Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, December 20, 2010

New Year's Visioning

The New Year always puts us in a visioning frame of mind, and my reality of late has only compounded that tendency. Some of you may know that my family is smack dab in the middle of a major move, a move that is radically changing our world in a hurry. To catch the rest up quickly, let me drop back in time for just a minute.

On November 13th I gave a talk at the Georgia Organics conference in Tifton, GA, an hour and a half south of where we were living, and the town in which I was born. The talk was about home-scale integrated poultry systems, chicken tractors being sort of my specialty. I could sense that the first public lecture of my adult life had gone well, but I had no idea that a couple in their mid-50s sitting in the audience was about to change my life. My wife pointed out to me later that my talk was really my resume' in a sense, offered up for a position I had never even considered, and certainly didn't know was available.

For the next month, life went by in the usual way on our little urban farm. I was busier than normal, but that was only because our old ratty house was cold, and my wife and I had started thinking about getting the hell out of dodge as soon as we could manage to get the house sold. And that meant a lot of cosmetic work. Which is part of the reason I haven't posted in several weeks: cold fingers and a determination to get out of the hood.

Then the offer came. It was about three weeks ago, and we were having dinner with my grandparents. They told us that they had been at a party with a farming couple about my parents' age a couple nights earlier, who had informed them that they had been at my talk back in November. Would we like to come live in their old farmhouse in exchange for some renovation work? Um...you betcha! They lived in a newer house on the other side of their 300 acre farm, about 3/4 of a mile away from the one they were offering us, and really connected with what I had to say in my talk. The farm is currently producing industrial cotton, hay, and weanling beef cattle for sale to finishers. I want several of the young angus calves to stay on under my care, but the rest is what we were brought on to help transition. The owners would like to push the petro-production off of their land slowly, and are open to lots of new ideas. New ideas you say? My specialty!

Of course we'd like to leave the ghetto behind and come live in your old farmhouse in exchange for renovation work! And we get a 4-acre fenced pasture, woods, barns, and a mature pecan grove dotting a two-acre yard to play with? OK. We had 1/4 acre and a crappy 1000 s.f. house in a sketchy neighborhood to our credit at that point. It didn't take too much mulling over. We finalized the details over a delicious Thai dinner out, conversing constantly for two and a half hours with refreshingly like-minds. They had been battling a proposed new coal-fired power plant nearby for the last year, and were delighted to hear about my take on the situation in light of peak oil. Not surprisingly, the news that the International Energy Agency recently stated in their annual report that peak oil had occurred in 2006 was a bit of a shock. My interpretation, based on that information, that their coal plant was probably a non-starter anyway, was definitely viewed as a silver lining. These things obviously need to be opposed by real people on the ground, but it definitely doesn't hurt to have the Laws of Nature on your side. And the Laws of Nature are currently proclaiming from the mountaintop that Americans will be using less energy every generation from here on out. Probably a lot less.

We spent our first night in the farmhouse last night. Built our first fire in the wood stove. Cooked our first bacon and eggs in our own cast iron skillet for our first breakfast this morning. Lost our first chicken to a fox. Somewhere along the way I woke up and looked around, saw all the birds chasing bugs in the early morning light under the pecan trees out the bedroom window, and yelled Yeehaw!! just to try out my rural lungs. No neighbors close enough to hear, nobody casing the joint, just the four of us and a whole lot of room to grow food. My wife laughed hard and smiled a joyful smile I haven't seen in a while. It was one of the most promising mornings in a long time.

In the week or so before we moved in I started designing and planting the garden. Most of you know that just planting a perennial garden is work enough, but this baby was a desperately blank canvas, and every plant had more than one job to do. The little bay tree in the middle of the kitchen garden required that all the pathways get laid out first. My pineapple guava needed to borrow a space from an existing boxwood. The pomegranates needed a fenceline to be visioned so that I could plant them along it. I wanted the daily tea herbs right outside the kitchen door, along with a few rain barrels that have a place in my mind's eye, but aren't physically there yet. And a brick floor for access. How about a garden entry gate? Parking spaces? A sign to let guests know what we have and what we're out of? Where were Oliver's olives going to go? Will it be too shady for them there?

Oh, and those 2 old windows I brought from Spokane could be built into a jasmine wall on the south end of the back porch to provide some shade and seclusion from the fruit nursery that would evolve under the old pecan tree on that side of the house! And if the nursery was going here we needed a few pretty trees that pushed the climate envelope to serve as showpieces in the background. The Puget Gold apricot found a shady home near the front porch in just the right spot and angle to lean against while I write out imaginary future purchase tickets by the brick stairs and rocking chairs. Neither of which exist. The loquat is already 15 feet tall and blocking the view into our bedroom in my head, but in reality it's only 3 little stems with a couple dozen leaves. Two or three citrus trees will replace the holly bushes between the loquat and apricot, up against the house on the south side when the time is right. Oh, and how about a few tea olives near the bedroom window? Just for smell. I don't know that a finer smell exists on Earth. The rarified aroma of blooming citrus and tea olives in the early spring wafting in the window as we wake up on a warm February morning! Divine. I can already see the tidy little rows of fruit trees and bushes for sale on the black landscaping fabric as I get dressed on that imaginary morning, slipping on my muck boots to go take care of the watering.

My blueberry patch has expanded from 10 to 20 bushes in the last day. I have 10 varieties now, and hopes for another 10. The blackberries will come soon, as will the new fig and pomegranate varieties. I have one lonely tea bush that needs 4 more, and from those 5 I hope to propagate an entire plantation. Between the two new conservation easements we'll be installing under the high tension lines I envision a cutting edge agroforestry setup. I close my eyes and see expansive tree fruit nurseries planted on contour in the worn out old cotton field north of the house. A black walnut guild to demonstrate how to neutralize their toxic juglone secretions. Cattle, goats, and sheep, mob-grazing the pastures, building fertility and sequestering carbon in the soil where it belongs. An olive grove producing a private label olive oil. Gourmet mushrooms. And I beam when I think about employing 10 times as many people on this big permaculture site as it employs now.

Within the decade I see hundreds, maybe thousands, of people touring our rolling plantations, gleaning not only world-class produce and nursery stock, but, more importantly, valuable knowledge to apply in their own systems as well. Maybe one day we'll teach permaculture design courses here too.

