unbeckoned choice is being thrust upon us. Either we late-migrate to the Cloud and trust in her all-knowing beneficence (and suffer indignities whenever there is no connection) or we put up with rapidly-shrinking features and capabilities. 
For code-writers keeping legacy software working may be somewhat easier. But most code-writers are Cloud addicts, not old school.

We use Photoshop but seldom have need for the other Adobe apps packaged into their (formerly $3650) Master Suite. To us it was worth several hundred dollars plunked down every few years to have that one app. We’ve tried GIMP and other freeware but they are no substitute for Photoshop. Now a subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud would cost us about $2,400 — assuming the price doesn’t go up. And that is just one subscription, from one cloud provider.

Microsoft rolled out Office 365 in 2011 but still plans to sell packaged software for a while, which makes sense given how much of the world has weak to nil internet connectivity. “Unlike Adobe, we think people’s shift from packaged software to subscription services will take time,” Microsoft told Wired.

The largest cloud storage provider, Amazon Web Services, reported $2.41 billion in revenue for the fourth quarter last year, or more than $9.6 billion in annualized sales—and that’s after the $10-billion-dollar company Dropbox ported off Amazon to build its own server farms in Q3.

Dropbox calls each of its storage machines a Diskotech. “The thing we care about the most is the disk,” its chief engineer told Wired. “That’s where all the bytes are.” 

Measuring only one-and-half-feet by three-and-half-feet by six inches, each Diskotech box holds as much as a petabyte of data, or a million gigabytes. Fifty of these machines could store everything human beings have ever written. Maybe even all the cute kitten videos on YouTube (“Maru gets into a box” – “大きな箱とねこ” – 8.1 million views).

At one point in 2015, when it was moving from Amazon to its own 40 acres and a mule, Dropbox was installing forty to fifty racks of hardware a day, each rack holding about eight individual machines. That installation rate continued for nearly six months. They surpassed Peak Kitten in the first month.

We have had the trauma of a terabyte data fail. It is not pretty. It means we now have to have 2 or 3 terabyte safety redundancies. If you go to DVD you can become dependent on legacy hardware (DVD readers and burners), calling up recollections of floppies, cassettes, optical readers, etc. we may still have in the attic but prefer not to think about. 

A flash drive is ephemeral – how many years will it hold its charge without any degradation or chance encounters with moisture, temperature change or magnetic fields?

We want to be able to access 20-year-old data using only the power of a Biolite Stove and no cloud. We can do that right now with an iPad and a portable HD. Can we do it still in 2017?

There may come a time when we just have to go our own way and de-cloud. At the moment we are struggling to remain amphibian, with a webbed foot in each world. Thanks for all the fish, but for now we intend to keep our paper-based bookkeeping and a sharpenable pencil.

Many years ago Amory Lovins’ Brittle Power described how lack of prudence and foresight had allowed city and regional planners to erect a monumental infrastructure of energy supply that keeps the lights on at night across North America but can be taken down by a tree branch falling on wires in a blizzard, or a pipe bomb in a pipeline.

The same kind of blind spot infects the planners of the Cyberverse. Mighty as they be, they are not Gods. To get to be in their club, you have to take the blue pill to believe the separate reality the Google-vets believe; the one with Space X missions to Mars and fusion-powered Teslas.

This represents an attitude that began with Google and has gradually spread across Silicon Valley. Google was so successful not just because it built a pretty good Internet search engine, but because it built the underlying technology needed to run that search engine—and so many other services—at an enormous scale. Facebook, which recruited countless ex-Googlers, did much the same. And so did Twitter and its ex-Googlers. And, now, so has Dropbox. To become a giant, you may have to stand on the shoulders of others. But once you become your own giant, you start to feel like you need to build a home that’s just right for you.

— Cade Metz, Wired 3-14-16

The problem, as we see it, is that the parallel reality field is eating away the brains of its wizards. Wormhole-brained, they keep edging farther out onto the limb of a system that is just one fallen-tree-branch or cyberattack away from ruin. Worse, they are forcing the rest of us to follow along and add our weight to that same weak limb.


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Published on Peak Surfer on March 20, 2016


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"Before you reach carrying capacity you start to make bad, short-term, expedient decisions."



Towards the end of our two-week Permaculture Design Course at Maya Mountain — their 11th as a host and our personal 50th as a teacher — we sallied out into the Maya world with Chris Nesbitt in search of a turkey for the graduation feast.

This took us to the home of James, a graduate of one of our earlier courses, who lives with his growing family in the village of San Marcos, in the Toledo District of Belize. From the last census we could find, the population of the village was 328, 99% Ke’kchi, 1% Mopan.

The Maya built their great culture on towns, regions and bioregional states. Most of these, particularly the smaller villages, survived the collapse of the Classic Era, the Spanish Conquest, and the Colonial Period. Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo in Mexico, most of Guatemala, more than half of Belize and the Western reaches of Honduras and El Salvador have similar political and cultural traditions that are now some 2500 years old and show no signs of going away. They are sustained by places as much as the memory of peoples.

Mayan cultural literacy is less about writing, music or the Bible and more about knowing plants and animals. Not just naming them. Knowing them.

Bird song, jaguar and howler growl, locations of raw materials, flows of streams, trail networks and portage routes are things that children learn early and do not soon forget.

Toxic wastes, plastics, logging, consumer society, fracking and GMOs are recent arrivals, and threaten everyone, but they are pretty puny in comparison to the depth of culture that opposes them. Human fecundity grounded in religious dogma is the greater threat.

In a classroom session pointedly aimed at those in the workshop that were Mayan, Garifuna or otherwise native Belizian, Chris outlined the hard numbers on the chalkboard. In 1985 the population of Belize was 150,000 and an equal number lived just across the border, in the highland Petén of Guatemala. Guatemala as a whole was 6 million then.

In 2015, Belize had grown to 347,369 — more than double in 29 years, but still the lowest population density in Central America. Petén was 2 million (a 13-fold increase) and Guatemala 14 million. “Before you reach carrying capacity you start to make bad, short-term, expedient decisions,” Chris told the class. He spoke of people in Haiti baking cakes of clay and lard and selling them in the market, of the Balkanization of Eastern Europe, of Rwanda, of Syria and the European refugee crisis.

Native Toledians still speak of the forced Christianization of the region that happened to Punta Gorda Town with the arrival of the missionaries 500 years ago. Many who refused to be Christianized took refuge in the Maya Mountains. The Mopan call these people the Che’il and the Ke’kchi call them Chol. In the past they were objects of scorn, uneducated and primitive. Today they are venerated, except in the most westernized parts of the country. 

In Mayan villages incense is burned and prayers are said to these “wild Maya” who protect the animals and forests. Hunters and chicle workers take them salt from the coast as offerings.

In 1850, concerned about the flow of people across the mountains, British Honduras closed its Western Border, although it was not until 1934 that that border was even surveyed, never mind guarded. These days, the tensions along the border are growing as Belize begins to fret about the increase in immigration and Guatemala once more rattles its sabre, reasserting its legal claim to, if not the whole of Belize, then merely from the Sibun River south. This claim amounts to roughly 53% of the country and includes significant portions of Cayo, Belize District, Stann Creek and Toledo. Emigration serves Guatemala’s purposes here.

When we first started going there, the trek down to Punta Gorda was an 8-hour ordeal over bad roads, sometimes impassible in the rainy season when we would resort to the coastal boat route. Then came the Hummingbird Highway with its regular flow of scheduled services in recycled Bluebird school buses, shortening the distance from Belize City on the Northern coast. 

A few years ago, Belize finally made good a 150-year-old promise and started cutting a road to Guatemala through the mountains. Under the terms of the Wyke–Aycinena Treaty of 1859, Great Britain — whose unintended and ungovernable “colony" composed of shipwrecked Anglos, Scots and later Baymen immigrants and Garifuna had, on its own, fought off Spanish territorial claims in 1798 at the Battle of St. George's Caye — promised to build that road from Punta Gorda in exchange for Guatemala agreeing to give up land claims inherited from Spain's Vatican-sanctioned Treaty of Tordesillas with Portugal in 1494.

Now the road is finally going in, two centuries later, and Guatemala is saying, thanks very much, but too late. You blew it. Without that road being built by British Baymen in 1859, we are no longer bound to give up King Ferdinand’s claim to the New World. Guatemala also points to the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, wherein Britain agreed to abandon British forts in Belize that protected the Baymen and give Spain sovereignty over the soil, which made it part of Guatemala (conveniently forgetting the embarrassing loss to the uppity Baymen at St. George's Caye in 1798).

Guatemala's new president, Jimmy Morales, when campaigning in 2015, said "Something is happening right now, we are about to lose Belize. We have not lost it yet.” Perhaps he was referring to the road as the thing that was happening. If he thinks he will get the Belizeans to walk away from their country, after only just gaining independence from Britain in 1981, he is wrong about having not already lost it.

Between 1975 and 1979, Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Panama changed their stances from supporting Guatemala to supporting Belize. The OAS, trying to defuse the conflict, established a border zone extending one kilometer (0.62 mi) on either side of the 1859 treaty line. Guatemala has taken the matter to the International Court of Justice. Both sides have strengthened military presence at the border, as road-building continues. 
A little way past the junction with the Hummingbird Highway, where the new road turns towards Guatemala is the turnoff to the town of San Marcos.

San Marcos is a long, narrow village bisected by a ridge road running up its middle, then dog-legging left. The houses look much the same as in other Mayan villages of the region — stick walls, thatch roofs, hand pump in the front yard. In 1975, three families came here to found the village, led by brothers Santos and Luciano Muku and Camilo Rash. Before that the families had lived on private property in the dump area outside Punta Gorda Town. New settlers came to join them, mostly Kek’chi from Guatemala fleeing the genocidal holocaust of the late 70s and 80s. In 1981 they built a church and school and named their village San Marcos. 

St. Mark, it is worth recalling, was born of Jewish parents around 3 AD in the city of Cyrene in Pentapolis, now Libya. Shortly after his birth, his family migrated to Palestine to escape Berber attacks. A few years later when his father Aristopolos died, Mark was taken in by Peter Simon who would later become an apostle. Mark studied law and the classics and later authored the earliest known gospel. He was martyred in 68 AD by being tied to a horse’s tail and dragged through the streets of Alexandria for two days. We mention this not for the shock value but to point to similarities between the mass migrations now underway in the Southern Mediterranean and 2000 years ago, and also to the similarities of the atrocities perpetrated on the Maya in Guatemala by Reaganista Evangelical Christian governments in the early 80s.

In San Marcos about a third of the population today are Catholic and the remainder either Evangelical Christian or Mennonite. Apart from a small sliver of the Mopan Maya, the first language of the village is Ke’kchical with both Spanish and English learned at home or in school by age 10.

A 1995 survey of occupations in the village shows that 18% farm produce, 46% raise animals, 10% hunt and the remainder fish, although we suspect that most do all of those and the survey form was simply passed around the house for everyone to put down their favorite.

More revealing is the age demographic. Only 7% are over 50. Nine percent are 35-49. Those age 34 or less make up 84% of the population and 64% are under 17, reaching fertility in the next decade. Principally because of total agreement between Catholic, Evangelical and Mennonite doctrines on this point, nearly all families will resemble James’ family — six to twelve children per mother, with the next generation coming as soon as biologically possible. Besides the refugee influx, this philosophical tradition is also what Guatemala brings into Belize, which is now Latin America’s fast growing country.

Guatemala is already outstripping its abilities to provide for its own. Whole forests have fallen to the axe in the Petén. Refugees come through the mountains and trickle into Maya settlements all over Toledo. The village closest to Chris’s farm, San Pedro Columbia, has quadrupled in size in the years we have been coming here.

If you look at any given home it seems idyllic. Food trees — banana, papaya, mango, sapote, are never far from the front door. Chickens, ducks, turkeys and pigs free range in the yards. James’ family has a small corn mill in a front room so they make masa for the village— nixtamalized dough for tortillas and empanadas — on demand. When Chris asks for 4 kg, a daughter goes to a wet barrel and ladles out soaking, reddish dent kernels into a sieve, takes them to the pump to wash, and delivers them to her mother in the mill room. 

The rehydrated field corn she had ladled had been parboiled in slaked lime (Calcium Hydroxide)— 1 Tbsp per kg. CaO + H2O -> Ca(OH)2. Some poor villages that cannot afford or find lime (Mexican Cal) use wood ash to extract potash. They leach the ashes in a large pot, strain and evaporate the liquid to produce Potassium carbonate (K)2(CO3), which is alkaline and can be used as a substitute for Calcium hydroxide.

Nixtamalization of maize was one of the great culinary discoveries of the world, allowing us to unlock the amino acids of corn to make a balanced protein. Without knowing about nixtamalization, Columbus just made people sick and malnourished with the maize he took back to the Old World.

It is kind of a pity that Columbus, making landfall in Lisbon after his first crossing, felt compelled to go brag about his discovery to King John II of Portugal. The Italian Navigator was always sniffing around for grants. Had he kept mum about it until he got back to Spain, John would not have complained to Ferdinand and Isabella and they in turn would not have gone running to the Pope (Pope Alexander VI /Rodrigo Borgia) who came up with an encyclical that precipitated the Treaty of Tordesillas and today's claim by Guatemala for 53% of Belize. 

James’ wife throws a knife switch and engages a 10 HP motor that turns a pulley shaft, the daughter loads her washed corn into the hopper. When done, the masa is bagged, weighed and handed to Chris who pays her a few dollars.

