So, are you sad that you didn't get to go to the Permaculture Voices conference? Did you go but you can't remember what was said? Well, I am an obsessive note taker (most of the time) and I took notes at most of the talks I attended. I will share them here with you!
Please note that this is in no way a transcription. These are my notes, taken in real time, on the fly, whilst trying to look at the slides and follow along. I find that note taking helps me synthesize information. None of this should be construed as an accurate quotation, even when I put it in quotes. (For example, I'm pretty sure not a single speaker used the utterance "Yo.") Much of the time, I am trying to summarize and it's entirely possible that I've gotten some things wrong.
My third notes document is Toby Hemenway. The topic this time was "Why Agriculture Can Never Be Sustainable"
We were given a tour of Little Bighorn by a ranger and the story that he painted was that the battle of Little Bighorn was a profound change for the nation. Typically you hear there were no survivors, but of course there were, they were just Native Americans. In the 1870’s gold was discovered in the Black Hills, right in the middle of the Great Sioux Reservation and Unceded Indian Territory, and the influx of white and african american gold diggers was unstoppable.
There was a great village of 7000 native americans and Custer mistook the dust and smoke for the people breaking camp (leaving). He attacked, thinking it was his only chance to move. All the soldiers were killed, and the Native Americans won the battle, but lost the war, when huge resources were brought in to retaliate.
Those Native Americans were “the free-est people of all” living in massive open spaces with incredible abundance of life (herds of 2 million bison were not unusual).
It goes back to the ancient split between the hunter/gatherers and the agriculturalists. For the farmer, the wild is the bad place. For the domesticated, the wild people are the scariest thing. They don’t need anything from a government.
“When I look at my dog, she is so much wilder than I am.” Agriculture is the domestication of people more than animals.
How did agriculture start? Well, first we settled places of abundance, then folks bred in abundance, then resources were used up and we had to develop agriculture. Or, hunter/gatherers were doing OK and then there was a climate change and we had to develop agriculture.
Agriculture is grounded in fear and insecurity. It is a mindset of scarcity.
We’ve had controlled use of fire for 800,000 years. People have been plant tending for ages (the native Californians were really big on this). There are ancient irrigation systems that predate “agriculture.” At least 30K-50K years ago.
About 50K years our brains evolved to where we had more frontal cortex. “The Revolution of Symbols” The first complex art is about 40K years old. Early native americans were horticultural, not agricultural.
Foraging or Hunter/Gatherer Peoples
Horticultural Peoples - a lot of wild tending
Agricultural Peoples - we are transforming landscapes
Interesting: the Eurasians could move huge distances east and west and keep using their staple crops. The other staple crops (bananas, yams, potatoes) were developed on north/south continental masses and you couldn’t move so far because the climate changes.
Also, the grain agriculture encourages massive plantings, gives you a highly storable surplus but requires technology to use it and store it. You end up needing structures to store it, people to police it, a lord to parcel it out, accountants to measure it, laws to regulate who gets it and when, punishments for those who disobey the law. Grain agriculture contains the seeds of the police state.
Farming inexorably increases population. Grains are carb rich and easily converted into calories, and that’s what really amps up fertility. Cooked food (porridge) allows earlier weaning, which means more pregnancies. The average birth interval in hunter/gatherer societies is 3-4 years (nursing a toddler while eating a low carb diet decreases fertility). The birth interval of people on a grain diet can be less than yearly.
Agricultural people are less healthy. Upon taking up agriculture, the lifespan drops a quarter or so. (The lifespan comes up much later, with sanitation and other things.) There are more degenerative diseases in agricultural people. There are more epidemics (many really bad germs jump from domesticated animals to humans). People are shorter - 3-4” shorter typically (again, this didn’t reverse until much much later). Famine is actually more common in agricultural societies. There were big famines less than every 10 years in the 14th-18th centuries.
Farming uses mass quantities of land. It used mass quantities of labor until the fossil fuel age arrived.
Foragers need 3 hours to gather a week’s worth of food. Farmers need 2-3 days for their food, plus more time for the rent, etc.
Agriculture is portable, and this leads to conquest.
Instead of knowing that nature is enough to provide, nature became the enemy. Agriculture creates the tame/wild dichotomy. We are told we don’t belong in the wilderness. That sort of thinking inexorably leads to smaller amounts of “wild.” (Ed: Permaculture says we need to be there, on the land, tending it.)
Agriculture destroys functional ecosystems and the feedback from degraded ecosystems is too slow to notice (and these days we make up for the losses with chemical fertilizers).
A civilization based on agriculture:
makes nature the enemy, destroys ecosystems, is based in scarcity, is more work, fosters hierarchy, (etc, missed some)
Toby says: a civilization disconnected from nature goes insane!
Toby questions: is sustainable agriculture an oxymoron?
What about sustainable horticulture? What if it’s not just a transition between foraging and farming?