We're busy, and happy, and absolutely thrilled and humbled to have been asked to guide this transition. 2010 was a memorable year to say the least, but 2011 is shaping up to be something special indeed. And I can't wait to share it with you all as it unfolds.

From Tonic Permaculture in south GA, we wish you the very best the new year has to offer. May it be interesting and breath-taking, and may we all benefit from each other's experience and tenacity as our energy descent world takes shape.

Happy New Year! Now go grow something yummy.

All our best.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What Constitutes a Paradigm Shift?

. . .There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.
And I say, "See who is in there with you and celebrate. . .
We are the ones we have been waiting for."
-Hopi Elder

The concept is enigmatic, but with the current energetics shift underway, also very appropriate for discussion. The term was coined by Thomas Kuhn in his book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (1962), and he suggests that they occur when scientists encounter anomalies which cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. Take quantum mechanics (QM), for example, which is a branch of theoretical physics that doesn't conform to Newtonian principles. Whether or not QM ever amounts to anything more than a fascinating rumination, it does indeed represent a paradigm shift. A new physical construct had to be developed to explain the behavior of the quantum world.

So let's apply the concept to peak oil and our future as a species here on Earth. What would constitute a legitimate paradigm shift in this case? As with most questions of this nature, it is instructive to first further refine the implications of a paradigm shift, and then to define just what exactly our current/previous one is or was.

The paradigm, in Kuhn's view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. Take for example the idea of slavery. In the 18th century it was considered "liberal" to oppose slavery, whereas in the 21st century it is considered barbaric not to. This is a pretty big deal. The idea that one human has the right to capture and enslave another, by whatever means necessary, for his own energetic benefit is not just outmoded, it's inconceivable to most modern industrial humans. This constitutes a major shift in worldview, and by extension, a paradigm shift. But was it a genuine paradigm shift, or merely a new moral high-ground gladly settled on by people who had mastered better techniques for energy exploitation? I think it's curious that the immense energetic value of oil was discovered in the 1850s, just before the great debate over slavery was settled the following decade. To extrapolate that line of logic back a bit farther, did the areas of the U.S. and Britain that produced coal, another immense form of fossil energy, also produce anti-slavery sentiment? If coal was mined in the south instead of the north, might the Civil War have been pressed on the Yankees by southern liberators? Is it easier to give up the energetic advantage of human slavery when there is a technological replacement that is free of the fear and loathing that must've registered in every slaveholders mind? And not only a replacement, but a superior technology to boot! Too easy.

So we're forced to re-evaluate our perception of a legitimate paradigm shift concerning human slavery, and replace it with the less-gratifying concept that we merely found an exponentially better way to enslave energy for our desires. The game-changing energy derived from coal and then oil made it easy. Slavery became an obsolete technology. At least in the first world. The question of whether we will return to slavery in an energy descent world immediately comes to mind. And while I'd like to think that we have truly outgrown such atrocities in the last century and a half, the logical answer to me is yes, of course we will. When it is energetically advantageous to do so.

Moreover, did we really ever leave it behind? Don't we still exist in a world where covert slavery is acceptable, so long as it's not the classical whipped and chained Africans on the southern cotton plantation image before us? I can't count how many times Americans, when confronted with the sweat shop labor argument, have offered an explanation to the effect of "well, at least we're providing them with jobs!" Right, like several millennia of exquisite Chinese civilization depended on them making plastic toys for us. Is five bucks and a bowl of rice a day really any different from slavery? The ugly truth of it is that buying cheap goods made in the third world condones the modern day version of slavery. And it's "over there" because the practice would never fly within our borders. We're too guilty to look it in the eye. Slavery didn't disappear, we just outsourced it and moved on to something better.

So if we're starting to question the existence of genuine paradigm shifts in the thought patterns of industrial culture, what might we expect to constitute a legitimate one? The Aquarian New Age movement might have the answer, right? I mean, paradigm shifting is their piece de resistance, isn't it? So let's take a look then. What does the New Age offer us?
As I understand them, the tenets of the New Age are as follows:
1)Monism - All is One. Dr. Bronner's favorite. Everything and everyone is interrelated and interdependent.
2)Pantheism - All is god. Every living and non-living object in the universe contains within it a spark of the divine.
3)If all is one and all is god, then we are god. Therefore all of humanity is ignorant of its own divinity, and a major goal of the New Age movement is to discover that divinity.
4)We discover our own divinity through a change in consciousness.
5)Reincarnation - we achieve our divine potential through a series of lives spent bettering ourselves.
6)Moral relativism - all religions are true, and there are many paths to god.

Some of these concepts seem so self-evident that only the most myopic religious fundamentalists could argue. For instance, the idea that we are all interrelated and interconnected is, from an ecological point of view, practically set in stone. I might also offer that pantheism could just as easily be described as "none is god" as it is "all is god." If we are all interrelated and interconnected, then each and every facet of the whole plays a crucial role, but certainly doesn't require divinity. This is easy enough to visualize as mineral deposits contributing their elements to biological systems that function with said elements as limiting factors to growth. For example, without the phosphates trickling down the watershed from the surrounding rocky hillsides, the plants that support the food chain couldn't flourish. Likewise, without healthy plant communities, the resident animals wouldn't survive for very long. To promote an animal consumer like Homo sapiens to a position of ordained stewardship is to not understand much about food chains. Without the primary producers and decomposers our reign as king would be short indeed. It's just as accurate to consider fungal decomposers the stewards of the system, ordained or otherwise. We'd be up to our necks in detritus pretty quickly without their tireless breakdown of recalcitrant organic molecules. But a mycocentric view of the system is no more appropriate than a human-centered one. All system functions are equally important - producer, consumer, decomposer; therefore either all are god, or none are god, but all are the same for sure.

