Recorded down by the river, this is me trying to pull some thoughts together on the theme of what permaculture has to offer in helping us understand the situation we find ourselves in. As we face economic contraction and turnmoil how can we can better support our selves and our communities, with long term mutual ends in mind?
I am really keen to find ways to have this can we have wider conversation about the times we are in and how we best respond with problem solvers, creative minds, especially of those with values rooted in rooted in ecology and co-operation. #permaculture
The focus for S39 work in the last 12 months has been East Africa we are however running weekly sessions at treflach farm in Shrophire. This is an ideal opportunity to find out about permaculture, food growing, animal rearing and som much more. We have some low impact building projects in the pipeline potentially as well as some formal training according to demand.
The Treflach Thursday sessions run every week, and start from 10.00 am, there is a brig and share farm lunch most weeks and increasingly we will be enjoying the produce from the garden. it is informal so just come along, contact me @Misterjones2u on Twitter or find Sector39 on Facebook. There is acontact form on thei site as well.
What might a permaculture economic model look like?
In resonse to a request about ethical invesntment I have dusted down my economics lecture from the PDC, something I have been thinking about and working on for several years and presented these ideas in a slightly different context. As much as we are all caught up on the chase for money and livelihood we rarely stop and think about this strange thing called economics that seems to shape everything in the world around us.
It can be argued that climate change is the greatest market failure, the tendency to externalise the costs of production by both driving down or eliminating labour costs and dumping waste into the environment is the feature within capitalism which has bought us to the brink of our own destruction. We need an economic rationale which values natural resources above all else, one which build cohesive community, one which binds us together in common cause, not that pits us against each other in a never ending fierce competition for dwindling resources.
The economics of regeneration should be a central idea of our 21st century journey, leaving the neo-liberal nighmare of the late 20th century far behind us.
How do we get out of this mess? Well first we have to recognize the emergency for what it is and make responding to that our priority, We will be required to let go of much of what we previously took for granted. These are different times, and we need very different ideas. #ClimateEmergency #Permaculture
Here is a set of short videos which bring soil biology to life beautifully. Getting down with soil is one of the first objectives on a permaculture design course, until we have an empathy with this extraordinary matrix beneath our feet we are yet to understand our place on this living earth. Here is how I like explain it; the only new energy coming into our planet is from the sun. You and I could sunbath all day and maybe get beautifully warm but we cannot feed ourselves from this energy, it is not available to us. Plants on the other hand can convert the sun’s energy into sugars and carbohydrates, and this is the available energy just about all other living life forms have to take advantage of. Plants also cannot live on energy alone, so they emit exudates from their roots, essentially plant sugars which soil microbes and fungi trade mineral nutrients for.
The basis of all life on earth is this essential exchange between the plants and soil biota, and much of these translations take place in soil. Soil is the matrix for exchange, it is where dead, digested old organic matter is converted and reassembled into new living matter. It also turns out that soil is the repository of a huge amount of carbon, also trapped by plants and fungi, and understanding and working with this soil carbon seems to be the likeliest route we can take to combat climate change.
The second short video is from Hawai’i, illustrating the essential nature of soil. A foundation point for our latest project idea: “CSU: Carbon Sequestration Uganda”.
The start of a piece evidencing a project idea currently under development.
WHY CSU: Carbon Sequestration Uganda?
All 5 billion hectares of cultivated and grazed lands around the world can become a carbon sink. I am focusing my attention on Uganda as Sector39 has built a network of trainers and projects there. It is a land of farmers and ones which are largely following low tillage and non capital intensive farming methods. The potential for a significant uptake of these ideas and strategies is immense, as methods quickly return benefits and that is re-reinforcing of the correct behaviours. I am working presently on a team to assemble a bid to do more field trials of permaculture techniques and to link this to educational outreach and support into the surrounding communities.
Chronicle – short piece for Tanat Valley Chronicle
It is all about soil.
Is climate optimism still real? Is it not already too late for effective action as the climate is already clearly changing? Add to that the pandemic, the firestorms, the floods, and droughts; our planet seems to be rejecting us. Seriously, just how badly should we be panicking?
Clearly emissions reduction is key, we have the Paris Climate Accord targets as guidelines, and we will have to beat them. This is something that will not go away, and the curve gets steeper with every day of inaction. Fossil fuels must stay in the ground and we must accelerate the move away from their widespread use.
However there is an even bigger problem to be tackled here, the IPCC, NASA and other climate leaders tell us that this situation will keep getting worse so long as atmospheric Co2 levels remain above 350 ppm, and we are currently at 410 ppm, therefore eliminating emissions isn’t enough, we have to go negative.
The calculation looks something like this: To get from 410 ppm – 350 ppm a carbon drawdown of 450 billion tons is required, is this even possible? Current research says yes and that our poor depleted soils can absorb somewhere between 10 t– 20 t per hectare per year, if managed correctly.
I am told there are approx. 5 billion hectares of managed lands, that is all farmland both arable and grazing, so therefore 100 Bn t per year is theoretically possible. Current emissions are at the 40 Bn t mark, so it would take some years to stack away those 450 Bn t but in theory the world could be in a quite different place in say 20 years. To answer my own questions then, yes a return of optimism is possible but not without significant investment in the right areas.
