Peak Oil, loss of diversity, species extinction, conspiracy, oil spills, food insecurity…. The problems that we face seem to increase both in size and complexity every day. However we can simplify all of these global issues and emphasize three primary concerns. In order of increasing priority, the three biggest issues are:
- Soil destruction and erosion
Old growth forest we visited in Tasmania
Biology is remarkable in its ability to break down and lock up pollutants. Mushrooms have been shown to be effective in breaking down hydrocarbons and even nuclear waste. However, without soil and without forests, we are unable to support the biology required to deal with pollution.
We continue deforestation at record rates, which further emphasizes soil loss. In addition, removal of our forests is removing the planet’s most important energy transducer and climate stabilizer. Without forests we will not have a stable climate.
Last year the world lost 83 billion tons of topsoil. Healthy topsoil is the most biodiverse ecosystem we know of. Without it, life could not be sustained on this planet.
I like this simplification because many of the other issues are second generation issues to these primary factors. What this exposes is that, unfortunately, recycling, biofuels, CO2 sequestration, wind turbines and solar panels aren’t going to cut it unless we deal with soil loss. In the end it really all comes back down to healthy soil.
The good news is that teachers, designers and grass-roots activists around the world are spreading the word that all our problems: pollution, deforestation and soil loss, can be solved in a garden. This is such an empowering message as we can forget about being paralyzed by fear and focusing energy into negative issues we have no control over (i.e. peak oil, climate change, etc) and we realize that each and everyone of us has the opportunity to profoundly shift the course of humanity with the simple act of stewarding soil.
And now that I’ve laid out what the problems are, why do these problems persist? Why do we drive big trucks that only use 1% of the energy consumed to transport passengers? Why do we design our cities to concentrate and dispose of water? Why are we drawing down fresh water aquifers to irrigate crops that won’t grow with the annual rainwater budget? Why are the average North American house size and energy demands continuing to climb? And my personal favorite – why do we defecate into drinking water then wipe with toilet paper made from old growth forests?
The answer is sentiment. I’m making a generalization here, and I’m referring the the sentiment held in common in overdeveloped countries. We believe that “it’s better that way”, “there’s no other way”, or “we like it that way”, but there is no fundamental reason or underlying logical explanation. In fact, many of the design decisions make no sense whatsoever. Sentiment leads to poor design and we pay the price in extra energy usage and pollution.
Here’s the interesting thing. Sentiment is dissolved with a common ethic. In permaculture, our common ethic is: Care of Earth, Care of People and Return of Surplus. Our decisions are not based on frivolous beliefs, but based on practical and natural constraints, ultimately allowing us to live in harmony with the ecology. And this is how we create permanent cultures.
And so, tackling cultural sentiment is the most important thing we can do and would have the largest positive impact on the above mentioned problems.
- Currently, approximately 30-40% of the energy consumed by society is invested into the delivery of potable water and the removal of sewage. Pumping fluids is extremely energy intensive. If cities adopted rain water catchment, grey water, composting toilets and landscape water harvesting we could stop this monumental misallocation of finite energy resources.
- If consumers started demanding that architects, engineers and city planners face homes to the sun, rather than to the direction of the best view, we could eliminate 30% of a households heating energy. Add in super insulation and efficient design and we further reduce heating and electrical needs by up to 90%.
- It has been estimated that 10 units of hydrocarbon energy are used to produced 1 unit of food energy (i.e. calorie). This problem could largely be alleviated if we converted the most energy wasteful icon on the planet (the lawn) into food production.
I’m not saying it is going to be easy, but we must dissolve sentiment so that we can install composting toilets, catch rainwater, use smart home design, and start growing food in our yards.
And we must tackle this first, before going out to seek “solutions” to energy supply or pollution, such as biofuels or using CO2 sequestration. The reason; technological solutions driven by sentimentality will never work because they perpetuate a broken system, whereas technological solutions driven by design and ethics yield appropriate technology and leads us in a sustainable direction.
I know that changing the sentiment of a culture seems nearly impossible, insurmountable, unbelievable. However, as a permaculture educator, I have found that this is not the case. When students are exposed to the facts, and empowered through simple design concepts and strategies, the move past sentiment is almost instantaneous. This is the power of the Permaculture Design Course. We know that it is so effective that we have made teaching permaculture our life mission! Get the word out, educate, inform, teach more teachers and as my good friend and mentor Jesse Lemieux says, “we need practicality not sentimentality.”
On that note, my wife & I are hosting and teaching a 72 hour permaculture design certificate in Central Alberta, Canada from August 8th to August 21st, 2010. We offer a truly outstanding experience to students wishing to immerse themselves in permaculture in Canada. As educators, we bring together engineering, renewable energy and low energy buildings but emphasize the importance of biological systems, soil health, nutrient cycling, food production, urban and rural land regeneration and ecological design strategies. Students will leave this course empowered, active and be positive agents of change. There are are still spots left in the course – for more info, please visit the courses page on our website.
Gull Lake Permaculture Design Course Graduates, August 2009