Listen to David reading this piece.
In the early years of promoting permaculture to food gardeners, Bill Mollison used to quip, “you don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency”. Mollison’s penchant for changing the perspective on a known problem, and identifying how it might represent an unacknowledged resource, reflects ecological thinking: identifying empty niches that can be filled to make gardens or any other (eco)system more resilient and productive. Often the perceived problem can be interpreted as a message from nature – nature’s first step in correcting imbalances.1although speaking about nature in this way is still frowned upon by most scientists suspicious of any evidence of top-down self-organisation, let alone intelligence in nature
Mollisonian creativity, turning problems into solutions, can also be interpreted as one expression of the principle “design from patterns to details2See explanation of permaculture principles at permacultureprinciples.com requiring us to step back from any issue, to see the wider context. However this zooming out to gain a broader perspective (over time as well as space) can sometimes show us that the cherished strategies and techniques we have been enthusiastically applying may be counterproductive when the context changes.
Worse, we can find ourselves reinventing old problems in new forms, with the solution turning back into a problem. This more dour awareness of larger energetic, ecological and ethical Limits to Growth has been one of my persistent themes in permaculture teaching, design and practice. It is necessary to balance “can do” creativity, which without reflection and feedback, can run off the rails. Some of the scepticism and criticism of permaculture as unscientific and naïve eco-fashion can be attributed to this lack of (negative) feedback to self-correct. The long overdue debate within permaculture circles over the limits of some widely promoted permaculture strategies and techniques reflects ways in which maturation within the movement is finding that balance.3See for instance Rafter Sass Ferguson’s Permaculture’s Dogma Problem at liberationecology.org
To ground this discussion, let’s take a look at a classic example of where the problem might literally be the solution. Weeds that trouble farmers and gardeners may be exactly what the soil needs to accumulate some scarce mineral, soak up excess fertility before it leaches, or stabilise land degradation from poor management. In the 1980s, CSIRO ecologists were given the job of finding a biological control for Echium plantagineum – ‘Paterson’s curse’ or ‘Salvation Jane’ depending on your perspective. Biological control was not successful in eliminating this common pioneer species from the grazing rangelands of south eastern Australia, which was the hope of the grazing industry. It regards Echium as a serious weed, although it is a very important source of nectar for the beekeeping industry. More importantly, its prolific spread colouring the hills purple was a big warning sign in the landscape of acidification on land dominated by annual grasses and clovers with set stock grazing by sheep. Acidification affects millions of hectares; a more widespread form of land degradation than salinity.
Large flocks of sheep left to range over diverse hill and valley terrain leads to bare ground in autumn, perfect for the spread of Echium. Echium (and similar weeds such as thistles) are Nature’s best shots at soaking up the soluble nitrogen (and calcium) before it can leach. This leaching of nutrients over decades is the cause of acidification. The traditional remedy to acid soil, spreading tonnes of agricultural lime per hectare, is not economic on hill grazing country. The low palatability of the mature Echium enabled it to shelter recovering grasses and, with rotational grazing, even lost native perennial grasses return. In this case the so-called problem was in fact “the solution.”
The recognition by organic pioneers of the value of agricultural weeds predates the origins of permaculture,4See for instance The Weed Problem: A New Approach F.C. King (1951) but it has been through permaculture teaching that slow-to-change attitudes to pest plant and animals have been challenged. Over the decades, observing and interacting, allowing nature to take its course, creatively responding to change, and working out how to obtain a yield where others see waste, permaculture thinking has allowed householders, farmers and designers to recognise problems as the solution, or at least the inspiration for solutions. This empowering response to challenge became one of the defining characteristics of permaculture design, teaching and activism around the world.
Although viewing the world through a permaculture lens can give me an inflated idea of its influence, sometimes I experience the opposite.
In 2009 I came across an interesting case of co-option of permaculture by corporates. As oil prices rose steeply after the turn of the millennium, the oil majors scrambled to respond, opening up new fields at massive cost and technical complexity, revamping their strategies and their PR to project new corporate images to the public. A cover story about Bill Mollison in the Good Weekend5Good Weekend magazine, July 2009had the usual complement of slick ads, mostly for high end consumer goods. But on the page opposite the story about Mollison and permaculture was a full-page ad by Chevron which was focused on the “problem” of 7+ billion people on the planet. The ad stated “the problem is the solution” (i.e. human creativity to solve problems) and that Chevron was at the forefront as a human resources corporation.6Even if the oil industry probably employs fewer humans per billion dollars invested, or resources extracted, than any other industry. I doubt the Chevron executives had even heard of Mollison or permaculture but it seemed clear that their advertising agency creatives were co-opting our ideas.
For all the opportunities (and they are numerous and diverse once the blinkers of debt-fuelled consumerism are shed), the reality is humanity faces predicaments for which there are no “solutions”, only adaptive responses that can reduce the severity of consequences. If transformative solutions exist, I believe they mostly lie internally in our hearts and minds rather than further iterations of material and energetic complexity. The search for solutions to allow continuing growth is a dead end. Even if we appear to succeed with new out-of-the-box technological innovation, humanity is already suffering from being too successful at efforts to control ourselves and nature.
My take on the future is more sobering than the one Mollison projected. One of the factors contributing to this was the early realisation that dysfunction can drive systems to collapse even when opportunities exist for graceful adaptation, if not salvation. For example, gains in efficiency can, counterintuitively, lead to increased rather than decreased resource consumption. The English economist Jevons first identified the eponymous paradox as a result of his investigation of “the coal question” in the early 19th century when a doubling in the efficiency of steam engines led to a doubling (rather than halving) of coal consumption (because so many more uses for the improved steam engines stimulated rapid economic growth).
