I am nearing the end of my masters studies in Sustainable Development, and it's time to define my thesis question so I can start researching this summer.
Do you have a question you always wished someone would find the answer to?
Do you have a permaculture principle you wished someone could validate to the larger scientific community?
This is a BRAINSTORM thread! I will definitely have some constraints on what is practical and achievable within my budget and time frame, but I still want to hear everyone's ideas.
And if you have a farm and want to host a hard-working volunteer while said volunteer does groundbreaking research on your PC operation, that would be even more dandy!
Can't wait to hear some ideas!
In the distant future, the world economic system which is dependent on population growth is incompatible with long term sustainability.
Developing that local infrastructure, giving ones area of concern the ability to provide for those within the locale is component that I think should be looked at more.
Permaculture Co-op, tool equipment sharing, shared community kitchen that meets local regulations for food preparation for sale, harvest assistance would fall into that infrastructure.
I have really wanted to do a practical comparison of the viability of permaculture farming compared to "traditional" agriculture. What I have to consider is what approach to take.
I tend to steer away from monetary assessment, because the economic framework we exist in at present is completely unsustainable, and therefore an unreliable indicator of sustainability. For example, it is often cheaper to import a few bags of concentrated fertilizers than to haul tons of poo; to operate mechanized equipment than to employ people; to mechanically lay disposable plastic sheet mulch than to hand-broadcast straw... but the only reason these cost less money right now is that the environmental costs of manufacture and disposal are not built in to the price. We are maxxing out the earth's capacity to serve as a "sink" for pollutants and solid waste, and drawing down reserves of nonrenewable substances. If remediation costs were built into unsustainable resource use, there would be no need to even think of the necessity for financial comparison between the two models.
(This is not to say that a financial study proving the viability of permaculture over other methods wouldn't be VERY valuable, if permaculture came out ahead. If it could actually compete against a conventional farm despite the handicap factor, that would be fantastic. But the playing field is slanted in favor of mechanized agriculture from a strictly dollars and cents perspective, and the results could be quite misleading.)
Anyway, to test the question of which one is actually more sustainable, I would factor in the various sustainability coefficients that other scientists have developed for fossil fuels, mined phosphorus, CO2 emissions etc, and then compare the two systems based on physical yield.
This would be a no-brainer in terms of results, and almost need not be studied, but for the catch:
The whole reason conventional wisdom favors mechanized agriculture right now is not only related to short-term cash. It is related to human population. With human population so large, the crop yield to land area ratio has people thinking we do have to "borrow on the future", using nonrenewable resources to maximize yield, and hoping a scientific or technological discovery will bail us out before the system runs out of resources. It's called technological optimism.
But the way that permaculture maximizes yield by using spatial and temporal layering is encouraging - it has me thinking that I could actually prove a yield-per-land area advantage for permaculture and compare that to population size for an overall sustainability assessment. But the assessment would have to be carried out in every different growing zone for meaningful global results, since varying latitudes and climates have very different growing capacities. I could only practically do this for one growing zone, in terms of the time available for my current study.
Anyway, feel free to weigh in on the dialogue, and keep the ideas coming!!
You've ruled out economics for good reason. I'm assuming you rule out regulatory issues for similar reasons, although there's a lot to be done to repeal zoning restrictions in many places. You could look at the regulatory landscape and how it effects permaculturists: water harvesting, greywater, livestock in town, mown lawn ordinances...
I see a lot of people asking "How do I make the transition?" They mulch kill their lawn and try to convert it to a permaculture garden. You could look at methods for this transition. Compare heavy mulch with grazing a pig, or a dozen rabbits in a moderate area. Compare buying in straw with owning a paper shredder. Compare permaculture systems that use livestock to those that don't.
Audit your community for resources. Look at potential nutrient sources, fuels, fuel needs, land (both vacant and underused), water, etc, and build a new model of how that community could function under permaculture principles.
Find an intentional community committed to permaculture and document their efforts. Consider what's needed on a community level and what physical and sociological challenges must be met.
The book The Integral Urban House was written 35 years ago. Write an update.
Run a survey to establish what the standard skill set and physical tool set of the successful permaculturist is. Describe it in terms of what a B.S. in Permiculture would have as a curriculum. Or do the same, but imagine it not as a B.S., but as a course similar to, or building on, Master Gardener programs.
