Source to Sink: Climate Change, Peak Oil and the Permaculture Solution.


Andrew Leslie Phillips
Presentation at Friends Meeting House
13 Rutherford Place
Manhattan
September 21, 2006


Graph courtesy of David Holmgren

Good evening.

Thank you for inviting me to speak – thanks to the Neighborhood Energy Network, Friends in Unity with Nature and New York Cities Peak Oil Meet-up group. An thank you to the Friends for providing such an inspiring space.

I was invited here tonight to talk about Climate Change, Peak Oil and the Permaculture Solution.

I don’t want to sound glib about it but when you think of the idea of permaculture – permanent culture – permanency in culture – permanency in agriculture, since without food we cannot survive – permaculture is not such a bad idea.

The word was coined by an Australian from Tasmania, Bill Mollison and the theory of permaculture was developed in a book, Permaculture One in 1978, with co-founder, David Holmgren.

Back then, when Mollison, who’d lived many lives – as authentic bushman, fisherman, trapper, woodsman, scientist, naturalist, observer of nature and her patterns and then writer teacher and world traveler - Mollison became father of the idea of the possibility of establishing permanency in culture, by following some fairly simple directives.

And Bill Mollison then did a very smart thing. He copyrighted the word permaculture - which now appears in the dictionary – he copyrighted permaculture and said anyone could use it but they had to do the 72 hour permaculture course – they had to be certified in permaculture to be able to use the word and to teach it.

And so about 30 years later I did a course in New Orleans in 2004, with Geoff Lawton one of the legendary teachers – whose taught all over the world and is probably best known for greening the desert in Jordan a few miles from where Christ was christened. I did a second course in my home town, Melbourne, Australia in 2005 with Bill Mollison and Lawton.

I decided to create the Hancock Permaculture Center, a small place in upstate New York on the Pennsylvania border on the confluence of the East and West branches of the Delaware River called the "Wedding of the Waters" by the original inhabitents.

We are developing a permaculture demonstration site exploring appropriate local means to a more sustainable environment. And Hancock Permaculture helps develop permaculture courses, networking, media and outreach.

I’m here to share with you some of what I’ve learned on the journey so far.

When we teach permaculture we like to start with Evidence and Context. We need to know where we are to see where we might go.

So lets gets grounded and examine where we are today.

Let me start in my home country.

Australian is the oldest, driest continent and the only one never to have experienced an ice age. Aborigines have lived there for 60,000 years. There are still Aborigines in Australia who live in the dreamtime when earth and man were one with the animals and the land and the plants and the world was dreamed into being. Their society prospered and grew because they followed and learned in songs and in their tattoos and paintings, the great narrative of nature.

And then in 1769 Captain Cook sailed into a bay he called Botany and look how quickly things changed. Soon thereafter followed the Industrial Revolution and in about 200 years we’ve changed the climate.

Great civilizations have risen and fallen through the tides of time and there is no evidence that ours should be any different. Out society has chosen the path of least resistance, exploiting millions of years of sunlight embedded as energy in oil and coal. It is said that it takes 100 years of sunshine shining of one acre of land to create one gallon of oil.

The sun is the original source of all our energy. It is a hydrogen explosion 93 million miles away from earth. Humans have learned to create smaller scale recreations of the sun, begotten of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As a result, society is in a constant state of annihilation-anxiety - and has been since the end of the Second World War. It is an undeniable part of our collective unconscious. In the same way - AIDS - the idea of terrorism, and the existential fear that we are killing our planet, are now part of the zeitgeist - the world we live in.

When one side of a forest is attacked by pestilence, the other side of the forest begins to move and leaf-out in an act of survival. We believe trees communicate through the mycelium fungus web which stretches through thousands of acres and covers areas as large as states beneath the ground.

The mycelium network is a membrane of interweaving, continuously branching cell chains just one cell wall thick. We believe it to be the neurological network of nature. Mycelium stays in constant molecular communications with its environment, devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges.

And so as the forest responds so should we. We know what is happening so what can we do. In every sense we need to retreat to higher ground.

The vision of permaculture offers real-life, real-time solutions that can be taught and applied on all natural scales. Permaculture is a design system that follows nature’s patterns. Permaculture incorporates these patterns into designs that use soft-energy alternatives and diverse and resilient systems that increase yield, lessen work, enliven community and build basic security as energy descent begins.

