A Roadmap to Redesigning Civilization

Redesigning Civilization – with Permaculture

by Toby Hemenway (2013)

Film Review

Toby Hemenway defines permaculture as a branch of ecological design that employs natural ecosystems as a model. Although most permaculture design relates to food production, its principles can be applied to the management of all human needs, including water, shelter, waste, energy, finance, culture/spirituality and even sports and security.

Permaculture-based food production focuses on returning to a “horticultural” method of food production with “food forests” and other self-maintained food systems, as opposed to our current mechanized, open field method of food production. Permaculture relies on ecologically designed gardens, rather than open fields, and mixed crops, rather than monoculture. It also employs the continuous plant succession typical of natural ecosystems, rather than starting with a clear cut every year.

For me, the most interesting part of the film is Hemenway’s discussion of archeological evidence that civilization preceded the Agricultural Revolution (around 10,000 BC). This contradicts the prevailing belief that the agricultural made civilization possible by creating a food surplus. It’s been argued for more than a century that the creation of a food surplus through open field agriculture freed up non-farmers to specialize in higher pursuits, such as art, science, music, religion, and literature.

According to Hemenway, more recent archeological evidence suggests that civilization came first. This includes Venus figurines which dating from 40,000 years ago, religious symbols from 30,000 years ago, evidence of horticulture (plant tending) 30,000 years ago and evidence of irrigation 20,000 years ago.

He makes reference to an archeological site in Gokikli Tepi Turkey from 14,000 years ago suggestive of routine spiritual gatherings of hundreds of people. Feeding large crowds poses a specific technological challenge.

Hemenway believes these large gatherings may have been the impetus for large scale open field cultivation. “Agriculture” (from “ager” meaning field) made it possible to produce large amounts of grain which, unlike other foods, can be stored for long periods.

Hemenway goes on to discuss some of the immediate drawbacks of grain-based agriculture (based again on archeological evidence):

  1. Overpopulation, famine, and warfare – agriculture immediately caused a population boom, as grains are the one of the easiest foods to convert to calories. They increase female fertility, as well as allowing for early weaning (breast feeding inhibits ovulation). This population boom made settlements more susceptible both to conquest from neighboring tribes and famine due to failed harvests.
  2. Shorter life span and poorer health – following the introduction of agriculture, people tended to be shorter, suffer from more degenerative disease, and have shorter life spans (by about 20-30%). They also became subject to deadly viral epidemics (such as small pox) transmitted from domesticated animals.
  3. Less leisure time – following the introduction of agriculture, people had to work 60+ hour weeks just to survive. This was in part due to the need to support a priesthood, nobility, and military to protect the grain surplus. A hunter gatherer can generally collect sufficient food in four hours to last him a week.
  4. Agriculture created a fear of nature (of insects, weeds, wilderness, wild animals, and wild people) and a mindset in which people came to see themselves as separate, rather than part of nature.

Hemenway goes on to outline the basic permaculture design principles, with specific examples of their application to all aspects of sustainable living:

  • Catching, storing, and reusing energy and materials, essentially eliminating the concept of waste.
  • Becoming pattern literate – learning to observe ecosystems to see how a small change can have a big effect.
  • Focusing on community and regional self-reliance rather than individual self-sufficiency.

Drawing on real-life examples, the film finishes with recommendations of what viewers can do to facilitate the transition to a “permaculture” lifestyle in their own communities.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Farmers of Forty Centuries

farmers

Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan

By F.H. King

(1911, reprinted in 2004 by Dover Publications)

Link to free PDF

Book Review

I don’t typically review (or read) 100 year old books. Farmers of Forty Centuries is an important exception. It has become a classic of the permaculture/sustainable economics movement for several reasons.