We stop at the neighbors’ and pick out our 30-lb. turkey, which goes live into a gunny sack for transport in the dugout back up to Maya Mountain Research Farm. 

Teaching permaculture in a culture such as this, one is never quite sure whether Albert Bartlett’s classic lecture on the exponential function has much meaning. People here have a hard time relating to the doubling times of bacteria in a bottle. But what time is it when all the available cleared land is occupied and you have to cut down the forest to make more space for houses? Answer: One minute to midnight.












Maginot Line: Permaculture Realized, Part III

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Published on Peak Surfer on March 6, 2016


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"There's a problem with all utopian visions which is that sooner or later if you try to put them into practice you run into problems with the real world."


The following transcript, from an interview for Permaculture Realized podcast on February 2, 2016, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.

Levi Meeuwenberg: How do you foresee some of these new approaches starting to be implemented and then get rolled out in the long term?

Albert Bates: If you're a country and you've just signed the agreement along with 195 other countries, the first thing you did to get to that was to come up with an INDC — which is your pledged national commitment — your contribution to reduce climate change. It was a promise. You had to make a pledge. So all the countries that came to Paris had already put in their INDCs and if you add up all the sum of the INDCs we still get to three degrees by mid-century, five to seven degrees by end of century. The ambition was way too low.

We knew that. But don’t fret — that was the opening bid. if you're in a poker game that was the ante. You had to put in that much to get in the game. Coming out of Paris what they put in was what they called “stocktake.” This is a new word for Webster’s. Stocktake is what's going to happen for various parts at three or five year intervals. There are a lot of attempts by oil-based economies like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Malaysia, the ones who have coal and stuff, to have the stocktakes taken out but the stocktakes stayed in the treaty so the Paris agreement requires a revision at close intervals now. There is a science stocktake in 2018, and then the next big one for the pledge system is in 2020. The stocktake which will happen in 2018 will look at the 1.5 goal and see what kinds of INDC revisions would be necessary to get and hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C.

Dare I say? We probably already know the answer. If you know anything about climate science you know that 1.5 is already baked in the cake. There's no way that we're not going to go sailing right through a 1.5 degrees celsius increase in global temperature of the planet. We're on that trajectory and there are so many feedback mechanisms, so many positive forcings which are already in play that 1.5 is a done deal. To try to set such an ambitious goal is ignoring the science to begin with, but I'm fine with high ambition so, sure, set that goal. It's kind of like building the Maginot line. If you're familiar with the history of Europe after WWI the French, who had fought all that trench warfare with the Germans which was really nasty, said we're going to pre-build a defensive line of bunkers – cement, barbed wire, trenches and all that – and massive earthworks all around our border so that we can never have this trench warfare slaughter again. We're going to build this giant wall – kind of like Trump's wall with Mexico – around France.

What happened in the Blitz? Germany just flew right over and dropped paratroopers on the other side. The French Minister of War, André Maginot, was fighting the last war. The Wehrmacht had a responsive strategic design process. They laughed all the way to Paris.

What they're doing now is building a Maginot line on the climate and saying that they're going to hold the line at 1.5. Well, I've got news for you, we're already past 1.5. But that's o.k. because what they're doing in that process is education, an interactive education process. We understand that when we're talking about governments and making them change, they change all the time. There are elections and changes in government and you get crazies in and you get different kinds of things happening, two steps back and one step forward. That's just normal in government. Just look at the difference in Obama in the first term and Obama in the second term in terms of climate change. I think partly that's laid at the feet of John Holdren who's the White House Science Adviser who got to meet with Obama on a regular basis and educate him.

I think that in the future we're going to have the same problem of educating governments over and over again. The weather is doing a lot of that for us so we don't really have to worry that much. The underground cities they built on the Maginot Line might even be good examples for urban design in coming decades, as long as they are not on coasts. But the idea of changing the way we farm is going to have to involve a major shift away from Cargill, Monsanto, and the agro industry and the way things are done now.

How do you make a shift like that? Frankly, I see it through tools like permaculture, home gardens, victory gardens, urban gardens. People looking for food security in these turbulent times when the economy is doing really badly and there issues with energy and the absence of energy after the crash of the fracking industry. So we're going to find ourselves where everybody is going to want food security and to do that they're going to have to learn how and to do it in a way that sequesters carbon. If we can produce electricity using clever stoves and things which sequester carbon as well as boost nutrient density that way — that’s the revolution. That can happen worldwide and the seed for that revolution, the starter in the yogurt, is all these little permaculturists running around like a yogurt starter culture.

A lot of different strategies are around to try to deal with climate and I don't begrudge their particular strategy. I think all of them are needed and I think that one of the things that we are going to see in the future is the idea that Bill McKibben launched in Paris and afterward and we’ll see it coming from him, Naomi Klein, Greenpeace, and others, which is that the new standard is 1.5 degrees by mid-century.

So essentially, the international agreement is to go carbon negative in the second half of the 21st century, which is in the actual language of the treaty – which requires 196 countries to eliminate fossil fuels by around mid-century, maybe a little bit after. I think that the ratcheting process may speed it up because the more we learn about the science and the more weather events happen, the more incentive there will be to ratchet up.

But the slogan that Bill McKibben coined was 'every pipeline, every mine — you said 1.5' and I can hear that chant in the back of my head as companies try to send railcar loads of shale oil through cities or carve new strip mines in the mountains or open new fracked gas wells which have already been leased but have not been drilled: “Stop! Every pipeline, every mine, you said 1.5!”

From a science standpoint it's absolutely impossible to hold to the Paris limits if you open up new fossil fuel mines and pipelines. You cannot have any new ones. You cannot have any more. You should be starting to shut down the ones we have. That's the only way to get there. We saw a lot of Fortune 500 companies signing on to this whole notion of going carbon negative or at least carbon neutral. There were one hundred and fourteen companies that signed the science-based initiative of going completely neutral and several of them have already achieved that. That's actually a coalition between environmentalists and business that's happening so now it's up to the environmentalists to hold the feet of these people to the fire, including the governments. So the protests are completely justified.

I had trouble with a lot of protests earlier because I'm a student of Mahatma Gandhi. I read Mahatma Gandhi when I was a high school student. I read pretty much all of his writings when he was a newsletter editor and his various collected writings so I understood the principles of Satyagraha which is seeking truth through peaceful means. One of those principles is to give your opponent every possible opportunity to correct their actions peacefully before you do anything to obstruct them or otherwise cause them harm – economic harm, I'm not talking about physical harm. When Gandhi would plan a march he would notify the authorities – “here's where we're going to be, come and arrest us if you want” – and when he goes into court (and remember he began as a lawyer in South Africa) he asks the judge to give him the maximum possible sentence. “Let's just go ahead and dispense with the trial, I'm guilty, put me in jail for as long as you want.” That's Satyagraha.

Here we have every pipeline, every mine and the moral justification is now there. Everyone's on notice. Everyone has been notified. There is no excuse now. Everybody has already agreed in principle that this must be done – no new pipelines, no new mines. So I think it's completely within everyone's privilege and in fact their duty to oppose anything new in the way of getting fossil fuels out of the ground.

Levi: What are some of the most effective ways? Let's say that we know that there are existing frack wells nearby, which is the case, should we approach the company, should we approach the government, should we go through legal means, or should we just occupy the space? What approach would you say would be best for getting that message out?

AB: I'm not going to dictate local initiatives. I think that this should come from the locality and everybody can best judge in their own location what is the best strategy. I think it's a little more problematic when you're talking about existing structures because those have to be withdrawn in a gradual way so there's a certain amount of latitude that must be there. I understand that. On the other hand if there's a new one then I think that it's perfectly justified to block the well-drilling rigs. It's perfectly justified to oppose them at every stage. For instance, they have to get state permits in every state to go in and drill. They have to get state permits to use the roadways. They have to have NPDES permits which are pollution discharge permits. All of those are places of entry where citizens and groups can go and make statements at those meetings and even protest those meetings if the state decides to ignore the legal requirement. They're outlaws if they ignore the legal requirement.
What needs to happen is the elevation of general public awareness about what the law now says. We're talking about international law which is the supreme law of the land under the U.S. constitution.

Levi: I hear a lot of talk about renewable energy, solar and all that – maybe too much. People who don't have an understanding of permaculture solutions or more holistic solutions or soil solutions see renewable energy as solving everything in some way. How do you see that being part of the picture?

AB: I spent a lot of my book, The Paris Agreement, on this. I blogged for a year leading up to Paris and took all those blogs and wrote an introduction and did a daily blog while I was in Paris. Then I spent a week or two afterward summarizing, synthesizing, and putting it all together to make the book. I put the book out on December 19th which was seven days after the Paris Climate Conference ended. It included the entire text of the treaty along with the year-long analysis that led up to it and I think the point of the book and what I spent a long time talking about was renewable energy and the myth surrounding renewable energy which I saw a lot of in Paris.

It's kind of this idea, this notion to just take out the dirty, greasy, black gooey stuff, the dirty smelly stuff, and the dirty powdery coal and all that which makes our hands black. We'll get rid of all that dirty stuff and we'll put in this shiny polished stainless steel, poly-composite graphite windmills and solar arrays and thermal mirrors and all these fancy new devices, this whole new tech industry which will suddenly transform the world and employ our entire population and give us clean energy, green growth jobs and so forth.

That's the utopian vision and there's a problem with all utopian visions which is that sooner or later if you try to put them into practice you run into problems with the real world. In the real world there are natural laws and one of those is energy return on energy invested. So we have to look at what is the actual cost in the life cycle of a solar cell or the life cycle of a windmill and how much energy is required to make a windmill? Are there steel components? How was that steel made? Was it made with sunlight? I don't think so. What about aluminum? What about some other fancy composites? What about the silicon wafers in the solar cells? Where did they come from and how were they made? What kinds of facilities do that?

Actually, I have to take an aside here and say that some years back, probably 20 years ago now, Solarex, a big solar company, built the first solar breeder which was a factory in Hyattsville, MD which was solar powered and which made solar cells so that's actually something which can be done. But if you look on the energy return on investment and the life cycle and so forth what you suddenly discover is we have been running on high-entropy, high-return, energy density. For instance, oil and coal and these other dense forms of stored solar energy pack a lot of calories per unit of weight or volume, but took 500 million years of sunlight to make. They're concentrated sunlight which has been stored in the earth.

That was our savings account which we went through in about 200 years. We're now switching over to a checking account, based on daily income – how much sun falls on the planet? Most of that's on the ocean. How much of that can be transformed into useful energy, how much can make liquid fuels? What we find is caloric return per unit weight or volume is much lower, an order of magnitude or more lower than what we were getting from fossil. So it's the first time in history that we're going from a denser form of energy to a less dense form. Every other time we've moved from whale oil to shale oil, from wind from canvas to wind from hydraulics and electromagnets and now we're going back the other way.

There's enormous power stored in ocean waves and tides and things like that. We can and will tap all those things to our benefit but compared to fossil fuels they're going to be a step back. We're actually going to have to contract. The economy is going to have to contract. It already is. What we're seeing now with the broader global economy is a major contraction that's already under way. It's what James Kunstler calls the long emergency. It's going to last a long time and it's going to be in stair steps. It's not going to come all at once.

But if we think that somehow solar power is going to change that trajectory, it's not. We're still going to have to step down. There's a lot of ground to be gained from increased efficiency and from employing low tech solutions and so on. Lifestyle is going to have to shift to reflect that change too. Most people don't understand that.

Personally, I think that megacities are doomed, especially coastal ones. Megacities are based on the import of resources from the periphery to the center. That's going to become much harder when transportation fuels are at much more of a premium. I think that the bioeconomy is the future. We're going to learn to cascade our crops to be able to get ecosystem services from the way in which they are designed and then some food and maybe some fuel and energy from that. Then biochar and carbon, which we're going to put back in the soil, is going to make a reversal in the climate trend and that cycle – actually already – of using bioenergy is seven times more cost-effective from an energy production standpoint than photovoltaics.

If you're going to install photovoltaics in a remote location on a village scale you'll find you'll have seven times more bang for the buck if you go with a biomass kiln and a local crop of food which produces a waste stream for that kiln and the kiln is pyrolytic, it's gasified and so it makes biochar and is therefore a whole business for you. It gives you pharmaceuticals, animal feed and other kinds of things which are of benefit to you. I think that's the future. The problem is that it's a much different future than most people envision and is certainly different than governments coming out of Paris thought was going to happen.

Levi: I would go as far as to say many people can't imagine or have lost this ability to imagine a world that is so vastly different from what it is now. Especially kids nowadays who have access to TV shows and the internet so they don't have to use their imagination as much so I think it withers a bit.

AB: Let me jump in and say something about that. I think that some of the things that people do with permaculture design courses and with introductions to permaculture, and through lectures to the public and so forth, those kinds of entries into what we do in that world are ways of re-educating the population not just to the crisis that we face but also to the things that you can do to make your life better even while the world is undergoing this monumental shift.

I've been teaching this course in Belize for many years. It's the eleventh time we've taught this course at this one farm, an experimental research station in Belize. It is the 50th permaculture design course that I've taught. The thing that I'm getting out of that is that we bring people from North America and Europe into this setting which is a very rural, rustic place. It's the Mayan world. If you go deeply enough into the Yucatan peninsula you find the Mayan world which hasn't changed a lot since Columbus. It's been globalized to a large extent. People wear the same clothes as people in the outside world and they have bicycles and drive cars so the outer things have changed. But the first language is still Mayan. It's still an indigenous population which has indigenous ways. I just attended a funeral ceremony here where I am in the Yucatan right now and it's as much Mayan as it is Catholic.

