We were discussing a question about the ethics of wood chips in another thread. Some people feel like it is "cheating" to import materials. That is valid, I think we are all looking to get to a point where we don't need to add anything to the systems we install.
That being said, there is another assumption that I think is a contradiction at the heart of the Church of Mollisonism. This would be represented by this statement in the thread:
If you didn't request the wood, it would've likely ended up as mulch for highway landscaping growing natives on some very marginal land or municipally composted
This could be true of any imported item. I am remineralizing with rock dust, using purchased molasses in my compost tea brewer, etc. The list of my sins is long.
The contradiction is this- permaculture is designed to mimic natural systems. But those systems would already be in place naturally if some intervention was not required to achieve them. Those interventions essentially always involve importing something from off site.
I can imagine an extremely austere form of permaculture on the order of Primitive Technology where the only thing imported is a human from off-site. But no one is doing it. It is an intellectual exercise in my opinion. Even the Primitive Technology guy doesn't live on his place or claim to. If we can accept that philosophy means a reversion to stone age technology, we can talk about how to decrease continuing inputs from off site. I would argue that my ideal system always robs one area to improve another, because I think I can do better than randomness.
Sorry, just something I was thinking about tracing a wiring issue last evening. The mind wanders... /rant
Standing on the shoulders of giants. Giants with dirt under their nails
If someone buys or inherits a parcel of land that was used in an ecologically and unsustainable manner, then fast tracking the Permaculture process is a matter of weighing up the factors.
We're talking about an environment already changed by humans, and one that will continue to mainly fulfil human needs, it's not a pristine wilderness. Remember, at its heart, Permaculture is simply a different type of agriculture.
Importing materials in an ethical manner would balance the scales e.g. If a company is chipping timber nearby for whatever reason unrelated to my property, then acquiring those chips falls somewhere between neutral and highly beneficial because I didn't instigate the tree felling process, by taking the chips doesn't create more incentive to fell more trees to make chips, and they're going to a higher purpose to genuinely improve the environment and, in a broader sense, the neighbouring community.
Same goes for leftover sand and gravel from nearby road or building construction - it would otherwise be dumped, so all the energy that went into its mining, production and transport would be wasted.
It's akin to dumpster diving!
No ethical dilemma here, given those circumstances.
'Every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.'
It's my considered opinion that this isn't an ethical question. It's a question of scale.
If your system is so focused that you can identify waste streams that you can't put to use yourself, it can be argued that the scope of your system is insufficient. To my mind, it's not "importing" materials. From where are they imported? From another system? From another solar system? Come on, now. If you're using someone else's waste stream, you've just connected your two systems; they are, in fact, interacting, so there is no importation of any kind.
To determine specifics in the matter, we need to determine what the perceived ills are in importing materials. If it's petroleum consumed in the transportation of those goods, that's a specific concern that can be addressed. If you are paying someone to load a cargo container full of exotic wood chips and ship it half a world away on an otherwise empty freighter, that's a pretty wasteful, senseless practice; I would consider that stupid and needless, and I suppose, by some definitions, immoral, especially if you can get the arbourists' truck to make a pit-stop at your place to dump their chips, saving them the rest of their trip to the landfill in time and gas.
In my opinion, it's not the fact that the materials are coming from outside the system (because that is an arbitrary delineation) that's the source of the ill, but the way those materials get to the site. I think we can agree that being wasteful with things like petroleum is unethical when there's an alternative.
So in my view, import all you need, import all you like. But do so in the most environmentally appropriate way and from the most appropriate sources available to you.
To turn it on its head, how ethical is it to let land in our stewardship lay fallow and largely barren, without remediation, when with an inch-layer of locally imported wood chips, some aerated compost extract, and some fungal slurry, it could be kickstarted into much healthier pollinator habitat, pasture, and even crop or garden lands. How ethical is it to not optimise the fertility of land already cleared, but to clear wild, undisturbed natural space and convert it into farmland? How ethical is it to take tonnes of material that could otherwise quickly and effectively be turned into high-quality mulch and soil for the growth of food, and instead dump it in a landfill, to offgas methane into the atmosphere?
I think that there are larger ethical issues in permaculture than this. I think raising ethical issues that aren't really ethical issues is an ethical issue all its own.
Is it ethically justifiable to sit here discussing ethical questions that really aren't that important when we could be out doing good permacultural things?
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
Yes, I am a big fan of waste stream usage. But beyond that, I have to replace the power steering pump (as of 10 minutes ago) because otherwise the tractor won't steer. I can't subsoil/keyline without a tractor. These are disposable goods I am importing, not waste streams.
I am fascinated by what Zach Weiss does, because he is trying to use disposables for their most utility, not trying to live without them. I think that "mindfulness" (second most overused word) is important moving forward if you want wide adoption of permaculture. I am fine with a plastic roof liner for an underground house, not as cool with a plastic mulch. It's many multiples of the plastic in the roof compared to one year of mulch, but provides more service. These decisions ought to cause contemplation, but not paralysis. Anyhoo, back to fixing freaking equipment. Thanks for the input!
Standing on the shoulders of giants. Giants with dirt under their nails
Having to import materials means using resources to get that stuff there - often money. It's depriving one area of a resource to feed another. It's worse if it is a finite resource.
We import resources to transform land into something we envision. But often this ignores that the land already has everything it needs to become something even better. As humans, our vision is limited. We see a vegetable garden, when maybe the land would be better off as an orchard or pasture, or both. But it's not in a convenient place to be a pasture, so we import stuff to force it to grow vegetables.
Not everyone has access to a land that is perfect for growing squash. But we have the tools to transform the land by moving stuff in.
Quite often people do this badly - think chemical fertilizer - by creating systems that need constant inputs and irrigation to be maintained. That's expensive. I advocate importing as little as possible to create a system that is self-feeding.
If a system is well designed to match the location and the humans maintaining it, then importing materials works.