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Is on-site sustainability impossible?  RSS feed

 
ryan112ryan McCoy
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I was thinking about things that I have read in permaculture one, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, bio-intensive books etc. and there is one thing that bothers me about it.  Even with this realization, I still plan to pursue permaculture endeavors, but I have to ask....

Is on-site sustainability possible?

What I mean by "on-site" is once you have setup your system, is it possible from that point on to meet the needs of maintaining soil fertility from things only on that site indefinitely?  In this scenario I am assume a very very large plot of land and you bringing in a lot of initial inputs (sheet mulch, manures, compost, top soil, rock dusts, organic amendments).  Living very very low impact, very modest and growing just enough to meet your true needs.

I am beginning to think that it is not actually possible, because any human impact, is eventually detrimental.

Here is my thought pattern, almost like a math proof if you will...


Inputs:
Your soils, organic matter, bio mass, etc. on the property are a finite amount.   However vast and mind bogglingly large, they at some point have a quantity.   

We also know that energy coming into a system has a limited quantity.  Also technically speaking, even though this is imperceivably slow, the sun's output is gradually declining and will some day be reduced to nothing. 

Outputs:
When plants grow, they require nutrients, this transfer from soil to plant is pretty efficient, but technically it is not 100% efficient.  This means for each plant we grow, we lose a small portion of nutrients. 

We know from Biomass Efficiency transfer principles of tropic levels, that each level is only 10% effcient meaning we lose 90% of inputs each level.  For example (theoretical for demo only) 

Plant (100 calories)  ->  Bird (10 Calories) -> Human (1 calorie)



We also know that the law of thermo dynamics that once we convert something to heat (digestion of food) we can never regain the initial energy.

So in an ideal system we have a native edible plant that we grow.  We eat some part of it, say 10%.  So the 90% left we compost, which creates heat, meaning that only a portion of the nutrients from the original plant is around.  We apply the compost and the next plant only can use a portion of it because of inefficiencies.  Now that 10% we ate, we compost the human waste (humanure techniques), but our digestion process and composting process only returns a portion of the nutrients to the soil. 

In the end, the plant that took the nutrients from the soil, only returned 60, 70, 80, 90, or even 99% of the original nutrients, but the point is, that it is physically impossible to return 100%.

Mitigation of loss:
We do a lot in permaculture to return nutrients in the soil.  Composting, using residues, Humanure, resting fields, natural approaches to farming, reducing or eliminating our consumption of meats. 

We use nitrogen fixers like legumes to capture nutrients from the air and store in the form of soluble nitrogen.

We work to capture and store energy in unique ways at a level that might be higher than normal. 


Ultimately a negative impact is created:


However small, however slow, it seems to me that our outputs out weigh the inputs.  This is because the inputs are finite and the outputs are growing cumulatively.  Permaculture is certainly better than how we doing things now in our world (for the majority of it), but I think there needs to be some recognition to the fact that no matter how we live, us living has a negative impact.  Humanity isn't sustainable.

That said with very small populations in the world (a few million world wide) that migrates every decade or so, it might be able to slow this process down so much it is almost a non issue.   
 
Kirk Hutchison
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I would think that unless nutrients were migrating off-site (as in farm sales), fertility should be maintained forever. A human living on the land is no more detrimental than a chimpanzee. Unless nutrients manage to escape as run-off, all nutrients will inevitably return to the soil. Obviously we use some nutrients in our bodies. But when we die, that is returned to the soil. Of course energy is lost, but that is continually harvested by plants from sunlight, so all we have to worry about is minerals. Of course, a small amount will probably be washed away as run-off, even in a primeval forest, but that process is so slow as to take millions of years and is not affected in any way by humans living on the land. Humans might even conceivably halt that process by removing minerals from streams and returning them to the soil.
 
Hugh Hawk
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I agree with Kirk.  How are the nutrients getting off your land?  They have to be going somewhere.

More importantly, if you grow trees and other deep-rooted plants, you can be building soil faster than any potential loss.  These plants help to break up bedrock, the parent material of the soil.  This is essentially an unlimited source of nutrients that we can mine to make new soil, with the right plant systems in place.

Permaculture is really about reinforcing and empowering nature's amazing process of fertility generation.  Humans, despite our potential for being destructive, also have great potential to work with and accelerate nature's regeneration.
 