My introduction to this way in which a solution can turn into a problem was in the early ‘80s. A colleague had just built a very energy efficient passive solar house for his sister. She spent her savings from her previously high gas and electricity bills on a holiday to Bali – with the same or higher resource consumption. His other piece of evidence was the results of his generosity fixing cars for down and out single mums and other battlers only to notice that properly tuned engines and inflated tyres led to further kilometres driven. Years later we both learned these were examples of the Jevons paradox where positive feedback loops amplify a particular action or behaviour.
It was in the mid-80s that I realised how some of the most iconic and promising biological solutions promoted through permaculture could be adopted by mainstream globalised capitalism and turned back into the same dysfunction those solutions were intended to overcome.
The power and potential of trees to provide resources and environmental services was the core of the original vision of a permanent agriculture characterised by tree rather than annual crop plants. While the economic botany of unusual fruit and nut trees was the most obvious example, tree crops to feed animals was an equally import part of the permaculture vision. Apart from slow growing trees such as oaks and carobs yielding concentrate feeds to nutritionally balance dry pasture in Mediterranean climates, we knew that the foliage of fast-growing hardy tree and shrub species could provide living haystacks of green fodder to complement dry pasture feed in summer. Confining animals in tree fodder feedlots on well-drained hilltops could reduce damage to wet grounds in winter.
In southern Australia, willows and tagasaste showed the greatest promise, while in semi-arid and arid areas, a great diversity of saltbushes and acacias could feed more animals more sustainably than pastures. In the tropics, fast-growing leucaena was one of many species proving that trees could at least complement pasture for more balanced animal nutrition and habitat. Today, silvopastoral systems are recognised as one of the key land uses to regenerate land and sequester carbon on a scale that counts.7See Project Drawdown’s figures on the potential for carbon sequestration through silvopasture from drawdown.org/solutions/silvopasture
In the ‘80s, research showing that tagasaste was producing double the edible dry matter per hectare of our best rye grass/clover pastures was confirmation that some of our permaculture ideas weren’t just hippy nonsense. With my increasing focus on farm forestry and tree crops, evidence that fodder trees and shrubs could represent as great a potential productivity gain as the subclover/superphosphate revolution of the early post-war years –while being more sustainable with many ecological benefits – was exciting to say the least.
The news that there was 60,000 hectares of direct sown tagasaste shrub pastures on sandy coastal country in WA was promising the win-win of productive and sustainable grazing systems. However, soon after, I heard about trials to pelletise the tagasaste bonanza and export it to Japan to add more marbled fat to the overfed Wagyu beef cattle.
I don’t think the export of pelletised tagasaste ever got off the ground, but it was clear to me that global capitalism can take our “sacred” ecological solutions and turn them into obscenities of gluttonous consumption. In the 1980s, most sensible and sustainable permaculture solutions didn’t pass muster of the bean counters and bankers’ “discounted rates of return”8An accounting method by which otherwise healthy profits in the future are discounted away by a money market interest rate for borrowed money. Since most permaculture systems involve higher upfront investment (eg tree establishment) and a longer wait for return, high interest rates in the 1980s “proved” permaculture was not economic. and other metrics that consigned common sense to, at best, being suitable for third world development projects. With the seemingly abundant fossil fuels, minerals and stocks of virgin biological capital that could still be plundered, any biological productivity that was profitable enough to be noticed was destined, it seemed, to be turned back into another problem.
By the turn of the millennium, tagasaste and other tree fodder systems remained a niche part of WA grazing mostly associated with Landcare-funded plantations to address land degradation. Ted Lefroy, a systems ecologist and lead researcher on alley farming, who was working with farmers across the wheat sheep belt, told me in 1999 that the sticking point to its widespread adoption was the banks declining to fund it. They preferred the annual return (in good years) from fence-to-fence grain cropping. Another 20 years on, continuous cropping has moved south to follow the declining rainfall into the traditional grazing land of the Great Southern region. As a result, most of the remaining paddocks of tagasaste and other animal fodder shrubs have been ploughed under in the relentless pursuit of profit.
Although the neoliberal revolution of those decades accelerated the generation of novel dysfunction, this dysfunction was clearly part of a long-standing pattern.
For example, the adverse impacts of large-scale government and corporate monocultures of eucalypts and pines for industrial wood, gave some of the world’s most productive timber trees a very bad name. I have pushed back on this widespread demonization of these trees by pointing out it was the monoculture in the minds of the industrial foresters and their corporate bosses rather than the species themselves that was the problem. More recently, one of the world’s most hardy and productive oil palms has come to be regarded as a curse. Rainforest, savannah and even bogland ecosystems are cleared and burnt to provide cheap palm oil for overweight westerners to eat more fried food or, worse still, power their cars with “green” subsidies from the EU. Jeff Nugent, permaculture pioneer from WA, has devoted a fair chunk of his passion and time to growing, researching, teaching and writing about palms but the global growth of oil palm monocultures is hardly good PR for palms – any more than blue gum and radiata pine plantations are for these ubiquitous species.
Part of my teaching about these short-rotation plantation monocultures was to inspire permaculture designers and land managers to see this problem as a new opportunity to nurture sustainable abundance by diversifying and extending the rotation time of poorly managed plantations that land owners regarded as no longer profitable or desirable. Through thinning to extend tree size and life, underplanting and sowing, and value-added processing, I saw opportunities to turn these so-called monocultural deserts into abundant and diverse novel forest ecosystems that could provide diverse yields for local, rather than global, supply chains.
