Merlin, Gandalf, Voldemort - these well-known sorcerers from popular culture are famed for their amazing spells and spectacular magical powers. In ancient times however, a wizard was actually a freelance intellectual whose main stock in trade was good advice, supported by a thorough education in agriculture, navigation, political and military science, languages, commerce, mathematics, medicine, and the natural sciences - in essence, the true Renaissance man.
Greer proposes a modern mage for uncertain times; one who possesses a startling array of practical skills gleaned from the appropriate tech and organic gardening movements forged in the energy crisis of the 1970s. From the basic concepts of ecology to a plethora of practical techniques such as composting, green manure, low-tech food preservation and storage, small-scale chicken and rabbit raising, solarwater heating, alternative energy sources, and more; Green Wizardry is a comprehensive manual for today's wizard-in-training.
Providing a solid practical introduction to the entire appropriate tech toolkit, this book is a must-read for anyone concerned about decreasing our dependence on an overloaded industrial system and, in a world of serious energy shortages and economic troubles, making life a great deal less traumatic and more livable.
These days when we hear the word wizard we tend to imagine Gandalf, or Dumbledore, or Merlin, waving magic wands and wearing silly hats and robes. But the term originally referred to wise men and women who solved the problems of their day. The work they did may have seemed like magic to others, but solving problems is really more down to what you know, how you think, and a desire to create appropriate solutions.
This book was my first introduction to the work of John Michael Greer, who among other things is a polymath and a systems thinker - a combination which lends itself exceedingly well to solving problems. In fact, his whole approach is very permaculture-like. The book has 250 pages and is written as a series of thirty six lessons designed to train the reader up as a wizard in the art of appropriate technology. Each lesson is around five or six pages long, presented entirely as engagingly written text - no photos or illustrations, just the words of a master to his student.
My son described the writing as "technical yet not impenetrable; fun; it seems like it was written for you personally, as though you really were his apprentice"
The science, of which there is plenty, is pretty sound, with a good dose of philosophy, ecology, history, politics and even a touch of spirituality thrown in for good measure. It's intended to be practical and functional, not theoretical, and is geared to giving you the education needed to enable you to create real-world solutions to real-world problems. The approach is highly multidisciplinary, giving a very broad base upon which to build solutions to whatever problems come your way.
The thirty six lessons are split into four sections - principles, food, energy and whole systems.
Part One: Principles
Lesson 1: Introducing Energy
Lesson 2: Introducing Matter
Lesson 3: Introducing Information
Lesson 4: Thinking in Systems
Lesson 5: Flows and Funds
Lesson 6: Sustainability and Resilience
Part Two: Food
Lesson 7: The Small Garden
Lesson 8: Understanding Soil
Lesson 9: Composting and Mulching
Lesson 10: Keeping them Healthy
Lesson 11: Season Extenders
Lesson 12: Saving Seeds
Lesson 13: Breeding New Varieties
Lesson 14: Wild Helpers
Lesson 15: Home Livestock
Lesson 16: The Unwanted
Lesson 17: Storing the Harvest
Lesson 18: Using the Harvest
Part Three: Energy
Lesson 19: Using Less Energy
Lesson 20: Caulking and Weatherstripping
Lesson 21: Insulation
Lesson 22: Window Coverings
Lesson 23: Conserving the Differences
Lesson 24: Hayboxes and Sunboxes
Lesson 25: SolarHot Water Lesson 26: Passive Solar Heat
Lesson 27: Solar Electricity Lesson 28: Wind Power
Lesson 29: Other Energy Sources
Lesson 30: Transportation
Part Four: Whole Systems
Lesson 31: Putting It Together
Lesson 32: The New Alchemy Option
Lesson 33: The Down Home Funk Option
Lesson 34: The Retrofit Option
Lesson 35: The Way of Dissensus
Lesson 36: The Long View
Afterword: Why It Matters
Let's take a closer look at a few sample chapters so you can get a better taste of both the depth of each lesson and the breadth of the lessons as a whole.
Lesson 1 - Introducing Energy
Greer believes that if you understand energy, will you understand the whole art of appropriate technology. He explains that energy, like matter and information, flow constantly through every whole system, either in nature or human society. He gives some basic definitions and rules about how energy works and then some examples to show how the rules work.
The first example is of the energy flow from the sun, through a garden bed, into an animal that eats the plants that grew there, and eventually ending up as diffuse background heat when that animal dies and decomposes.
The second example is of a solar water heater - a ray of sunlight gives up heat as it hits the black metal back of tank, the heat is concentrated in water. The visible light downshifts to infrared which does not pass through glass, so the glass front of the heater reflects the infrared and helps keep the heat in – this is the greenhouse effect. Insulation helps keep the heat where it belongs, but some escapes and eventually all ends up as background heat.
Five points to take home -
1 - Both the plant and the solar heater function as a result of the same process: the flow of energy from the sun to Earth.
2 - Natural systems, having had much more time to work the bugs out, are much better at containing and using energy than most human systems are.
3 - Energy doesn’t move in circles – it follows a trajectory with a beginning and an end. The beginning is always a concentrated source, the end is diffuse heat.
