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Ethics of importing materials

 
pollinator
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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
 
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I see it as a means to an end.

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.

 
master pollinator
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I'm a devout Mollisonian and I import stuff all the time - seeds, plants, tools, building materials, food from the store.

I'd like to see the "don't import anything" folks describe how they live.  I'd be interested to see how they do it.
 
pollinator
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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?

-CK
 
Tj Jefferson
pollinator
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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!
 
master steward
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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.  

Importing materials also has a huge risk of importing toxins like the 'organic' hay that killed a huge swath of my land so that nothing could grow there for several years.

So importing isn't ideal and it's not sustainable.

However, it is a good stepping stone.  

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.  
 
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I think its ok to buy things that allow you to stop buying things. A cast iron pan has an environmental impact to create and ship to your house, but once you have it you'll never need to buy one again. Maybe its ok to import things for your garden that fit into the "cast iron pan category".
 
pollinator
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We are in a dense suburban area just 8 miles from Boston, so the waste streams are more like rivers, and the distances involved are generally short. In fact, the things I take in might otherwise be in for a trip somewhere farther away...

In my town, most folks have small lots, 1/4 or 1/6 acre, and aren't willing to "waste" any of that space to pile up their grass clippings, leaves, and sticks; so they haul it away.{or hire a service to do it} Then trek over to the garden center and buy fertilizer and mulch in bags. {or again, hire a service to do that}
The town has a transfer station (where residents pay for a permit {or hire a service} to haul their garbage, recycling, yard waste there to be "dealt with") and the compost piles are HUGE...12 feet high, 25-40 feet wide, 150 feet long, four of them most of the time. The brush and wood pile is 16 feet tall and 60 feet in diameter. They screen maybe 1/4 of that compost for town and residential use, but the town has to PAY someone to haul the rest of it all away!! (of course, after hiring the grinder for the brush, and the trommel screen for the compost...)

Talk about importing/exporting!!! The outflow of material, labor, and money to enable the process is kooky! IS THIS ETHICAL !?!? Because in my area, this is the default setting, and the notion that the ethics of "importing materials" in the midst of such a massive export could be questioned... seems a little weird.

On a small scale, with some professional equipment on my side, I can tap into that flow, and come November I get all the fall leaves I can want! and can even get paid it! (though I don't charge my immediate neighbors, which are my core effort for maintaining goodwill).
We also get all the wood chips we want from a local tree service that we use. They're happy to have a local place (under a mile from their shop) to drop the chips for free.

R Ranson is right about being wary of importing undesirable things. We have introduced weeds that we never had before with a load of cow manure, and elevated our phosphorus to excess by composting brewer's grain for a few years. Luckily no bad chemical/herbicide problems, but litter and trash sometimes (especially when I've grabbed bags of leaves from the curbside in the city next door).
 
pollinator
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I do not have a big moral issue with my life; but then again I am a minimalist by nature, and I try to do as much as I can for myself.

For me, I can build things out of concrete, but while I have to import (5) 94 bags of Portland cement to make a cubic yard of it, I use my own gravel from my own gravel pit, and water from the farm, to make 90% of it. So that falls in line with doing as much for myself as I can.

Katie's parents, and mine; they are just plain wasteful, and very materialistic. My parents have a 10 car garage filled with stuff...and only room for (2) cars to be stored inside. And their house is almost 6000 sq feet. They live 100% debt free, but then instead of giving it to social issues, waste it on stuff. One of our biggest problems when moving into this Tiny House was it shut the grandparents from buying stuff for our kids because we simply have no room for it. That is a lifestyle Katie and NEVER want to get into, and probably why we are minimalists, and give much of our money away to charity.

I live to live, not live for stuff.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Went on a little Salatin bender, which I am prone to do. I was reading (or re-reading) Wendell Berry this week, and Joel is, in my humble opinion, the heir apparent as a philosopher of agriculture. The part at around 9:40 where he discusses that Thomas Jefferson would have had a Tyson chicken operation is demonstrative.  Like Jefferson, we have the means of pulling in all kinds of input, making things more mechanized, more efficient, and more exportable. This is my problem, I could do approximately 2x the permaculture if I had a tax situation that would make my work deductable (because I am paying close to 50% taxes all-in fed/state/sales), and right now those are after-tax dollars. But reading Wendell Berry, that exportation is what feeds the disconnection from the land, by allowing others to be helpless. Its a challenge. Now that people see what I am doing, I could probably get close to a hundred acres within a modest walk to improve, for free.  Maybe with transferable leases for land use. This only makes sense if it pays off monetarily, because contra Berry (who is an honest Marxist based on his nurture/exploitation dichotomy, but from a libertarian bent, which is how my parents were), I can make a detached value judgement and see if I am better off in another use of my time and money. I do struggle with the monetization of agriculture but I don't know of a better model. I just don't have time to husband much more acreage if I am not able to turn it into a business, or co-opt others to help- and the reality is (I am sure this is not news) for every 20 people willing to help harvest, there is only one who will help tend.

It's the same with imported stuff. I can do "x" amount of improvement with rock dust for "y" input of fuel. I figure it takes under one gallon of diesel to get a truckload of rock dust from the quarry to my house (it is really close, and I am getting the material free). The dust is dried (they do that anyway, nothing I can do about it), and it takes me three hours to spread a 14 ton truckload of dust (which I put on top of woodchips in the manure spreader- in some other thread). That is another gallon of diesel, low RPM PTO spreading, another gallon to load the spreader (we use two machines at the same time). The wood chips are an import, but they take less fuel to get here than where they usually dump them, or they would dump there.

Back to Salatin-
at 5:00- he started out basically as a carbon scrounger. They actually bought a chipper! Not sure I would see the utility there, but I am encouraged that he did much the same starting out. I am already getting paid back, my field is deep green and the weather has been dry and upper 90s this last week. What was a moonscape now is a lush field begging for herbivores. I love the second video because he is hopeful that restoration agriculture can make up for the 30 year head start from chemical agriculture dominance. This, to paraphrase Joel, is what gets me up in the morning.

Kenneth

Talk about importing/exporting!!! The outflow of material, labor, and money to enable the process is kooky! IS THIS ETHICAL !?!? Because in my area, this is the default setting, and the notion that the ethics of "importing materials" in the midst of such a massive export could be questioned... seems a little weird.



This is my thinking too. I want this regenerative method to be so widespread that it is hard to find waste streams to use. I want to have to be quick to get the roadkill deer to throw in my compost. Then they are no longer waste streams. There is a risk that the process gets greenwashed and my organic chicken manure supplier basically markets as being "sustainable" because the waste is getting driven 15 miles to enrich my soil, and I worry about that. The rock dust I am getting for free becuase the quarry can look at my soil tests if they want to (along with a professor here that is interested in my projects). However, I see a modest downside and a big upside. Right now that dust gets dumped in a big piles on the backside of the quarry, a mile or so from the crusher. It runs off into the creek that feeds the river and is lost in the bay in a couple days, or sediments the dam.

In terms of the undesirable stuff that comes with it- so be it. I lost some trees to what I assume was armillaria in the chips. It is already here, there are spores around. Every so often someone puts a coffee cup or caution tape through the chipper. I pluck it out. There is probably some grease and fuel in the dust and chips. I live within 400 meters of a road that gets 14000 vehicles a day. My place should actively remove/metabolize that crap in the fungi, and keep it out of the watershed.  I am not here to make a little Eden, I am trying to sop up and remediate the folly in a wide radius.
 
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