In the Mayan mountains where we go to the course we're really putting people into a time portal. It's like an adventure where you get to go to a different planet because we're tucked into the foothills of the Mayan mountains two miles up-river from the village of San Pedro, Columbia in southern Belize. You have to get there by an hour in a dugout canoe being poled up river. That's the only way to get there. There's a trail but you probably wouldn't want to try that with a pack, and you still have to ford the river. When you get there, suddenly there's this beautiful sight that's all renewable energy. The food for the course comes from the land every day. For twenty years they've been doing integrated agro-forestry, what the UN calls eco-agriculture, and applied biodiversity. For a quarter of a century really, twenty-six years, they've been there growing organic food and converting citrus and cattle farming to a biologically diverse polyculture. So when you make this trip, when you go through this time portal, you're transported back to a society which existed a thousand years ago and was in complete harmony with the seasons, kept its population within the limits of production of the local watersheds, and had an elegant, simple, wonderfully fruitful life and a community society. You stumble over stones which are parts of old pyramids. This is a long lost city complex of the Maya and was there at its peak a thousand years ago. This is actually the best way to live the future, to see steady-state economies of the past which had it figured out and which actually can change the climate back to the holocene from the anthropocene, given the tools. So I recommend not just our course in Belize which anyone can attend but also other courses in similar settings where there are still indigenous cultures, for a wonderful experience in seeing what the future holds.

Levi: I really appreciate you coming on here and sharing all your great messages, all this information, and spreading it and all that you're doing.

AB: Thanks. It's been great talking to you. 


















Runaway Geotherapy

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Published on Peak Surfer on February 28, 2016


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Permaculture Realized, Part II




"Putting biology first means challenging big agriculture at the global industrial level."



The following transcript, from an interview for Permaculture Realized podcast on February 2, 2016, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.

Levi Meeuwenberg: Since the Paris agreement just took place and I think that a lot of people are curious about that, and hopeful, can you tell us what you witnessed there? What happened?

Albert Bates: People tend to lump Paris into either a good or bad category depending on their viewpoint and I'm ambivalent. I'm kind of in both camps, one foot in each camp, because I've been going to these for a number of years going back to the Rio Convention which started the United Nations Convention on Climate Change and then the Rio+10 and Rio+20 Earth Summits, as well as many of the COPs and PrepComs. I was at the COP in Copenhagen for the entire time and blogging it daily and watched in frustration as the whole thing dissolved.

I attended the COPs after that in Cancún and other places so coming into this one I didn't have a lot of expectation because I knew the process and it was moving in very small increments toward something which is really just a band-aid on a much bigger wound. So I didn't expect much more than a band-aid. For a number of years myself and others — people in the organic foods industry, people who are protecting forests, people who are urging agro-forestry, alternate energy, renewables people, and others who are involved — we are called “observers” in UN parlance but who actually have consultative status and can actually input changes to language and treaties and so forth — we in that “civil society” or “multi-stakeholder” side of the UN have been pushing this agenda of carbon sinks — that there's actually, literally, more ground to be gained by looking at forests and soil than there is by emissions reductions.

We do need to do emissions reductions. In fact we should go to zero as quickly as possible. But then we need to go beyond zero and this is the point that we've been raising for a number of years. You can set a target of two degrees or 1.5 degrees above the industrial era and it's great that you have that, but until you actually do the math and figure it out, you don't really have much hope of achieving that, even by reducing emissions, at this point, because you are already on the roller coaster. We've gone over the top of the incline and are on the ride now, for better or worse, and the tipping points which have already been crossed – the release of methane hydrates from the arctic, the melting of Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets, the changes in the equatorial regions, the deserts, the desertification of Brazil and Indonesia, the peat fires – all of those kinds of things, all those tipping points which have already been crossed, are now going to be keeping us busy just keeping up with those, right? Never mind emissions.

For every one degree that we increase the temperature of the planet the amount of methane being released from melting permafrost is equal to 1.5 times our current (2015) emissions. 

Let me say that again. Fifty percent more than the equivalent of all anthropogenic emissions are released from permafrost for every degree that the planet warms. We're already up one degree now so these ‘natural’ sources have already been increased, which leads us to say that for a two degree change we'll get an annual triple dose of present human emissions.

We can't do anything about that by stopping emissions. We can and we should stop emissions and that's what most of the conversation is about at the UN. It's about who is willing to tighten their belt. It's the carrot and stick approach. How can we get people to tighten their belts? Can we tax them? Can we pay them? Can we change the rules on fossil fuels at the source? Can we put fees on mining? Things like that.

The whole Bill McKibben/ approach tends to be in that direction. Naomi Klein says let's blockade. Let's protest. Let's stop emissions. Let's stop new pipelines. I'm all in favor of all of that except it's not going to stop the three times anthropogenic emissions coming from an already heating planet. It's not going to stop that. The only thing we can do about that is to look at the things that soil scientists and farmers look at.

Look at how carbon can be taken out of the atmosphere — the answer to that is photosynthesis. It's very simple, photosynthesis. What's the greatest photosynthesizer? – a forest. Everybody who's taken a permaculture course knows how many hectares there are in a single tree of leaf surface that's photosynthesizing all the time. What's that doing? It's taking the carbon from the CO2 that's in the atmosphere and converting it into a form of labile biocarbon which travels through the phloem of the tree down into the roots and is deposited at the root zones so even if you cut the tree down and burn it, you've still left a lot of carbon in the soil. I'm not urging anybody to cut down trees and burn them, but a tree is an atmospheric scrub brush so we need lots more of them. Can we get our food that way? Can we get our food through forests? Yes, we can. In fact we can get more and better food through forests. Can we get soil sequestered through grasslands? Yes, through holistic management practices of mob grazing and rotational pastures and things like that. Yes, we can absolutely do that. It's been shown. We can demonstrate sequestration from grasslands. Can we re-green the deserts? We absolutely can. We know how to do this. It's not a secret. There are a variety of different methods and it is being done in small scale.

So the soil is our biggest hope and when I went to Paris I carried with me the declaration which had been drafted at the International Permaculture Convergence in London which essentially outlines what permaculture brings to the subject of climate change and it has all of the tools that the world needs, available right now in practice. It just needs the scale. The real victory at COP21, I think, was the recognition that we had this previously hidden weapon to fight climate change – the role that soils can play in reversing global warming.

Managing carbon content in soils is really the best way to take control of the carbon cycle. Not only can soils be a sink but most soils need carbon in order to regain vitality worldwide. Fifty to seventy percent of the carbon in soils has been lost. That's a lot of what's up in the atmosphere. The culprits were irrigation and the plow and those go back ten thousand years. If we can increase photosynthesis with trees and plants and we can get our food that way, then carbon farming is a win-win solution because it's building carbon in the soil.

This is not new. I think my friend Thomas Goreau, who was also in Paris, wrote an article in Nature back in 1987 that said that the way to escape the greenhouse problem was by renewable resource-based land management and it's the cheapest option in the long run. It has lots of advantages in addition like water sequestration, preventing floods, mitigating droughts, controlling polluting inorganic fertilizers, stopping erosion, and so on. All these things come with that approach. Then in 2015 Tom co-authored and edited Geotherapy which is an absolutely fantastic book. It's a free download. Its innovative methods of soil fertility restoration, carbon sequestration, and reversing carbon dioxide increase through soil.

The idea here is to control the carbon cycle with soil and we were like voices in the wilderness at many of these COPs. We said this in Lima, in Warsaw, in Cancun and yet we weren't being heard particularly. But suddenly in Paris this whole idea got traction. I think that one of the major catalysts was the people in the French government in particular who created a program which was launched in Paris on the first of December but which had really been created at the COP in Lima a year earlier called 4 Per 1000 Initiative. You can look this up at Four grams per one thousand grams of carbon in the soil is the idea behind 4p1000. I think that this is the new 350.

You can talk about 1.5 degrees, you can talk about 2 degrees, but the only thing you can really talk about which really makes sense to me is 4 per 1000. You can gain four tenths of one percent carbon content for your soils every year. Everyone can. So, if you are keylining a field, planting trees, or changing your method of mulching to where you're getting an addition of four tenths of a percent of carbon to your humus annually your top soil is building. That's not a difficult lift. Most farmers understand that. Although, I have to say, if you go to an ag course like a master gardener course or something in the conventional agriculture schools, they consider a loss of four percent a year to be tolerable and only losing four tenths of a percent as wonderful. That's best practice, to them.
We're not talking about loss. We're talking about gain, about gaining four tenths of a percent and maybe even gaining four percent. You could build a meter of top soil in ten years if you try.

That was signed in Paris by twenty-five countries and fifty civil society organizations in a big rollout. I think that there are probably more countries that have signed on since. France's minister of agriculture was definitely one of the leaders that put that in place. I applaud that because it brought soil to the front of the discussion and it actually means that we can have massive reduction of emissions from energy as we go into biomass energy systems which are stacking functions and cascading from energy into food, carbon soil building, transportation, industries, and broad scale ecological restoration.

All of these are ways out of runaway climate change. We can actually go beyond zero. We can put net carbon into the ground every year. That means that we're creating an atmosphere which has less greenhouse imbalance year after year. Despite the increase of methane and all these other tipping points, we can still get to net zero. We can get to beyond net zero and into net sequestration. That's a game changer and the biggest thing coming out of Paris – that recognition and the number of countries and organizations that bought into that.

 It was not reported outside the blogosphere. USA Today doesn't get it. The New York Times doesn't get it. None of these people understands any of that. They look at the politics – will the Senate ratify this and so on. That's all a big side show which is what the press does. But if you go and see what actually came out of Paris, there's a paradigm shift. It's giving rise to a geotherapy which puts biology first. It's challenging big agriculture at the global industrial level. It places the soil-food-life web near the center of discussions in every COP to come. We are now entering a new age of soil and food. Non-profit organizations like Carbon Underground, Regeneration International, Regrarians and so on are all at the forefront. They're going to find themselves swamped with requests for information and projects to do.

Levi: That is so good to hear. That is so reassuring. Smells like hope. Thank you. That's awesome. How do you foresee some of these new approaches starting to be implemented and then get rolled out in the long term?

Continued next week.












Emergency Planetary Technician: Permaculture Realized, Part I

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Published on Peak Surfer on February 21, 2016


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"If you've ever tried to change money when you're high on acid it's like, ‘what am I doing? What are these pictures of dead presidents doing in my pocket?"

The following transcript, from an interview conducted earlier this month, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.

Welcome to the Permaculture Realized podcast where we're exploring the paradigm shift that's required to get us through humanity's greatest challenge, climate change. This is Levi broadcasting from our Realized Homestead, February 2, 2016.

Albert Bates is a long-time, influential figure in environmental activism and the ecovillage and permaculture movements. He's a lawyer, an author, and a teacher who's been the Director of the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee since 1994.

He recently attended the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris and he published a book about what happened there, called The Paris Agreement. This interview is packed full of great info so I'm going to just get right into it. I started by asking Albert about his back-story:

AB: The back-story – I went through conventional USAnian, middle class upbringing in rich, white bread suburbia, in my case on the out skirts of New York City in suburban Connecticut although at that time in the early 50s it was a kind of combination of tentative sprawl and farmland. Connecticut at that time was kind of nice and if you've ever watched the television series, “Mad Men,” you can get the idea of what my life as a child growing up was because my father was a mad man. He went to work on Madison Avenue. He worked in public relations and created ad campaigns. That's what he did and he took the New Haven railroad to get into work in New York City every day and came back at night to the little petit mansion and the country life.

As for me, I grew up in Wilton, Connecticut, went to Syracuse University, got a degree in political science, went on to law school, got a degree in law and at that point I had a major shift in my focus in life because I was offered all kinds of jobs in New York. I could have become a New York lawyer and followed the trajectory my parents had set for me or I could break with that meta-programming. I was reading John Lilly at the time and he was writing about the mind of the dolphin, LSD, isolation tanks, and re-programming the human biocomputer so I broke with my whole meta-program. When I graduated law school, instead of sticking around, I went on the Appalachian Trail and a thru-hike from north to south in the course of a summer.

I got down to Tennessee and had heard about The Farm and decided that as long as I was in Tennessee I would go visit it. This was an experimental community which had come out of an exodus of hippies from San Francisco following the Summer of Love. They had started a commune and had found that prices in Marin County and Humboldt County and all those areas were way too expensive so they found some cheap land – $70/acre – in Tennessee and set up shop there for an intentional community on what had been a cattle ranch, replacing 70 cows with 400 hippies.

I joined and became a member in 1972. I fell in love with the place at first glance and ended up staying a month instead overnight and then three months and there I was – the rest of my life. That became a base for me. It was an interesting experiment in many ways. Not only was it a complete detachment from the trajectory that I had been on, but also it was an experiment in living which involved giving up any notion of job, any notion of money. We didn't use money within The Farm, it was a communal society. It wasn't like we were socialist or communist or anti-capitalist — we eschewed isms. It was more like, we just didn't believe in money.

If you go back to the acid days of Haight Ashbury you can kind of understand the etiology of that process. If you've ever tried to change money when you're high on acid it's like, ‘what am I doing? What are these pictures of dead presidents doing in my pocket? Why am I putting so much value on these pieces of metal and pieces of paper? Why am I orienting my entire life on accumulating these things?’ Getting rid of money was really a big step. It was one of the biggest steps we made and it changed everything. When you joined The Farm essentially you gave up everything you ever owned or ever expected to inherit, anything that would distinguish you from someone else.