First, it dispels the myth that fossil fuel-free agriculture will produce much lower yields than industrial farming. Without access to oil and natural-gas based pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, agriculture will be much more labor-intensive. However with global population at more than seven billion (as of last October), the world seems to have no shortage of human labor. Second, Farmers of Forty Centuries paints a detailed picture of tried and true regional models of food, fuel, and construction materials production, as well as regional water and human waste management. Third, it provides detailed descriptions, almost in cookbook fashion, of a broad range of permaculture and terraquaculture* techniques.

As a backyard organic gardener and member of the lawn liberation movement, I have found it really easy to incorporate a number of the techniques King describes into my routine. I was also intrigued to see Charles Eisenstein cite King’s book in Sacred Economics (2011 Evolver Editions), supporting his argument that more intensive production techniques could easily produce the same or better yields as current factory farms.

Briefly, Farmers of Forty Centuries describes the voyage agronomist and former US Department of Agriculture official Franklin Hiram King made to to China, Korea and Japan in the early 1900s. The purpose of his trip was to study how the extremely dense populations of the Far East could produce massive amounts of food century after century without depleting their soils. What he discovered was a highly sophisticated system of water management, crop rotation, interplanting and rational utilization of ecological relationships among farm plants, animals and people.

The 248 high resolution photos of Chinese, Korean and Japanese farmers and their fields are even more remarkable (especially for 1911) than the text. Unfortunately King died while the book was in production, and it was published posthumously by his wife.

Seasonal and Rainfall Differences

King notes at the beginning of the book that much of China has a longer growing season than the US. Moreover in China, Korea and Japan, most rain falls during summer months when it’s most conducive to crop growth. He notes that China enhances their summer rainfall with an extensive system of canals and that both China and Japan have elaborate schemes to capture run-off from uncultivable mountain areas. However he also presents strong evidence that water management alone fails to explain these countries’ amazing crop yields.

Human Excrement and Green Manure

He’s equally impressed by the extensive time and effort put into collecting all human waste (even from cities), processing it by drying or fermentation and distributing it to farmers, who would apply it more or less continuously to their fields. Noting the high price human sewage fetched for the men who collected and processed it, King bemoans the incredible waste in the US system of sewage disposal, which flushes so many rich nutrients into inland waterways and out to sea.

He also describes in detail the extensive use of soybeans, peanuts, clover, pulses and other nitrogen fixing plants in crop rotation schemes, as well as “green manure,” fibrous plants (either grown in the fields or collected) that farmers continuously plowed into their soil to increase organic matter.

Succession Sowing and Interplanting

Finally he stresses the systematic effort by Chinese, Korean and Japanese farmers to maximize their limited cultivable land. In one example, he describes how land flooded as a rice paddy in summer would be planted with leaks and other vegetables as winter crops. He frequently describes the presence of three crops (for example radishes, cabbage and wheat) in the same field simultaneously at different stages of maturity. According to King, farmers in southern China would typically cultivate one plot of land continuously throughout the year. In addition to two rice crops during the winter and early spring, they would also grow rape, peas, beans, leaks and ginger as a third or fourth crop during summer and fall.

The Economic Hardship of Japanese Farmers

King’s description of farming in Japan is striking in its heavier use of chemical fertilizer (as was increasingly typical of US agriculture in the early 20th century). He notes that Japanese farmers had to be encouraged (via a contest for the best compost heap) to compost kitchen waste and green manure to provide organic matter for their farms. He also describes the fines the Japanese government levied against farmers who applied excessive lime to their fields. Japanese soils are volcanic and quite acid (like the soil here in New Zealand).

King is also extremely sympathetic to the heavy tax burden carried by Japanese farmers (to pay for the Russo-Japanese war, which ended in 1905), as well as their struggle to pay extremely high rents. It was his view that their economic hardship seemed to sap their initiative. He offers this as a possible explanation for their eagerness to use chemicals and take labor saving short cuts instead of embracing traditional organic methods.