Number 3 in the list represents my main argument against the idea that New Age philosophy represents a legitimate paradigm shift. If we are all becoming gods, or slowly waking up to the idea that we always have been, then we are still riding an expansionary train of thought. According to this reasoning it seems logical to add a fourth way of being to the old "savagery, barbary, civilization" progressivist party line: deism. Where we transcend the corporeal toil of our lowly position as animals within Earth's biosphere. From barbarian to citizen to demi-god, expanding all the way. Where's the paradigm shift?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for increased self-awareness and spiritual betterment, but just as coal and oil gave us a way to disdain our lowly status as slave-holders without actually having to endure a real shift in worldview, New Age philosophy continues that logical course by allowing us to disdain our lowly position as mere humans, confined by physical and natural law. This is merely the next geometric expansion of a 10,000 year old march through increasing abundance.
But increasing abundance can't last forever. What goes up must come down. Now that we've shined the light of reason on some of the past and future misconceptions about what constitutes a genuine game-changing paradigm shift, we're left with the increasingly irritating question of what one truly is!

Into that question steps the answer we're all here to discuss: global energy peak. When oil production peaked in 2006 (according to the International Energy Agency, not just some peak oil doomers) those of us in the expansionary first world were confronted with our first view of a new way of being. Permanent energy descent and economic contraction, a more or less perpetual bear. Going back to the definition that opened the essay, contraction will present science, and everyone else on the growth track, an increasing number of anomalies that can't be explained by the previously accepted worldview. Nature behaves quite differently in a contractionary phase than it does in an expansionary one. The mother of all paradigm shifts lies before us, and I, as well as many of my readers, are just starting to come to grips with the gravity of the situation. Talking about comprehensive worldview shifts, energy descent will demand bottoms-up revolutions in every facet of our existence, from agriculture to politics, and religion to gender relations. Food chains will grow steadily shorter. Biodiversity will increase, perhaps even sparking an evolutionary flowering event. And relationships among the players in that contracting system will become more cooperative. Fighting over expanding energy resources made sense, and was actually ecologically adaptive, in our growth paradigm, but energy descent will reset the table on every matter we think we understand. With less to fight over, we will begin to understand that our strength lies in ever more local and cooperative arrangements, and, counter to the segregation and specialization of growth, the humble generalist will inherit the earth.

It's a truly fascinating time to be alive! Dangerous or not, I wouldn't trade it for any other period of history.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Carbohydrate Production - Potatoes & Sweet Potatoes

Chances are, if you are working on improving your self-reliance, you've at least considered growing one or both of these crops. Few species of plants have had a more dramatic influence on the planet. From its home high in the Andes, the potato has migrated around the globe, changed the face of geopolitics, altered population dynamics, and brought an entire country to its knees. Also from South America, the Brazilian native sweet potato has become a staple from Honolulu to Istanbul, and enabled the political expansion of Polynesia after its arrival on their shores. In particular, the sweet potato radically changed highland agriculture in New Guinea. In contrast to taro and older New Guinea root crops, the sweet potato could be grown to higher elevations, and grown more quickly, with higher yields per acre cultivated and per hour of labor. The result was a highland population explosion, setting new records for the population densities they could attain, and elevations they could occupy (Diamond).

But back to potatoes first.

What a beautiful plant the potato is to see growing in your garden! It's an obvious member of the Solanaceae family, the nightshades, with a flower reminiscent of an eggplant's. Some tomatoes, like the Brandywine, are commonly dubbed "potato leaved" varieties, and that makes plenty of sense once you see these babies growing. But where tomatoes and eggplants play their cards out in the open, harvesting potatoes is far more like opening presents on Christmas morning! Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get. There are few joys in the garden like turning up a pile of hidden spuds at the end of the potato season. One pound of seed potatoes yields roughly 10 pounds of calorie-dense, protein-dense tubers that can keep all winter in the root cellar (or in the ground if you prefer!). Matter of fact, potatoes produce more calories per acre than any other crop. And if you've grown them yourself, you'll know why it's worth the effort! And all you have to do to repeat the joy of growing potatoes next year is set aside a bucket of the small ones to plant the following spring. No reason to ever buy that variety again.

But make sure you rotate their location in the garden. Pest pressure can be nightmarish in the potato patch. Leaving them in the same place year after year is a sure recipe for pest build-up and reduced yield. The picture above shows my potato patch, the lush leafy green ring dotted with white and pink flowers, in Washington two years ago. Had I stayed in this garden, the patch would have been moved out to the next ring the following season. Potatoes also tend to revert back to their wild form after staying in the ground for a few years, becoming woody and less palatable. If not, they would easily be the undisputed number one crop on Earth!