One of the other tenets of our faith was no social position. We didn't believe in social position. Many people have particular gifts or talents, their heritage, their inclinations, their bliss in life. They follow particular paths and develop their particular talents which is fine, that's all appreciated but it doesn't give you social position. People who are developmentally challenged were on equal footing with people who had Ph.D’s. From that standpoint it was a social experiment which was absolutely one of the most marvelous things I've ever participated in and I'm grateful to this day for the thirteen or fourteen years that we had as a communal, collective society.

image:  Gaspar Tringale for Vanity Fair

We ran into problems with scale. We really were inexperienced teenagers and young people just setting up shop, marrying, having babies and we didn't have the skill sets to do design. Permaculture hadn't been invented at that point. So what we did was sort of ad hoc, take it as it came and, without a design process, we fell into error. That's not bad. Error is a good thing. It's a learning experience but it can also make things harder in many ways. It can waste whatever small amounts you have accumulated. It can destroy valuable assets and things like that. It also makes it very slow and people get impatient.

The problem that we found was not dissimilar to many managed economies: at the age of 30-something we were still queued-up for diapers because we couldn't afford for people to have too many, and tennis shoes, and things like that. And people became generally dissatisfied. They wanted more control over their own lives. At some point we decided to de-collectivize and go back into a system which was similar to what we had come from, a money-exchanging system – but there were also things like a land trust and a cooperative form of self-governance which were much more transparent, consensus-based, using tools and skills which we had developed over that thirteen or fourteen year period.

the author, 1981

For me, I was able to apply my education and my law degree and make living doing useful work. That had started during our collective period because somewhere around the mid- to late seventies nuclear power plants were coming near us. The Tennessee Valley Authority, since it was a Federal utility, was directed by the government under various Republican administrations to make more nuclear power so they were building twenty nuclear power plants and a plutonium breeder. So I dusted off the old law degree, got my license in Tennessee, and went after them and we were able to stop them. We were able to halt that expansion. [This story is told in two books: Honicker vs. Hendrie – A Lawsuit to End Atomic Power; and Shutdown! Nuclear Power on Trial. The Supreme Court brief is here.]

I took on the chemical industry after that – Monsanto, Stauffer Chemical, and AstraZenica, over agrochem pollution – they manufactured pesticides and herbicides using deepwell injection — and got deepwell injection banned in the State of Tennessee which, until recently, included fracking.

I created a non-profit, public interest law project which raised money by donations and we had a small staff of law students and volunteer clerks and went up against the chemical industry and the nuclear power industry. We had the largest portfolio of cases for atomic veterans at the VA. We fought the MX missile and various nuclear weapon systems and programs. We worked for Native American rights.

One of our major areas on The Farm was helping various indigenous peoples’ struggles around the world, beginning in Guatemala and extending to other places. In 1980 I was part of the board of Plenty International when it won the Right Livelihood Award for its work in preserving indigenous cultures. My work also focused on that – saving sacred sites in the Black Hills, preventing uranium exploration in those places, and so forth.

So I was in that field — international, environmental and human rights law — and at some point, I guess in the late '80s, early 90s, I started to get the sense that I was in the same kind of rut I had been in when I was in college or law school, holding a job, doing charitable pro bono stuff, and getting a degree at the same time; that I was a type-A individual and thriving on stress. I have never developed ‘the talent for idleness,’ as Hermann Hesse said. I was getting high blood pressure, my marriage was falling to pieces, and I had too many balls in the air that I was trying to juggle.

So, it was like 'why am I in this mode?’ I decided to retire from the practice of law and get rid of all that and begin to work more in the area of environmental education. But first I became a mushroom farmer. In 1991 I ran a company in Tennessee called the Mushroompeople. We were selling commercial spawn for shiitake, maitake, enokitake — all the Japanese forest mushrooms — as well as selling supplies to farmers and giving courses and workshops in mushroom growing, with Paul Stamets and others.

That led me to create what eventually became the Ecovillage Training Center. I took a permaculture course in '95 with Peter Bane and Chuck Marsh and became an instructor there at our training center. I got involved with the early ecovillage movement. We started a newsletter called The Design Exchange for the Ecovillage Network of the Americas in the 90s and then I was invited to conferences in Scotland, Denmark, and Russia and became part of the founding group for the Global Ecovillage Network which eventually spread to 20,000 villages around the world with over 2 million residents today.

I was president and chairman of the board for a few years and I am still one of their United Nations representatives. What I do with the United Nations is to attend meetings of the Committee for Sustainable Development, the Climate Change Convention, the Desertification Convention, the Biodiversity Convention, and the Human Rights Convention. The tools that I bring to my work at the United Nations deal with permaculture. That's the methodology that I apply in the design of this stage of my life, the pattern of our strategic work, and ultimately, the re-design of the built environment of the planet — how we two-leggeds intend to inhabit our rapidly changing ecological niche.

So you could call me an emergency planetary technician. I'm going to the pressure points where I can stop the bleeding and to places where, if we really apply ourselves, we can change the paradigm. And I have actually witnessed that on a number of occasions, most recently in December in Paris where we were actually able to change the paradigm, or perhaps it was just being present at the moment when the world suddenly shifted, like the hundredth monkey who learns the skill and suddenly every monkey all over the world has that skill. That kind of historic moment.

Levi Meeuwenberg: Since the Paris agreement just took place and I think that a lot of people are curious about that, and hopeful, can you tell us what you witnessed there? What happened?

Continued next week.
















Dystopias and Eutopias

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Published on Peak Surfer on January 3, 2016


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"Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Tokyo and Venice will squander billons to forestall the inevitable and for a while may even seem to succeed, only to lose it all in one spin of the wheel — a single bad day with some monster storm."

The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting! 

—Theodore Roethke, The Child on Top of the Greenhouse

Watching the development of the Arctic superstorm on, our eyes drifted to the Eastern Mediterranean, curious about the lake effect of that large body of water on Palestine and the Middle East. We had seen a photo earlier in the week from Instagram of a trolley making its way through snow in Istanbul, and we knew Eastern Mediterranean weather was likely cold. 

We latched onto two curious patterns. The first was that cold air mass descending out of the Russian steppes, crossing the Black Sea, passing through the Dardanelles and entering the Mediterranean, where the hot air mass in Africa wheeled it around to lash the shores of Gaza. It was no surprise to see our heroic permaculture pioneer there in Ramalla, Murad AlKhufash, bundled up against the cold. 

The other pattern we saw was farther west, beyond the boot of Italy, where two air masses converge and bend up into the continent. The first comes in off the North Atlantic, collides with that hot high in North Africa and swings up into Provence. The second is a westward flow of cool Mediterranean air moving down from the Italian Alps, out through the San Remo Bay and then along the gold coast, past Nice, Cannes, Monaco, before suddenly sweeping north, drawn like a magnet to that same compass heading in the Golfe de Lyon. 

We watched, rapt, this vacuum in Southern France, endlessly drawing warm air up into Southwest Europe. It is a weather pattern as old as human history. This is where the oldest known hominid settlement, a stick and sealskin family lodge around a central firepit, is found at Terra Amata, 400000 BCE. "Tautavel man" (possibly Homo heidelbergensis) built refuge there, moving along an annual coastal hunting route during the Mindel glaciation. The cave paintings at Lascaux date to the middle of that Ice Age, when this part of Europe was relatively warm and food was plentiful, although stone tools discovered at Lézignan-la-Cèbe in 2009 date humans in France to at least 1.57 million years ago.

What we are looking at now, with this modern satellite imagery, is the climate signature of very old refugia — the places to which our kind, the two-leggeds, repaired when climate changed abruptly. 

As the weather warmed again, there was an expansion of peoples from southwest Asia into Europe from the Aegean and Eastern Steppes, about 8500 years ago, marked by the introduction of Indo-European speech. Vascons bear the remnant genome — related to none other in the world and retaining a fragment of Neanderthal DNA — and pre-Indo-European linguistic roots. These peoples were likely forced from the lowlands and pushed upland by Middle Eastern migrants from 6500 to 4000 BC, moving eventually into the Pyrenees, where they live today in the Basque region of Spain and Andorra.

As an aside, when we were researching the history of the conquistadors for The Biochar Solution, we came across the fascinating tale of Lope de Aguirre (1510-1561), nicknamed El Loco ('the Madman')  who was psychotically depicted by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's B-film, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, in 1972 (where our friend, the bioregional poet and singer, Christopher Wells, performed as an extra). Aquirre, a Vascon, was said to be nearly 7 feet tall and was uncomfortable in leather boots, which compells us to muse about the possibility of his Neanderthal bloodline. When Aguirre was sentenced to public flogging for his cruelty towards the indigenous peoples he conquered and enslaved, he endured his whipping but then pursued the judge who sentenced him. Over three years he ran 6,000 km (3700 miles) through the mountains and jungles on foot, unshod, on the trail of the judge, who slept in armor to protect himself. He caught and killed the judge but was pardoned in exchange for his Indian-fighting services, until once more atrocities and his open rebellion against the Spanish crown made him a hunted rogue agent, gone off the reservation, and he so was recaptured and terminated with extreme prejudice. 

The people living in the highlands of what is today Bolivia might of thought they had a pretty good life for themselves in a place of great natural beauty until that guy showed up.

Five hundred years before Aguirre, the Southern French and Italian coast was the tribal homeland for the Ligurians, whose language carries as many Celtic words as Indo-European, and who were conquered in the Punic Wars by Rome. The ancient Roman port of Ventimiglia, on San Remo Bay, lies close to one of Europe's most treasured ecovillages, at Torri Superiori, which perches just back up that river valley, at the transition point where paved roads give way to mountain trails, and a days' walk will take you through many vacant, or nearly vacant, fieldstone towns and cobbled hamlet ruins in the foothills.

In 1834, Henry Brougham, Lord Chancellor Lord Brougham and Vaux, discovered the sleepy fishing village of Cannes and built a winter villa there with immense lawns of turf imported from Britain by sail. Lord Brougham, epitomizing Britain's ruling class, is remembered for his stern attack on the radical idea of providing public education:

I should regard anything of the kind as utterly destructive of the end it has in view. Suppose the people of England were taught to bear it, and to be forced to educate their children by means of penalties, education would be made absolutely hateful in their eyes, and would speedily cease to be endured. They who have argued in favour of such a scheme from the example of a military government like that of Prussia have betrayed, in my opinion, great ignorance of the nature of Englishmen.

— Report of the Parliamentary Committee on the State of Education (1834).

Trailing in Brougham's turfboat wake, wealthy Victorian scoundrels landscaped themselves along the gold coast and over the present Italian border to Bordighera, San Remo and other Ligurian villages (until 1860, Nice and Menton were in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia), building exotic terraced gardens and palatial estates befitting the rewards of extractive colonial empire. It was in a family villa near Ventimiglia that Lord Balfour hosted the San Remo conference to design the partition of Palestine, haughtily issuing "Israel's Magna Carta," and precipitating the Jerusalem Nebi-Musa riots of 1920-21.

It was not just the warmth and healthy winter climate that attracted the British gentry. The cost of living was lower there than in London, Belfast or Edinburgh, and if one had served her Majesty in one of her distant colonial outposts and remembered fondly being waited on by servants — and the cool tropical drinks out on the veranda — one could hire poor French peasants for a pittance. These were the years following Napoleon's ruin, when empirical overreach sank French fortunes in a foolhardy Russian winter campaign and then got mopped up and tossed into history's dustbin by Wellington and the Prussians.

To some British ex-pats, the Riviera was simply an escape from Victorian morals, a place for singles and gays to freak freely — as Somerset Maugham put it, "a sunny place for shady people."


Last week we listened to a Kunstlercast podcast in which James Howard Kunstler chatted with Chuck Marohn of  The two mused at how estate prices had fallen in the rust belt and how easy it would be for aspiring youth and young families of like-minded kith and kin to move in, build collaborative, regenerative local economies while incurring zero debt, and even be supported in that reclamation process by the greater city, state and county taxsheds interested in recovering misallocated and stranded assets amid cascading petrocollapse.

Personally, we think climate change should be a major consideration. As we listened to scientist emeritus James Hansen in his Paris talks last month, we heard the urgency of his concern for sea level rise and took that to heart. But no one can say with certainty how fast an individual section of coastline will give itself up to the waves and that provides some comfort to coastal dwellers. Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Tokyo and Venice will squander billons to forestall the inevitable and for a while may even seem to succeed, only to lose it all in one spin of the wheel — a single bad day with some monster storm.

In Climate in Crisis (1990) we speculated that the hot interiors of continents were not going to be pleasant places in the coming years. With some exceptions, most will become dreadfully hot and water starved, subject to tornadoes, wildfires and even dust bowl conditions. The Pacific Northwest will be more wet, as will the American Southeast, but that also means much greater humidity and unless you can power air conditioning with renewable energy, not very happy places in warm times of the year. Mosquitoes and biting flies will love the change, and will proliferate too in thawing regions closer to the poles.   Much of the Amazon Basin (another lockbox of untapped viruses) is expected to desertify at 3 degrees above now, and that will alter rainfall patterns for a very large part of the world. Being on the Equator, their climate may begin to resemble the lower quadrant of Saudi Arabia in a few decades.

When we taught our most recent permaculture course in Iceland we thought that would be a lovely place for young people to settle and build ecovillages. Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, fits a similar mold. We used to think that might be a great place to relocate our family and maybe take up fishing. After watching and the gigantic storm now churning through the Arctic, we have second thoughts.
One thinks of higher elevations as refuges, and indeed, some very spectacular real estate can be found in the Rockies, Alps and Snowy Mountains. Insofar as the rain-shadow effect of cross-mountain winds continues, these may provide some areas of refuge, albeit gradually shrinking. So may certain islands, if they rise up from the sea to secure elevations and can shelter from superstorms.
As refugees continue to pour north into Europe we are reminded what it may look like in these more comfortable microclimates like Southern France in the not distant future. Human numbers are already staggering, our fecundity rates show no sign of abating, and we add 220,000 to the number of us at procreating age, every day.