Produce a series of model plots, each incorporating different soils, hydrology, exposures, and human populations, and produce a permaculture design appropriate for each. This is somewhat of a landscape architecture approach.
Some theses are based on re-searching books and journals. Others are based on conducting experiments. These two types of 'research' are very different in terms of the types of questions you might consider.
The average masters program is 1 or 2 years, with 6 to 12 months for the research. That is one season if you are doing field observations.
Student research is often limited by data availability. What data is available to you?
If you want to compile sustainability co-efficients for all the components of standard ag and permaculture, is that information available? Or would it take years to prepare?? It might be that a suitable thesis would involve trying to calculate one sustainability co-efficient for a narrowly defined component.
If you are doing field research, How many practicing permaculturists do you know in your area, how many PC farms can you drive to and observe?? Are there agroforestry stations or diversified orchards that you can study?
The calories per acre debate is one thing that has been covered here, and that is relevant to the 'feeding the world' issue you raised. That is one area that could be advanced by compiling and analyzing existing data.
Calories in to calories out is another area that might be useful to explore. As oil supplies dwindle and become more expensive, what advantages can be found by using permaculture techniques? Can you document the energy budgets of two or three working permaculture places and compare it the the typical farm in your area? And what can be said about trying to expand permaculture - will it scale up?
Perhaps you could analyze the true price of conventional ag, and attempt to put a value (either in terms of energy or money) on the environmental costs of manufacture and disposal, and then compare the adjusted cost of conventional ag to permaculture.
Maybe this is two or three papers ... you'll be doing a dissertation in a few years, right?
Lots of luck!
Developing your own system of evaluating "true costs" would be a thesis in itself. It also has to be done very carefully when applied to your own hypothesis lest you inadvertently base your assumptions on a bias that your hypothesis is correct. Better to stick to something that doesn't require you to first create the accounting system.
How about keeping it simple?
[li]how many times do birds (or bees) visit a permaculture guild versus a conventional monoculture garden plot?[/li]
[li]compare diversity of predatory insect species between two such gardens[/li]
[li]compare nutrient content of edibles grown in a polyculture plot versus a monoculture plot[/li]
[li]measure water retention (need for irrigation) in a hugel-type bed versus plowed row[/li]
studying there may give you some ideas
I would like to suggest devoting part of your thesis to focusing on the word
"sustainable". It does not adequately define how humanity needs to behave to be
able to continue to exist. Nothing is sustainable.
What sustainability is, what its goals should be, and how these goals are to be achieved are all open to interpretation. For many environmentalists the idea of sustainable development is an oxymoron as development seems to entail environmental degradation.A universally accepted definition of sustainability is elusive because it is expected to achieve many things. On the one hand it needs to be factual and scientific, a clear statement of a specific “destination”. The simple definition "sustainability is improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems", though vague, conveys the idea of sustainability having quantifiable limits.
To add complication the word sustainability is applied not only to human sustainability on Earth, but to many situations and contexts over many scales of space and time, from small local ones to the global balance of production and consumption. It can also refer to a future intention: "sustainable agriculture" is not necessarily a current situation but a goal for the future, a prediction. For all these reasons sustainability is perceived, at one extreme, as nothing more than a feel-good buzzword with little meaning or substance but, at the other, as an important but unfocused concept like "liberty" or "justice". It has also been described as a "dialogue of values that defies consensual definition".
Wow, message boards can often be a crapshoot, but this place is full of knowledgeable, helpful people. Isn’t the permaculture community fantastic! I am trying to address all your wonderful suggestions in this post, but I’m sure I’ll miss some – there were so many thorough responses!
Okay, my bachelors (almost 9 years ago) was in biology, with a focus on natural resources. I was a high school bio teacher for 4 years. My hope in studying sustainable development was to contribute to the establishment of a more ethical, sustainable way of life for communities, from a resource-use perspective. Sadly, as Gary points out, the term ”sustainable” is so subject to interpretation that I have found the overall course to be quite the opposite of inspiring. This program seems to be full of politicians jumping on a terminology bandwagon, and making lots of ”compromises” in the name of ”progress.” The only upshot is that I am free to do just about ANYTHING for the thesis.