One of the best things about potatoes is that they make a great first year crop for new gardens. They help loosen compacted soil, allowing air and water to penetrate down the root channels and tuber cavities. They are a fine crop to use with a new sheet mulch. Simply cut a hole in the weed-suppressing cardboard or newpaper layer just big enough to place a seed spud before covering up the whole business with the other layers of compost and mulch. They will grow under and on top of the suppressive layer as it decomposes, leaving nothing but a cluster of potatoes and deep rich humus by the end of the season.
Another simple method of bed development comes from Scandanavia, where they mow the would-be garden bed down tight, lay the seed potatoes out, and then cover them with about a foot of loose straw. Very little water necessary. Just let them do their thing. And at the end of the season just grab the plant and pull it up, potatoes and all. Once again, what you end up with is a beautiful deep soil bed with lots of organic matter and very few weeds.
From Austria, and particularly adaptable for potato cultivation, comes the "hugelkultur" method, with the pronounced emphasis on the first and last syllables - hoo'-gul-kool-tyur', or something like that. It's been a while since college German. The photo above illustrates this alternative use for woody biomass in the garden. You can chip it and mulch it, you can let the city pick it up (heaven forbid), or you can hugelkultur it! As you can see I'm in the process of pruning back the trees and shrubs around the garden in this picture, but instead of getting rid of the "yard waste" (gasp) I'm stacking it up into a berm and covering it with leaves, grass clippings, hedge trimmings, compost, whatever biomass I can find. After that I cover it with a generous layer of wheat straw to tidy up the look and retain moisture more effectively.
Most hugelkultur is done with large rotting logs. This one was fresh branches with lots of air space between. It needed time to break down to something more useful. In this second picture you see my goat assisting in the breakdown process in a couple of ways. First, physically she is applying pressure, literally breaking the branches down. Second, she is browsing on the fenceline of beggar's ticks, catbrier, and privet, and converting these undesirable species (in this application anyway) into goat pellets that are falling into the hugelkultur. Turning a problem into a solution is what permaculture is all about. Piles of rough biomass, weedy species encroaching on the garden, even poison ivy, all turned into deep rich garden beds. And goat meat.
Another thing you'll want to do with your potatoes is "earth up". As they develop, rake new soil up around the growing plant. The formerly-aerial nodes now covered with soil will develop new roots, and potatoes, and again you'll be left with wonderful friable mounds of living organic topsoil for the next crop.
Another big permaculture topic is "guilding," where we plant lots of mutually beneficial plants together to create a system that functions like Nature - plants that serve rolls as living mulch, biomass generators, mineral miners, beneficial insect attractors, etc. The most beautiful old growth forests on Earth never required any intervention from human "stewards," yet they are supremely productive. But it doesn't require much more effort to steer a successional ecosystem toward more human uses, and potatoes are a fine living mulch in such a system, where they can help structure and protect soil, and create a humidity interface between the ground and the aerial biomass of the system. Famous permaculturalist Sepp Holzer uses potatoes extensively in his Alpine food forests, grown mounded on contour to retain moisture on his unforgiving slopes and improve soil texture. Used in the right ways, potatoes are not only a tasty and diverse world-class calorie crop, but they are one of the best garden helpers around.
Sweet potatoes:
This is not a particularly robust stand of sweet potatoes pictured here, but then, they weren't the primary crop in this space either. They were an extra crop, in space already filled by tomatoes. And, as you can see from the next picture, we got some hefty sweet potatoes out of the deal! Again, just like with potatoes, finding these jewels underground is exciting - small, medium, large, they all have a perfect use. This hog-leg fed all three of us. (Oliver wasn't eating solid food yet.) What these sweet potatoes did do, however, was form a great living mulch under the tomatoes, helping to regulate moisture loss from this bed. You can almost see the ghostly shadows of the tomatoes that had already been taken out outlined in the leaf pattern below. And of course there are the worm towers poking up through the bed as well.
In the U.S. we are quite familiar with the delicious roots of Ipomoea batata - in the vegetable world they are tough to beat - but most of us are wholly unfamiliar with the equally common practice of eating the leaves as cooked greens in other parts of the world. Not all varieties have good leaves, but many do, and the leaves of these improved cultivars help make up the protein the roots lack.
Stacking functions is the name of the game in permaculture, and sweet potatoes are world-class function stackers. Both the roots and greens are tasty and nutritious, they make an attractive soil-shading, water-conserving ground cover, and if you live in the right climate, they can be perennialized! Any time we can perennialize a food crop it is desirable, from an energetics perspective, and if you live at the zone 8/9 interface or warmer, this can be done. And we at Tonic Permaculture in south Georgia just happen to meet that requirement! We grew Beauregard last season at Small Batch in middle Georgia, and the roots were delicious, but we are going to be particular about our sweet potato varieties this season and look for a few with high quality greens too. Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetables, recommends Seed Savers Exchange for acquiring sweet potato genetics, but they aren't showing a single selection tonight. Anyone who can point me in the right direction would be my hero!
But whatever you start with, or add to your substantial collection this season, enjoy growing these amazing carbohydrate crops for nutrition, flavor, diversity, and the sheer weight of self-reliance they convey.
Happy planting this new year.
A few more links to potato and sweet potato related sites:

The go-to resource for perennial vegetables is a wonderful book by the same name, written by Eric Toensmeier, and published by Chelsea Green in 2007. I highly encourage people to get serious about using perennial vegetables to increase their self-reliance.
Another fantastic resource for all things permacultural is "Earth Users Guide to Permaculture," written by Australian permaculture guru Rosemary Morrow, and published by Kangaroo Press in 2006.
And what survey of the sweet potato and potato's use in permaculture systems would be complete without Toby Hemenway's brilliant book "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture," also published by Chelsea Green in 2009.
Thanks also to Dr. Jared Diamond, author of the outstanding and panoramic review of deep human history, "Guns, Germs, and Steel," published by Norton in 1999. This is a must-read for any industrial human who takes him or herself seriously.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why Neo-Tribalism is Ultimately Inevitable in an Energy Descent Context

An online acqaintance asked me the following question yesterday:

"Interesting thought Tripp, but what makes you think that a world with a lot less energy would necessarily devolve into decentralized tribalism?"

And here is my response:

Here's why: because according to widely accepted anthropological findings, about 150 people is the maximum number of folks any one person can keep up with - names, occupation, family relations, etc. At this level, which is basically the tribal level, societies are self-regulating. That is, everyone knows everyone, and is therefore accountable to everyone. It is in one man's interest not to kill another man because he would be found out and dealt with accordingly. You can't get away with much at the tribal level of organization.

Let's think of this as a comparison of food chains, tribes representing the shortest food chain that we are likely to see in such a highly populated world. Band organization is probably distant history for the most part.

So in that tribe of less than 150 people, there is no need for policemen, lawyers, judges, or even a chief, no kleptocrats whatsoever actually. Everyone is involved in acquiring food, even the "big man." Which is not a hereditary title, but conveyed solely on the merit of personal character. In ecological terms, kleptocrats represent parasites on the production system. That is, they are not directly involved in food production, and so have to be fed by the labors of other members of society. Ostensibly in return for a service of equal or greater value. Ostensibly.

Which takes us to the chiefdom level of societal organization. Because there are now roughly several thousand citizens at this level of political organization, they can't possibly know and respect everyone in the society, so 3rd-party arbitrators need to be employed - the police, lawyers, and so forth. Another layer of organization, another link in the food chain, but this time it's a new apex consumer class preying on the producing class below, and, because of typical and quantifiable energy loss to metabolic inefficiencies, every link up the food chain requires not an arithmetic expansion, but something closer to a logarithmic expansion of energy. Think about the preponderance of claims of inefficiency in the larger, more complex governments of the world. They're absolutely legitimate, and absolutely natural, according to energetics laws.

On top of this, new heights of political organization always demand monument building to solidify and consolidate their power, organized group projects like temples, monuments, and state houses. The impressive moai of Easter Island come immediately to mind. The chief is now typically ordained by the local deity, and the title passed on through hereditary title, thus creating a permanent entitled class above the producing masses. Another logarithmic expansion of energy flow up the food chain.