The first law of thermodynamics, that energy can neither be created nor destroyed - is basic to understanding permaculture.

Dissipating the sun’s energy in the form of a hydrogen bomb - or using that energy to build a sustainable and abundant society is a choice.

When we explode a bomb the energy goes from its source to sink very rapidly.
Exactly the same energy is available to use in other ways. The more we slow down the explosion the stronger will be the system. We need to slow entropy – the inevitable dissipation of energy from source to sink.

In a nuclear weapon is all the embedded energy of the Manhattan Project, the years of time, resources and labor to produce such a powerful force on earth. This too is energy and should be included in the energy audit and the cost of war and destruction. And so should we learn to measure and evaluate all our systems. For the best way to use energy is to conserve it.

Permaculture has a plan to create permanent culture – permanent agriculture which is essential for culture to survive and flourish. When you think about it , not long ago we authentically celebrated the harvest season with the cycles of the moon. We understood Nature and lived more harmoniously with it.

Modern technology has created a world artificially maintained by poorly designed systems and planning It is only because of artificially cheap energy that our badly designed buildings that roast in the sun and freeze in the winter, survive. It does not have to be this way.

The time will come when we will have to use the sun to heat our buildings in the city or the country because conventional heating will be too expensive.

You’ll see solar greenhouses sprout on the southern sides of buildings, collecting free energy and storing it in water to wash the baby and warm the kettle and the house – or perhaps a nice stone floor as a passive heat sink.
This is how we begin to create permanent culture. We start at home.

A time will come when the water that rushes off our roofs and overflows our gutters, our streets and our subways, will be harvested and used on our gardens.

Gray water is the water we use for washing and bathing. It comprises about eighty percent of the water we use. It is seen as waste but can be directed away from conventional sewage systems infrastructure and redirected to reed beds and aquaculture ponds.

Water is capable of producing twenty to thirty times more protein per acre than land based systems. If we slow the entropic journey of water we reap the benefits and learn from nature’s patterns.

A time will come when, like the mycelium web, we will reach across the land from our islands of sanity to join with networks and communities and bio-regions as the idea of permanence in culture grows.

For fifty-thousand years the Australian Aborigines walked the land singing the map of the journey they called the songlines - and recent Chinese civilization goes back 5,000 years. So the Chinese doctor who touches your pulse is feeling back through centuries of understanding the language of the body.

In about 200 years we have profoundly altered the parameters of life.

Industrial civilization has changed the weather. There will be more droughts and floods, more devastating storms, entire climate zones are shifting as ancient glaciers and the polar ice caps melt. The seas are rising reclaiming the land and will force large-scale human resettlement.

More than seventy percent of the world's population lives on coastal plains, and eleven of the world's fifteen largest cities are on the coast or estuaries. It is impossible to know when Wall Street will be drowned but it may be sooner than we think. Most climate models turn out to be conservative. Things are happening more quickly than we think.

Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization. It fuels most transportation worldwide and is the basis of pharmaceuticals, agriculture, plastics and other products used in everyday life. Without oil and petro-chemical fertilizers, the world’s food system cannot survive.

Destructive post-war industrial agricultural methods have poisoned our land and water and reduced biodiversity. 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, soy and potatoes. In the 1960’s there were twelve major crops.

As we enter the new millennium food production is 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.

Soil grows in forests. When we cut down trees and create grasslands we reduce nature’s ability to create soil. Already the world’s food system is struggling to feed rising populations as soil loss increases.

Modern agriculture replaces the loss of soil nutrients with petro-chemical fertilizers. The modern farmer burns oil sitting in air-conditioned machines equipped with lasers and global satellite positioning technology, installing millions of miles of straight line, monoculture agriculture that slowly kills the
land.

Whether we like it or not, we have to change and seek more sustainable ways to produce energy and food. We need to audit energy use at every level with the objective of reducing energy inputs as we concentrate on designing softer energy outputs like solar and wind power - as other industrial nations have. But we will have to do much more.

The term “peak oil” describes the tipping point when world oil supplies reach projected maximum output. It occurs when about half of the total resource is used. From now on we are literally running out of oil. Gas reserves are the only high quality energy which can substitute for oil with high energy returns but gas production is set to peak in about a decade.