Benjamin Burchall
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I think what a lot of people don't really get is that permaculture is NOT type of gardening, farming or building. It IS a design system. Observation and design is integral to permaculture. That doesn't stop once you've installed a system. The observing and designing continue indefinitely. Permaculture isn't abandonment of a site. You'll forever be in active relationship with it and you'll change various elements as needed as you see conditions on a site changing. The really cool thing is that even with the on-going observing and designing, you end up with a heck of a lot less work than a traditional chemical or organic system. Typically in a well-established system, you'll go a number of years before you find that something major needs to be modified.

In short, yes, sustainability of a site is possible.

When it comes to nutrients, the whopping majority of nutrients in a plant's body come from the atmosphere - not the soil. In a thriving system, plants are but one of the components. The microbial life and animals that participate in the land also add to the nutrient density of soil through their excretions and dead bodies. This would also include human body waste. When we manage our herds of microbial life and soil/land/air animals on the site properly, we automatically overcompensate for the amount of soil derived nutrients (mainly minerals) we extract.
 
Paul Cereghino
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The structure created by carbon and the ability of carbon structure to capture both nutrients and water allow for the increase in the primary productivity of a site over time. 

A fundemental process in a PC design is the manipulation and storage of water flow allowing development of systems that have a higher stored carbon and primary production than unmanaged counterparts... in the same way that beaver or earthworms modify the systems they live in to support more beaver or earthworms.

I like to call it Eden-ification.

To test you theory, isolate specific resources and play through in a specific climate.  I think you'll find it comes to population density.  Generalities can be deceptive.
 
John Polk
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Ryan has a good point.  It is like the old grand-father clock with the pendulum swinging.  Eventually, the pendulum will run out of energy, and quit swinging.

In this country (the US of A), we are consuming billions of calories per minute, and spending billions of $$$ to turn our humanure (no!...it is NOT a capitalized word) into an inert waste product.  If we keep growing our population, as we are, and keep growing food, as we are, we will essentially shit ourselves out of existence!

What the F?  Long after humans are extinct on this planet, the cockroaches, ants, bees, and, yes, even the pigeons and seagulls will continue to thrive.  They aren't F'ing with Mother Nature.  Who's smarter?

 
Leila Rich
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The sciences aren't really my thing, but when I did my PDC the tutor emphasised that you can't escape the laws of entropy: energy in all its forms eventually degrades and becomes chaotic.
As Paul says, while we can't stop it, we can slow it right down
All natural systems have outside inputs. Animals come and go, streams flood etc.
I think SELF-SUFFICIENCY is impossible, but I see no problems sharing the neighbour's surplus if they're offering
 
Hugh Hawk
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Yes, the system is always trying to return to chaos, a higher entropy state.  But as long as the sun is shining, and energy is being provided, some form of order will emerge from the chaos.  That is how the natural systems we observe today have evolved.

I strongly disagree with the notion that humanity must be inherently unsustainable even at small population densities, and do not understand the logic for this assertion.

Efficiency of conversion of biomass is only relevant in determining the size of land that is required to support the human sustainably, not in whether it is possible to do so at all.  Waste products are a normal occurrence in nature: they create a possible niche for species that can recycle those resources.  There is no reason the same does not apply with human waste products if they are produced at manageable levels.
 
Phil Hawkins
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Hugh H. wrote:More importantly, if you grow trees and other deep-rooted plants, you can be building soil faster than any potential loss.  These plants help to break up bedrock, the parent material of the soil.  This is essentially an unlimited source of nutrients that we can mine to make new soil, with the right plant systems in place.

I was asking someone about this very process today, in the context of one's "surplus" leaving the system (be it by sale or charity).  I can see how what you're saying would be true for practical purposes; for example, I live on cleared pasture, so presumably whatever minerals below the topsoil and grass root depth are "untouched" for the last 100-150 years or so, waiting for me to extract it with new trees, etc.  But where those processes have been in train for a long time, or when they are lost (by erosion, etc), where do they end up?  In the sea?  At the sewerage treatment plant?
 
Benjamin Burchall
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But where those processes have been in train for a long time, or when they are lost (by erosion, etc), where do they end up?