How would we do that? How can we return such massive amounts of carbon to the soils and what kind of effect might that have or the soils themselves? A wholesale move to organic methods is the start, a shift to minimum and even zero tillage and a partnering with the life in the soil is nothing but essential. Mycorrhizae fungi, the fungi that live in the soil and permeate not just the soil but the plants themselves is made from carbon. The mycelium itself is made from a hard form of carbon that stays around in the soil for a long time. Carbon rich soils are open and aerobic, allowing water to enter and oxygen to flow, benefiting the beneficial bacteria over the pathogens and supporting crops over weeds. Re-partnering with the life in the soil is the secret to both the climate and food security
Sector39, the Wales based academy of permaculture is currently proposing agro-forestry research projects in Uganda with partners from Aberdeen and Newcastle university, we are yet to find out if our bid for work will be successful, but researching for the work is filling my mind with the possibilities and potentials of just how we might turn this around. Whether we have left it too late or not is actually a moot point, we have no other recourse than to prioritise climate action, we will find out exactly how late we left it along the way I am sure.
We are at a moment of paradigm shift, when the old and established is falling away so fast it is truly dizzying. I move between exhilaration and terror, to a sort of dull blank feeling of inevitability.
We know we cant keep burning oil but our whole global economy is built on it. We know we could have had a phased transition over the last 30 years, but we have put it off for so long. Nothing short of what will look and feel like collapse to many, will get us out of the climate nightmare headed our way.
It is 25 years since I studied my permaculture design course and 28 years since I last sat down and read the permaculture designers manual from cover to cover. Maybe it is time to go back to the start and revisit the book that started it all off. Bill Mollison’s epic tome might turn out to be the most important book ever penned. OK, a humongous and not-provable claim but let us look at it like this, through the words of Buckminster Fuller.
“The world teeters on the threshold of revolution. If it is a bloody revolution then it is all over. The alternative is a design science revolution.. a design science that produces so much performance per unit of resource invested as to take care of all human needs.”
This idea is illustrated beautifully below. Consider the degree of improvement in the performance of water in this model. A few simple design interventions prevents water flow from cascading directly out of this system but instead by making it travel much further it stays in the system significantly longer and has the opportunity to nourish every part of the system. The same amount of water eventually leaves the system and flows to the sea, however by simply slowing it down, the potential yield of the system and its resilience is significantly enhanced. Now imagine this multiplied over huge areas.
A policy of responsibility – to relinquish power
Living in such tumultuous times leads us to question everything and permaculture is a discipline that takes one right back to the very start, what is it that we are even trying to achieve? In this world of abstracts and disconnection our goals seem to be more along the line of how many Twitter followers we can achieve or how many 0’s and 1’s can be generated on a computer screen to represent wealth creation in some way, intangibles that in themselves are affected by so many variables that they actually have no real meaning. Going back to source, to Bill’s original worlds in Chapter 2 of the Designers Manual, we get a clear answer:
“The role of beneficial authority is to return function and responsibility to life and to people; if successful design is to create a self-managed system.
In life and in design we must accept that immutable rules will not apply, and instead be prepared to be guided on our continuing exploration by flexible principles and directives. While the sun (still) burns we are in an open system, if we don’t destroy the earth , open-system energy saving will see us evolve as conscious beings in a conscious universe.
Hard science such as we apply to material systems (physics, mathematics, inorganic chemistry) studiously avoids life systems, regarding as not quite respectable those sciences (botany, zoology, psychology) that try to deal with life. Rigorous scientific method deals with the necessity of rigorous control of variables, and in life systems, indeed in any systems, this assumes two things which are impossible.
1: that you know all the variables possible before you start
2: that you can control any of the variables without causing disorder in the life system.”
It seems apparent from the opening paragraphs of this remarkable book that we have to let go somewhat. A key lesson in our relationship with nature is that we are not in control, we cannot eliminate all background variables, especially not in understanding the dynamic complexity of living systems. We can at best be steered by nature, we must learn its lessons and decode its pattern language through a constant process of interaction.
We need to understand living systems much better because quite clearly we are destroying the one we are part of.
Permaculture’s core lesson is to study and learn the patterns of nature. That no two situations are exactly the same, that we have to plan for diversity, to allow for designs to evolve, and in that process inform the designer.
Embraced within these observations is a set of tools, techniques and strategies which enable the achievement of these goals. Permaculture design is not to be confused with the tool kit. Permaculture is not forest gardens, raised beds and compost heaps, however if properly thought through and well deployed they certainly can all be components or manifestations of a permaculture design process.
“Capitalism is a system that creates its own crises” says Yanis Veroufakis
In the short video above you can hear a summary of the ideas underpinning that statement. He gets much deeper into his analysis of the failure of capitalism below. One thing I think we must all realise is that at this point it is no longer about right or wrong, it is about recognising that the train which bought us all to this point, is no longer fit for purpose. Capitalism gave us the iPhone but it also gave us refugees, it created wealth like never seen before but it also created inequalities so extreme the whole system is set to topple. It has clearly failed to innovate on the ecological concerns despite having decades in which to bring about the necessary transformation.