China and India, with one-third of the world’s population between them, know that their economic future is directly tied to finding sufficient energy resources to sustain rapid economic growth. They are negotiating with anyone willing to sell them an energy lifeline.

The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking approaches, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented.

An unholy trinity of climate change, peak oil and soil loss will force humankind to change.

To be sustainable a system needs to produce more energy than it consumes over the lifetime of the system. It should create enough energy to maintain and replace itself. Pollution is misplaced energy. We need to harness it and tie it back into our design.

For instance, instead of losing perhaps 200 to 400 tons of top soil per acre per year because of modern agriculture practices. We can slow the movement of water across the landscape and slow the loss of soil using water harvesting swales, ditches on contour and filled with organic matter to absorb the water and nutrients – and by planting nitrogen fixing trees on the lower side of the swale you further slow the process and create more water storage beneath the ground - which is the cheapest place to store water.

In this way we recharge the aquifers and ground water systems as moisture plumes into the soil. Such landscapes reduce runoff and so take pressure of the watershed and can help mitigate flooding as the soil is rebuilt.

This is being done by permaculturalists all over the world.

We can rebuild soil using proven composting methods. In three weeks we can have finished colloidal compost to absorb more moisture and insulate plants and the earth and thereby save water, discourage harmful bugs and feed plants organic, home grown nutrients.

In permaculture we have a saying, “if it lived once it can live again”. So the organic material you include in compost breaks down to other forms of energy which with water and sunlight become food. We derive our energy from food.

In permaculture we examine cycles. Patterns in Nature. Rhythms and harmonics. The nineteen year cycle of the moon across the equator and the cycle of the seasons. And from cycles we learn about yields and how to create abundance by following nature’s patterns.

We learn that we live in a spiral universe, that the curve described by the earth as it turns, is a spiral. The pattern of its movement about the sun and the solar system itself is part of a spiral galaxy. Even apparently circular movement in fact move as a spiral over time. And we live in that spiral movement.

It is good to understand where we are before we design for the future.

With energy descent comes the need to understand the essential things of daily life which will start with a new comunism – localism – decentralization and literally learning more about where we live and who we live with as we explore our bio-region.

We cannot tell what will happen when fresh food become less accessible, when utility costs go through the roof and basic infrastructure can no longer contain the collapse. No doubt there will be civil strife and repression. Katrina is the model. America is ill-equipped to handle steep energy descent.

It seems to me that if we put ourselves in front of the beast to try to stop it , it will crush us in its path. Better to step aside in an elegant tai-che movement and use the dissipated energy in more fruitful ways.

Let us understand that pollution in all its forms, is wasted energy – we need to think differently about energy and how it works and design systems based on a few simple directives and we can work our way out of this disaster.

There may be no stopping the collapse. Many think we have reached the tipping point.

If it is true that the polar ice caps are melting because of global warming then we are in a viscous feedback loop where the more they melt the less they reflect and because of the greenhouse effect, the radiation of the sun is reflected back to the icecap and so it goes.

As the world approaches energy descent and oil becomes very expensive a scenario of massive human die-off is possible. The end result of the Industrial Revolution is climate change caused by over consumption of resources. The Greenhouse Effect is simply a reflection of wasted energy we call pollution. It is quite literally, the signature of our historical period and it will be measured in polar ice cores and stones that will tell this tale in the future.

This is the world we live in.

And so we need to retreat to higher ground.

If you believe what I have written then you are probably through the looking glass and the emperor has no clothes.

History tells us that humans are loathe to change until they are forced– until we hit a brick wall. And government won’t help, Katrina is the example.

And even if we did not face climate change and oil depletion, pursuing permanency in culture in pursuit of abundance would be a right minded way to live. Native American culture encourage us to look forward seven generations when we plan our children’s future.

There are proven examples of applied permaculture all over the world. There is a vibrant movement growing as we speak. We are part of that shift away from the pestilence, to abundance. It is absolutely possible to live in a world of abundance and in a strange way energy descent creates the opportunity.

Some see a crash and burn descent curve, others a softer, greener descent – I think we have a choice and that change begins at home. For me it’s the Hancock Permaculture Center, teaching and writing. And the idea of the possibility of permanent culture inspires me despite the bleakness of the big picture.

In permaculture we talk about edge thinking – we understand that there is more life on the edge – where the field meets the forest and the sea meets the land – there is more life.

Some say if you’re not on the edge you’re taking too much room.