In the end, it matters not where we are. It matters who we are, and what we do with our knowledge and skills in the time we are given.

Through sunny fields
And valleys deep
Through noisy streets
And river's sweep

Although I may race
With the wind
I keep that quiet place

My heart; a chamber
Safe and warm
To give you shelter
From the storm


— Gabriela Duricova






Burning Down the House

surfer-girl-2gc2Off the keyboard of Albert Bates

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Published on Peak Surfer on October 18, 2015


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"To address the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improve air quality, the District has teamed with other public and private stakeholders to … sequester carbon from biomass waste in a highly stable biochar, and produce renewable energy from the energy-rich byproduct syngas. "

It is no secret we live in house on fire.

This December in Paris world leaders will meet for the 21st time in 22 years in an ongoing attempt to form a bucket brigade and put out the fire. Each time the fire is larger and less easy to control, and each time they end up going home without throwing a single drop of water. Among the issues are where the buckets are, who will be at the front of the line and who at the back, whether those less responsible for starting the fire can opt out of the work, or even rekindle the fire if it starts to lag, and whether, on a cost-risk-benefit analysis, it might be better to let it burn for a few more years before taking time away from profitable economic activities.

At the outskirts of this debate will be those of us in the UN Observer community who are  yelling at the muddled delegates standing around watching the fire to please, will you, just do something! Of course, among the screaming rabble will be those who are quite certain there is no problem and doing nothing is the right course, and those who have placed their fate and the world’s in the hands of an all-knowing bearded Superman who can be relied on to save His chosen, even if everything else goes up in smoke. Their voices will blend with ours to make the cacophony even harder to parse.

We go to these crazy confabs because we have a simple solution to offer, a suite of tools that will counter the carbon menace and send it to ground, buying the human race time to deal with other game-enders — like the overfecundity of our species, Atoms for Peace, and Peak Everything, for instance.

Starhawk addresses the IPCUK Plenary

As the International Permaculture Convergence in England was drawing to a close last month we were in the big tent listening to Starhawk read from the climate change working group's statement, a document intended to be taken to Paris to give voice to permaculture designers. There came an objection from a gentleman who clearly had not taken the time to educate himself on the subject of biochar and thus was of the opinion it was a Ponzi scheme or Snake Oil and wanted mention of it deleted. We held our tongue.

Well you need not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned
— Dylan, Rainy Day Woman

Having given extensive biochar talks at Permaculture Convergences in Jordan and Cuba, and more in England, including a controlled burn facilitated by Dale Hendricks two days earlier, we thought we had already answered our skeptics in the permie crowd and won them over. This fellow was apparently a late arrival.

Dale Hendricks explains the cone kiln method at IPCUK

Starhawk had made biochar with us in Belize the previous February, and we had gone over the ethical principles with her in Cuba and Jordan, so we knew she was no stranger to the questions. She deftly handled the heckler by making a small adjustment to the text, placing the words "sustainably produced" in front of the word "biochar" to acknowledge his point about the potential for misuse.

Having had a hand in the drafting of the document, we let it pass that this was the only use of the word "sustainable," a word we abhor, that crept in.

Still, the document is a good one, and we reproduce it in its entirety below.

Can an all-knowing bearded Superman save us from Fire Earth?

We encountered critics of biochar even before we penned The Biochar Solution. The loudest of them is Biofuelswatch, an organization we previously respected but no longer do because they are tone deaf to serious science. Because they are close with many social justice, ecology and indigenous rights organizations, their completely irrational arguments against biochar have been picked up by many in the environmental community and repeated as if they had not already been shown to be completely without merit, and ridiculous. In our book we discussed the critics' few arguments that we thought had some merit – such as the temptation for large landowners to monocrop genetically modified plantations of fast-growing trees to make biochar for carbon credits and what could be done to require biochar to be produced more responsibly. Indeed, the word "biochar" should itself connote ecologically responsible sourcing and production, in much the same way that "biodynamic" cannot be used by food growers who don't follow the rules for that technique.

Nonetheless, it is hard to get very excited by toothless critics when there are so many positive developments. Faced by wildfire and severe drought as the Sonoran desert migrates north to claim California, local government entities in the Golden State are responding with a strategy long overdue but never too late: ecological restoration.

We quote at length from the Placer County Biomass Energy Initiatives, just released.

Placer County includes over 550,000 acres of heavily forested landscapes in the central Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains. This area stretches from Auburn to Lake Tahoe, and includes portions of three national forests, numerous state parks, and 60% of Lake Tahoe's west shore. The forested land is at significant risk for catastrophic wildfire due to the buildup of unnaturally dense vegetation following decades of successful fire suppression and exclusion. The County has experienced six major wildfires since 2001 burning more than 100,000 acres, including critically important upland watersheds and wildlife habitat.


To address the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improve air quality, the District has teamed with other public and private stakeholders to implement environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable forest management activities to restore these forested landscapes to a fire-resilient condition. The District's program activities, which you can learn more about in a presentation, brochure, and video  (you may need to install an application called "Mediasite" to view this video).



The District has sponsored the development of a biochar GHG offset accounting protocol with the support of Prasino Group, International Biochar Initiative, and The Climate Trust.  The protocol was formally adopted into the CAPCOA GHG Rx on September 28, 2015.  The final protocol here   provides a detailed accounting procedure for quantifying the GHG benefits of biochar.  Biochar projects sequester carbon from biomass waste in a highly stable biochar, and produce renewable energy from the energy-rich byproduct syngas.  The protocol uses the biochar’s hydrogen to organic carbon content ratio as an indicator of its long term stability, in conjunction with its applied use as a legitimate soil amendment to agricultural field or road crop operations.

The protocol development process involved a webinar presentation conducted on September 9, 2014, which can be viewed  here (Youtube).  A copy of the presentation is here (.pdf).  The draft protocol is here.  The CAPCOA Protocol Primer on the protocol requirements and review process is available here.

We hope to quantify in the future additional GHG benefits that are associated with biochar including fossil fuel based fertilizer displacement, water production and transport, and enhanced plant growth.


Forest Hazardous Fuels Reduction Treatments

Fuels treatments involve the selective thinning and removal of trees and brush to return forest ecosystems to more natural fuel stocking levels resulting in more fire-resilient and healthy forests. Fuels treatments reduce air pollution by mitigating wildfire behavior, size and intensity, stimulating forest growth and vigor, and reducing tree mortality. Forest thinning also produces wood products that continue the sequestration of carbon. When fuels treatment projects include removal of excess biomass in the forms of limbs, tops, smaller trees and brush, the resulting biomass can be utilized for energy production and thus reduce the need for fossil fuels.

Distributed Biomass Energy Production

The District is supporting the assessment of the air pollutant emissions benefits and economics of energy conversion technology suitable for small-scale distributed systems in Placer County, utilizing woody biomass wastes from forest fuel thinning treatments, timber harvest residues, and defensible space clearings. 

We are also an advocate for a regulatory structure that recognizes the full environmental benefits of the use of forest biomass wastes for energy:

  • Participated in the creation of the new Feed in Tariff program at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).
  • Assisted with the development of California Senate Bill 1122 which requires the CPUC to direct the three large Investor Owned Utilities in California to purchase a total of 50 MW of distributed forest biomass generation from facilities that produce less than 3 MW at strategic locations near forested areas at risk for catastrophic wildfire. We are assisting the CPUC by participating in the SB 1122 process:
  1. Developing a fair power purchase agreement template
  2. Making sure that the Investor Owned Utilities implement fair and equitable interconnection requirements.
  3. Defining the term “strategic location” in content of communities at risk to catastrophic wildfire.

Permaculture Climate Change Statement

International Permaculture Convergence, Gilwell Park, England, September 2015

Permaculture is a system of ecological design as well as a global movement of practitioners, educators, researchers and organizers, bound by three core ethics: care for the earth, care for the people and care for the future.  Permaculture integrates knowledge and practices that draw from many disciplines and links them into solutions to meet human needs while ensuring a resilient future.  With little funding or institutional support, this movement has spread over the past forty years and now represents projects on every inhabited continent.

The permaculture movement offers vital perspectives and tools to address catastrophic climate change.

International Permaculture Climate Change Committee

Human-caused climate change is a crisis of systems—ecosystems and social system–and must be addressed systemically. No single new technology or blanket solution will solve the problem.  Permaculture employs systems thinking, looking at patterns, relationships and flows, linking solutions together into synergistic strategies that work with nature and fit local conditions, terrain, and cultures.

Efforts to address the climate crisis must be rooted in social, economic, and ecological justice. The barriers to solutions are political and social, not technical, and the impacts of climate change fall most heavily on frontline communities, who have done the least to cause it. Indigenous communities hold worldviews and perspectives that are vitally needed to help us come back into balance with the natural world.  We must build and repair relationships across cultures and communities on a basis of respect, and the voices, leadership and needs of frontline and indigenous communities must be given prominence in all efforts to address the problem.

Permaculture ethics direct us to create abundance, share it fairly, and limit overconsumption in order to benefit the whole. Healthy, just, truly democratic communities are a potent antidote to climate change.

Both the use of fossil fuels and the mismanagement of land and resources are driving the climate crisis.  We must shift from fire to flow: from burning oil, gas, coal and uranium to capturing flows of energy from sun, wind, and water in safe and renewable ways.

Soil is the key to sequestering excess carbon.  By restoring the world’s degraded soils, we can store carbon as soil fertility, heal degraded land, improve water cycles and quality, and produce healthy food and true abundance. Protection, restoration and regeneration of ecosystems and communities are the keys to both mitigation and adaptation.

Permaculture integrates knowledge, experience, research and practices from many disciplines to restore landscapes and communities on a large scale.  These strategies include:

  • A spectrum of safe, renewable energy technologies.
  • Scientific research and exchange of knowledge, information and innovations.
  • Water harvesting, retention and restoration of functional water systems.
  • Forest conservation, reforestation and sustainable forestry.
  • Regenerative agricultural practices—organic, no-till and low-till, polycultures, small-scale intensive systems and agroecology.
  • Planned rotational grazing, grasslands restoration, and silvopasture systems.
  • Agroforestry, food forests and perennial systems.
  • Bioremediation and mycoremediation.
  • Increasing soil organic carbon using biological methods:  compost, compost teas, mulch, fungi, worms and beneficial micro-organisms.
  • Sustainably produced biochar for carbon capture and soil-building.
  • Protection and restoration of oceanic ecosystems.
  • Community-based economic models, incorporating strategies such as co-operatives, local currencies, gift economies, and horizontal economic networks.
  • Relocalization of food systems and economic enterprises to serve communities.
  • Conservation, energy efficiency, re-use, recycling and full cost accounting.
  • A shift to healthier, climate-friendly diets.
  • Demonstration sites, model systems, ecovillages and intentional communities.
  • Conflict transformation, trauma counseling and personal and spiritual healing.
  • Transition Towns and other local movements to create community resilience.
  • And many more!

None of these tools function alone.  Each unique place on earth will require its own mosaic of techniques and practices to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

To deepen our knowledge of these approaches and refine our ability to apply and combine them, we need to fund and support unbiased, independent scientific research.

Each one of us has a unique and vital role to play in meeting this greatest of global challenges.  The crisis is grave, but if together we meet it with hope and action, we have the tools we need to create a world that is healthy, balanced, vibrant, just, abundant and beautiful. 

The Permaculture City: Cities as Complex Systems

gc2smOff the keyboard of Toby Hemenway

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Published on Resilience on September 8, 2015


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The following sections are excerpted with permission from Chapter 1 of Toby Hemenway's new book The Permaculture City, published by Chelsea Green.