What nutrients are you thinking of. Other than sandy soils, I believe most soils have plenty of minerals. Minerals are basically rock which is beneath all soil. Nitrogen and carbon comes from the air. There are few things that can be deficient from most soils that would require input from outside. And that can even be gotten by attracting beneficial critters and having lots of tall plants (like trees) that collect minerals and other nutrients from particulate matter in the air depositing leaves and moisture runoff from their leaves onto the soil.
 
Phil Hawkins
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Well down here in Australia, we have phosphorus deficient soil, so where did all that go, and how (besides bringing in superphosphate) can we actually get it back?!
 
Paul Cereghino
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And if I understand correctly not just Phosphorus, but also many micronutrients most of us don't even think about.  Australian soils are very old.  I suspect all your nutrients are either cycling in the surrounding coastal ecosystems or buried in river delta sediment.  Because of that I suspect oceanic nutrient source might be a good way to slowly bring in a full spectrum of nutrients.

Phosphorus available to plants builds up slowly in the organic pools.  Fungal symbiants can increase phosphorus forage to associated plants.  Phosphorus also enters the system VERY slowly through particulates in rainfall.  I suspect your movable phosphorus sources comes from three sources... oceanic pools (bird guano deposits being prime), collected by ungulates (manure and bones), or a limited supply high phosphorus rock, which the powerful nations are carefully tracking and positioning around (the source of either rock phosphate or super-phos or triple).

Where you are not starting with a phosphorus deficiency, my understanding is that Phosphorus is not terribly mobile, and builds over time in organic matter pools.  However grain is loaded with phosphorus.  So grain agriculture is facing an inconvenient truth.

What I learned in enviro hort class is that when you dump phosphoric acid on a soil, lots of it is locked up in mineral bonding.  US Soils are loaded with phosphorus, but much of it is not available.  I wouldn't be surprised in Oz is the same.  On some of our urban soils where consumers habitually dump NPK, you can end up with Iron deficiency due to Phosphorus overload!  The problem is that the rich nations have, in this way, been squandering the limited global rock phosphate reserves.
 
ryan112ryan McCoy
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I think I need to reiterate two things: time frame and creation of matter.

A system, no matter how large, has a finite (countable) amount of everything.  Period.  

  • [li]A good system might be able to tap into more, open up access to more, but it all was ALREADY available resources[/li]
    [li]A system cannot create matter[/li]
    [li]In any physical or chemical change, matter is neither created nor destroyed but merely changed from one form to another.[/li]
    [li]conversion from one to another creates heat, which is lost into atmosphere[/li]
    [li]Heat is created at every step of the way, growth, human exertion to plant, growth, absorption of nutrients, exertion in harvest, preparation of food, consumption, digestion, excretion, composting, returning to land[/li]
    [li]That is a lot of heat created that over time adds up and we can't get back 100%[/li]


  • The time frame most here are considering is too short:

  • [li]We need to consider not 100 years, but 100 million years[/li]
    [li]Because of the above, eventually we lose a small portion over time[/li]
    [li]This loss is cumulative over millions of years, eventual degrading too much[/li]

  •  
    Hugh Hawk
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    Nutrients tend to end up in the sea eventually, which has trace levels of many elements.  Kelp is one way to harvest this and return it to the land.

    Australian soils are low in phosphorus as they are old and have been subject to much weathering.

    Have a look at the phosphorus cycle in this graph:

    http://www.lenntech.com/phosphorus-cycle.htm

    After the phosphorus ends up in the sea, it is taken up by marine life and then deposited on the bottom of the ocean.  Material from here is subducted through trenches into the earth's mantle (the next layer down) and then brought back up at mid-ocean ridges.  But the new crust that is formed is mainly oceanic (basalt), whereas continental crust (granite) is thought to be very old oceanic crust which has aged for a long time.  So according to this model, the phosphorus doesn't really have a way to get cycled back onto the land except through weathering of phosphorus-rich rock.

    This site has more detailed information about the components of the phosphorus cycle:

    http://www.libraryindex.com/pages/3375/Phosphorus-Cycle.html


    In terrestrial systems, phosphorus resides in three pools: bedrock, soil, and living organisms (biomass). Weathering of continental bedrock is the principal source of phosphorus to the soils that support continental vegetation; atmospheric deposition is relatively unimportant. Phosphorus is weathered from bedrock by the dissolution of phosphorus-bearing minerals such as apatite (Ca10[PO4]6[OH,F,Cl]2), the most abundant primary phosphorus mineral in crustal rocks. Weathering reactions are driven by the exposure of minerals to acids mainly derived from microbial activity. Phosphate solubilized during weathering is available for uptake by terrestrial plants and is returned to the soil by the decay of dead plant material.