I know the need to be realistic in my goals – I have budgeted a year for my research – and the challenge now is to choose ONE of my interests to study. I am interested in everything related to living an (indefinitely) sustainable life on this planet, and plan to be involved in all these topics in my future life, but I can only pick one to study.
What I can say, to help us narrow the discussion, is that I want my topic to be applicable to a scale above that of the single homesteader. All realistically sustainable future scenarios still involve communities comprised of of farmers and non-farmers. (But not on the industrial scale, like today.)
I could either do an experimental thesis or a modelling thesis. The first would actually compare physical systems with different variables, and the latter would involve getting numerical data on different farm or community parameters and compare it on the basis of something like the sustainability coefficients we have been discussing.
My current location is south-central Sweden, and there are no mature Permaculture farms around me. This has been a significant handicap. But I could remove the handicap by returning to the States. This is now a consideration that I am willing to entertain.
Comparing growing techniques on model plots would be achievable if I found a farmer willing to participate (I am not a landowner at present), but I would also have to frame it in terms of applicable knowledge for the larger issue of sustainable development. Same goes for l8bloomer’s very clearly defined, achievable suggestions. I would need to frame them so that my course leaders see them not just as an agriculture or horticulture question, but an actual development question. This could maybe happen with some brainstorms and modifications...
Sustainability coefficients for just about every nonrenewable or depletable resource have been developed by scientists around the globe. I would not need to do this myself (unless I disagreed with their methodology), I could just collect data on actual resource consumption in a farm, municipality, or other system and compare it against these already-established frameworks.
The calories-to-calories idea is a fabulous one. My problem thus far has been that I have no access to a mature permaculture operation for optimum comparison. However, if I could connect with farms in the states who are willing to participate, I am willing to come home. I think it’s high time.
Any brainstorms on how to frame a theoretical study on the maximum scale for permaculture? This is a very good question.
Briggs’ idea (to analyze the true price of conventional ag, and attempt to put a value (either in terms of energy or money) on the environmental costs of manufacture and disposal, and then compare the adjusted cost of conventional ag to permaculture) is theoretically very achievable. (And very interesting!!) I just need to find a mature permaculture operation and another mature farming operation that would be willing to allow me access to their input and output records. Any takers?
And BTW, duane’s link is very inspiring. That is one articulate farmer, with his ducks in a row.
We're making progress! This is good!
This has further applications for 2nd and 3rd world. Like in Africa, where some people don't have power or telephone lines, but have cell phones, can information technology be integrated with sustainable lifestyles to keep rural flight/the urban pilgrimage by improving education, and QoL without the transition period of urbanization followed by (what I see as a good case scenario of a high QoL de-urbanization).
Alternatively, an exploration of how culture is effected by local food and material use and a feasibility study of different local materials as substitutes for current standards (which are generally applied from different locales and selected for their easy industrialization).
Now, reading your background, I'm not sure if these are suitable, but I'll leave them out there for their brainstorming potential. (Actually, you might consider the first idea as it relates to the maximum scale of permaculture - thought outside the context of the farm - I'm not sure what you mean by permaculture, but I consider it a cultural system, not just a farm.)
Calories to calories is something, but it's important to think about the value of nutrition, and things like mineral and water cycles as well. The value of a quality farm is not in it's calories but it's actual nutrition and overall positive impact.
heres some things though, not that what is say is likely to help with the thesis.....
Industrial ag is not superior in any way. there all ready was peer reviewed research published in "nature" that showed tiered systems out produce mono cultures.
industrial ag did NOT rise out of superiority. It rose because the government blocked some aspects of conventional farming and subsidized usage of certain things. it gave initial production increases simply because most farmers didnt understand fertility, and were lacking certain key elements in their soils. simple methods could of rectified that.....