When a permaculturist sees words such as “function” and “synergy,” it sets off lightbulbs in his or her head. Function, for example, indicates a relationship, a connection between two or more elements. A road functions to move traffic, thus the road has a relationship with vehicles, and it mediates the movement—that is, it makes connections—between the traffic, its origin, and its destination. Knowing a function, in turn, leads us to identify the items and processes necessary to fill that function and also points to the yields created when that function is filled. Thinking in terms of functions, then, is a powerful leverage point, because it identifies needs, yields, relationships, and goals, and it helps us spot blockages, missing elements, buildup of waste, and inefficiencies in the various flows and linkages that are part of that function’s workings.
This means that when we look at cities, their residents, and the other components of urban life in terms of their functions, we can spot the factors that influence how well they are able to perform those functions. Then we can study, understand, and direct those factors and influences in ways that will create and enhance the functions and properties of cities that are beneficial, such as community-building public plazas, parks, and structures; open and supportive marketplaces; and habitat-creating green space; as well as human elements such as responsive policy processes. We can also spot and damp down the negative factors. Once we’ve done this, the next step is to evaluate, to see how well our changes have moved us toward a more livable, and life-filled, environment. That is the heart of design.
The importance of the three primary functions of cities—inspirational gathering space, security, and trade—is also visible in the negative. When cities grow ugly or inhumanly scaled, when they are crime-ridden or prone to raids, or when their industries fail, urbanites retreat if they can to the suburbs, the hinterlands, or another more functional city. Those who can’t leave often crowd—or are forced—into ghettos and enclaves. The movement of people in and out of a city is useful feedback about how well that city functions and what needs to be redesigned…
Cities as Complex Systems
The sciences of complexity studies arose in the 1960s and 1970s and spread, because they were so widely applicable, from the arid realms of theoretical physics and mathematics to other disciplines. A subdiscipline of urban planning, sometimes called complexity theory of cities, emerged in the 1980s and has since generated a blizzard of publications and experiments in urban design. I will give an overview of the origins and tenets of complexity theory of cities as it relates to permaculture. For those interested in exploring the intersection of urban design with complexity theory in more detail than I can offer here, a good place to start is an anthology of articles collected under the title Complexity Theories of Cities Have Come of Age, edited by Juval Portugali and others.
Understanding that cities are a form of complex adaptive system has helped urbanists restore some vibrancy to moribund metropolises, so it’s worth understanding a little about these systems. The general “messiness” of cities has been irritating urban theorists and planners for centuries, but it wasn’t until recently that urbanists truly understood that it is just that messiness that gives cities their life.
The urge to rationalize and give order to cities—which, incidentally, culminated in the dehumanizing urban-renewal projects of the 1960s—has its seeds back in the Enlightenment era. Philosophers and scientists of that day, inspired by the successes of Newton, Galileo, and Kepler at finding simple laws that explained and predicted mechanical action, began thinking of nature and the universe as a machine that could be dissected, rebuilt, and controlled. Once they saw that planets and falling bodies operated by simple rules, some of them began extending the machine metaphor to the living world.  Soon farming and forestry were remade in the image of the machine, and this mechanical worldview spread to human systems as well. The standardized, abstract measurements of the metric system supplanted local and traditional units that once kept their uses connected to natural objects and activities. An acre, for example, was the area of flat land that a pair of oxen could plow in a day; an inch was the length of three grains of barley laid end to end. A meter is just, well, a meter—and since the 1983 General Conference on Weights and Measures, defined as, “the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.” How’s that for abstract?
Tested land-use customs that had been culture- and site-specific were swept aside by nationwide property laws, official languages taught in state schools extinguished dialects and indigenous speech, and major cities such as Paris and Washington, DC, were rebuilt on rigid geometric patterns.
This attempt to impose a clockwork order on the confusing welter of urban life, while making cities more comprehensible to travelers and tax officials, reached its peak in the neighborhood-razing visions of New York’s Robert Moses, the sterile facades and inhuman whole-city plans of Le Corbusier, and the crime-ridden high-rise projects of south Chicago and countless other cities. As the failures of what has been called high modernism became obvious in the 1970s and 1980s, architects, planners, officials, and urban dwellers began to see that a machine city is a dead city.
Right at that time, though, several countering forces were emerging. One was an activist revolt against large-scale urban planning. As so often happens in the simultaneous emergence of parallel ideas whose time has come, this grassroots movement was also gaining academic legitimacy in work by theorists in the developing new complexity sciences. Mathematicians, ecologists, economists, and planners alike began to spot the consonance between complex systems such as weather, forests, neural networks, markets, and cities. Some of these complex systems could adapt and learn, while others, like the weather, could not. The former came to be called complex adaptive systems, or CAS. Researchers soon determined that to be able to learn, adapt, and evolve, CAS needed to possess certain features:
1.  They are composed of autonomous agents; that is, their parts work according to their own internal operating rules, whether they are nerve cells, trees, or people.
2.  These agents interact with each other according to certain (often simple) rules. A rule for a bird in a flock may be, “Keep the bird ahead of you at a 45-degree angle and 3 feet away.” These simple rules can result in stunningly complex behaviors, as anyone can attest who has watched a shimmering flock of birds spin patterns against the sky.
3.  Those new behaviors are an example of emergence, which is the appearance of novel properties that can’t be predicted by studying the parts in isolation. Watching a single bird in flight would never let you predict the intricate, captivating dance of a swooping flock of birds. Studying one cell of a slime mold would never suggest that as a group they can merge to fashion a bizarre mushroomlike colonial structure for reproduction.
4.  The agents respond to changes in their environment via feedback. They sense some of the effects of their actions, which allows them to adapt and learn.
5.  CAS usually exhibit homeostasis; that is, they self-regulate and “tune” their behavior to certain states that are preferred over other, less stable states, and they can return to these states after a disturbance. These states are usually far from equilibrium. A mammal, for example, maintains its body temperature independent of both the air temperature and how hard it is exercising. If it were at equilibrium, it would be at air temperature—and it would be dead.
6.  These systems maintain themselves in a rich, possibility-filled region between perfect order and total randomness that complexity thinkers call the edge of chaos. An organism, for example, contains proteins that are made to a specific pattern but are constantly moving in and out of that pattern as they are built up and broken down in metabolism. But metabolism isn’t chaotic. It follows specific pathways and rules. We can see this also in our genes. They generally are built to a set DNA sequence and pattern, but occasional mutation and regular recombination permit new possibilities to emerge. Perfect order is dead, while complete chaos allows no structure. Life and other complex adaptive systems attune themselves to the fecund, creative place between frozen order and seething randomness, to the edge of chaos, and thrive there. Healthy cities do the same.
In summary, CAS contain many autonomous parts, they respond to changes via feedback, and they form self-organizing, self-maintaining assemblages that display emergent properties. So how do the principles of CAS apply to urban permaculture?
Those principles suggest that rigid planning that leaves no room, or even not enough room, for spontaneous self-organization will create sterile cities. Strict top-down planning is anathema to CAS, including cities; it imposes a rigidity that eliminates adaptability and spontaneity. On the other hand, pure bottom-up accretion of elements with no rules or pattern at all approaches chaos and can result in grossly unequal distribution of resources, incoherent layout, gentrification, food deserts, and the other ills that plague many cities. Thus urban design methods that provide enough organization in the form of simple rules but create the conditions for spontaneity to occur can take advantage of the ways that cities behave as CAS. What does that look like?
One of the first to grasp the importance of urban life’s lack of tidiness was Patrick Geddes, a biologist who later turned to sociology and urban planning. Geddes was a student of Thomas Huxley, the man known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his fierce defense of the theory of natural selection, and Geddes brought his own appreciation for evolution and life’s spontaneity to urban design. During the late nineteenth century, when Geddes was practicing, the common view was that cities were simply “architecture writ large,” mechanical elements assembled on a large scale. Geddes taught that every city evolves in both a historical context and a unique geographical setting, and any planning that ignores or attempts to remake these will harm those who live there. But Geddes was nearly a lone voice against the rising influence of those who saw the city as a machine, and their views dominated the first six decades of the twentieth century.
Figure 1-1. Emergence in action. The slime mold Dictyostelium germinates from spores as individual cells that remain independent until food becomes scarce. At that point the cells aggregate and can move as a multicellular organism in the pseudoplasmodium or slug stage. This “slug” slithers to a well-lighted, open place and transforms into a mushroomlike fruiting body that then releases spores. The slug and the collective fruiting body possess properties not present in the individual cells, such as the ability to form complex shapes, solve mazes (in the slug phase), and release spores (the fruiting body). Illustration by Elara Tanguy

The Gift of the Maya

Off the keyboard of Albert Bates

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Published on Peak Surfer on July 26., 2015

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"The Maya forest garden holds, in its ramblings and roots, a hidden-in-plain-sight way through our present crises."

  It takes a bit of time for the elegance of a food forest to emerge, something on the order of decades. Strolling the garden through the morning mist in a hot Tennessee summer, we tried to remember what this landscape looked like 21 years ago, when we moved to this site, set up our yurt and started in on our little corner of paradise.

What we see today does not remotely resemble what was here then. Then there was a wire-fenced, stony horse paddock in a re-emerging poplar forest. The deep soil tilth now is blanketed in thick vines, their giant leaves hiding pumpkins, squashes and melons. Bamboo cathedrals twined with akebia and passionfruit arch 70 feet (20 meters) over a duck pond next to our cob henhouse. As we let out our poultry for their daily bug chase, bullfrogs croak and leap away. A snapping turtle submerges beneath the mat of duckweed and hyacinths at the water's edge. All around us figs, peaches, apples, pears, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, plums and persimmons bend down boughs under the weight of their fruit, rabbits stealing out to grab a windfall and then hop back to cover, while high up in the oaks, beech, butternuts and hickories, squirrel forest wardens check the progress of their winter larder.

All this complexity, shrouded in mist and glistening in dew, would not be called orderly by farmers trained in Ag schools or raised in a tradition of straight rows and powerful machines with air-conditioned cabs. They can pump food from the earth the way you would pump barrels of oil, but not without depleting reserves accumulated over eons. As they pour on chemicals, the genetically monocultured crops gradually but inexorably lose nutrient density and attract predators.

Our general health as a society reflects that loss and malaise. Family treasures are squandered on biotech voodoo and Roundup potions in the pursuit of a false paradigm of technological progress, but the escalating fixes are unable to stem the tide of biological entropy. And all the while, just beyond the fences, magical weeds of awesome power dance in anticipation of the invaders' surrender and patiently await the return of their lost domain.

We have been reading The Maya Forest Garden by Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. It tells the tale of a civilization that weathered many climate changes, foreign conquests and failed attempts at cultural genocide. That civilization is still there today, after 8,000 years. There are more children born and raised in families today whose first language is a Mayan dialect than during the Classic period 1400 years ago.

When the first two-leggeds arrived in Mesoamerica over 10,000 years ago, the region was cool and arid – akin to the Great Plains of central Canada. Over the next 2,000 years, as the Hemisphere continued to emerge from the great Ice Age, Mesoamerica became a warm and wet tropical region, reaching an early heating peak during the Holocene Thermal Maximum before settling back to the wet tropics we find there today.

Ford and Nigh disagree with popular myths told by historians of rapacious city-states that denuded their landscape to bake lime for painting temples and then starved. They write:

The Maya and their ancestors have been living in this region for more than 10,000 years. Why would they cut down the forest that was their garden? Even after concerted efforts by governments and private interests to convert forest to pasture over the past half of the twentieth century, and after development schemes to introduce commercial annual monocrops into the perennial polycultivated croplands, and in spite of global trade agreements that have jeopardized the smallholder, the Maya forest has lived to tell the tale.


It is important to understand that the developed European culture views agriculture and forests as incompatible. That idea is embedded in our understanding of "arable" [Latin: to plow] and in the Malthusian view that agricultural lands are finite, based on the medieval concept of "assart," the act of converting forest into arable land.


To evaluate ancient land use, we must conjure a world without the plow, without cattle or horses, where work in the fields was accomplished by hand, and where transport was on foot.

According to Ford and Nigh, the Maya forest garden was not just an indelible feature that withstood the rise and fall of successive empires, but holds, in its ramblings and roots, a hidden-in-plain-sight way through our present crises.

We argue that conservation of the Maya forest must engage the traditional farmer, whose skills and knowledge created – and continue to maintain – the forest and its culture.

Land use changed over time based on social constraints. In ancient times, smallholders who produced a variety of goods and services from the forest were at times compelled to increase production to pay taxes and to feed the elites and their armies. This process continues today. Greater demands for exports from the forest require denser populations, because working hilly terrain without machines or animals requires hands and feet. Today it may imply imported labor, a form of economic slavery not much different than in the Classic Maya era. To the extent that human labor for cultivation and transportation has been replaced with fossil energy, the requirements for human slaves have diminished.

One barrel of oil has 5.7 million BTUs of energy, or 1700 kWh. An average adult can, in hard labor, generate 0.6 kWh/day. That's 11 years of human labor packed into each barrel of oil. Put another way, fifty dollars currently buys you eleven petroleum slaves working year-round at hard labor. What would those slaves cost if they were human? Ten thousand dollars? Half a million dollars? It depends on where you get them and what tasks they perform for you.

Thanks to petroslavery, we have higher wages, higher profits, really cheap products and more people doing little to nothing. The average USAnian uses 60 barrels per year (or equivalent coal, gasoline and fracked gas) or roughly 660 fossil slaves standing at the beck and call of each and every citizen. Those numbers are quite a bit less in the Mayan world today, but nonetheless significant, and growing. Farmers don't have to carry corn and mangos to the city on their backs, although no one has yet found a way to machine-harvest cacao or spray-pollenate vanilla vines.

Nonetheless, extraction costs for fossil fuels are rising — 17% per year for the past 10 years. That drives up energy costs and as that price goes up, its like having to pay your slaves. Profits decline, and some slaves get laid off.

As we lose our energy slaves, will we go back to sending our army to snatch human slaves from weaker or less militaristic neighbors? The Classic Maya were something like that. With cheap slave energy gained by conquest they paved roads and built pyramids. Many historians assume they overran their resources or had a slave revolt, but Ford and Nigh have eliminated ecocide, because food resources never diminished. Slavery has its limits and the Maya's slaves may have reached theirs.
Misleading assumptions about Mayan ecological demise, and climate over 10,000 years, came from paleoclimatic reconstructions based on lake sediments and pollen counts. Ford and Nigh point out that the pollen data emphasize windborne pollen, and yet, in the tropics, all but about 2 percent of plants are pollenated by bees, birds, bats and butterflies. 

Ford and Nigh picked up clues from ramon trees and grassland forbs, which were better indicators of the milpa cycle. While climate perturbations, sometimes severe, occurred repeatedly, the heaviest climate changes came in the Early Holocene, before the appearance of the Maya. The milpa system evolved in that era, as proof of concept for climate-resilient agriculture.

The Maya resource system, based on the milpa forest garden cycle of the past and present, adapts to extreme conditions by moderating the impacts of deluges and managing land cover against drought. The system was resilient under conditions of change, and the climatic stability of the Classic promoted the rise of the Maya civilization.