Without burdening the reader further with a discussion of state or even empire level organization, one can see quite plainly that increasingly-larger political organizations require exponentially more energy to maintain. (Think trial, appellate, and supreme court systems, with their level upon level of production capacity-draining kleptocrats.)

With the knowledge we have of peak oil, and understanding as we do that energy will now become increasingly difficult to capture, what sense does it make to assume that we won't enter some sort of balkanization process, slowly heading back through state, chiefdom, and on down to tribal level political organization?

Again, who knows about the timeframes here. I don't have a crystal ball in my pocket, more's the pity. But I understand ecosystem energetics fairly well, and I'm fairly certain that dwindling energy resources will remove apex predators from the food chain (something to celebrate in my opinion - think about the Bernie Madoffs of the world), in human societies just as in more classically natural populations. Because the most effective way to cut pork is by removing the head first. Which is why it never happens to any significant degree in complex political cultures; why on earth would I knowingly allow my underlings to dispatch me?? Besides the awful effects of DDT, this is one of the main reasons why birds of prey suffered from human expansion. They were apex predators who had their food chains undermined or usurped by us.

As a logical extension of this argument, one could almost assume that the greater a society's monument building is, the longer the food chain supporting it, and the more energetically unstable it is. That's why I don't worry too much about "the Chinese takeover" in a global energy descent context. Has there ever been a more monument-obsessed culture than the Chinese?

So yeah, I feel pretty confident that my macro perception of our trajectory is fairly well informed. Micro? Hard to say. But I think it's fair to assume that saving the planet (and thereby ourselves) relies on our getting small and getting local as quickly as we can. Because every link in the food chain that we remove cuts energy use logarithmically too. Which is why this might take a while. But me, I'm just ready to get back to something a lot less complicated. Some of us are simply skipping the hassle of organizing and reorganizing repeatedly, and instead, actively engaging neo-tribalism, and giving the uber-high-energy complex political organization we're all too familiar with a miss. Because we understand that our future depends on it, and we have the stones to act on that knowledge now.

I'm not sure "devolve" is the right word, but it would certainly be counter to the trends of the last ten millenia.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What the??

Just damn. Damn, damn, damn. And we only have liability of course since the car is paid for. So out of our pockets we'll have to replace an electric window now, hopefully before our road trip to the Georgia Organics conference one week from today. Problem is, the sign is true! Out of our pockets these days comes mostly lint and cartoon moths. Certainly not the kind of spare change required to cover these sorts of acts of boneheads.
I hopped in the car early this morning to run get some baby cereal and bananas, and saw the mess. Figures, I thought. What the hell? They pulled the face off of our old and busted CD player, screwing up the console around it, but couldn't manage to get the business part out. Or didn't bother once they saw what it was. We don't care about stereos; you'd think the overflowing garden right beside the car, and the age of the car itself, might suggest that. I guess I'll just leave the doors open from now on. I'd rather lose Ella's booster seat than a window! Trunk was ajar too, but apparently they didn't like the contents of my urban farm vehicle's trunk either: soil probe, work boots, battery charger, mattock, definitely no amps or subwoofers.
Funny thing is, I didn't really care all that much. I didn't feel victimized, or stalked, or even unlucky. Things like cars mean less and less to me these days. I almost wish we could just be done with the whole car thing, and crap like this just reinforces that desire. But we're not ready to get stuck in this neighborhood, so we better hang onto it for a little while longer.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Recent Doin's at Small Batch

Mushroom business off and running. Here I am drilling 5 gallon buckets, holes about 6 inches apart vertically and a couple inches apart sideways, to stuff with grain spawn and substrate.
In goes a handful of grain. You want about one grain per square inch. I went a little heavier since I'm new to this, and not using a pasteurized substrate.
Trash can half full of soaked wheat straw. Half a bale fits in these 30 gallon models, so I do 2 cans at a time. I stuffed eight 5-gallon buckets with a soaked 40 lb bale of straw.
Keep layering straw and grain spawn every 3-ish inches. Pack it tight! Be better if it was chopped; you could get more in there. Sawdust works too I think. I'll try some sawdust next round, since there's a cabinet maker nearby with a dumpster full of sawdust free for the taking.
Two stacked and bagged to retain humidity. I hope this works. The temperature is just about right these days (55-75F) for the Po Hu variety of Pleurotus ostreatus I'm growing. Humidity needs to be HIGH, and outside is more humid than in for sure! I don't have a climate controlled room yet, may never, so I hope the bags will do. Should I seal up the bottom with soil or mulch?
Four bagged stacks, 8 buckets, 1 bale of wheat straw soaked in cold water for 3 days, 2 lbs of oyster grain spawn.
Next bale on to soak. These cans are really heavy when they're full of water, so I put them in the blueberry patch (very young blueberries still) before I filled them, thinking they might benefit from the tannic water after the straw has soaked. Old-and-busted in the background is slowly coughing up its parts for poultry/rabbit coops and tractors, and goat sheds. I'm hoping it's gone by spring, and since it was a boat garage in a former life, I'll grow a crop of sunflowers and mustard greens to accumulate heavy metals from the site. Maybe an oyster mushroom crop too. Oyster mushrooms can actually digest petroleum derivatives and metabolize heavy metals. Some say that they digest environmental toxins so completely that you could eat them after bioremediation! Not sure I'm that hungry yet.This afternoon Ella and I installed 5 worm towers in the sweet potato bed. You can see the large white PVC pipe sticking out, 2 in this view. As you can see, peppers and tomatoes are still going strong here in the zone 8 piedmont/coastal plain ecotone! We're testing these out with some leftover plumbing pipe in this one bed to see if they're worth using on a larger scale, and to make sure the plastic behaves. They're full of holes below ground level, and the idea is that the worms will come in to dine on compost we throw in there, down to 16" deep, and then leave their juicy castings all over the bed, tilling and fertilizing Nature's way. Not a lot of natural precedent for rototillers in a temperate climate. All of my annuals grow in double reach beds done Emilia Hazelip style.
Close-up of one of the worm towers filled to ground level with weeds and compost. Leave the really heavy stuff out as worms aren't much for eating banana and orange peels, and don't particularly care for aliums either. They love coffee grounds and tea though! The post-hole-diggers found some small and unexpected sweet potatoes maybe a foot deep, so I have a lot of hope that next season will produce a lot of them. Doesn't my sand look nice after a season's love??
I'm finding out how tough it is to grow food under Sugarberry trees (Celtis laevigata), but this bowl of radishes, a late zuke, and especially the little loquat tree!, seem to be doing just fine. I'll repeat this successful pattern more next season. Figs and tea camellias were a no go. They will find a new home for 2011.
A little stash of fall greens, complete with the requisite chicken barrier. They don't come up this far usually, but better safe than sorry. It works just as well as a kitten confounder.
New fire pit back near the livestock paddock. Woke up to a cool drizzly morning today and just thought we were going to need a hot fire. It was perfect.
Also started work on the central chicken coop of my rotational paddock system today. My 2 Americauna pullets are looking on eagerly. Woo-hoo!! Thirty-six square foot mansion. How spacious!
Their eggs are prized by French chefs and 007! Brought this breeding trio of French standard Black Copper Marans home last night. They're the ones that lay the dark chocolate brown eggs. Supposed to be the best quality egg available. We take our food very seriously around here! Oh, and my 2 crazy guineas seem to have taken a shine to ol' Chaucer.

