Peak Oil, Climate Change and Permaculture. Presented at Park Slope Methodist Church, Brooklyn, New York

Park Slope Methodist Church: April 30, 2006

by Andrew Leslie Phillips

It’s a real honor to be here today to think about our Earth – there’s a lot to think about!

Park Slope Methodist Church is not new to me. I’m an old friend of Finlay and Nancy Scheff – your garden is named after them – I remember when Nicaragua’s Sandinista President, Daniel Orgega, came to New York more than twenty years ago and stood where I stand today to share the good news of people’s revolution. And in some way I bring you the same message today.

Except this revolution will not be won with Uzis and Kalashnikovs, but with water harvesting swales, compost heaps, pitch forks and shovels. In a real sense the revolution we need today is in the garden.

The world can no longer sustain the damage caused by modern agriculture – we have lost two-thirds of our topsoil – blown and washed away – between 200-400 tons of top soil per acre per year, are lost because of modern agricultural practices which includes mechanized farming and monoculture of the five remaining major world crops –wheat, rice, corn/maize, soy and potatoes. We should also note that the number of major crops is getting smaller – in the 1960’s there were twelve major crops.

As we enter the new millennium we find global food production now in decline. We destroy more forests to uncover more land but such destruction accelerates soil loss and climate change.

Human settlement without attention to nature and local natural patterns and resources, detracts rather than adds to our environment. And water is a critical diminishing resource. A bottle of water purchased at a gas station is already more expensive than gasoline.

Destructive post-war industrial agricultural methods have poisoned our land and water and reduced biodiversity. Modern agriculture has removed billions of tones of soil from previously fertile landscapes. A design approach called permaculture has evolved from this disaster and was first made public with the publication of Permaculture One in 1978 in Australia.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the idea of Permaculture grew out of the oldest and driest continent where per capita, humans have inflicted enormous damage to Australia’s fragile, strangely beautiful landscape.

What is Permaculture? Care of Earth. Care of people. Return of surplus to both. These are the stated ethics of culture. And on the official permaculture certificate awarded after completion of the world famous Pdc course is written “Ingenio patet campus” – the field lies open to the intellect.

Permaculture is a holistic approach to land use design, based on ecological principles and patterns. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with people. The ecological processes of plants, animals, water, weather and nutrient cycles are integrated with human needs and technologies for food, energy, shelter and infrastructure.

Elements in a system are viewed in relationship with other elements, and the outputs of one element become the inputs of another.

Within a Permaculture system, work is minimized, “wastes” become resources, productivity and yields increase, and the environment is restored.

Permaculture principles can be applied to any environment, at any scale - from dense urban settlements to individual homes, from farms to entire regions, even continents.

Permaculture seeks to design sustainable human settlements whilst preserving and extending natural systems. It seeks to develop and maintain a cultivated ecology in all climate zones and includes principles of design, understanding natural patterns in nature, climate factors, aquaculture, social, legal and economic aspects of human settlement.

Permaculture has been adopted by corporations, governments, the UN and there are literally thousands of projects and many times more students all over the world. In fact you can travel the world


2005 was warmest year since recording began in the 1860’s.

Humans are responsible. Science has eliminated 99% of all other possibilities. Greenhouse gases and aerosols have changed climate.

The polar ice sheets reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere and into space but greenhouse gases bounce heat back to the planet which further warms the ice sheets to increase melting in a vicious feedback mechanism.

Fresh water, locked in the ice since before Christ was born, flows into the ocean affecting salinity, temperature, currents, fish movement - there is as much melt each day as flows down the Amazon River (each day) and the Amazon contains as much water as all the world’s great rivers combined.

More than 70% of the world's population lives on coastal plains, and 11 of the world's 15 largest cities are on the coast or estuaries and sea level is rising. It is impossible to know when Wall Street will be drowned but it may be sooner than we think. It seems all the climate models turn out to be conservative. Things are happening more quickly than they thought.

Since 1994 we’ve known about deep ocean warming (2-4 miles) in all oceans.

Eighty-four percent of last centuries warming was in deep oceans. The deep ocean has warmed more than twenty times faster than atmospheric temperature rise over the same time. (Tim Barnett, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA.).

Slow sea level rise is one thing but increasing severe weather events and storm surge is another. Waves are bigger now, winds more ferocious and damage will be worse.

As the ocean warms they gives more moisture to the atmosphere already heated by solar energy reflected and refracted by stuff we put in the atmosphere. This warm moisture is fuel for hurricanes. And hurricanes are growing more powerful, more erratic and there are more of them in both hemispheres – Brazil got hit for the first time last year.

The insurance industry understands these trends. People will not want to settle in these vulnerable locations (once recognized as prime real estate) and insurance premiums already high will be out of sight! In the 1960’s-1990’s there was $4 billion in climate related damage. In 2004 the figure was $140 billon. In 2005 Katrina pushed the number to $240 billion. We have been subsidizing bad planning.

Paleontology, the study of fossils, shows that climate changes can happen very quickly and we don’t understand mechanisms of change.

But even if the climate was normal and their was no immediate oil and water crisis, another approach to agriculture would be necessary – another way of organizing cities and communities – the kind of work people like you have always done. This church is in the vanguard – this church understands the importance of stewardship of Earth.

Even as we speak today a small permaculture community is growing at the Methodist Camp and Retreat Center in High Falls, New York. There’ll be a gathering there

The Hudson Valley Permaculture Spring Gathering happens May 6-7) and people will descend from all over the Northeast to teach + learn + talk + party Permaculture. You can register by emailing Ethan Rowland - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . It’s a potluck.

[1] Adam Aston, Business Week; Dr. Paul Epstein, Center for Health and the Global Environment; Dr. Gerard Schmidt, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Columbia University. (Gerard Schmidt works with Jim Hensen who blew the whistle recently on the [1]politicization of climate change “debate”), NPR, Lenny Lopate Show.