Ford and Nigh conclude that the Classic Era, while it was not without impact — evidenced by high phosphorus lake sediment loading and diminishing soil quality — did not end from an environmental collapse. And yet, 1100 years ago, the Empire broke down and retreated back into the jungle. Civic centers gradually depopulated and rural farms resumed their ubiquity. Soil quality began to improve and runoff to decrease.

The Maya did not disappear, they dispersed. Having little to interest outside invaders, the last of their strongholds, at Nojpeten, was not conquered by the Spanish until 1697, on the Ides of March. (In ancient Greece, that date also marked Pharmakos, which involved beating an old man dressed in animal skins and driving him from the city. History may not repeat, but it rhymes.)

When the human slavery system ended, it was not replaced by machine or animal slaves (they had neither). It was replaced with tree crops – vegetable slaves —  toiling without complaint, providing myriad household and ecological services, and asking only the occasional tender loving care. Skills that could wean the most from any terrain were passed generation to generation down to the present. 

In the Cartesian view of the world everything is separated into chemicals, physical properties, or energy systems. The quantum entanglement of the real world is much less simple. It took a few thousand years for humans to find harmony with their environment and to co-evolve the comfortable Holocene climate, as much a product of human respect for the limits of the natural world as of galactic and planetary cycles. No doubt some shaman warned a Neolithic hunting party not to slay the last mastodon, but they didn't listen, and we got an Ice Age, or worse, agriculture.

Once the original instructions were forgotten, thanks in no small measure to electric lights, television and the internet, the Holocene weave began unraveling. Biodiversity and soil fertility plummeted, population skyrocketed, and the popular culture of idle elite tilted to the kinky, bloodthirsty and perverse. If this sounds like the Maya, that would not be far wrong, but we are speaking of the times we live in. We have lost our way.

The Maya forest shows us a way home, should we choose to take it.

This past Thursday, NASA senior scientist James Hansen and 17 co-authors published a paper, “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2°C global warming is highly dangerous,” in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics discussion group. The paper noted that despite repeated warnings for more than 25 years, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase and fossil fuels remain the primary energy source.

"The argument is made that it is economically and morally responsible to continue fossil fuel use for the sake of raising living standards, with expectation that humanity can adapt to climate change and find ways to minimize effects via advanced technologies," the paper says. " We suggest that a strategic approach relying on adaptation to such consequences is unacceptable to most of humanity…."

Specifically, the authors, making an end run around lengthy peer review in order to address delegates who will gather at the UN climate summit in Paris in December, point out that even if the UN denouement is extraordinarily successful and achieves its 2-degree target, civilization will not avert catastrophe.

As Natalia Shakhova, a professor at the University Alaska Fairbanks, told Dahr Jamail of Truthout  last January, the transition from the methane being frozen in the permafrost, either on land or in the shallow continental shelves, "is not gradual. When it comes to phase transition, it appears to be a relatively short, jump-like transformation from one state of the process to another state. The difference between the two states is like the difference between a closed valve and an open valve. This kind of a release is like the unsealing of an over-pressurized pipeline."

Shakhova has been warning for years that a 50-gigaton "burp" of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea is "highly possible at anytime." That would be the equivalent of 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2), three thousand times what is released from the Siberian shelf in an average year. Humans have released approximately 1,475 GtCO2 since 1850 from fossil fuel burning and land use changes. Ninety percent of that was absorbed by the ocean; some frozen in ocean sediments as clathrates.

The Permian mass extinction of approximately 95 percent of all species on the planet 250 million years ago was triggered by a massive lava flow in an area of Siberia that led to an increase in global temperatures of 6 degrees Celsius. The lava caused the melting of frozen methane deposits under the seas. Released into the atmosphere, the Permian methane "burp" caused temperatures to skyrocket.

Hansen's group warns that is not too late to avert a similar fate this time, but it will take more than reducing carbon emissions.

Rapid transition to abundant affordable carbon-free electricity is the core requirement, as that would also permit production of net-zero-carbon liquid fuels from electricity. The rate at which CO2 emissions must be reduced is about 6%/yr to reach 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 by about 2100, under the assumption that improved agricultural and forestry practices could sequester 100 GtC.

Actually, we know that improved agricultural and forestry practices can sequester on the order of 10 GtC annually, and could return the atmosphere and oceans to pre-industrial greenhouse chemistries (250 ppmv CO2e) by 2100 if scaled rapidly. We know that from studying, among other clues, the Maya forest.

Ford and Nigh conclude:

If we take these real human and ecological costs into account and systematically compare them to the intensive Maya milpa, we find that milpa is neither primitive nor unproductive and is positive for human health and the environment. Food produced by the milpa is of high quality, as it is based on the natural fertility maintained in the forest garden cycle, where regenerated woodlands continually restore minerals and organic matter. High biodiversity assures that pesticides are unnecessary and all wastes are recycled in the field. Water is managed by the conservation of vegetation and by the infiltration of rainwater stored in the soil. A healthy and natural relationship is fostered for animals that are attracted to the secondary vegetation of the milpa forest garden, resulting in a kind of semi-domestication based on the landscape. Dependence on fossil-fuels is nonexistent, and far from contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the Maya milpa creates a long-term store of carbon in the soil.

Significantly, the milpa and its diversity provide a livelihood for farm families and a food surplus for local markets.







Yet milpa agroforestry seems to violate the master narrative of our times: the incessant march of progress from hunter-gatherer to complex sedentary agriculture. The Eurocentric vision assumes that Western civilization is the pinnacle of human progress and that disappearing cultures can only aspire to emulate it. Not only in the popular mind but also in the view of scientists, politicians, and technicians, it is capitalist industrial agriculture that is the unquestioned standard of production; all previously existing forms are, in this view, ready to be replaced.

We must vindicate the milpa forest garden and similarly sophisticated systems of human ecology that are native to their place. Their intricacy, subtlety, and contribution to our environmental balances are critical to our future.

The gift of the Maya, at least some of them, is to never have forgotten. The gift of Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh, and James Hansen, after rigorous lifetimes in this arcane scientific pursuit, is the retelling of that story to a world audience

Teaching Ourselves Out of the Industrial Economy

Off the keyboard of Allan Stromfeldt Christensen

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Published on From Fimers to Farmers on June 30, 2015
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Last week I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a fruit tree pruning workshop held at a nearby community garden. I say "fortunate" since I've only had one day of pruning experience, and because growing fruit trees is something I'd like to take on in the future for preservation purposes and, amongst other things, for fermentation purposes.

That one day of pruning experience I've had came about 10 years ago, which also occurred here in New Zealand while on my one-year WWOOFing venture. To say it was horrid would be a severe understatement, partly due to it being during one of my short (non-WWOOFing) work stints that inevitably occurred on one of those wretched monoculture farms.

To start off the day I vaguely remember being dropped off at a peach monoculture, given a pair of pruning loppers, and a quick ten-minute lesson on how we were to prune those trees. It was pathetic to say the least, and not only were we not taught any fundamentals behind the cuts one makes when pruning, but I hardly even grasped exactly how it was that we were to be pruning. No matter, as off we were sent to go up and down the rows chopping away, the strong impression that I was trashing those trees contributing to me hating every second of it all.

This all ended up ringing true for me just a few days ago during the pruning lesson. Our instructor, giving a short bio on his pruning experience, mentioned that after several years of working on a team that travelled from orchard to orchard pruning fruit trees (as well as kiwi and grape vines), he was eventually pushed out of the market by orchardists who wanted to reduce their costs, replacing the hard-won knowledge of pruners like himself with the cheap labour of ignoramus' like myself and backpackers.

Although our instructor had lost his job to people like me, he wasn't completely out of a job. Because occasionally – and I don't know if this was all pre-factored into the plans of the bean counters – our instructor was hired to go back through the orchards that were recently pruned to fix the mess that people like I had inflicted on the trees. Stupidity squared, but no surprise when it comes to the mentality of the industrial system which chooses to ignore long-term consequences for short-term gain.

But doing the workshop at a community garden at an elementary school, our instructor pointed out to us that although he could charge all the schools to go from community garden to community garden pruning their trees, he preferred giving workshops. Or as he told us all that day, he was more interested in spreading the knowledge around, and so effectively, as he put it, "I'm teaching myself out of a job." More than a noble gesture I'd say, and as far as I can tell, a wise approach as we go over the far side of Hubbert's curve.

If we're going to have much of a chance of softening our landing on the come-down from peak oil and upon the collapse of industrial civilization, then it's going to be necessary to spread around the required knowledge so that when things such as food production are inevitably forced to become more localized, a significant percentage of us (once again) have the needed skills to make it happen. Since industrialism has largely cordoned us off into increasingly secluded specialities where the norm is to know about one thing and one thing only (leaving us ignorant of pretty much everything else), perhaps a more generalist approach to the gathering of knowledge and skills would prove more useful in a time when knowledge is being thrown away and lost for the saving of a few bucks.

This approach of "teaching one's self out of a job" and spreading the knowledge around reminds me of small seed-saving companies who state that they'd be pefectly happy if they were put out of business by the (re)emergence of a seed-saving populace. For if we and our communities started saving our own seeds to the point that we no longer needed to buy them from seed suppliers (even from the nice heirloom seed suppliers), then all the better – we'd be that much closer to adapting our cultures (and our seeds!) to our places and securing ourselves a more resilient way of living.

Seeing how the collapse of economies is turning into a bit more than just a fad, where viable and applicable, teaching ourselves out of our jobs and professions before they're pulled out from under us might come in rather handy.

American Anti-culture: A lament

Off the keyboard of Lucid Dreams

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Published on Epiphany Now on June 22, 2015

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ninja fox

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Every Friday I drive up the mountain to intern with Keiji Oshima. He's teaching me about bamboo. Some days the lesson is to sit in a Sasa Veitchi patch and pull weeds, and on others it's learning the art of splitting bamboo for the purposes of weaving it into baskets. I'm learning how to farm bamboo for the health of the grove. The goal is to produce quality bamboo canes for craft and the table. Bamboo is a way of life that creates a culture. In the United States we don't have a culture, and I'm pretty sure we don't want one. There are houses that are lived in on this Earth that are made up entirely of bamboo. That means you can literally live in bamboo, and you can eat it with utensils made of it while you sit in a bamboo chair at a bamboo table in a bamboo house…bamboo! You can do all of that with wood as well, but wood can't grow 47 inches in 24 hours like Phyllostachy Edulis (moso) can, and good luck trying to eat wood. Bamboo has the highest protein count of any vegetable, but this is not an essay about bamboo, it's more a lament about the sucking void of an anti-culture that I live in. Quite simply this is therapy for me. Read on at your own emotional risk because I've got no warm fuzzies for you about the future.