Well there you go - a tour around Small Batch circa November 3rd, 2010. Hope you enjoyed it!

Tripp out.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Power of Horse

There's an old made-up story about my ancestors, the proto-Indo-Europeans, from the steppes of western Asia, near the Caucasus Mountains. It comes from the field of linguistics, which has gone to some length to reconstruct the mother language that spawned all the daughter languages from Portugal and Norway to Bombay. The expansion of this language, and subsequent cultural flowering that occured, or deflowering, depending on which end of the sword you're looking at, was driven by the domestication of the horse.

Can you imagine the first horse-borne riders appearing over the hills, raiding the small agrarian villages of eastern Europe? How terrified they must have been!

In fact we have a historical account of a very similar introduction of mounted soldiers, this time with guns and steel to boot, in the story of Pizzaro's rout of the Inca under their sun-god emporer Atahualpa. In the early 1530s, Francisco Pizzaro lead a group of Spanish conquistadors through the wilds of South America, to the stronghold of the Inca in modern-day Peru. I don't feel like looking up the exact numbers because the lack of parity is so incredible that it doesn't really matter, but I think it was about 100 infantry, and about 60 mounted cavalry, with swords, daggers, and very early, but very scary, guns. They overwhelmed and routed 80,000 Inca that day, and captured Atahualpa as well, whom they held hostage until they had extorted the collected gold wealth from the rest of the overthrown civilization. Then they killed him. Nice people. Not that what they did was unnatural, just seems barbaric to us moderns living under a very different energetics reality.

But back to my old made-up story. I took this from Dr. Jared Diamond's book, "The Third Chimpanzee," and think it says a lot about life at the point in history when our ancestral language was about to explode on horseback to conquer the globe.
First in Proto-Indo-European (PIE):

Owis Ekwoosque

Gwrreei owis, quesyo wlhnaa ne eest, ekwoons espeket, oinom ghe gwrrum woghom weghontm, oinomque megam bhorom, oinomque ghmmenm ooku bherontm.

Owis nu ekwomos ewewquet: "Keer aghnutoi moi ekwoons agontm nerm widntei."

Ekwoos tu ewewquont: "Kludhi, owei, keer ghe aghnutoi nsmei widntmos: neer, potis, owioom r wlhnaam sebhi gwhermom westrom qurnneuti. Neghi owioom wlhnaa est."

Tod kekluwoos owis agrom ebhuget.

Now in modern English, which is a direct descendent of the previous language:

Sheep and Horses

On hill, sheep that had no wool saw horses, one pulling heavy wagon, one carrying big load, and one carrying man quickly.

Sheep said to horses: "My heart pains me, seeing man driving horses."

Horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see: man, the master, makes wool of sheep into warm garment for himself. And sheep has no wool."

Having heard this, sheep fled into plain.

From these simple, but heavy, beginnings, horses went on to serve as vehicles, tractors, tow trucks, tanks - they were everything for the next 6000 years. The next shock of this magnitude would have to wait for the arrival of the Third Reich and their iron tanks with mounted cannons. But even that was small potatoes compared to the way horses revolutionized life on Earth.
Even our space program was affected by horses! (Another story for another time.)

The steppe peoples who gained control of the horsepower then thrust their horse-drawn cultural package into the bush of eastern Europe, where those new technologies mingled with a sedentary farming culture, retained the PIE language base, and evolved into a planet-defeating military-industrial package. The daughter tongues of PIE are spoken all over the world today, including all of the western hemisphere, far from PIE homelands, most of Africa, and even Australia and New Zealand, where the unique (and I think beautiful) forms of English they speak rest after their long and complicated linguistic journey. And it all started by catching a horse.
Not that the horse was the only blessing of geography to the region. Southwestern Asia is called "The Fertile Crescent" for a reason. Wouldn't know it to see it today. We're talking Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel - you know those lush green countries with all the oil. But the reason they're so run down and barren is because agriculture and pastoralism were born there, and now we can see the effects of 10,000 years of growing human populations, their insatiable resource grab, and what it does to the soil. Many of the world's common staples originated in the region - goats, sheep, chickens, wheat, barley, and chick peas for starters. Goat, in particular, is worth further consideration here. Much maligned in Christian cultures (and Cake tunes alike), I think goat will play a starring role in energy descent.

So what does all this about horses have to do with relocalization anyway? Good question. Who knows what role the horse will play, when, and where exactly. My guess would be that horses will become a lot more useful again, including integration with cutting edge intensive rotational grazing systems that rehabilitate instead of degrade land. Tilling the soil needs to fall out of vogue in general - tractor, horse, or otherwise - and I think that message will get out eventually, so perhaps the horse's usefulness will ultimately decline too (unless we get OK with eating them). Cultivation was part of expansion, working so well for that purpose that we got destructively addicted to it, but our understanding of topsoil is much more complete today, and annual tillage needs to stop in an energy descent context. Maybe, like cultivation, the horse was an expansionary idea for the most part. Who knows. I don't think contraction will work like expansion at all, so hard to say. I just think it's a lot easier to form a coherent idea of where we might be headed if we possess a broader understanding of where we came from. That and it's just fascinating to me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Slaves to the Family

We humans consider our control of the planet to be so self-evident that we've never really given it another thought. I mean, we have by far the greatest impact on the overall environment, make the longest lasting monuments to our presence, and utilize every form of energy Earth has to offer. But in sheer acreage colonized, we get our butts handed to us. And not only handed to us, but driven relentlessly to assure the dominance of our real masters.