The mound builders in Ohio, the Jomon of Japan tended oaks, chestnuts, beeches, buckeyes, various wild fish. The northwest coast people in america - tended camas, tended salmon. In ancient Oaxaca, they grew maize in amazing polycultures. The kumeyaay and Owens Valley Paiute. The Amazon is starting to look like a massive tended food forest - many more food plants near the rivers than chance would provide. The continental US was not the forest primeval, it was a tended food forest with chestnut, white oak, beechnuts, crabapples, cherries. . .
Permaculture is a new horticultural society. Food from a garden, not a farm, using a hoe, not a plow, small scale, mixed crops, encouraging succession (development of shrubs and trees). With permaculture, the ecosystems still function. (Story about a food forest in the jungle in South America).
Horticultural societies tend to have less hierarchy. They have more earth spirits and fewer sky gods. Seeing people as part of the ecosystem versus the stewards or dominators of the planet.
Surplus: this is difficult to define for us, because we live in a culture of scarcity. When you look at nature, you see abundance, not scarcity.
Life creates conditions conductive to life.
Permaculture says: catch and store energy and materials. (Story about a new center on basically beach in the Bahamas. Couldn’t let backwater hit the ground, because it would just leach into the ocean. So, they made concrete pools, filled with sand/gravel, and sent the sewage into it. Amazing pictures of the resulting oasis that grew in just a couple of years. There’s no smell, it’s full of birds and butterflies and this is where people hang out—the sewage treatment lagoons!)
Permaculture says: make the least effort for the greatest effect, so that a no-place becomes our place. (Story about the painted intersection in Portland. There are now 34 of these in Portland. There is now an “intersection repair” ordinance in Portland. Cityrepair.org is where you can learn more.)
Toby says: you should revise the self-sufficient dream. So many say “I want to grow all my own food on my own property.” This is sort of uniquely American, from our pioneer ancestors. Whoa dudes, where’s the sharing here? How about this:
“I want to meet my food needs sustainably.” This is more about community self-reliance.
Permaculture talks about zones. Closer to farther. If you live in a city/town, the zones for food are different.
Zone 1 would be your own garden, Zone 2 is your neighbors, your CSA, your community garden, Zone 3 is the farmer’s market, Zone 4 would be the independent groceries with a regional focus and finally zone 5 would be the big chain supermarkets (when you sneak into Costco and hope your friends don’t see you).
Food sovereignty laws: Citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods of their choosing. (like, raw milk)
We need to rebuild the informal economy. Can we create a pattern literate, local control of money flow?
In Seattle, there’s a big public food forest going into parkland in Beacon Hill. In Portland, the architect who started the City Repair project has a food forest in front of his office on a busy street.
Let’s think about peasant foods: dishes specific to a region or culture made with accessible and inexpensive ingredients. What are our indigenous foods?
Let’s have community seed-saving workshops, community tool-lending libraries, education that works (permaculture for kids!)
How do we do this? Permaculture is strategy. Strategies for the transition:
—observe and assess: what is the land and resource base, where are the skills and technologies, who are the allies, what will the obstacles be, start with the low hanging fruit, identify the people who are making the policy. This is how you get things done. Get people onboard.
Putting it all together (the permaculture flower). Many people come in to permaculture via food, but it applies to the whole flower: shelter, waste, security, culture, education, law, finance, food, energy, water.
Permaculture is a decision making tool that can apply to anything. This is why I love permaculture.
When I think about the profound freedoms that we lost when we came to agriculture, it breaks my heart. In permaculture we start where we are. Permaculture offers a road map from where were are now to a place more directly connected to spirit, where we know that it is the earth and the plants and the animals and the sun that support us.
What permaculture offers is a tool kit where we can see a world of abundance. We belong here and we have enough.
I loved your notes. I wish i was better at note taking. I usually have to rely on my memory. What a great lecture. So many people have forgotten or never learned about the Native American cultures. My father was Cherokee, So I was exposed at a young age to permaculture . He was a great steward of the land. We often foraged in the woods as children and lived off the land in a small cabin that he built near Cougar, Washington. When he passed away we moved to a mountain farm in northern NY. As an adult I also traveled and stayed in South Dakota, in Rapid City. I also spent some time in Wisconsin as well. Your notes took me back to those times. Thank you.
Hey Miles. Thanks for posting the video. What a fantastic speaker. I really enjoyed it. It has inspired me to work even harder setting up the permaculture gardens. Right now i have a bank slate of 8 acres that has been sitting basically 30 years. A few of the acres was cleared around the house with 2 traditional gardens and the rest is overgrown pine and live oak. Trees growing so close together that they choke each other out. Right now i am having it selectively cut and cleared removing most of the pine and scrub. I will also thin out some of the live oak. Then I plan to plant lots of fruit and nut trees as well as fruit bearing bushes.It will be an ongoing process over the next few years. This is all wonderful information I can use as I plan what and where I will plant.
For those who are ready to dive in and start a viable career in moving our human culture from an agriculture-based one to a horticulture-based one, Toby and I are co-teaching an intensive, 9-month, 450-hour Ecological Landscaper Immersion (ELI) Program at the Permaculture Skills Center in Northern CA starting this June! Learn more at our website.
Learn more by watching this webinar about the program: