Sunday, December 16, 2007

Permaculture & Peak Oil Part II

Permaculture – a stroll through Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability

David Holmgren’s text really interests me and it’s been a major catalyst in my life.

An innocent email to my permaculture teacher a year or so ago about my desire to do a course based on his text that looked at its application to peak oil catapulted me on a journey I certainly didn’t see coming.

I’m now immersed in teaching others about it, running free community information centres, meeting with politicians, as well as many totally new things like – how do you write an energy descent action plan? how do you engage the community? how do you get the peak oil message onto the agendas of regional decision makers…

But what a wonderful and fantastic journey it’s been.

I set up this blog to allow more, shall I say, ‘ramblings’ on my behalf – but isn’t that what blogs are for?

This allows me to expand and discuss ideas – perhaps just with myself, but that’s okay. But I really feel the need to get this out and as a writer by trade, this seems the ideal way to go.

So, now we’ll begin a stroll through Holmgren’s seminal work; Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Could be the start of an online reading group and that course I always dreamed of (but never got to be a student in because I was teaching it and knew what was coming up next)…

We’ll start at the very beginning… a very good place to start.

Permaculture – perhaps Australia’s greatest invention– is as much an academic theory as it is a garden design system.

A ‘philosophy’ some may go so far as to say. A way of life – I know some people are frightened because it has the word ‘cult’ in it – woooo!

Get over it, it’s just a bloody good idea, but one you can ponder, think about and discuss in depth to your heart’s content.

You have a choice, you learn the practical side and apply it to your advantage and ergo enjoy abundant food, fresh water, a comfortable home and you probably don’t have to do too much paid employment to live well.

Or you can theorise, discuss, debate and expand the idea to become a sociological solution in our modern (but rapidly failing) times.

An ideas to think about from the preface of the book…

Third Wave Environmentalism

Here Holmgren identifies three definite stages of global response to environmental crises. Firstly we’re off to the 70’s – ah, what a decade… bad clothes, bad music, bad hair… but the stirrings of ‘the first great wave of modern environmental awareness’ – around the time of the Club of Rome report in 1972 and the oil shocks (there’s that peak oil again) of 1973 and 75. The scene is set for the birth of permaculture in Tasmania.

[It’s interesting to note that Al Gore credits the images of the Earth taken from the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 as the start of the modern environmental movement – but back to Holmgren.]

Public awareness of greenhouse gas emissions in the late 1980’s triggered the second phase of environmentalism. This is a time permaculture started gaining a lot of attention.

Thirdly, Holmgren suggests that by 1999 things were in place for the third wave – a movement that would ‘lead to the mainstreaming of many of the innovations of the second wave.’

Welcome to the Third Wave people!

It’s here and it’s us!

The fundamentals of permaculture

Permaculture comprises a set of ethics and principles. Ethics set the boundaries and foundations, the principles guide us within those structures. It’s quite easy really.

I immediately saw how these ethics and principles could be applied to every aspect of my life – from relationships to employment, the whole package, how I run my house, how I spend my money, how I make my money, how I live my life.

The ethics are; care of earth, care of people, set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus, and we’ll look at each in detail.

Care of earth

This isn’t some hippy notion… not that there’s anything wrong with that. This is practical and basic. Starting with the soil – a fundamental application of care of earth. If we abuse the soil, we are abusing our food and water supply and ultimately ourselves and our children. And haven’t we been doing a great job of just that! Fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides have all taken the place of soil care. By the way, all these chemical additives that end up in our diet (yummy!) are all made from petroleum and gas products – two words – peak oil. The costs of all these ‘farming’ additives will only be going one way – and that’s up and guess who will wear that price increase – the consumer.

I won’t even touch on had extremely bad management of our water supply has compounded a dire situation into a national disaster. Again well done, just as long as we’re right mate, don’t worry about the future.

Living, breathing, water holding soil is a real salvation – if you’ve ever made compost, turned ‘waste’ into hummus – you know it’s something truly magical. You can actually turn prunings, vegetable peelings, egg shells, manure into soil. Instead composting has been almost demonised. People won’t do because it smells (no it doesn’t), it attracts vermin (no it doesn’t), it doesn’t work (yes it does!).

Real people need real food and real food needs real soil. We will only ever be as healthy as the soil our food comes from. You are what you eat and who wants to be greasy, fast and easy?