    There are also reports that mycorrhizal fungi can play a role in this biochemical weathering, by releasing acids to stimulate the release of phosphorus from apatite, a phosphorus-rich mineral.

    So I suspect that the answer is (a) to be far more more responsible in our cycling of phosphorus, e.g. in wastes, and (b) to utilise appropriate tree species to accelerate biochemical weathering which can release phosphorus contained in bedrock.
     
    Hugh Hawk
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    Ryan: Earth is not a closed system as we receive constant energy input from the sun.  The energy degrades to low quality forms like heat and leaves the system via re-radiation to space.  This is a constant flux rather than being a finite amount which can be depleted (well, until the sun dies anyway).

     
    Derek Brewer
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    Hugh H. wrote:
    Ryan: Earth is not a closed system as we receive constant energy input from the sun.  The energy degrades to low quality forms like heat and leaves the system via re-radiation to space.  This is a constant flux rather than being a finite amount which can be depleted (well, until the sun dies anyway).


    +1 The sun provides energy to plants and closes the loop to a large degree. Now, in 4 billion years time, this won't happen anymore. But hopefully we'll have moved on by then. Or found a way to recharge the sun... 
     
    Paul Cereghino
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    •In any physical or chemical change, matter is neither created nor destroyed but merely changed from one form to another.
    •conversion from one to another creates heat, which is lost into atmosphere


    Except photosynthesis, THE critical process where energy is stored in chemical bonds.  This is the net gain at the scale relevant to biota. 

    Yes the sun is dying and life on earth with it - than the questions becomes... so what?

    (whoops, basically just repeated TheLight  :wink
     
                              
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    I think this largely depends on the lifestyle you want to sustain.   The average lifestyle in the 'civilized' world is so horribly wasteful, that if you used that mindset you'd salt the earth in no time.

    On the other hand, look at hunter gatherers and 'primitive' peoples who live sustainably in deserts, on islands, in the arctic, in tropic jungles, in mountians, valleys, plains, tundra, etc.   They seemed to be able to, for the most part live sustainably from paleolithic times on until industry pooped on the earth.

    Somewhere in between the two extremes there's a point of unsustainability.   If you are a hunter gatherer, you'll have a similar effect on you land as, maybe, a black bear would, and just be part of the natural system's balance.  

    I spent close to two years as a coastal hunter gatherer, picking fruits and coconuts, spearfishing, and ocean harvesting.   I'd feed a group of about 10-15 with what I can easily harvest in a day using not much more than a snorkel, mask, net bag, and a fancy metal pointy stick.

    But unfortunately man has changed the landscape so drastically that a paleolithic lifestyle is almost impossible, as we now need to compensate for the destruction that industry has done.   If we hadn't paved, plowed, mined, drilled, slash and burned, and toxified our environment with excessive lifestyle demands, we wouldn't need permaculture.

     
    ronie dee
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    ryan112ryan wrote:
    I think I need to reiterate two things: time frame and creation of matter.

    A system, no matter how large, has a finite (countable) amount of everything.  Period.  

  • [li]A good system might be able to tap into more, open up access to more, but it all was ALREADY available resources[/li]
    [li]A system cannot create matter[/li]
    [li]In any physical or chemical change, matter is neither created nor destroyed but merely changed from one form to another.[/li]
    [li]conversion from one to another creates heat, which is lost into atmosphere[/li]
    [li]Heat is created at every step of the way, growth, human exertion to plant, growth, absorption of nutrients, exertion in harvest, preparation of food, consumption, digestion, excretion, composting, returning to land[/li]
    [li]That is a lot of heat created that over time adds up and we can't get back 100%[/li]


  • The time frame most here are considering is too short:

  • [li]We need to consider not 100 years, but 100 million years[/li]
    [li]Because of the above, eventually we lose a small portion over time[/li]
    [li]This loss is cumulative over millions of years, eventual degrading too much[/li]




  • Heat is not matter so you don't lose a single atom when the heat radiates into the night sky.  The solar input is far greater than any heat lost. The solar gain far exceeds anything you do that loses heat.  (You will not be able to capture but a small percent of the solar gain on your land, but there are ways to increase the amount of solar energy you capture.)