The ruthless processes of industrial forestry on grazing land had done the hard work breaking out of the grassland ecosystem. By mass planting fast growing, unpalatable species with proven “exotic vigour”, industrial forestry was the pioneering phase. Of course, it would have been so much better if those plantations were more diverse, not harvested on such short rotation, and been placed in the landscape to harmonise and enhance farming rather than replace it. The visionaries of farm forestry, permaculture and other movements managed to do this on a small scale and their examples provide inspiration for how we might retrofit the large tracts of forestry monocultures rather than reverting to horizon-to-horizon grasslands grazed by sheep and cows or, alternatively, fantasies about indigenous restoration on a vast scale.
Just as my research and writing about retrofitting suburbia is not an endorsement of more suburban sprawl,9See my article ‘The Melbourne Model’ at retrosuburbia.com my ecological forester’s eye seeing great potential in second and third rotation pulpwood plantations is not an endorsement to create more.
Despite the gloomy observation of industrial capitalism managing to turn biological abundance into waste and destruction, by working with nature we can regenerate industrial capitalism’s abandoned territories and systems to create new virtuous cycles. This is a better solution than hoping that adequate regulation will ameliorate or reverse the vicious cycles of exploitation and inequity.
Another theme in the permaculture vision was the understanding that aquaculture (aquatic systems managed for food production) is inherently more efficient than most land-based systems in production of animal protein.10Part of this efficiency is because the bodies of fish and other aquatic organisms are supported by the buoyancy of the water. In east Asia, aquaculture was more important than grazing livestock in sustaining high-density human populations with adequate protein for centuries before fossil fuel powered nitrogen fertilisers expanded global protein production and consequently the biomass of humanity.
While my own permaculture journey has had a stronger focus on trees, Bill Mollison was from the beginning passionate and knowledgeable about aquatic systems from ponds to oceanic fisheries. As on land, polyculture was recognised as necessary to make use of sunlight and nutrients in aquaculture. Even more important was the focus on plant and detritus eating organisms low on the food chain, such as catfish and yabbies, instead of just the high status top predator fish such as trout, salmon and barramundi.
Since the 1970s, the growth of aquaculture around the world has been enormous. This has been driven by several forces: the spread of Asian culinary culture; the decline in wild fisheries from rivers and lakes, to coastal and open ocean fisheries; and the inherent biological efficiency of aquatic systems to produce protein. However rather than learning from traditional systems or early experiments in aquatic polyculture,11For example, The New Alchemy Institute and Ocean Arks International industrial capitalism focused on growing monocultures of high on the food chain predator fish species. Consequently, the same fossil fuel dependencies and inefficiencies that characterise industrial agriculture were replicated in the bastardisation of the vision for aquaculture.
Perhaps worst of all, the output of industrial aquaculture has not been to feed the teeming millions of people in developing countries adequate cheap protein but to keep overfed affluent consumers around the globe supplied with an endless variety of high status fish species that wild fisheries could no longer provide. To add insult to injury, much of the land and oceanic protein needed to feed these species came at a cost to the protein food security of poor people around the world. At its extreme, feeding caged salmon with legumes from the world’s declining and damaged cropping soils combined with sardines and other fish hoovered up from oceanic fisheries is little more than an aquatic version of that emblematic evil of industrial agriculture: the beef feedlot.
Renewable energy is another great vision for the future from the first great wave of modern environmentalism in the 1970s. The visionaries saw not only the renewable nature of energy from water, wind, sunshine and biomass, but also the fact that these sources were distributed across landscapes and bioregions. This gave hope for distributed energy systems that would in turn foster distributed economic development – and resultant political power. Thus we all believed the concentration of people, wealth and power in large cities, supported by mines and wells of underground fossil energy, would be progressively replaced by flourishing bioregional economies tuned to their own particular suite of local renewable energies. Those who accept that energy descent, if not collapse, pathways are the most likely futures for humanity, understand those futures will inevitably be distributed rather than concentrated even if it’s not as utopian as we hoped.
Wind Power origins
Beyond the century-long established role of hydroelectric power, wind was the first modern renewable to provide hope of energy beyond fossil fuels. The modern wind turbine industry began in Denmark, laying the foundations for one of the great industries of the 21st century. In the 1970s, intentional communities committed to renewable and autonomous energy partnered with local rural engineers to build some of the largest power turbines in the world. When we visited Denmark in 1994, some of those turbines were no longer functional although I was told the one at Tvind Community (that was built by gender-balanced teams chanting slogans from Mao’s Little Red Book) was still working. These radical pioneering examples led to community co-operatives forming to provide local power. In a small country like Denmark, it wasn’t long before the government and larger companies got behind the industry which quickly became Denmark’s largest source of export income. Of course in a world of global capitalism, the real net energy return from wind power led to technological advances and accelerating scale to a point where large corporations in Germany and then China became the dominant players.
Leaving to one side the very technical argument about whether economies (and ecologies) of scale in wind power production could only be done by global corporations, it is clear that wind power is well suited to a distributed ownership pattern at the bioregional or even farm scale (even if the turbines are part of larger national grids). However beyond its origins in Denmark, and a few outliers inspired by the Danish model, such as our own Hepburn Wind, the ownership of wind power is today concentrated in the hands of a rapidly growing corporations which, if the patterns of the past persist, will be progressively consolidated in mergers and takeovers.
Once again, the vision of power to the people has become power to the corporations. The solution turns back into the problem.
The Solar Power Revolution
The even more complex nature of photovoltaic manufacture meant the origins of the solar industry was not so grassroots but rather the outcome of government funded research labs and centralised production in vast “clean room” manufacturing facilities in China. However, the modular nature of the technology makes it ideally suited to rooftop installation at all scales. I believe the extraordinary uptake of rooftop solar in Australia, which favoured small businesses and householders, caught the policymakers by surprise and triggered an economic development model out of sync with the built-in drivers of global capitalism towards concentration of power.