Admit it, we're slaves. Slaves to the family. The plant family Poaceae that is, the grasses. Think about it. What are the primary obstacles to the grass family's colonization of Earth? Forests? Steep slopes? Water? All of which we gladly bust our humps to help grass overcome. We cut down more forests and plant more cereal grasses every year. We terrace steep mountainsides to make grasses more comfortable. And we bring water to help them grow. Think about how much of Earth's land surface is covered in wheat, rice, corn, barley, oats, sorghum, millet - you name it, if there's a lot of it around it's probably a grass. Bamboo, the most useful plant on Earth, with more than 1500 recorded uses, is a grass. Hell, we even renamed our favorite flowering plant "grass," so as not to anger our masters.

My friend, Mark, committing treason against his master, contemplating how to exchange some of his grass for more useful...I mean stupid flowering...crops. Sorry.

Next, a Bit About Lawns

Ever consider just how much energy it takes to maintain a lawn? Nature maintains grasslands in 3 ways: 1) regular fire, 2) lack of water, 3) grazing pressure from hooved animals. Now your average suburban lawn owner is not terribly likely to maintain his prized monoculture with a regular burn regime. Which is probably for the best; I don't think the neighbors would be very keen on that. He's also just as unlikely to graze ungulates across the front yard, despite the obvious, and free, benefit of manure to fertilize, and pointed hooves to aerate, his plot. And he damn sure isn't letting his lawn dry out to avoid pulling those pesky maple seedlings.

But those maple seedlings aren't just there to annoy landscapers. That's nature's way of proceeding with ecosystem succession, and without the free environmental services Mother Nature offers for grassland maintenance, that considerable energy falls on the shoulders of the landscaper. Without fossil fuels the sheer comic folly of a lawn would come into focus pretty quickly, but with that magnificent energy subsidy, we humbly bow to our lords, and mow, water, fertilize, and remove competition. Anything else, your grace?

In ecological terms lawnscapes fall under one of two main categories: prairie or savannah. The archetypical prairie would look like an expanse of grass, perhaps bordered by a few flower beds. The garden-variety savannah would include a few trees. Probably not the most useful trees though, as that red maple provides shade in summer, lovely foliage in the fall, and some wildlife habitat, but no real contribution to self-reliance for the humans in the landscape. One can have their tree and eat it too.

Without those 3 ecosystem pressures I mentioned above, however, the energy required to maintain a prairie or savannah in the suburbs is immense. Nature's fecundity is relentless, pushing lawns to become pioneer shrublands, followed by primary forest, and eventually maturing into whatever the dominant local forested system might be. The lawnkeeper has to stop her. And stop her. And stop her again. Every time we mow, pull, and spray for weeds, we are in essence setting back the successional clock. And every time, like clockwork, Nature responds by sending out her army of maples, privet, dandelions, chicory, plantain, coinwort, and myriad others, bent on fixing the problem we've created. The imbalance in the system.

In the United States alone, our graminoid masters have hoodwinked us into the conversion of 50,000 square miles of (originally) old-growth forest into grassy landscapes. Sargeant St. Augustine, Captain Centipede, First Leiutenant Fescue, and more recently the Zoysia Czar, have whipped us and cajoled us into prostrate servitude. Literally. How many suburbanites can you find on their knees every weekend, wrenching dandelions out by their enormous (and terrifically useful) taproots, so that King Lawn can prosper? When you awaken from the Poacic Matrix, the vista will make you nauseous. For what do these lawns have to offer besides a popular cultural asthetic? There's no dog food out there, or cat food, or goldfish food, and certainly nothing a human could eat. We fill our homes with animals that require energy to maintain, including us, then turn right around and waste the very gift of land that could be used to maintain them.

Our masters have our complete attention. Their conquest of planet Earth is nearing completion. Maybe as individuals we can't fight effectively against the banks and corporations that seem to have a free pass to rape and destroy, but we can do something about the lawn out front. We can turn 50,000 square miles of toxic wasteland into productive horticultural space, and in the process take a significant burden off of our dying farmland. The header photo of my blog is a shot of my front yard in Spokane, WA, USA, 2009. We ate like royalty that summer, and paid for chiropractic care with produce. Now I'm not sure just how many layers of biosphere-destroying formal economy that removed from my family's footprint, but it was the most delicious civil disobedience I've ever engaged in!

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Love of Money

Or the trading of human quality for human quantity.

A paper monetary note - US dollar, Japanese yen, German deutschemark - is, for all practical purposes, a unit of energy. And not just ONE unit of energy either, but a brand new unit of energy every time it changes hands. Doesn't matter much what it's traded for, a unit of energy is expended every time it moves. Unless you put that dollar under the mattress and sleep on it, that is. Then it basically ceases to exist.

But that's not what the majority of first-world humans do, is it? We buy groceries, go to concerts, and invest in big tobacco companies. Or maybe in so-called "green" or "socially responsible" investment vehicles, if we lean that way. Doesn't pencil out any differently though. A dollar spent in the economic machine is still a dollar. Even in a venture as seemingly innocent as the Nature Conservancy, where dollars are traded for valuable natural real estate, more money donated translates into more people working on that conservation. More plane flights hither and yon. More mortgages. More investment firms to handle the retirement funds for those employees. More dinners out. And the formal economy keeps on spinning, and by "spinning" I mean destroying the planet.

What about Heifer International? I used to subscribe to their "good works". Their business model revolves around taking first world donations to provide livestock and training to the "unfortunate" third-world poor. But those poor people are alive, and have been for millenia, quietly living sustainably, not reproducing more than they could feed. They were hunter-gatherers, or horticulturalists, living very local, low-impact lives. Now they are aspiring agriculturalists, and entrepreneurs. Ideas based on expansion of market share, and an "ethic" of size equaling self-worth. You were nothing until we gave you that water buffalo, and you'll be nothing again if you don't expand your holdings with it.