    You are right that we need to keep our eye on the 100 million future, but we can only do the best we can with our own 100 years. Those who keep their footprint small will do much for the future. By reasoning that I MUST do everything in my power to make my footprint smaller - I should kill myself to end my print - I'm not willing to go to this extreme so I can either make my print small or not worry about my print or somewhere in between.

    I choose a happy medium where I do the best I can and not worry aho lot. The grand scheme of matter conservation tends to buffer what I do to survive.

    I can skip some steps in your energy efficiency calorie chart by eating green plants, but I have enough land to let the bird eat the plant and I eat the bird. I actually eat more green plants than anyone I personally know, but I'm sure others (like vegans) eat more greens than I do.

    Why MUST your land be totally self contained? I can walk off the land and bring in a bucket of dirt from the ditch downstream. Which brings up the point that it is mainly the natural process of erosion that takes matter off your land not so much of your surviving there... So to conserve YOUR matter you would slow erosion.. (When you do this you have an effect downstream as there are some things down there that are living off your erosion.)

    You could do things so that matter walks onto your land such as plant nut trees or other plants or things that attract animals.

     
                                      
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    it seems like the original poster is trying to square newtons' first and second laws with the permaculture theories of abundance.  i'd suggest that the OP consider the timeline underwhich entropy occurs and the potential for species and biomass accumulation from the surrounding areas based on providing a healthful environment.
     
    Casey Halone
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    I think the universe could be viewed as a closed loop. But it comes back to the sun and that wearing out. its quite a bit to ponder.
     
    paul wheaton
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    (I've been asked to chime in)

    The answer to this question is the same as the answer to most questions:  it depends.

    There are dozens of variables to consider to come up with even a lame answer.

    Consider the permaculture projects that started with a desert and ended with a jungle. 

    Consider that places that were once devastated and useless eventually were covered in trees and lush vegetation.

    If we talk about one person on ten acres, then it is possible to destroy that land in just days.  And it is possible to destroy that land in ten years.  And it is possible to get all of the food one needs from that and to make the land lusher and lusher every year. 

    As for "Humanity isn't sustainable" - I think that for a certain set of humans, this is certainly true.  For a set of permaculture savvy people, I think humanity is not only sustainable, but humanity can be the best thing that happened to the earth.

     
    Terri Matthews
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    I have clover in my lawn.

    When the amount of nitrogen goes up the grass makes good use of it and crowds out the clover and the clover diminishes. When the grass has used up too much nitrogen then the clover crowds out the grass and then I have great patches of clover. Until the grass makes use of the nitrogen the clover is fixing and begins to crowd the clover again.

    It goes back and forth. I cut the lawn and I mulch with the clippings, but the parent plants remain and stay healthy. The sun supplies any energy that has been lost to the plants when I mow.

    The land is healthy, but not the same from year to year. I see permaculture as being like this: always changing but never unhealthy.

    Humans do not impact on land poorly: too MANY humans impact on land poorly. Fortunately, we are intelligent enough to minimize this impact if we choose to do so: as far as the soil is concerned we are just another animal.

    According to Euel Gibbons, the American Indians ate yucca. When they gathered it they also propagated it. Some South American Indians did the same thing: If you gathered the mature sugar cane then you immediately tucked a promising shoot in where the parent plant had been.

    In that manner there was always yecca and always sugar cane to eat.
     
    Benjamin Burchall
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    I think it also needs to be said that sustainability is not enough. I've been considering dropping the term. It's a term a great many have become comfortable with in the environmental movement.  When I think of sustainability, I ask, "What are we sustaining? What conditions and period of time should be sustained?" It gets very murky when you ask people to define sustainability.

    Better concepts to work with might be regeneration and resilience. At this point, our practices should tend toward regeneration - regeneration of soil, of clean water, of social systems, etc. - which, to me, seems to be a major thrust of permaculture. The second thing is to understand that wanting to build systems that don't change over time is a strike against resilience. As Terri is pointed out with her example of the resilience of a lawn of grass and clover, our systems and design process have to be responsive enough to conditions we cannot control or predict to be able to meet our needs. A permaculture site is a dynamic rather than a static thing.