*Terraquaculture is the practice of farming living water flowing through the landscape. It is the traditional farming system of the Asia-Pacific region where it has been practiced for thousands of years and is arguably the only truly sustainable farming system. See http://www.terraquaculture.net/

Rethinking Industrial Agriculture

food forest

Small food forest

(This is the second of two posts about dramatic changes that are occurring in food production and marketing, as well as consumer food choices.  Part II addresses the application of design technology to water and soil management, which is revolutionizing the movement towards local food production.)

Applying Design Technology to Farming

Most food localization initiatives have been accompanied by radical technological advances that apply design principles to the way food is grown. The design technology employed in the rapidly growing fields of permaculture and biointensive farming is based on a radically different approach to water and soil management, modeled on nature’s ecosystem design principles. Anyone who studies natural ecosystems can’t help but notice there are no neat rows or bare soil in natural forests and prairies. Nature crams as many living organisms as possible, all with complex symbiotic relationships, into every square inch.

Ironically this “revolutionary” technology happens to be 4,000 years old. Chinese farmers discovered around 2,000 B.C. that designing their fields to replicate natural ecosystems produced the highest yields. This approach is well-described in F.H. King’s 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries. The US Department of Agriculture sent King to China in the early 1900s to investigate why Chinese farms were so amazingly productive. What he discovered was a highly sophisticated system of water and soil management that emphasized species diversity and rational utilization of ecological relationships among plants and between plants and animals.

The Watershed Model of Water Management

Despite King’s innovative work, it has taken English-speaking countries a full century for the lessons to sink in. Applying capitalist slash and burn mentality to farming clearly hasn’t worked. Agricultural yields in Britain and its former colonies, which all employ similar “modern” methods of water management, have destroyed tons of topsoil and essentially reduced agricultural yields by a third. In a desperate attempt to ramp up yields, chemical insecticides and herbicides were introduced after World War II. These, in turn, systematically killed off microscopic soil organisms essential to plant health.

Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British colonies all adopted the “drainage” system of water management. In this approach, trees are systematically cleared (usually by burning) and wetlands and springs are drained. Typically land managed in this way is subject to alternating flooding and drought, creating an unending cycle of economic hardship for farmers and farming communities. Besides destroying existing crops, repeated flooding also washes away topsoil and essential plant nutrients.

In contrast traditional farmers in non-English speaking countries are more likely to use the centuries’ old “water catchment model” of water management, sometimes referred to as terraquaculture. Because they deliberately design their farms to catch and hold water, they aren’t subject to flooding, soil erosion and draught. Chinese farmers wouldn’t dream of draining their wetlands, which are always the most productive areas for high energy food crops, such as rice and other grains.

Plowing “Kills” Soil

Soil technology has also greatly advanced in the last five decades, with the discovery of complex micro-ecosystems that support optimal plant growth. These eocosystems include a myriad of soil yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that live in symbiosis with host plants. Not only do they provide nutrients to the root systems of larger plants, but they also produce a myriad of natural insecticides and herbicides to protect them against pests. Mechanically disrupting the soil through plowing kills these organisms. They can potentially recover if the soil is left undisturbed – unless the grower totally wipes them out with pesticides, herbicides or bacteriocidal GMOs.

Studies show that plant diversity is also essential to a healthy plant ecosystem. Planting a single crop in neat rows surrounded by bare soil is also perfect invitation for weeds and insects to come and attack them.

Permaculture, in contrast, discourages noxious weeds and insect pests by creating “food forests” made up of compatible food-producing trees, shrubs and ground cover crops. Unlike veggie gardens limited to annuals that have to be replanted every year, the food forest is self-sustaining with minimal input. For people worried about the economy collapsing and their gardens being invaded by barbarians from the big city, it’s also virtually indestructible.

To get some idea what a food forest looks like, check out this video by Australian permaculture guru Geoff Lawton:

Attention City Dwellers

Lawton is also a big fan of small space urban permaculture because it’s the most productive in terms of yield per square foot. The following is a video by one of his students about designing a permaculture food growing system on your balcony or terrace:

photo credit: London Permaculture via photopin cc

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Permaculture Village in Davis, California

A great video about a 30 year old community food forest in Davis California.