In my yard I have a diverse array of food growing: apple, peach, cherry, black locust, hazelnut, pomegranate, bamboo, grapevine, black berry, raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, corn, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, gourds, all manner of cucurbit, peas, beans, herbs, chickens, and others. Diversity is my main tactic. There's also swales, hugelkulture, key hole gardens, cob, and vernal pools. I've done the best job I can designing and installing permaculture into this yard. I don't even like calling it a yard any longer because that word doesn't honor the sweat, blood, thought, emotion, and intentionality I've put into the food forest that is my "yard." A yard is something that is terrorized by mechanical tyranny and synthetic chemicals every other week. The goal of this anti-culture way of thinking is to somehow control nature, to keep it in straight lines and caged in a delusion of the collective human mind. We have dominion over a collapsing way of life contained in a biosphere that is becoming hostile to life. I'm not going to now launch into a list of all the problems our world is facing right now. This would be a good point in the essay to do so, but there are plenty of blogs in the doomosphere that can supply that list for you. The list of food growing in my "yard" is the only list you'll find in this particular rant.
The great irony of my life is that when I'm not permaculturing in my yard I'm riding a lawn mower and operating a weed eather, and yes I even spray round up from time to time. Nobody wants to pay me for my permaculture knowledge in this anti-culture, but they will gladly pay me to keep nature in line in their yards. All of that food growing in my yard and I still shop at costco. Regardless of my hyperactive distaste of hypocrisy it seems I'm unable to help myself from participating in it. Why do I buy and spray Monsanto round up and shop at Costco? Because I live in an anti-culture. I get paid to spray round up, not plant fruit trees (or god forbid, bamboo), and I shop at Costco because it's the cheapest way to feed two young boys. I'm not operating under the fantasy that paying 30% more for "organic" food is going to make my boys much healthier or save anything from my species. The air we breath is toxic and there are over 200 synthetic chemicals in the human body, and I'm supposed to believe that shopping at the local organic box store is going to keep me and my family more healthy!
I go to work and sweat…a lot. It's very hot and humid in the American South. After each job I'll take my T-shirt off and wring out a couple hundred cc's of sweat. I'll drink over a gallon of water in a day and I might pee once. I work very hard for the money I make, and so decisions like shop at costco and save a lot of money, or shop at Organic Box Store and piss my money away like I do all that water I drink, aren't really decisions at all…just common sense. I've got more food growing in my yard than probably 99% of the average home owner and yet I'm still dependent on Costco to supply the bulk of my families calories. Permaculture doesn't work without real community, and it damn sure doesn't work in an American anti-culture. It requires whole communities of people to all be concerned with food, medicine, and material cultivation. My neighbor tills his "garden spot" and then applies petrochemicals to it, and down the road there are 1000's of peach trees all in a line that get sprayed copiously all of the time. Without those petrochemicals my neighbor, and that atrocity of a "peach orchard" down the road, would all learn the hard way what petroleum dependency has done to our anti-culture.
I'm being forced to make up a culture. I've had no initiation into adulthood, unless you count bombing Afghanistan from the bowels of an aircraft carrier for control of the worlds heroine and petroleum as an initiation. I have no elders to look up to. My father has forsaken me and my family on account of arrogant pride. My mother does the best that she can, but she's got no idea either really…well she's got Jesus at least. I have no grandparents left. My wife is even worse off. Her daddy put a 30 aught 6 in his mouth a year before I met her, and her mother is an out of control narcissists that does more harm than good wherever she goes. She has no surviving grandparents either, and what did the whole lot teach us about our world and how we should make our way in it? Our way of life is to consume for profit sake while terrorizing resource rich countries with weapons of mass destruction, and that pretty much sums up America and it's grand ordeals about inalienable rights and freedom. I suppose we have a culture of "lawn care." If you're reading this during the daytime and you listen hard enough I'm sure you can hear a small engine attempting to control nature somewhere (and this privilage American's kill brown people of culture with drones for). Could there be a better way to vent our collective frustration then to grow just grass that has got to be mowed every other week…and fueled by petroleum I might add. Henry Ford and his ilk knew what they were doing with the invention of carcentric suburbia. They were being industrious, which is the highest good as long as it supports profit.
What am I to tell my two young boys about the world and their place in it? The future has no place for them. If they're lucky there will at least be some good human supporting biospheres left when it's their turn to start making babies, that is if the nuclear industry hasn't finished the job of making us all sterile. That industry is definitely doing their level best to destroy all ocean life. For a long time I used permaculture as a blank screen on which to project my hopium. I resigned from a low paying career as a medic after a short stent on fukitol didn't resolve my cognizant dissonance. Dissonance which was resonating from existence in an anti-culture. I went on a permaculture crusade of hope. Three years later my permaculture business partner realizes that hugelkulture isn't going to save the world and threw in the towel. Not that I blame him. Our anti-culture requires us to make money, not to dream up ways to fix this mess.
I'm supposed to remain optimistic in the face of all of this bad news. I'm supposed to somehow realize that our anti-culture is collapsing around us in all the ways that count, but yet there's reason to rejoice! There is a large for profit prison industry in this country for cryin' out loud. What the fuck! People are literally making millions of dollars on non-violent drug addicts turned industrial prison complex for profit slaves. They were only drug addicts in the first place because there was no place for them in our anti-culture. Who can blame them? Yet now they make our military uniforms. I suppose at least we're using our own domestic slaves now rather than the rest of the worlds. There is even a very entertaining show about it on Netflix called "Orange is the New Black." My wife and I have watched all three seasons. In the last season the women of the prison make panties for a lingerie company. Most Americans watching probably have no idea that the show is depicting reality. At any rate we watch it to escape from reality. One of the most important prescriptions for life in an American anti-culture is the remedy of sitting on our fattening asses while eating food chemicals anesthetized on a television screen, beer, and fukitol. I'm supposed to be optimistic. I have a tendency to forget that.
There is one small silver lining in the fight for optimism and hopium. The SUN foundation, a 501c3 non-profit of which I'm the CFO (chief financial officer), has a chance at receiving one million dollars to design a "Sunstead." You can read all about what that is by going to and reading our prospectus. If anything can give me hope it's SUN. As you have no doubt deduced at this point I need some hopium. We all do, at least those of us with our eyes wide open. I hope that SUN can shine and help to create at least one answer to this mess we are in. Now I'm off with my truck and trailer full of nature tyranny dispensation so that I can make some money to buy some Costco food to feed my family. At least I did provide them some home grown Irish cobler taters and zucinni for dinner last night. I'll take the small victories. I suppose I'm more prepared for the future than 99% of the rest of the non-1% Americans. On another optimistic note…my state finally took the confederate flag off of the state capitol building today. I guess my state's no longer stuck in the mid 1800's intellectually any longer?

The Mr. Pooper Papers

Off the keyboard of Allan Stromfeldt Christensen

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on May 26. 2015

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Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

"Let's be friends!"

The Dr. Pooper Papers, Issue #1:

We all poop. Peter Piper pooped, the popes all pooped, heck, even Penelope pooped. But even though poop is an undeniable fact of life – Benjamin Franklin might well have said "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and poop" – does poop occupy its rightful place in the grand pantheon? Not even close.

That this is the case should come as no surprise to those aware of the short shrift that agriculture currently gets in our lives and societies. Although the passage "from the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat until thou return unto the ground" has not been the central tenet of any civilization that I know of, it would nonetheless be tough to describe any peoples so disassociated from the land as ours is. (The modern transformation of that ancient saying? "From the tapping of thy thumb shalt thou photograph thine meal and upload it unto Instagram.")

Similarly, although I'm not aware of any shrine that has ever been erected to the god of feces, never has human waste been so "out of sight, out of mind" that its existence could be conjured away with the flick of a lever.

Why am I putting such emphasis on that putrid stuff, and why am I even writing about this in the first place?

For starters, I've recently gotten the ridiculous idea that I should start putting up posts to my blog once a week rather than twice a month. Not only does this have me concerned with whether I'll be able to pull it off or not, but even if I am able to, it's also got me concerned about how watered down these posts are going to get. As a result, I've figured that if I'm going to end up writing like shit, then I might as well go ahead and write about shit. (Expect to see an on-again, off-again series of posts about compost toilets and such.)

But more seriously, and to quote the great agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard, nature consists of a cyclical pattern of "birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay." Central to this process is the existence of waste. As it is sometimes pointed out that "what is one organism's waste is another organism's feast," it's fair to say then that the very continuance of the biological process of agriculture is dependent on the organisms in the soil getting their fair share of our waste as their feast.

But except in rare locales, it's not very common that that ever happens. For what does happen is that nutrients are removed from the soil via the food that is grown from it, we (and other organisms) eat that food, then produce waste. In modern society this waste is then whisked away with drinking water, which is sometimes fed through long pipes and dumped into the oceans "far enough away" from the shore, or it is "treated," the solids thus removed and often either landfilled or incinerated, while the leftover nutrients are disposed of into nearby bodies of water and which cause havoc with the those ecosystems.

As a result, the land, the soil, and the organisms within are starved of the sustenance needed to sustain them and thus sustain us.

"Sustain us?," one might rebut. "We've got that licked! The stores are overflowing with food!"

Well, back in 1898 the chemist William Crookes addressed the British Association regarding – as is the title of his book in which his remarks are recorded – The Wheat Problem. Crookes was a knowledgeable man who was familiar with traditional farming practices already in place and who was well aware of the possibility of recycling organic materials back into the soil.

There is still another and invaluable source of fixed nitrogen. I mean the treasure locked up in the sewage and drainage of our towns. Individually the amount lost is so trifling, but multiply the loss by the number of inhabitants, and we have the startling fact that, in the United Kingdom, we are content to hurry down our drains and water-courses, into the sea… [an] unspeakable waste… and no effective and universal method of converting sewage into corn.

Taking that and more into account, it was his Malthusian belief that

England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat. As mouths multiply, food resources dwindle. Land is a limited quantity, and the land that will grow wheat is absolutely dependent on difficult and capricious natural phenomena. I am constrained to show that our wheat-producing soil is totally unequal to the strain put upon it.

At first appearance a pessimist, Crookes was actually little more than its similarly all-too-simplistic mirror image – an optimist. For rather than call for the establishment of methods to salvage and utilize the fertilizing potential of human effluents and/or for a discussion on the obvious problems of unbridled population growth, Crookes had a wholly other idea.

It is the chemist who must come to the rescue of the threatened communities. It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty.

Not the first to assert these sentiments, Crookes was actually echoing the chemical-industrial approach to agriculture propagandized earlier in the century by the German chemist Justus von Liebig, the founder of modern agro-chemistry.

To Liebig, factors such as microbes, organic matter, soil texture, tilth, crop rotations, or even one's locale were but a quaint throwback, for it was his belief that the rich humus (the living soil) would not be as effective at growing plants as soluble forms of mineral additives and synthetic chemicals which plant roots could directly feed upon – specifically, that plants predominantly, if not only, required nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to stimulate growth.

As it was, via Liebig's teachings and the two succinct sentences in the latter quote by Crookes, the stage was set for the methods of farming that have dominated ever since, and particularly after World War II.

Having begun in the early twentieth century, and as strange as it may seem to believe, the vast majority of fertilizers applied today to our fields today are not derived from human waste and animal manures, but from methods and sources that are fossil fuel-based.

Sometimes referred to as the "NPK mentality," the first two portions of these petrochemical fertilizers – phosphorous (P) and potassium (K, also known as "potash") – are derived from geological deposits and require fossil fuels to physically mine them from the earth and then process them. The third main portion – nitrogen (N) – not only involves an energy intensive process for its production, but also directly requires fossil fuels as a feedstock.

Together, the energy required to create petrochemical fertilizers in the year 2000 was the equivalent of 191 billion litres of diesel. That's a lot of energy.

As well, the dependence on mineral-mining and energy-usage should be of particular concern when it's realized that there's only so many minerals – cue peak phosphorous – that can be mined from the ground, and there's only so much energy to go around to make it all possible.

In other words, since feces are going to be with us whether we like it or not, and since the petrochemical fetilizer bonanza is coming to a close, there's no time like the present to acknowledge and give the due respect to the "wastes" that make it all possible.

I'll be talking more shit next week.

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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You Only Have One Inalienable Right A Rant By Cognitive Dissonance   I don't normally publish m [...]

  Tyranny, Inc.   By Alexander Macris Contemplations on the Tree of Woe   What government wants to d [...]

Getting Out of Dodge By Cognitive Dissonance     Recently I received an email from a reader who aske [...]

Penalizing Prudence By Cognitive Dissonance     “Economy, prudence, and a simple life are the sure m [...]

Event Update For 2021-06-20 [...]

Event Update For 2021-06-19 [...]

Event Update For 2021-06-18 [...]

Event Update For 2021-06-17 [...]

Event Update For 2021-06-16 [...]

Both the NSW courts and NSW police are caught red-handed discriminating against Indigenous Australia [...]

In the meantime, industrialised chickens – and their viruses – have come home to roost in Victoria, [...]

Based on extensive scientific research, a fictional reminder that COVID-19 is but a mild pandemic – [...]

In other words, treat COVID-19 like a dry-run for the upcoming “big one” [...]

However don't expect strikes and yellow vests to fix underlying problems [...]

Daily Doom Photo



  • Peak Surfer
  • SUN
  • Transition Voice

The Great Change Week 66: Sandy deserts mottled with mosses"The trees have beards hanging from their limbs and fur on their bark. Even the rocks are cover [...]

"If a fox spends more energy to catch rabbits than those rabbits return in calories, it will no [...]

"Renewable energy is unlikely to support civilization at its present scale. We know this by loo [...]

"Our recipes for a prosperous future are a prediction of what society will be forced to conside [...]

"Pulsing on each scale is an accumulating build up of products converged to centers, followed b [...]

The folks at Windward have been doing great work at living sustainably for many years now.  Part of [...]

 The Daily SUN☼ Building a Better Tomorrow by Sustaining Universal Needs April 3, 2017 Powering Down [...]

Off the keyboard of Bob Montgomery Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666 Friend us on Facebook Publishe [...]

Visit SUN on Facebook Here [...]

Climate pollution is worse than ever. So is toxic pollution in places like Cancer Alley in Louisiana [...]

Camus didn't predict Covid, but he studied enough about pandemics throughout history to depict [...]

Sarah Chayes spent decades studying networks of corruption in the Third World. Now she's findin [...]

What extinction crisis? Believe it or not, there are still climate science deniers out there. And th [...]

My new book, Abolish Oil Now, will talk about why the climate movement has failed and what we can do [...]

Top Commentariats

  • Our Finite World
  • Economic Undertow

In reply to Fast Eddy. If I touch Kim will I be healed? This is the truth the MSM do not want you to [...]

In reply to Bruce Steele. The rich Moghuls in India built large cellars under their townhouses - alt [...]

In reply to Gail Tverberg. This explodes the 'renewable' ener [...]

In reply to Fast Eddy. No need to decide ! That's the beauty of Newspapers and TV's ! They [...]

Steve, what are you going to do about 7,8,9 million Jews and 40,50,60 million blacks? Remember, Stev [...]

We can use imperialism’s wars itself as our depth gauge of their historicdecline. Two generations ag [...]

["Peak Oil, water shortages, topsoil depletion, fishery- and forestry collapse, mass extinction [...]

Thanks for writing, Steve. Taking the word 'political' away from economics was the first i [...]

In reply to Ken Barrows. Inflation right now seems to be centered in used cars and real estate with [...]

RE Economics

Going Cashless

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Simplifying the Final Countdown

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Bond Market Collapse and the Banning of Cash

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Do Central Bankers Recognize there is NO GROWTH?

Discuss this article @ the ECONOMICS TABLE inside the...

Singularity of the Dollar

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Kurrency Kollapse: To Print or Not To Print?

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Of Heat Sinks & Debt Sinks: A Thermodynamic View of Money

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Merry Doomy Christmas

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Peak Customers: The Final Liquidation Sale

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Collapse Fiction

Useful Links

Technical Journals

Planning for climate change adaptation is among the most complex challenges cities are facing today [...]

The Arabian Peninsula is a region characterized by diverse climatic conditions due to its location a [...]

Over the last few decades, Urban Heat Stress (UHS) has become a crucial concern of scientists and po [...]

Cities are increasingly adopting potentially sustainable climate plans. Integrating the Sustainable [...]