4 - While energy is the capacity to do work, it can’t do work in a vacuum. To make energy do whatever work you have in mind for it - whether that work consists of growing plants, heating water, or anything else - matter, information, and additional energy have to be invested
5 - For practical purposes, energy is finite. Limitless economic growth is a myth
Every ecosystem on Earth has evolved to make the most of whatever energy is available. Useful energy is always limited, and it usually needs to be coaxed into doing as much work as you want to get done before it gets away from you and turns into diffuse background heat. This is true of any whole system - garden, solar hot water system, a well-insulated house, or any other appropriate tech project.
Exercise - Draw a rough flow chart for the flow of energy through some part of your life. Label the trash can “Background Heat.” The important thing is to start thinking of energy in terms of finite flows, and get past the fantasy of limitlessness.
Lesson 13 - Breeding New Varieties
This follows on from the lesson about saving seeds. Greer points out that while saving seeds can be a good deal more complicated than it looks at first glance, breeding new varieties of plants is, by contrast, a good deal less complicated than it looks. It involves us taking an active part in the process of evolution, which he encourages us to study in depth to be certain that we understand what it is really about, not what we might think it is about. He explains that the key to success is to figure out the way Nature does things, and copy her shamelessly. By learning Nature’s ways and adopting them as a basis for our own, we become better able to benefit both ourselves and the biosphere.
I especially like the way he takes things to a deeper level -"treating the theory of evolution as an example of the process it describes: the intellectual mutation set in motion by Darwin’s work spawned a flurry of variations, which were then sorted out by the selective pressures of further research. As historian of science Thomas Kuhn has pointed out, the same process can be traced all through intellectual history - one piece of evidence among many that evolution, in something like Darwin’s sense, is a basic property of all complex systems."
Many ecosystems are primarily shaped by the actions of a single species - humans, elephants, buffalo. There are also plenty of ecosystems that have no single dominant species
We can never be sure how well our learned behaviors are suited to the demands of our environment. On the upside, if we pay attention to nature, we can pick up useful behaviors in a tiny fraction of the time it would take for those same behaviors to get established as instinct by natural selection.
Exercise - pick up a copy of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and read it. Darwin studied the methods used by animal breeders in order to grasp the ways that living things can change over time. His detailed discussion of pigeon breeding is a classic account of how human intervention can shape the evolutionary process. By getting a clear sense of how this works, you’ll be much better prepared to do it yourself.
Lesson 27 - Solar Electricity
Today’s regional and continental grids are likely to go the way of the dinosaur. The best thing to do with solar energy is to let it convert itself into diffuse heat and use the heat. Having said that, there are some applications, in particular communications and other electronics technologies, where nothing else will do. Most of the options for home-generated electricity available right now fail the sustainability test in one way or another. There are major issues with toxic wastes and other pollutants. It's a safe bet that within fifty years or so, PV cells will no longer be manufactured. The task before us is to begin the process of creating and deploying prototype versions of sustainable lifestyles, homes, and communities. But in the meantime we need meet the needs and reasonable wants of the people who are doing all this creating and deploying. PV panels can be used as a bridge. There will inevitably be a place where the inhabitants use a lot less electricity than people in the industrial world do today. In the same way as you weatherize before you solarize, you need to make very serious cuts in your electricity use before you can realistically turn to renewable sources to meet the modest power needs that remain.
And then there is solar thermoelectric power. In the 1940s and 1950s, Russia used to manufacture sturdy little thermoelectric generators that put the heat from a kerosene lamp on one side and the Siberian climate on the other. It proved to be difficult to scale up to any significant degree. It was a simple device. would not have posed a significant challenge to a skilled craftsperson in ancient Egypt. It is likely to become one of the standard ways that households and small businesses provide themselves with a modest supply of electricity. Until that time, those of us who don’t happen to have a talent for nonferrous metallurgy and electrical engineering may find PV panels a useful investment.
Exercise – Make a list of all the electrical appliances you own rate them in terms of importance. Next to each of them, mark down an N if it’s a necessity, a C if it’s a convenience, an L if it’s a luxury, and a W if it’s simply a waste of current. When you’re done, find out how many watts each of the things on your N list uses - that figure can be found somewhere on all electrical appliances - and estimate from that the maximum number of watts you need in the course of the day to keep your necessary appliances running, remembering that some appliances need to run all the time while others get turned on and off. Then, using online solar calculators or other resources, work out how large of a solar PV system you would need to provide that much electricity, and approximately how much it would cost you to have such a system installed. If the figure seems too high, look over your list again and see if some of the “necessities” don’t deserve that name.
I have long been of the opinion that magic is just science that hasn't been fully discovered yet, and this book is a delightful confirmation that any one of us can learn to do great things to benefit the Earth and those who share it with us. It would be perfect for home-schooled teenagers, students, and young adults seeking to widen their knowledge base and learn to think and act from a wider perspective. I don't believe it would be so suitable for use in ordinary schools as its multifaceted approach would not easily fit into any single subject area, though in my opinion that is a failing of the schools, not of this book. It is highly multidisciplinary and there is a huge emphasis on systems thinking throughout the book. There is a huge overlap in the way of thinking, and the aims, of this book and of books such as Bill Mollison's Permaculture Designer's Manual.
In short, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. It's fun to read, it's empowering, it leaves you feeling like a super-hero in the making. And inspires you to go and put your new-found super-powers to use by helping to make the world a better place. Which, after all, is surely what all of us reading this would want.