    So, if by sustainable we mean having a system that can stay the same forever and still fulfill the needs of the parties involved, then I'd say that on-site sustainability is a fantasy that amounts to nothing more than mental-emotional masturbation. However, if we mean that site can be support the health of people and the environment indefinitely through regenerative practices and resilient systems and responses, then I say "YES!" (That's notwithstanding the destruction of the earth by a supernova or a powerful gamma ray burst from a nearby star or some other global catastrophe humans can't control. LOL) I think what will determine whether a site WILL be sustainable in that way is the state of the human minds in control of that land. Will we actually do what is necessary to have that kind of sustainability? Do we know enough yet to do it? Will we maintain our commitment in going in that direction?
     
    Robert Ray
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    Maybe self-reliant or self-supporting are the words I'm searching for to describe my vision of permaculture. Sustainable is a state of stasis, I would hope for better than  a static effort I want to strive for maximum return for intelligent application of methods that do no harm.
     
    Jonathan Byron
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    The buffalo prairie went on providing life for many species in a rather sustainable fashion for a long time. China's "Farmers of 40 Centuries" had some good years and some lean years, but kept on going. Based on the idea of sustainability as 'providing for our needs, without robbing future generations of the ability to provide for their needs' I would say yes, sustainability is possible. Not at all population levels, not at all levels of material consumption, but possible.
     
    Terri Matthews
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    Robert Ray wrote:
      Sustainable is a state of stasis, I would hope for better than  a static effort I want to strive for maximum return for intelligent application of methods that do no harm.
    I do not believe that stasis is possible, whether or not humans are present.

    Living things grow, reproduce, and die. Populations change and change back. Wanting stasis is like wanting to be 30 forever.

    Forests grow and spread and then they burn down and grassland takes over. Then more trees grow and reproduce, and the land is forested again until the next fire-or the next drought- or the next attack of beetles kill the trees.

    Then it will be grassland again until a new forest grows.
     
    Benjamin Burchall
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    I do not believe that stasis is possible, whether or not humans are present.


    That's at the heart of why I argued that sustainability isn't the best goal concept.

    If nothing else humans have been resilient. Our species has faced dramtic environmental changes through ice ages and warm periods leading to a cascade of global changes in weather patterns, local climates and land changes. We have colonized just about the whole planet and our numbers have swelled to an  estimated 6.5 buh-buh-billion. We are the most successful of all animal life on the planet in evolutionary terms. What we haven't been successful at is proper care of our environmental resources.

    I think self-reliance and self-supporting aren't concepts that totally gel with the reality of human nature. We are a social species. Our long-term survival depends on how well we cooperate to meet our needs. Maybe self-reliance and self-supporting need defining. Are we talking at the individual level? At the nuclear family level? Extended family level? Neighborhood, city, region, etc.?

    I guess my point here is that this permaculture thing is complex. There are no sure fire solutions. There are only responses to conditions that we hope will take us where we want to go. I don't think there is an agreed upon one place to go, but that doesn't mean we have to stay put where we are. It is enough to have a general idea and work from there modifying our course as we go. Well, there's that resilience thing again.
     
    Robert Ray
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      I guess since permaculture is focusing of food production so my self-reliance or self-supporting should be defined as diet self-reliance with low impact ideally and that would be more than subsistence farming as I have seeen in some countries.
    The abundance without negatives that I think permaculture might offer over some current practices. Permaculture  should include and does I think promote plants that incorporate environmental resilience for a particular area/zone. Some years lots of potatoes and some years lots of tomatoes it happens that way with gardens.
    When I mentioned stasis it would mean after development a resilient perfect permaculture garden will hopefully be a continual garden that requires little or less effort to obtain that continued food production. That elusive point of equlibrium. Not static in that there would be no effort to cull or replace but static in reaching the point of maximum production of a garden, patio or farm depending on scale.
    Sustanability? Just what is it? They could feed me with a tube and I would be sustained.
    No piece of property will provide that need for social interaction that we all require to differing degrees. 
    I've touched on non-agrarian sustainable use of properties before. Millstones produced on a piece of property responsibly by a quarryman. His ability to trade the millstones for wheat he can grind. Is his use and knowledge of harvesting the stone sustainable? Is the responsible harvest on that property for a product that promotes my ability for a self reliant diet permaculture?
     