I believe the scale and context for solar PV that provides the most social and economic benefits for the least ecological cost is household scale systems and microgrids in the Majority World where grid electricity networks are unreliable or unavailable for most rural people.12For example Mobisol providing household pay-as-you-go systems across Africa originally developed by social enterprise Lumeter. But instead of programs to provide modest power to those who have none, the majority of the world’s solar panels are now being installed at speed in vast solar farms in the hope the global middleclass will not have to reduce their energy consumption or convenience at all, while paying our inanimate energy slaves13The term ‘energy slave‘ is a way of explaining the power of energy systems in terms of human physical work capacity. cents, and believing that this form of slavery is benign.
Thus the vision of modest electric power to complement the abundance provided by nature’s solar panels (plant leaves) has been replaced by a rush to cover the landscape with panels. The ecological impact of this has the potential to dwarf that of wind turbines in the countryside, even if the outcry will be less (because you would need a bird’s eye view to grasp the scale of solar farms now under construction).
Because of the lower energy density from sunlight than wind, greater infrastructure is required to capture solar energy. Although there are few moving parts in solar farms, the density of the road networks needed just to clean and maintain the arrays is far greater than those to service wind turbines.
Given the rapid rollout of solar farms over large areas of grazing, and even prime cropping land, this problem will need creative management responses that ameliorate the takeover of farm land for energy production. Many solar farms are in semi-arid areas where the power factor is greatest. In these areas, water not light is the limiting factor to plant growth. Water shed from panels would stimulate growth in the service accessways, and even a little under the arrays. Grazing sheep would have green feed more of the year and the shade in hot climates will improve their welfare and weight gain. If soils are suitable and maintenance operations can be done in dry weather, grazed pasture accessways without the need for road base could reduce costs and allow novel ecologies of native and exotic species to develop in the shade of the panels.
More intensive horticultural trials growing vegetables and fruit have already been surprisingly successful with some indication that more diverse human-scale cropping might be better suited to solar farm farming than large machine intensive monocultures.14See Frank Jossi “How land under solar panels can contribute to food security” at resilience.org
Of course nature has a habit of colonising anything new we construct. Plans for a more radical design of a solar power station some years ago, proposed for desert country near Mildura, got me thinking about ways the design might generate unexpected consequences. The plan was to build a roof about 1km in diameter leading to a central flue, a bit like the Arts Centre Melbourne roof frame. Heated air rising in the 1km high flue would drive turbines generating electricity – a solar updraft tower.
When contemplating the project, I thought about how in wet years the huge roof runoff might create wetlands with fringing forest regeneration that could become a fire hazard in drought years threatening the structure. Finally, I wondered if the transpiration from all that vegetation carried by the flue to great heights might generate frequent thunderstorms that might reduce the efficiency of power production while accelerating growth of the perimeter forest. Maybe the power station would turn out to be an expensive way to create an oasis forest in the desert that some permie horticulturist might turn into a magnificent food forest – destined one day to slowly turn back into desert when the structure eventually failed. I was very disappointed the bank finance fell through on the project so we might never know whether my wild speculations on problems (and the creative response to them) might be real.
Scale and Speed
As these examples show, the pursuit of mega-scale and uniformity of systems, combined with speed of rollout – contradicting the permaculture principle of prioritising small and slow solutions – inevitably leads to generation of new problems. Further, these examples reflect the assumption that the severity, scale and urgency of the climate emergency demands big and fast solutions that only globalised capitalism can provide. This widespread assumption in the environmental mainstream is flawed for several reasons.
Firstly, the fastest way to address the climate crisis would be for the global middleclass to radically change their behaviour with policies to support and encourage that change. As we have seen in response to the pandemic, behaviour change can and does happen fast if society decides it is necessary. This can happen much faster than even the most miraculous examples of new infrastructure construction, which itself also depends to a significant degree on behaviour change.
Secondly, it is an illusion created from the evidence of the industrial era that all solutions must grow to achieve (fossil fuel) economies of scale. While rooftop solar might not be quite as economical as solar farms under conventional metrics, the advantages of producing the power where people live make mega-scale moot. Small-scale solutions can grow by replication, allowing a live/learn cycle that can improve at each iteration with less of the risks associated with large-scale projects. Modern communication networks allow learnings to spread globally – even if the degree to which ecologically resilient solutions can be rubber stamped from one context to another is more limited than is generally assumed.
Thirdly, when assessed holistically and ethically, the best bang for buck in the renewable rollout is power for the people without power in the Third World, who are also in the front line of climate impacts. By improving their resilience and productivity, we reduce the scale of mass migration which is one of the long-predicted, and already begun, consequences of climate change. As demonstrated by the Appropriate Technology movement in the 1970s, these types of technology and implementation require different scale and speed than those provided by global capitalist systems, and these smaller-scale, more localised applications provide more employment. Ironically, permaculture design and activism around the world has found that these smaller and slower appropriate technologies are the very models we need in the overdeveloped countries to avoid us constantly turning the solutions back into the same problems.
Lastly, it has been shown15Although this excellent review “How sustainable is PV solar?” by Kris De Decker is from 2015, it shows how multiple factors including speed of roll out undermine the sustainability of Solar PV. that the fastest scaling up in the manufacture and roll out of renewable energy technology results in increased greenhouse gas emissions in the critical next few decades, even if there are substantial net emissions reductions in the longer term. The ways in which the problems of scale and speed compound is not necessarily intuitively obvious, especially for societies that have gained from rapid growth for centuries.
