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Tom Henfrey: permaculture the world without social engineering

 
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Thomas, your visit here is so timely for me. My hubby (one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on the climate change emergency) and I were just recently on our way to visit a friend in Pullman, Washington (USA). That's when we discovered the Palouse, a vast area of beautiful green rolling hills, covered in newly sprouting wheat, lentils and garbanzo beans. These fields were such unending tracts of land that we couldn't see where one farm ended and another started. The greens went on forever.

My husband, knowing my interest in all things food growing, asked how I would permaculture the Palouse. (I should mention that some days, as a climate change activist, the thought of permaculturing the world is the only thing that can get me out of bed in the morning.)

Ooh, ooh, what a cool question. "Okay," I said, "the first thing I'd do is break these huge farms up into smaller settlements and get more people out here so we can get rid of a lot of that big gas guzzling farm equipment." (Whether or not that was the "right answer" from a permaculture perspective is now moot, because ....)

"Wait, stop," he responded. "That's social engineering, and it ain't gonna happen."

"Well, when the climate change $#@! hits the fan and crop failures become more common and people are starting to experience hunger, won't they want to come out to the countryside to help grow food in zero-carbon ways?" But that was it. No matter what I said, my hubby couldn't picture people wanting to move back to the land -- or governments being able to move people back to the land, even in a food crisis.

So what do you think, Thomas? Can we "permaculture the world" without social engineering? We have to get to zero carbon (and other GHG) emissions as rapidly as possible. What role is permaculture going to play in helping us achieve that goal when so many food-growing areas (at least in North America) have enormous farms that depend on big oil-dependent equipment? I'm looking forward to reading your book, but do you have any thoughts on this for us permies here in the forums?
 
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Hau Thomas, great to have you here.

With the world as we know it in such financial dire straits that soon many more countries will feel the effects of economic collapse, what do you see happening that would give the push to giant farming interest to modify their methods towards permaculture?

The USA and other countries are now using credit as money and with national debts reaching numbers that are impossible to maintain, economic collapse is only a dropped penny away, or so it seems to many economists.
Imagine when people go to use their credit card, or use an ATM and they are denied access to their money. This would hit the big farmers hard, no way to get fuel means nothing gets planted, or harvested or sold.
Since the norm is to wait for disaster to strike, then run in circles hoping to stem the disaster. I don't see enough of the big farmers moving towards remediation of their methods soon enough that they could weather such an event as what is just around the corner.

Once the disaster hits, will it be to late for these huge farms to change at a rapid enough pace?

Thank you again for stopping by.

Redhawk
 
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In my opinion, a lot of farmland is used to grow things we don't actually need, such as corn for fuel and animal feed. We as a society could choose to buy out the farmers who are close to retirement age, who will not change their practices, and give or lease the land to younger farmers. Most of the vast acreage of farmland could probably be returned to wild nature after a transitional period. For instance much farmland in the west which is currently irrigated, used to be native grassland. This land could be purchased by society (like the national parks, forests, etc) and leased to young people who, using managed grazing of cattle and living a largely nomadic existence in tiny houses on wheels (or tipis, or whatever), could return the land to healthy grassland and then reintroduce as many of the native species of animals as possible (bison, wolves, etc) It's possible some people would choose to continue to live the nomadic way. It would be especially cool if it could be First Peoples who choose to live that way, as their ancestors did. Some farmland in the east could possibly be returned to native forest, after a similar transitional period. All remaining farmland would be far more productive and regenerative than anything in conventional agriculture, so amounts of land needed will be much less than now. And all towns and many cities could have a great amount of food grown right in the cities and immediately surrounding them. I admit to getting chills up my spine thinking about the permaculture future, it could be so cool. Paul has written about HUSP. I want to believe HUSP is possible. http://www.permies.com/t/9121/permaculture/Horticulture-United-States-Pocahontas-husp I don't think it would take any more social engineering than has been used to tackle other big problems in the past such as the Dust Bowl, Depression, etc. There seem to be plenty of people who want to grow food, but they don't feel like they have access to land. I think the permaculture community is working on solving that problem even now.

 
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Thanks Julie for such a thought-provoking question - or series of questions really, your post is rich and covers a lot of important issues.