    Benjamin Burchall
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    Robert Ray wrote:
    When I mentioned stasis it would mean after development a resilient perfect permaculture garden will hopefully be a continual garden that requires little or less effort to obtain that continued food production.


    This is the only part that I get stuck on. I do not believe that is possible. Let me clarify that. It is possible over a period of time. However, environments do change having nothing to do with human influence. For instance, I think permaculture has take into account global warming and cooling cycles from ice ages to ice retreat. (These are related to the wobble of the earth's as well, cycles in ocean current temperatures, and volcanic activity.) Add in the acceleration of global warming by human activities. How could we plant a garden today that will sustain our descendants 200 or 300 years into the future when we don't even know exactly how much the environment will change and what locations will have the greatest change? Being resilient would mean being able to decisively respond to conditions that may be very different to the conditions in which we are planting today.

    Even over the short term, you'll probably find that after 5 or so years, you'll need to do some redesigning, replanting of areas, and cutting back or removing of vegetation in order to maintain maximum yield. Whatever system you set up will continually be pushed by natural processes toward becoming mature forest. Mature forests do not give maximum yield of food for humans. So, in order to continue to get maximum yield or close to it, you'll need to periodically interrupt the march towards mature forest and take the land back to an earlier stage. I believe this is why observation and modification is such an integral part of permaculture. I seems like you just can't set up a perfect permaculture system and expect to maintain it with little to no work forever. I would definitely agree that even the work I mentioned above amounts to much less work than conventional and organic gardening.

    What do you think of that? Am I hitting on what you were thinking or am I talking about a different aspect than you intended?
     
    Robert Ray
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    Scale of a project would be a factor. One with a large plot would certainly have a more difficult time than a homescale or urban lot.
    I would argue that the dirt stirring a permaculturist is possible of can change the landscape and environment.
    Resilience suggests adaptability and if you have ever been in an earthquake or hurricane you will understand that our environment is or can be harsh unforgiving it also shows just how fragile humans are against nature. How fast will global warming occur, how deep will the snow be this year? I have control over the seed I plant and the care I give it. Will the hypothetic global warming change if we all become more atuned to the earth?
    If we are talking 300 years we have the ability to slowly change, if we are talking immediate disaster, planning and storage will hopefully carry one through.
    Static was probably to strong a word for me to use but I did say that it would still require culing and replacement. I certainly agree with you that the work after a permie plot is developed and designed there will be less work than conventional ways. Not easy work but work that has less environmental impact.
      Current ways and waste is definitely not sustainable I like to think I'm forward looking.
    The original post never indicated size of plot. What would you see as a ideal?
     
    Fred Winsol
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    I guess it would be nice to have a net positive food and living system, but can we really live by current solar rays only?  Another way to look at this is to operate within a totally closed loop.  I doubt if that is possible.  Even Biosphere 2 couldn't pull it off.  Read 'Gaiome' by Kevin Polk for a real assessment on this.  He's got the best overview of permaculture's role in the future.

    The best we can do RIGHT NOW, is to reduce our 7 calories needed (in fossil fuel) for every 1 calorie we eat. 

    Heck, even a 2:1 ratio here would be an earth shattering accomplishment.

     
    Paul Cereghino
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    I'd suggest the ideal scale for pilot 'net gain' system development is likely at the 10-50 person scale.  Any less and you don't have the ability for specialization and concentration of effort and method development (too few are too preoccupied with survival).  More then that and you are dependant on maintaining social consensus in a seductive world.  Then acreage scales to head count based on climate.

    The princile expoused by Mollison is to amortize installation cost of system lifespan.  So preferred treatments are heavier on installation than operation energy costs (thus the earthworks)
     
    Robert Ray
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    I think specialization is a good point.
     
    maikeru sumi-e
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    winsol3 wrote:
    I guess it would be nice to have a net positive food and living system, but can we really live by current solar rays only?  Another way to look at this is to operate within a totally closed loop.   I doubt if that is possible.  Even Biosphere 2 couldn't pull it off.  Read 'Gaiome' by Kevin Polk for a real assessment on this.  He's got the best overview of permaculture's role in the future.

    The best we can do RIGHT NOW, is to reduce our 7 calories needed (in fossil fuel) for every 1 calorie we eat. 

    Heck, even a 2:1 ratio here would be an earth shattering accomplishment.