Don’t choose cheap, chemically filled food over clean locally grown organic food. The stuff in most supermarkets is heavily subsidised by government funding for fuel and farming. You’re not seeing the true cost of what it really takes to grow food. We are now, thanks to climate change, seeing the real cost of farming for the masses in this ‘modern’ way.

It’s your call. Cheap food today, insufferable climate for your grandchildren. Quality food reflecting the true price of what it takes to grow food (or grow your own) and you may just save future generations from a very crappy life.

Obviously care of earth extends beyond the control we have over the way we treat the soil within the boundaries of our land.

Care of earth reflects that we are all part of the same systems. What climate change has done – all our individual actions have accumulated to change the global weather system. We are all responsible.

I think it is also important to remember that all species are part of caring for the earth – people are separated from the earth in permaculture ethics – perhaps it needs to just be ‘care of earth’ to remind us that we are just a species – one that’s overrun the place and done irreversible damage and made a complete mess of the place, but we are still just one species and the planet will survive just fine without us.

Soil, water, air, plants, animals, insects, microbes, birds, oceans, rocks, trees, people - all ‘of earth’ don’t kid yourself that you’re anything more than compost in the end.


Holmgren, D 2002. Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
Gore, A 2006. An Inconvenient Truth

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Permaculture and Peak Oil Part 1

How can permaculture helps us prepare for peak oil?

Permaculture originated in the 1970’s in Tasmania Australia. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren had a brief but intense working relationship, and both were driven by the environmental crises facing society at the time.

David Holmgren quotes the oil shocks of 1973 and 1975 in the US as one of the catalysts for the creation of permaculture, which at its essence is the bringing together of many practical indigenous and ancient ideas.

So permaculture began in part in response to the early stirrings of peak oil, three decades ago.

[If you are interested in finding out more about the history of permaculture I suggest reading David Holmgren’s text Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability which Holmgren describes as his contribution to the third wave of environmentalism.]

In permaculture we have a blue print for what we could and perhaps should be doing to prepare that was very kindly developed 30 years ago.

Over those past three decades permaculture has carved a credible and international name out for itself as a food production system. A side effect of this success is that now some think that’s all it’s about or that it’s for some strange reason that permaculture is companion planting (something I hear often for some strange reason), which is a shame because permaculture is so much more.

Permaculture has proven it can create food production systems in the harshest of climates. Watch Geoff Lawton’s Greening the Desert to see how it’s being done around the world.

We are in crisis here in Australia with farming land increasingly being abandoned due to desertification – why isn’t permaculture being used to regenerate that land and to then be the basis for the establishment of more sustainable farming practices?

I think it’s strange that permaculture is being embraced around the world but not so much here – perhaps it’s because the countries that are using it successfully NEED it to work, whereas here were pretty affluent, things appear to be abundant, so the desperate NEED isn’t there.

Many people (how many I wonder?) have completed the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) – the standard for recognised permaculture education. The course you need to do to use the word 'permaculture'.

Many more have completed informal introductory and one day courses, and many, many more have read the books and are doing their own thing without ever attending a course.

The PDC is based on Bill Mollison’s text Permaculture A Designer’s Manual and it shows us how to harvest from the natural resources of rain, sun and air. How to build production systems around humans that sustain them, and while doing so, how to work toward enhancing the natural systems, rather than depleting from them. It’s about those essentials of water, food, shelter, warmth, and how these can be integrated systems. It’s also about independence – getting away from the mega-systems of supply, taking responsibility for what we use and consume.

As an aside there is a quote I read in Starhawk's The Earth Path about our understanding of where we fit in the whole scheme of things; it goes something like this...

'The first step is when we start working 'with' nature, the next step is to recognise that we are working 'within' nature and the third and final stage is when we understand and accept 'we are nature' at work.'

All in all a PDC is an excellent start to preparing for peak oil. It’s about small simple solutions, using less, and understanding ‘energy’ in a new way – all great lessons for a post carbon future.

But it’s still about the individual taking action (and yes, I know many a successful eco-village is based on permaculture demonstrating it’s ‘community’ approach), but essentially most permaculturists are working primarily on their own lifeboat building (a term used by Richard Heinberg to explain setting yourself up for peak oil) in their own backyards.

In upcoming blogs I’ll explore how we can all take this knowledge, collective experience and lessons learnt in our own backyards plus more on David Holmgren's text and apply it all to big picture social changes necessary to truly prepare for peak oil.


Holmgren, D 2002. Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.