The evidence is now overwhelming that to avoid the worst consequences of the converging ecological crises, humanity has no choice but to radically downscale the global economy. The question is whether it is possible to do that in a way that minimises the pain and suffering. Maybe the pandemic that has been impacting the affluent countries as much, or even more than, poor countries might provide lessons, or even the processes, by which humanity might learn how to manage degrowth rather than just collapse.
Diverse Solutions for Diverse Contexts
This brief foray into small and slow permaculture design solutions highlights how permaculture design principles are thinking tools to reverse or transform the assumptions we apply (mostly unconsciously) from the heritage of at least 250 years of fossil fuelled modernity.
‘Use and value diversity’ is another permaculture principle, which in its more limited application as ‘value (Indigenous) (bio)diversity’ is environmental orthodoxy. But as I said in relation to trees: the monoculture of the mind is more problematic than that of the forest. This monoculture of mind expresses itself most persistently in the belief that great solutions, from software to earthworks, can be rolled out across cultures and landscapes without regard to the particulars of context, and that we need to find to one big solution that trumps all others and then spread it everywhere, creating new conceptual monocultures, even if they are dressed up in costume to give local flavour. As the wiser thinkers in the renewable energy field have long known, the future of energy supply will not only be distributed but also diverse. Not just in a diversity of sources collectively and complementarily providing our needs but also through a diversity of different territories/bioregions/nations characterised by different energy mixes.
In agriculture, the last and most important of human activities to be industrialised, conventional approaches to research, development and extension to farmers tend to create mental monocultures that generate the old problems in new forms. To ensure humanity’s future it is imperative that we develop systems finely tuned to the diversity of landscapes and differing contexts.
This reality demands a different model of innovation where the farmer, more than the research scientist, bureaucrat or entrepreneur, is the most important person in the process. While this idea may seem reasonable, in practice it turns our cultural inheritance and power relationships from industrial capitalism on its head and leads to a flowering of diverse solutions that do not necessarily scale or replicate and may remain opaque, even occult, to the outsider. The psycho-social challenges in such a thinking revolution are very deep, to the point where as soon as we grasp the potency of any genuine solution, we can’t help ourselves wanting to rubber stamp that solution everywhere.
Maybe our cultural history of evangelical religion is a factor in this desperate desire to spread the word of God (or even Permaculture) to save the ignorant masses who don’t get it. But that’s another story.
Having scaled the heights of humanity’s predicament, I want to return to more modest examples of how we tend to turn solutions into problems, even in permaculture and related networks.
Strawbale building originated in the American prairies where mechanical baling equipment combined with abundant grain straw across horizon-to-horizon cropping country. With freezing winters and a lack of trees, let alone harvestable timber forest for building, building from strawbales became a low-cost vernacular architecture. Decades later, the technique spread through ecological building networks that were looking for low cost and embodied energy materials that were super-insulating. In Australia, although the value from super-insulated walls is less than in continental climates of the northern hemisphere, making use of this cheap, widely available renewable material certainly makes sense in rural areas (although traditional sized bales are not as common as they once were).
While travelling in Japan in 2004 we saw a few examples of experimental strawbale building, despite traditional bales of good quality grain straw not existing as a by-product of Japanese farming. We even heard about one strawbale house project where the builders imported strawbales from the USA. It doesn’t take much to realise transporting such bulky low value cargo across the Pacific Ocean, plus road transport to and from port, is not a very sustainable practice; clearly a case of the solution becoming the problem.
Infrastructure for garden farming
A more subtle but widespread example in permaculture inspired projects relates to the use of built infrastructure in garden farming: everything including trellises, fences, raised beds, animal pens and enclosures, shade and greenhouses, outside kitchens, and all types of irrigation infrastructure, from earth swales to complex computer-controlled drip systems. Everywhere in the world, the use of built infrastructure to enhance and diversify productivity is one of the characteristics that distinguishes garden farming (Zones 1 and 2 in permaculture site design lingo) from field agriculture (Zone 3). By close coupling with human habitation, garden farming can take advantage of: microclimates created by sun-reflecting and shade-creating walls; pergola and trellis structures added to buildings to moderate climate, terraces of stone and wood to make use of steep slopes; fences and other enclosures to contain animals; and water flowing from roofs and hard surfaces directed to tanks and ponds for later use or directly to soil absorption. Most important of all, existing gravity-fed reticulated water supply systems can ensure water supply for garden farming, potentially long into an energy descent future.16 With treatment plants closed and pipeline maintenance minimal, a back-to-basics reticulated water system would need to be complemented by household rainwater tanks supplying potable water.
Close proximity of housing and settlements to foothill forests, bamboo groves, and stone outcrops away from arable fields is another widespread pattern. This allows garden farming to take advantage of low-cost, abundant and/or readily renewable building resources, as well as fuel, organic matter and a wider range of wild medicinal, food and fodder species that all contribute to the household and village non-monetary economy.
All of these infrastructure enhancements are more expensive and difficult to apply to field agriculture; not just because of the orders of magnitude increase in scale. The secondary benefits associated with habitation are less useful in open fields and can be a considerable impediment to rotation of land uses from crops to pasture, or changes in equipment. Nevertheless, intensive horticultural production often does involve large and expensive infrastructure. This is a critical issue in financial viability and means modern industrial-scale horticulture is a greater source of greenhouse gas emissions, resource consumption and pollution than more broadacre but simpler field crop systems. This is one of the reasons behind the permaculture strategy of re-ruralising suburbia with intensive horticulture, in the form of garden farming, leaving our prime arable farmland for more space demanding broadacre field cropping of grains and legumes.