    I agree. I don't think it's a bad thing to have gradual replenishment of nutrients on the land from the "sinks" (lakes, oceans, landfills) where we sent the nutrients and materials to. Right now we have too many open-ended paths where energy, nutrients, and material are lost in staggering amounts. We need to learn how to cycle and recycle.
     
    Topher Belknap
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    Some things to note:

    1) The energy from the Sun isn't decreasing, it is increasing. We will burn far before we freeze.
    2) The Sun will eventually die, nothing on Earth is sustainable past that point.
    3) The heat that leaves the Earth, almost exactly the amount of energy the the Sun provides (otherwise we would be getting a lot hotter).
    4) The proof that (given those limitations) on-site sustainability is not impossible, is to assume your 'site' is the Earth. Life has been sustained on this site for almost 4 Billion years. It could well last another 4 Billion. For people that generally don't plan more than 1 quarter ahead, and have NEVER planned more than 7 generations ahead, that should be ample.
    5) That is not an excuse to be stupid. *Trees* almost killed everything on Earth once. [Mushrooms saved us.]
     
    Alder Burns
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    Just a few loose tidbits to throw into this simmering pot:

    Nature does have means, both fast and slow, for recycling phosphorus and other minerals back from the ocean. Salmon come first to mind....by growing to full size on oceanic nutrients and then swimming as far upstream as they can to spawn and die. If bears grab them, they then poop out the phosphorus and nitrogen and other stuff away in the woods at a distance. Even if they just rot in the creeks, the streamside trees grab the minerals.....Careful research (based on the fact that ocean derived minerals have different isotope ratios) shows that in undisturbed salmon watersheds this nutrient recycle can be significant. A survey of the world's fish will show that most rivers, worldwide, have or at least had one or more species of anadromous fish (fish which spend part of their lives at sea and part in fresh water). Though some do not die after spawning, they are still vulnerable to predation, and deposit oceanically based nutrients in upstream waters.
    Even goats make soil erosion go in reverse, because they like to rest on hilltops and ridgelines, where they can watch for predators, and deposit manure there that comes from browse eaten further downhill. (Of course, if there are too many, their destructive capabilities will quickly overwhelm this subtle benefit)
    Think, too, of the guanos deposited by flocks of migrating birds....moving nutrients, seeds, pathogens, etc. across whole continents. I once saw a bamboo grove in GA that had been used as a winter roost by a flock of blackbirds....it was two or three inches deep in the stuff, with dead birds here and there. That was some happy bamboo!
    On the larger scale though, the human race is in serious overshoot. More than one source estimates the nitrogen throughput as at least 40% derived from fossil fuel based fixation. Both population and consumption need to cut back, and drastically, as well as some serious system redesign on every scale, to prevent or ameliorate some serious drama forthcoming from this.
    Unless the scientists pull some rabbit out of their hat.....
     
    Peter Ellis
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    If one considers the OP's calculus, then the only sustainable ecosystem is the one on the planetary scale. Completely ignoring human involvement, animals of all sorts move through areas, shifting nutrients around from place to place. Wind, rain, fire, tectonic activity can all move nutrients about. On a near infinite time line, stars have a finite life expectancy and ultimately the ecosystem is unsustainable because the source of exterior energy fades (or surges, or both).

    In terms of any actual farm scale activity - no, it is not possible to close the loop and continue the operation indefinitely. However, why would we want to? the ecosystem we live in is not meant to operate on that basis. Even on a global scale, it is not a closed system, the vast majority of our energy comes from outside in the form of solar radiation.

    I think what we need to do is be responsible, not wasting resources in profligate fashion, but using them efficiently. That is quite different from trying to close the loop entirely on a small piece of land.

    One method of being efficient is to attempt to close the loop as much as possible, but it has to be recognized that it cannot be done completely. It is probably not even desirable to do so. Do you really want only the pollinators bred and raised on your farm on your farm? What do they look like a hundred generations in the future, when they have had no outside genetics introduced? That example applies across pretty much the entire spectrum of life on a farm.

    I think it is not possible to create a truly closed system (outside of something equivalent to a space ship, an entirely self contained system - and even then energy needs to come from outside) and that such a completely closed system is self limiting because lack of genetic diversity will eventually result in collapse.
     
    George Meljon
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    Maybe we can go get some moon rock some day.
     
    I'm still in control here. LOOK at this tiny ad!
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