Heck its a TOTAL myth that those types of ferts even increase yields in any meaningful way. Reality itself is apparently controlled by those who profit from this. sure using liquid ferts enables you to add more npk to the soil then it might hold on its own. this would hold true of organic ferts as well, which can be made in 100 different ways, and cheaper...
another aspect that propelled the myth that synthetic ferts are superior in any remote way was the "green revolution". study it. In reality all they did was breed for synthetic ferts. they did breeding projects several orders of magnitude larger then ANY that came before literally selecting for response to those types of ferts. By this time a generation had passed and for the most part the bulk of folks still farming knew only synthetics. and they followed the INDUSTRIES MANDATES!!! Go study the info the USDA put out from the late 1800s to 1940 or so. Its pure GOLD!!! Its multiples more advanced then most realize. the issue arises from the fact most did not implement these things. Ive got a disk a friend put together of such materials, the permie folks would be greatly profiting from delving into that..... to make my point on the breeding, another VERY large project was geared towards poor dry soils in india. This was a barely project, and they had plants out performing green revolution stuff on much poor non fertilized soil in dry conditions!!! let along conditions like americas bread basket which are profoundly better. Sadly most of this work was destroyed after it was bred, you can go to KUSA site and order the few of these that survived. We can only assume some big money paid the government there to subvert their own people, they pulled the plug on the project destroyed ALL the varieties except those all ready sent out, and black listed the breeder who proved projects as big as those that heralded the green revolution but focusing not on synthetic ferts were MORE then feasible.
theres also the fact oil is heavily subsidized. As is farming with oil. this is often ignored in such talks. technically the oil in those ferts cost much more then the farmers is paying.
another aspect is the salt build up from these types of ferts. It is 100 percent un sustainable as it is currently being used. so comparing perma culture and conventional ag is truly a joke on every level. this salt build up is all ready starting to slow production in many areas, and this will only grow. the industries answer to this is to make GM corn that is salt tolerant. this is a band aid at best.
theres also the simple fact of lost organic matter. Often the lower amounts of soil, and its transition to hardpan is blamed on tilling the soil and run off type things. but as far back as the late 1800s studies showed the effects of not incorporating new organic matter to a field, and how it turned to hardpan. Simple math shows this. Plants to indeed use this organic matter to grow, and we take it out of the fields in the forms of produce. given enough time if your ot completing the cycle and putting back the equivalent of what you take out, you will appear to be loosing soil. but it appears to be more about the used up organic matter then it is negatives from tilling....
Its actually very scary to me that so many do think industrial ag is even competitive. It really isnt if you account for all the variables and rip away the hype around industrial ag.. farmers were brainwashed with this, and notice that farmers often work like dogs and die in deep deep debt. although that to is changing for some, from permaculture stuff, and also just folks going back to older set ups that dont necessarily include as many variables as what we call perma culture does. I read a article recently about banks in the midwest blaming a new wave of farmers on messing with the economy. why? well they started using their own ferts, and other means which increased their profit margins from the negatives to a ggood solid margin. In the same area those who followed the status quo are loosing land hand over fist. in deep debt.... these other guys though are buying more land and equipment in CASH, which is whats got the banks all upset. That debt ridden farmers are good business. billions of dollars and lots of sick folks perpetuate these myths. Part of the battle in getting our systems to more knowledgeable and saner means will be overcoming those pressures. Luckily for us, the farmers still have the ultimate choice!!! So as more and more folks prove the superiority of other means, it will shift on its own weight.
One advantage to "industrial" farming is despite lower yields per area (despite the propaganda otherwise) with machine harvesting and planting less people can grow more food. So to replace it wed need a MUC?H higher percentage of farmers then we currently have. however you do NOT need to use what we currently think of as industrial ag to use machines, although its more efficient as it is now. we could also go to smaller machines so inter planting things could be possible with rows of the staples intermixed into even orchards.... there are other ways as well, that im working on myself (and likely other Im not aware of) where i can use a food forest orchard of sorts, to build up organic matter for rows or fields of the staples, which potentially could be machine harvested. i could in this way perpetuate the fertility, and keep diversity around the general area so as not to concentrate pests and the like....
theres something else in regards to breeding and machine harvest though. Machine harvest forces us to select for very specific types of plants, and plant them in specific patterns. most grains will do something called tillering. I happen to know a few breeders of grain (something im now doing myself) and for hand harvesting anyway, if you plant in wider spacing drought is less of an issue, soil can be poorer since each plant has more of it, and you can end up with much higher yields. this is precisely why certain systems in other countries where they go by hand can get such higher yields of the same grains, well not the only reason but its among them. Im not saying we should or shouldnt do away with machine harvesting at all. Im just saying that there are HORDES of alternative breeding projects that could be done both for alternative production farms, and for homesteaders who arent using the machines anyway..... the potentials are staggering actually, because such projects are VERY rare for small scale production and most of what we do have in this regard although there are exceptions came from an era where such breeding projects were simply not as possible.
there is no need for industrialized production, in fact its a detractor to production levels. Keep in mind its a multi billion dollar industry, theres lots of mis conceptions out there, and billions of reasons for them to stick around.