Despite working full time jobs, residents can produce 70% of their food needs in their front and back yards.

The beauty and simplicity of permaculture and perennial food forests.

Full video free online at

http://www.geofflawton.com/fe/60356-food-forest-suburb

How Permaculture Can Save Humanity

food forest

London Food Forest

How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but Not Civilization

by Toby Hemenway (2013)

Film Review

Below is another great video on the history of horticulture by permaculturist and ecologist Toby Hemenway. Hemenway’s main premise is that agriculture – even non-industrial agriculture – is unsustainable. He approaches the issue from an anthropological perspective, by examining prehistoric cultures that became extinct as a direct result of transitioning from horticulture to agriculture.

Hemenway defines horticulture as food production using small garden and food forests that incorporate and support existing ecosystems. Agriculture, in contrast, destroys ecosystems to create vast clear cuts dedicated to single crops. The archeological record reveals that agriculture first developed in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) around 10,000 BC. At the time it was lush forest and bush. However after 3,000 of artificial irrigation, the soil became too salty to support life. The land, which became a desert, still hasn’t recovered. The same thing happened in ancient Egypt and Greece.

Archeological evidence reveals that all agricultural civilizations follow a typical pattern of soil depletion after an average of 1,000 years. Then they either die out or moving to new land via conquest. According to Hemenway, the Oil Age was a great boon to our current agricultural civilization. Farm machinery and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides provided an immense burst in world food production. Unfortunately this only hastened soil degradation. At the same time a steep price increase (related to oil a natural gas scarcity) and made them unavailable for a growing number of farmers, especially in the developing world.

Hemenway also asserts that the prehistoric importance of horticulture has been greatly underestimated owing to three myths widely promulgated over the last two hundred years.

Myth one: food surpluses produced by agriculture are essential to produce the leisure time and specialization required for culture to flourish.

New archaeological evidence reveals human beings engaged in cultural activities such as basket weaving, art, and music for hundreds of years prior to the development of agriculture.

Myth two: horticulture was merely a brief transition between hunter gather and agricultural societies.

Fossil and other evidence suggests that Native Americans planted and maintained most of the East Coast, Mississippi, and Amazon as food forests for more than four thousand years before Europeans destroyed their horticultural societies.

Myth three (thanks to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes): horticultural cultures are made up of savages who live short, nasty, brutish lives.

Anthropological and archeological evidence suggests exactly the opposite. Hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies devote far less time to securing and producing food than farmers. The former spend an average of three hours a day harvesting a day’s worth of food for their families; whereas pre-industrial farmers spent an average of two to three days to producing one day of food. This excluded crops they sold to pay rent.

Skeletal remains suggest people in horticultural cultural societies were healthier, taller, and lived long than people in pre-industrial agricultural societies. Moreover the advent of agriculture introduced a host of degenerative diseases, including arthritis and deadly viral epidemics (influenza, small pox, measles, polio, etc) that people caught from domesticated animals.

Worst of all, the introduction of agriculture led to the advent of class society, military conquest, and famine. As Hemenway points out, war and famine are virtually unknown in hunter gatherer societies that migrate to follow their food source. Likewise it’s virtually impossible for a marauding army to steal the perennials out of a food forest.

Permaculture to the Rescue

Hemenway views our current food production system as a major culprit in the current ecological and resource crisis the planet faces (e.g. climate change, ocean acidification, mass species extinction, and fossil fuel, fresh water and topsoil depletion). He estimates that without drastic change, our species will survive another fifty years at most. If, however, human species could navigate a successful return to a horticultural society, they could potential persist for millennia.

He sees the widespread adoption of permaculture as a first step in a return to horticulture. Permaculture is an 80 year old branch of ecological design that produces sustainable buildings and self-maintained food production systems by modeling them on natural ecosystems. The movement already has several million adherents worldwide, through the Transition Town and comparable relocalization movements.

photo credit: London Permaculture via photopin cc