From suburban to small farm scale, extensive use of infrastructure is a defining characteristic of permaculture systems. It is well illustrated in the introduction of Mollison’s Designers Manual by the full-page illustration of a permaculture small farm compared to a more conventional design. However there is a catch: all this infrastructure must be carefully designed and integrated to perform multiple functions. It also requires resources and work to construct and, even with timely maintenance, will degrade. Whether it is by financial or ecological accounting, it makes sense that the productivity, resilience and other benefits from the infrastructure need to be greater than the costs, otherwise it all becomes part of the problem (again).
So good permaculture design addresses this issue by firstly copying traditional systems making use of abundant or quickly renewing resources such as earth, stone, bamboo and small diameter coppice and thinning wood. Living fences and even bridges can be grown rather than built to further lighten the ecological footprint. In modern affluent countries, and even poor ones, creative reuse of timber pallets, old fencing wire, steel reinforcing mesh, sinks and baths and myriad other consumer and industry discards tends to trump traditional sustainable sources of materials especially in urban areas. Another important strategy is to distinguish between ‘quick to build and quick to decay’ structures made from waste or quickly regrowing materials and those that with maintenance, might last a lifetime and longer thus justifying high quality materials and/or more care and time to construct.
Sometimes permaculture systems can end up looking very messy, as repurposed materials, biodegradable and not, litter the landscape. In some projects a succession of experiments and trials can create a depressing archaeology that successive owners and occupiers tend to clear away as the failings of the past.
Unfortunately, it is quite common to see new materials such as galvanised wire fixed to poorly constructed fences, new polypipe irrigation systems laid out to establish tree plantations only to be chopped up by slashers, and new plastic and metal tools left in the weather to degrade. It is always important to ask: What was the productivity, or at least learning, that justified these resources being extracted from Mother Earth? (Or justified by the more commonly considered metric of greenhouse gas emission generated).
This critical appraisal of permaculture-inspired designs might seem a little harsh, and to some extent it is. If we compare the amateur dabbling at food production, supported by trips to the local tip and occasional purchased materials at the hardware, to other hobbies and pastimes such as powerboating with the odd fish catch, let alone going to the gym to get fit or serious dysfunction like spending spare time at the pokies, then even the most dysfunctional efforts at a permaculture designed garden might seem a great improvement. On the other hand, people engaged in recreational activities are not generally claiming what they are doing is a contribution to saving the planet, a marker of significant self-reliance or a step towards a more equitable world, whereas we permies like to think we are doing all three while having more fun than people following their exercise regime at the gym.
Raised Bed Vegie Gardening
To zoom in more closely on how the solution can progressively turn into the problem when we are not paying attention, consider the raised garden bed, one of the most ubiquitous infrastructures in permaculture-designed gardens. Mounded beds have many advantages even in field agriculture but use extra space in the batter slope which is subject to erosion by water and/or scratching birds. Constructed sides turn the mounded bed into a raised bed which is more convenient to work and can allow gardening over contaminated soils. The balance between durability and renewability mentioned before is a big issue in making raised beds. The higher the raised bed, the greater the outward force, especially in clay soils prone to shrinking and swelling. Garden soil rich in organic matter and nutrients rapidly decays all but the most durable wood. A variety of salvaged materials and/or readily renewable materials can reduce the ecological footprint while intensively managed garden beds of modest size can produce a tonne of food (literally) over their limited life expectancy.
The huge increase in garden farming (permaculture inspired and otherwise) has led to commercial raised bed systems constructed from new materials. Some of the best of these systems use naturally durable wood salvaged from farm shelterbelt trees and can last for decades.
The next step in intensification is the wicking bed, which radically reduces the water needed and allows vegetable production where invasive tree roots would otherwise be a serious constraint. However, this requires a container or membrane. The best commercial options use a high-quality membrane, a considerable extra cost but one that may be justified as appropriately responding to the challenge of fresh vegie production in the household economy.
As the status of home-grown vegies has become mainstream, the hardware stores now sell all-plastic micro wicking bed vegie gardens complete with mesh net covers to keep out pest insects and birds. By this stage, the intensification of infrastructure is turning the solution of garden farming into the same problem of ecological impact and degradation, perhaps as great as conventional production purchased at the supermarket. I think it would probably be better for the environmentally aware householder to buy vegies from a commercial producer using simple but space-demanding field farming techniques, preferably local and organic via a farmers market or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
Can I imagine a scenario where such vegie growing systems might be justified from a permaculture perspective? For those living in apartments with a sun-facing balcony the personal wellbeing from growing a few greens and herbs might tip the balance. By way of analogy, in a critique of the embodied energy of attached solar greenhouses compared to any reduction in residential apartment and house heating in Scandinavia at the 1994 European permaculture convergence, the presenter pointed out that being able to read a book on a winter’s day without artificial light can be enough to prevent a Swede jumping on a plane to Spain for the winter – and that really does save a lot of energy!
Because fossil fuel powered affluence has created such possibilities unimagined by previous generations, there are many cases where novel permaculture-inspired designs ameliorate dysfunction, and hopefully present a transition process from irresponsible consumption to empowered permaculture productivity. Imagine a young child living in an apartment engaged with nature and producing food to contribute to the household economy gaining a life goal to become a farmer; a potentially huge social capital return on investment by parents making the best of their situation.
Of course the micro wicking bed from the hardware store is not the extreme of resource intensive food production, even leaving aside the Frankenfoods of lab grown meat and other industrial responses to the food system crisis. Indoor hydro cultivation under artificial light supplying ridiculously inflated prices for illegal cannabis might contribute to the illusion that projects to grow food in such systems could be one of the ways to feed high density cities in the future. This is truly a case of the solution turning into an even worse problem of resource consumption and environmental impact. Apart from escalating complexities in managing fertility and pests in these systems, using renewable energy to produce enough light to sustain plant growth of high yielding vegetables and other plants is never likely to add up energetically.