Let me rephrase. The PRECEIVED 'need' for industry as it stands now... I certainly don't believe in it. You'd be astounded at how many of the populace actually believe that industralised application in the food sector is the way to feed humanity. Those same people fail to realise that change can and does happen at a localised level, right in their vincinty everyday. All aboard!
Time is against you in studying soil improvements via organic/permaculture methods. Several seasons are needed to rebuild the microbe populations and natural lifeforms which are the foundation of a healthy environment. However, I have seen fertilizers and pesticides make a dramatic and long lasting change in a very short time. Little attention is given to how these inputs affect the microbial activity in the soil.
Starting with healthy soil, a control plot and an experimental plot, it would be interesting to observe the qualitative difference in microbial activity after exposure to recommended levels of manufactured inputs in the time scale of a single growing season. My gut tells me the destruction will be as dramatic as it is sudden.
"Make the injustice visible."
Show the manner in which chemical-industrial methods destroy the soil. You can go get your doctorate on how to rebuild it.
I incorporated some permaculture thinking into my term paper feel free to give it a read if you like it's about 32 pages
the data tables are left off that file but I can upload them if you want to see the raw data.
We all live within the financial and legal constraints of our society. It seems to me that we as permaculturists often ignore or belittle these institutional barriers. So:
What are the institutional barriers to adopting a permaculture lifestyle?
This might provide the answer to the question:
If permaculture's so great, why isn't everyone doing it?
That seems to me to be the key question.
1.) What benefits do farmers expect when they adopt Permaculture?
2.) What benefits do they actually realize?
3.) How have farmers that adopt Permaculture overcome their perceived barriers?
4.) How can the conclusions about benefits and barriers help explain the lack of dissemination to a wider population of farmers?
5.) How can our knowledge of benefits and barriers to Permaculture be used by University Extension to promote the diffusion of this approach?
I believe these questions address Josh's key question to methodologically uncover what the barriers are to adopting Permaculture in the mainstream. I will be conducting this research using surveys, Permaculture diaries and observational methods with "Permaculture Farmers" in the US and Australia. It seems like kyckling and I should talk about how to collaborate although I am still unsure about his or her questions, methods, design, etc.
What is the actual on-the-ground economic model?
Hey folks! This is a great thread. I am also a graduate student in the Interdisciplinary Ecology doctoral program at UF. For my dissertation, I am conducting research about the diffusion of Permaculture in the U.S. and Australia from a social science perspective.
I think one important question might be - what definition are you using for the word "permaculture"?
The definition of "permaculture" I use
"Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way." Permaculture: a designers manual by Bill Mollison
Is permaculture compatible with industrial farming? Is there some other meaning or kind of "permaculture" other than the above which is compatible with industrial farming? Are modern farmers prepared to practice something other than industrial farming and/or are they prepared to integrate food-growing with human habitation, etc? Could it be permaculture itself - that is "the harmonious integration of the landscape with people" and the ethics and principles of permaculture - which is the primary barrier to it being adopted by farmers?
In the US, the average age of farmers is about 57. The very idea that there can be a "harmonious integration of the landscape with people" and a non-adversarial, cooperative relationship between the farmer and nature, is very different from the traditional view of farmers about "Old Bitch Nature." This aside from the principles and ethics of permaculture - dare one even mention those? These ideas are possibly very difficult for older, generally extremely conservative people to consider, let alone adopt as a way of life.
I will maybe focus on soil - fertilizer interactions or the interesting water retention comparisons earlier in my upcoming master thesis.
In my university there is actually people researching on what kind of soil is most liked by earthworms. And you wont like it, they appear to not enjoy charcoal infused compost soil.
But its not yet finished so I cant say anything particular yet.