Marx, in the labour theory of value explored what might happen when productive systems become fully automated, what is the value of a good if it is 100% intellectual property but created no meaningful work? Innovation in many ways is creating poverty. Rather than freeing workers from meaningless toil it has destroyed once productive and meaningful ways of living, replacing it with nothing.
Einstein feared that wealth disparity would lead to the ownership of media and communications by tiny elites who then would present only a distorted half truth, one convenient to those in power. This is clearly playing out today where dissenting voices are excluded from the conversation and the window of acceptable debate constantly narrows.
The greatest failing of capitalism is climate change, the notion of market externalities, competitive, unrestrained capitalism leads to the externalization of the costs of production onto environment and society – instead of reflecting the true cost of production unintended outcomes such as pollution and social damage is hidden, masked or simply ignored. The market rewards the lowest cost producer and this is the mechanism which has bought to this place of unfolding catastrophe.
Those days are upon us already, so what must we do? Firstly I would argue it is time to recognise that this is where we are, say thank you for whatever trinkets and ball-balls the system allowed us and be ready to move on to what must come next, the transformation to a regenerative economy.
As the world stares the climate emergency in the face, ecological destruction on a scale hitherto un-imagined we must move into overdrive to head off the worst of the damage or the likeliest or soonest of the irreversible tipping points. Varoufakis touches on the need to address the crushing poverty affecting so many of us by socialising the benefits of quantitative easing and banking trickery and by diverting 25% of GDP into a widespread and effective green new deal and finally by reversing the limits on freedom of movement for people while putting much stricter limits on the movement of capital.
Permaculture is regenerative development. By that I mean it includes a specific objective of re-building soils, of harmonising with ecology and society, investing in social capital and targeting social outcomes above cold hard numbers. Those numbers forgot to include the fragile interconnected nature of the environment, the source of clean air water and the resources which sustain us. We each must tackle this multi-headed crisis from where we are, but it will require co-ordinated actions and consistency over time.
I started out as an economics teacher. A rather turgid, dry and uninspiring subject at school, I switched to ecology and then did a degree in sustainable development. It was only years later that I realised permaculture sits at the intersection of those two fields of study. Our ecological salvation lies in the re-understanding of the economic rationale that underpins all of our decision making.
A breaking away from the study of wealth and money might allow us to study instead more human forms of wealth and capital. The economic question has to be along the lines of how do we combine different forms of capital in a way that meets both human and ecological needs as a specific objective. The idea that one may come at the price of the other should always have been an anathema for us.
Sector39 – as a training organisation is ready to lead. Rebuilding community, food security and habitat is central to our experience and skill base. We offer a deep understanding of both economic and ecological theory and can bring a great many years’ of experience to bare in these area. We are keen to hear from anyone ready to work with us.
Over the course of 2019 Llanfyllin BRACE initiative held a series of regular bi-weekly meetings along the theme of community responses to climate change and ecological emergency. These meetings brought together a range of interested people and an overlapping of us ordinary folk trying to figure out what to do with the Llanfyllin town council, with special interest groups like Severn Rivers Trust, Powys CC roads and verges, with school governors, the church, and farmers.
One of the outputs of this was a connection between the Llanfyllin town council, the public hall committee, where the town council meet, and this eclectic group of citizens wanting to channel their frustration and energy into something positive and tangible. An important note in the Transition Handbook is don’t just have meetings but make sure to prioritise creating observable, visible outcomes and changes. Having such a coalition was the genesis of this community garden project.
Previously as a community we have been able to establish Cae Bodfach Heritage Orchard in the field behind our local supermarket, so with this as a track record and new friends and connections this new space became available, an odd, steeply sloping truncated piece of land behind the public institute. It had become to be seen as a bit of a liability, not really used or productive and costing limit budget for strimming and hedge trimming. All it really takes is a bit of vision and there is always a potential for a community group to develop in a way that meets community needs.
We were exactly at that point of project genesis when the opportunity to apply to the NGS scheme came along, and we hurriedly fired off an application. Things were delayed as the national quarantine happened, so we took the plunge and ordered a few items in advance so we could be ready to hit the ground running as the new season unfolded. We were all ready with a worked out plan to get the key elements such as the raised beds in place, and make rapid progress as the season unfolded and we finally heard the grant application had been successful.
Since those early days when a small group of people was driving this project forward it has quickly grown to achieve a momentum and shape of its own. In a few short months this has come together with what is really a small injection of capital investment, but precisely enough to set something in motion that can create its own energy to become self sustaining.
We are enormously grateful to the Llanfyllin Institute and Town Council and of course the National Garden Schemes for supporting this venture and helping us get started. Next to arrive is our tool shed and that will allow us to purchase tools and other things like propagators with the remaining funds from NGS.
The biggest thanks of course to every single person who has volunteered at the garden over previous months. Tuesday mornings are the key volunteer slot and anyone is welcome.