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Permaculture and Plastic / Chemicals: What's OK and when?

Posts: 1278
Location: Okanogan Highlands, Washington
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This is a response to Paul's recent podcast with our friend Daniel Hatfield from Australia.

They talk about a lot of great stuff, including our (Ernie and Erica's) upcoming visit to Australia. Yay thoughtful conversations! And of course I want to chime in.

Around the middle of the podcast, they got into the idea of 'Mollisonian' permaculture. Specifically, they start discussing whether it's OK to jump-start your permaculture by using non-permaculture methods like chemical fertilizers or fossil-fueled pumps. Daniel says Bill Mollison is generously allowing a lot of people to call things 'Permaculture' that don't 100% follow the book; this may include compromises with commercial or industrial techniques.

Paul says he may not be OK with this. Specifically, Paul doesn't like the idea of ever using petroleum products on soil - but Paul freely admits that his WOFATI design calls for petroleum-based waterproofing materials.... just a lot less of these materials than would be involved in a conventional home. (But they do have to be new, or their leak-proofing abilities are pretty useless.)
Ernie and I have a similar choice to make around boat materials: is it more sustainable to use plywood made with sustainably-grown small trees but petroleum-derived glues, vs. trying to find straight-grained old-growth lumber for traditional boatbuilding?
And with Rocket Mass Heaters: are we betraying the concept if we use new materials, vs. waste-stream materials like scrap metal and reclaimed brick?

Is it OK to use 'less' of a bad thing?
How much is counts as 'sustainable' or 'permaculture'?

- Appropriate design has to include a lot more context than it does theory. If the question is, "Is it ever OK to use chemicals in permaculture?" I would need more information before I would answer.
If 'chemical' means applying persistent pesticides or salts in a manner that hurts your soil more than it helps, there's no point.
How about 'chemicals' extracted through mining or drilling from natural sources? That could include tractor fuels for keyline plowing, or the H2O that's extracted from local underground aquifers.
Ongoing application of all the above chemicals isn't sustainable. But I think a lot more permies are going to be comfortable with temporary irrigation to establish shade trees, or temporary plowing to establish adequate groundwater supplies. than with 'temporary' DDT to nuke-and-pave a pest-free design zone.

- Is permaculture really harder than the supermarket lifestyle?
Change is hard. Living sustainably is a lot easier once you know how. The transition and learning curves can be painful, especially if forced.
Changing your lifestyle is the hardest part, especially if you aren't cutting yourself any slack about how fast you change.
Is it really easier to find the car keys, drive to the store for BisQuick, wait in line, and then go back because you forgot the milk, than it is to make biscuits? Not if you know how to make scratch biscuits, and a few substitutions. I find it's easier to make biscuits, even if I'm out of butter and substituting cooking oil, than to make a 40-minute trip to the store. But if you are trying to bake biscuits for the first time, using your new cob oven, while trying to entertain 30 workshop participants, you are going to have a meltdown. Hopefully, you are not going to break up with your sweetie if they show up with a hot box of KFC biscuits to serve with your organic, home-grown, fava-bean stew.
Likewise, being vegetarian might be healthier, and natural building might be healthier. However, an overweight diabetic who tries a (poor) vegetarian diet for the first time, while trying to push a wheelbarrow full of cob up ramp for the first time, will be lucky to avoid passing out or even having a heart attack.
The 'hard' part is un-learning old habits, learning your limits while finding workable alternatives, wrestling with the gap between ideals and reality, and trying to survive in an unfinished system. It's like living in a fixer-upper house while you are remodeling it. The remodel is ultimately supposed to make life better, but it doesn't feel that way at the time.

Many elders reach a point where they can't chop their own firewood or raise their own food. Many elders reach a point where they can't drive to the supermarket, safely, either.
In any system, we take care of each other.

- I agree with both Paul and Daniel that this is an issue where everyone chooses their own path... it's poor manners (and unproductive) to criticize others' efforts, especially if you haven't lived it.

Ultimately it's about making appropriate choices that you can live with.
Appropriate = fits with local conditions, including climate, soils, personal experience or skills, and social tolerances.

-Erica W
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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Erica Wisner wrote:
In any system, we take care of each other.

We make things less hard by helping each other.

Posts: 40
Location: St. Paul, MN, USA
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I like the saying about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Sometimes people only make superficial or easy changes and it seems to not amount to anything worthwhile (for example, someone switches to CFL bulbs instead of getting a new efficient furnace "to save money and be greener"). It really does no good to chastize them, and the small step they made (even if it was kinda in the wrong direction) may have been a HUGE change in their overall awareness, decision-making priorities, etc. It may be "better" for them.

I think it's good when people are just thinking harder or being more open to trying something healthier.

I'm reminded of the breastfeeding wars in thinking on this. You have moms who are super judgmental and confrontational to bottle-feeders (including breast milk bottles!) and formula of any kind. Then you have more reasonable moms who promote "breast is best" but understand it is not always the right decision and sometimes families need another caregiver feeding with a bottle or supplemental formula for some reason. And ultimately I think that second group does more good and converts more people to try to breastfeed a bit more than the hyper-judgmental group that makes people feel bad for their limitations or guilty for their choices. It might seem like taking the hard line on an issue is the best way to promote something you really, really believe in, but imagining yourself in the shoes of the person being converted or preached to makes it easy to see how the self-righteous all-or-nothing arguments are very off-putting.

Vegetarian/vegan people have those effects too (the nice approach offers omnivores smart ideas like "meatless Mondays" and the more uppity approach makes fun of meatless Monday eaters as futile posers). It's easy to dismiss small progress as "not enough" until you realize that a lot of small changes add up and lead to more changes down the road.

Plus, there are always varying opinions on things like peak oil. I personally have a very different view than many permaculture fans. I don't think peak oil will amount to jack squat. Really. I think it's y2k all over again. Smart (and greedy) capitalists are on it. There will be alternatives developed to meed demands because it will be very profitable to make it happen. I don't have plans to use plastic or petro chemicals in my gardening future, but I would not shy away from them if they were the best solution because of worries about long-term sustainability. Better to use those plastics today to heal land and build a thriving local food source than to get poorer results or make things harder than they need to be (if we don't use the tail end of the cheap petro economy for GOOD and building a better system, someone else will just use those same resources for more of the common bad or worse). Our petroleum base is still a strong natural resource and good people deserve to use it for good projects. If all the good people stop using it altogether... it will still get used up. But someone else will be using it to build more of what didn't work in the past, isn't working now, and won't be the best option in the future (because once gas is expensive, alternative fuels become economically viable at a massive scale).

Put another way, if there were 5 awesome sticks left on the planet, and permaculturists could use them to do something amazing, I would much rather have all 5 awesome sticks doing something amazing than say "well, there are only 5, and they're not sustainable so just let some developer use them all up to build McMansions and McDonald's".
Destiny's powerful hand has made the bed of my future. And this tiny ad:
3 Plant Types You Need to Know: Perennial, Biennial, and Annual
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