While it is easy to be scathing about the ways in which even well-educated sustainability professionals sometimes promote environmental solutions that don’t pass muster from a grounded and holistic permaculture perspective, the forces reinventing ecologically dysfunctional behaviours in new forms continue to influence everyone in modern affluent societies. In nature and society, powerful positive feedback loops reinforce well proven patterns but these are usually balanced by negative feedback loops that constrain excesses of anything. Unfortunately decades of growth in resource consumption and economic growth driven by positive feedbacks, in what sustainability writer Darrin Qualman calls e-civilisation,17Civilization Critical: Energy, Food, Nature, and the Future, Fernwood Press (2019) are driving us towards collapse.
French collapsology theorists Servigne and Stevens speak of structural lock as one line of evidence that they explore in the book How Everything Can Collapse.18How Everything Can Collapse: a manual for our time, Polity (2020); see my review at holmgren.com.au This occurs when dominant players or modes in any field gain a near monopoly over mentality and markets, preventing alternative players or modes emerging. They mention the substantial and globally recognised evidence that organic agriculture is more energy efficient than chemical and genetically engineered agriculture but that funding and research remains focused primarily towards more refinements of those dead-ends for future food production. This lock is very complex involving technical, psychological, and institutional factors. Using the permaculture design principles framework, lock-in results from a failure to value small, slow, diverse and marginal responses while focusing too much on obtaining (an immediate and easily measurable) yield and ignoring negative feedback about prevailing means.
So in this serious situation, is there any hope for a prosperous way down from the fossil fuel energy peak to a more biologically-based and equitable economy sustaining human needs (rather than wants and addictions) and nurturing a flowering of personal and communal (non-material) human development and wellbeing?
While I believe elements of this utopian vision are still technically possible, they are more likely to come about by the viral spread of modest efforts at resilience than grand schemes to fix the world with novel technologies. However it is clear that, short of catastrophic collapse scenarios, well intentioned, and not so well intentioned, grand schemes to “save the world” are already being implemented. I believe most of these efforts will, unfortunately, repeat the patterns of the past turning apparent solutions into novel problems.
Amongst the diversity of biotech innovations, I think two stand out as powerful enough to significantly help ameliorate the global crisis – and inevitably both could be corrupted by the patterns of the past if humanity fails to shrug off the thinking of industrial capitalism. These are biochar for regenerative agriculture, and marine permaculture for regenerative oceanic commons. Both have indigenous and traditional models, a growing body of research and practice supporting novel applications, are capable of addressing multiple aspects of the global crisis and can be accessible at household, community and small enterprise scale to enhance local, resilient, redistributive economies.
Biochar from Biomass
Biochar is charcoal made and prepared to increase the water- and nutrient-holding capacity and microbiological activity of agriculturally productive soil. The multiple benefits include increasing resilience to climate change, and increasing crop yields and quality and consequently human health and wellbeing. In the process, biochar sequesters carbon more permanently than traditional organic farming techniques and thus has the potential to play a major role in reversing dangerous climate change amongst other ecological crises.19See for example Albert Bates, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, New Society Publishers (2010)
The process of making biochar releases the volatile energy in woody (and other) biomass. Wood gasification technology can capture this otherwise wasted energy and use it to create electricity, provide heating, and power vehicles. While the technology to do this was last widely used during the fuel shortages of World War Two, in recent years higher energy costs and climate change have driven renewed research and further improvements. Perhaps the greatest sticking point in the widespread application of this technology is the understandable fear that forests and other sources of biomass will be hoovered up turning yet another renewable technology into an even larger cause of ecological destruction. However globalised industrial capitalism pursuing real and imagined economies of scale unconstrained by sustainable yields of surplus biomass is the real threat – not the technology.
Sustainable yields of woody biomass are a natural by-product of ecological sustainable forestry anywhere rainfall is adequate, and especially where fire ecologies periodically consume surplus forest biomass in managed and/or destructive bushfires.20See my essay ‘Bushfire Resilient Land and Climate Care’ (2020) Ecologically sustainable forestry prioritises maintenance of ecosystem services, biodiversity, and high value yields from trees over woody biomass for energy, biochar or other low value uses such as paper pulp.21In countries with a legacy of poor forest management such as Australia, one of the contributing factors to these poor management techniques has been the royalty for high quality sawlogs being only double that for pulpwood, while in Europe the rates have traditionally been 10 to 20 times higher for sawlogs.
But forest managers around the world understand that thinning dense regrowth accelerates ecological maturity, increases bushfire resilience, improves landscape amenity and provides high quality timber and other yields for future generations. In the process, it generates large amounts of smaller diameter low grade wood. Having a use for that wood incentivises the work of thinning.
As mentioned previously, large monocultures of fast-growing trees covering the landscape are a solution turning back into a problem. This is further compounded when blue gum plantations fail to satisfy financial and growth rate expectations, leading to them being bulldozed and burnt, thereby returning vast amounts of carbon to the atmosphere – a tragic symbol of Australia’s dysfunctional relationship with trees and forests.
Our own small efforts at sustainable native forestry over the last 25 years at Fryers Forest ecovillage are set to take the next step beyond sustainable yields of honey, durable timber posts and firewood. This will make better use of chipped tree thinnings and heads for wood gasification with biochar by-product for permaculture designed garden farming. Our project aims to demonstrate two important applications of gasification technology on land adjacent to Fryers Forest, owned by the company Fryers Forest Research and Development, that did the original ecovillage development in the 1990s.
The first is hybrid wood gas/electric vehicles suitable for farm and forest management. We believe the electric conversion of light trucks can avoid the need for massive battery banks by use of lift on/off wood gas power plants to extend range and power equipment such as cranes and chippers.