Looking at the present situation first, it's clear that the pattern of large-scale, high-input, low diversity cash cropping we see today is the product of centuries of social engineering, beginning with bringing land into private ownership (often replacing customary and traditional systems of land use that supported agroecological methods with much in common with permaculture farming) and continuing with fiscal, market and legislative structures that favour market specialisation and consolidation. Particularly important at the moment are subsidy structures - both the direct subsidies paid to farmers themselves (on which, in the UK at least, all large scale commercial farms depend), and indirect subsidies paid to, for example, the fossil fuel industries and large-scale retailers. Rafter Sass Ferguson's work on farms in the US shows that small-scale permaculture-based operations of the type you and I would like to see more of struggle to compete financially because of the way these structures favour the intensive model. Here in the UK, research conducted by the Ecological Land Cooperative shows that small-scale low impact farms using agroecological methods can - unlike most conventional farms - be financially viable without subsidies, as well as producing myriad other benefits (ecological, social, cultural, educational - not to mention mitigating and adapting to climate change). A big aim of the book is to communicate to people in policy, business and other areas that affect these wider contexts the benefits and value of permaculture and the many different approaches employed on permaculture farms. We also consider commons-based approaches to ownership of and decision-making over land and new approaches to business that are more consistent with the practical aspects of permaculture, as well as being versatile and flexible enough to cope with new circumstances like those we're seeing come about through climate change and other major social and ecological upheavals (like the financial turbulence Redhawk refers to in the next post). It's my view that major shifts in all these areas are necessary to help us adopt and work towards resilient and zero-carbon approaches to food production with the urgency demanded by climate change.

So while I think that what I've said so far will make it clear that I don't completely agree with your husband, I can see his point, in that we can't seek to impose change on others. What we can do as permaculturists is educate, inspire, facilitate dialogue, and lead by example in order to help emerge bioregional strategies that take into account, and seek to reconcile, the needs, interests and concerns of all people involved as well as seeking to do what's best for the land and its non-human inhabitants. So my answer to your husband's question would be that to permaculturise Palouse I would initiate comprehensive multi-stakeholder dialogue, and feed into that suitable information about the relationships between agriculture and climate change, the consequences, and possible solutions being applied in permaculture and many other fields. I'd bet the existing farming community would have a lot of vital knowledge, ideas and skills for such an undertaking. There's certainly general evidence for the benefits of downscaling, but whether a voluntary shift to small-scale agriculture is possible in any particular place - or whether large-scale farming can somehow transform to lower-input, more diverse, socially just and climate-friendly forms - to me are questions that are hard to answer by any other way than giving it a try.

Tom
 
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Hi Redhawk,

Thanks for your question; it's important to consider the deeper context of all these issues, and I think you've brought up a really vital point.

Unfortunately, the high level responses we've so far seen to the strains on the global financial system all seem to take the form of retrenchment, and there seems to be little political will even to regulate the financial sector, let alone reform it - leaving us a long way from the economic transformation that's necessary. I think this leaves most commercial farmers trapped in the precarious situation you describe, and exceedingly vulnerable to further financial instability, including fluctuating prices for produce and raw material. It's a system set up to take advantage of conditions that no longer exist, and the longer this situation persists, the more locked in we get.

I always try to look for the optimistic: if economic conditions changed so that the prices of food, agricultural inputs (including fossil fuels) and value derived from land accurately reflected their costs - social and environmental as well as fiscal - that would remove current biases and likely favour small-scale and/or agroecological production. In which case large operations would find it in their interests to apply their considerable skills in managing large tracts of land and flows of money to coming up with more ecological and resilient approaches. There's some great work on this type of thing in the field of Regerative Enterprise - a permaculture approach to business (agricultural and other) that is attracting a lot of interest in some of the places you'd least expect. So there are some hopeful signs that the tide is turning and we'll start to see some pre-emptive action before it's too late. Meantime, everyone doing such wonderful things in the permaculture world can continue to set a good example.

In Community,

Tom
 
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And now responding to Tyler's comment. To me these are all great ideas, which land co-ops, community land trusts and others in commoning movements are already seeking to implement, usually on small scales: the chapter on commons-based governance in our book mentions some of these. A non-confrontational and coordinated process of land reform at national level (and internationally) to support wide-scale social-ecological restoration would be a remarkably powerful endeavour. Perhaps coalitions of local and regional government, businesses, charitable foundations and private citizens could begin working with landowners to identify opportunities to transfer land to common ownership and establish funds to support its purchase. Less optimistically, this would come up against some powerful vested interests with significant political power. However, there are cases like the land reform movement in Scotland, where communities have managed to buy the land where they live from wealthy landloards, which I find a source of inspiration and hope.
 
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