The second is farm and local community power systems combining rooftop solar with wood gas stand-by generation for cloudy winter conditions and high demand loads, in addition to heat for food processing, timber drying and other house, farm and small business enterprises. These systems can be autonomous or grid connected.
By demonstrating these modest scale systems, we hope to establish a working model demonstrating how dispatchable wood energy is complementary to the intermittent renewables of wind and solar, especially in rural and regional Australia. In the same way that rooftop solar allowed Australians to recognise solar energy in their lives, human scale biomass systems are needed for Australians to understand the potential of biomass energy. There are so many possibilities for local businesses in retrofitting our existing stock of vehicles and manufacturing gasification gear locally – rather than just being consumers of panels, turbines, batteries and cars made by global corporations.
It is ironic that the search for more sustainable energy and transport could be the driver for getting our act together in husbanding the land as both the source and the sink for the whole process. Sensitive and continuous management of our regrowth and planted forests as the source; and biochar enhanced microbially active soils as the carbon sink to produce healthy food from garden and local farming.
It doesn’t matter whether we are focused on the local solutions that provide abundance and resilience in a changing world or worried about how the global limits to growth can be navigated – permaculture ethics and design principles are tools we need to grasp the nettle of opportunity and avoid the dysfunction of globalised monocultures of the mind. But to avoid globalised industrial capital yet again bastardising our solutions, it is essential that the models we develop on private land organically replicate to regenerate our more extensive forests to ensure future governments cannot hand over our commons to globalised capital interests.
Brian Von Herzen of the Climate Foundation coined the term ‘marine permaculture’ to describe systems to grow kelp forests that can be harvested for food, feed and fertiliser, sequester carbon and create habitat to support thriving and diverse fish populations. Beyond restoration of kelp forests already lost to warming oceans, Von Herzen’s vision extends to colonising open ocean environments by artificial upwelling of cold nutrient-rich water from lower levels.
By creating kelp forest ecosystems where none existed, these projects, proposals and visions are analogous to early permaculture visions of terrestrial forests that would restore degraded and desert landscapes with species able to ameliorate the local, and even bioregional, climate while providing abundant food, fodder, fuel and structural materials for people. But nature’s design rules and limits that define permaculture in marine environments are quite different to the terrestrial realm.
Seaweeds, especially the fast growing and massive kelp species of temperate climate regions, need a substrate close enough to the surface to ensure adequate light for photosynthesis. In nature, this occurs along coastlines where shallow depth and wave turbulence combine with runoff from rivers to provide necessary nutrients. In the same way that wharves, offshore rigs and wrecks can provide artificial reefs to support shellfish, coral and associated fish life, designed submerged structures can provide the substrate for kelp forests away from coasts. With the reduced impact of storm surges, kelp growth can be regulated by herbivorous fish grazing and harvesting. Nutrients can be supplied or supplemented by irrigation from deeper nutrient rich colder water, the pumping of which may even be possible using the diffuse energy in the thermal gradient between warmer surface and colder deep water.
Fast-growing kelps sequester carbon at a faster rate than forest trees. The kelp can then be refined into bio-oil fuels or cut and let sink into deep ocean storage on a scale to match that of the climate emergency. Von Herzen sees marine permaculture as having the potential to steer the earth back to a safe climate without the risk of most forms of geo-engineering. However, permaculture principles suggest starting with more modest in-shore seaweed farming enterprises at the hectare scale before the development of hundred hectare arrays in the open ocean. Naturally enough, vast operations in the oceanic commons, subject to the laws of the sea rather than nation state land laws, raises all sorts of alarm bells for many – and the risk of this solution creating novel foreseen and unforeseen problems if the design rules of globalised industrial capitalism drive the process.
I have been participating in discussions and documentation with Brian von Herzen (and Scott Spillias from The University of Queensland) in a project to articulate permaculture ethics and design principles as a framework to guide not just seaweed farm projects but more generally in the ‘Blue Economy’, focusing on the resources of the ocean to sustain humanity. Much of the government and corporate promotion and efforts to develop the Blue Economy show all the signs of making the mistakes of industrial aquaculture, and more generally of industrial agriculture. We hope to draw in experts in diverse aspects of oceanic conservation, marine resource management and mariculture to support a framework that can hopefully guide fisherfolk, mariners, consumers, investors and policymakers towards virtuous circles of regenerative abundance rather than repeating vicious cycles of greed, simplification of nature’s diversity, overharvesting and inequity in access to and control of nature’s abundance.
Our vision includes the reinvigoration and flowering of indigenous and traditional cultures of sea faring and dwelling peoples using new technology and communication systems to regenerate cultures of flow in tune with the oceanic realm where access is more important than ownership. It is just possible that what we learn in the oceanic commons might inform and reform how we harmonise husbandry of the terrestrial commons where the vast majority of humanity dwells.
Our ancestors’ mastery of fire to use wood to cook, keep warm, hunt and husband the landscape so many generations ago was the start of a long road that led to fossil fuelled fire and the climate crisis.
At the same time that we kick the fossil habit, it is equally essential that we capture and store carbon both on land and in the ocean. It is perhaps ironic that relearning mastery of the finer arts of fire may be both a key to soil-based carbon sequestration and provision of modest energy needs though the crisis. And it is no accident that Australia as the continent where the art and science of fire was evolved to the highest levels by Indigenous custodians might play a central role in restoring that balance between earth, air, fire and water.
The creativity of humanity is being sorely tested working out how to thrive doing less with less, find new ways to turn waste and dysfunction into opportunities to replicate what works and develop the humility to accept the predicament to which we must gracefully adapt. To survive and thrive through the era of energy descent, humanity as a whole must relearn the Indigenous wisdom that avoids turning our best solutions into the same old problems.