But how can 7 billion people expand their holdings? How can we all be agriculturalists, steadily clearing virgin land to convert into more humans? (Literal and metaphorical virgin land.) The simplest answer is that we can't. The physical world has physical limits. It's that easy. Modern industrial humans don't like the idea of limits. Not something we've ever had to tolerate much of. Up until now. I don't have much else to say on the matter beyond that we have to stop. Just stop moving, stop doing, stop consuming. I'm only aware of a couple of people who travel extensively yet manage to live carbon negative lives. And no, Al Gore is not one of them. Could be, but I don't know that for sure.

OK, so what about a kind of green tech stability? Can't we just replace our conventional systems with lower-energy alternatives? Of course we could! If that was what we were doing. But does it really make sense that an alternative power system for every individual property in the developed world would be cheaper energetically than a regional power grid? Should we just overlook that solar panels require the mining of rare earth elements like Indium and Hafnium? Metals that are near their peak supplies already? They are called rare earth elements for a reason. How exactly will we create a solar revolution when we've barely begun the task and we're already running low on the required materials? Same for wind. You're just not getting the same bang for the energetic buck that you get out of oil and coal, and that is a physical limit that matters.

Now Tripp, are you saying that you endorse oil and coal use for power production? Yep. Until we wrap our heads around the idea that the only way to use less energy is to actually use less energy! The point is, it's the behavioral modification that matters, not the technological. The primary fallacy of the supposed "green tech" movement is the severe disconnect from reality embedded in the idea that we can keep doing what we're doing after a brief equipment change. That is, as soon as we can get all those old incandescent bulbs switched out for CFLs, or better yet, LEDs, and get everybody recycling their trash, we'll be able to continue this grand expansionary experiment unabated. Never mind the mercury in the CFLs that no one recycles, or the production costs of these technologies - the R&D, the new or retrofitted factories and supply chains, the mining, and the billion dollar chemistry labs, not to mention the average everyday lives of the people involved, buying their groceries, attending their concerts, and investing in their big tobacco companies. Or Green Mountain Coffee, or whatever, doesn't matter.

It all requires energy. The only difference is who is benefitting from that spent energy, that is, which of the 2 aristocratic parties in this country can gain the upper hand by acquiring slightly more energy than the other. The people who think alt energy is the way of the future, and thus vote for Democrats to bring that to fruition, are just as culpable for destroying Earth as the Republicans who want things to continue like they are. Maybe even more so. I was recently sent an article about an off-grid grass-based agricultural operation, which at first glance made me happy. After all, grass-fed beef is without a doubt the lowest input meat available, and done properly can even sequester atmospheric carbon. But the article went on to say that this ranch had just installed 50 kW of solar capacity at a cost of $320,000, that will supply over 1/3 of the power for their abbatoir! A whole one third! Just for the abbatoir! And they were bragging about it! I don't care what "they" say about recovery time on a solar investment, there's no such thing. Not when one does a full environmental accounting anyway.

Nothing will change until WE change. There's no such thing as free energy, because even if you found it, the additional humans it would create still need to be fed, clothed, and housed, at a bare minimum, and increasingly they "require" a computer and ISP, a cell phone, a car, ....

The Green Tech revolution is nothing of the sort. It's business as usual in a pretty green wrapper. The only chance we have of persisting on planet Earth lies in our ability to drop our hubris a notch or three, and start asking how, rather than finding a better way to accomplish a given task, how we can manage to get by without bothering to accomplish that task at all.
That's where our biggest trouble lies. The idea of stopping, slowing down, or avoiding doing a task is tantamount to laziness in the eyes of the growth culture. Prosperity comes from hard work, right? Wrong. OK, maybe in the shortest of terms, but ultimately, prosperity comes from sustainability. Anything else is just selfish, no matter how noble the motive. What good does it do to acquire the wealth of the planet and leave no trees for the children? Will that stack of paper fed notes taste good? Do they burn slow and long for warmth in winter? Would it even matter if there is no rain to water food crops following a deforestation threshold?

We have to sort out our priorities, and we have to do it now. This is the only problem before us. It's the biggest problem ever faced by Homo sapiens, and it will be THE defining moment for all of humanity. Doesn't matter what our parents and grandparents tell us is right, or noble, or responsible. Their experience was nothing like our experience.

Ever heard of the "Punctuated Equilibrium Theory"? Makes a lot of sense to me. Basically, it suggests that there are long periods of slow steady building of resources and infrastructure, followed by very short, rapid bursts of consumption. Repeat cycle ad infinitum. In a human context, the groundwork was laid for our parents and grandparents by their predecessors - the telephone system, the interstate highway system, social safety nets, intellectual property laws, and so on - and then they burst out to exceptional material wealth by utilizing these resources to their fullest potential. But in the process of creating massive paper wealth they consumed the REAL capital reserves - the forests, the freshwater, the soil's fertility- and now the long slow rebuilding process must begin anew. That is our next task.

But before the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or your face turns red, or even one "How dare you!" is uttered, let me quickly add that what we've done for the past 70 years, and in the larger sense the past 10,000 years, is completely natural. I don't think for one second that my grandparents intended to leave me and my cohorts destitute ecologically. We did what any biological population in our shoes would have done. The energy was there, it was easy, and we expanded to take advantage of it. That's how natural populations work! But the dark side of being a regular old part of nature is that we face the same consequences that, say, yeast in a barrel of grape juice face. Once the available energy in the system is used up the population crashes. What's worse is that in a population that arranges its affairs around growth specifically, even borrowing from future growth that may or may not exist, that crash will come even sooner. As soon as the growth phase is over that is. So unless there really is some benevolent deity that really does think our activities are worth rewarding, a population keyhole event is precisely what we can expect following peak global energy.

How long we have is anyone's guess, but I think the past 3 years have been the opening act of more or less permanent energy descent and economic contraction. Whether or not I'm right about that is somewhat irrelevant, because it will come sooner or later. By predicting it in the near term I'm actually tossing out a best case scenario. As soon as we begin to descend from the great energy mountain the biosphere begins to recover. (Good news, I'm seeing that happen already in many ways.) Which is good news for all biology, including humans. Hard to see sometimes, through the cloud of paper money blurring our vision from the peak, but the sooner this stolen season at the summit ends the sooner we recover our humanity.

The love of money is not the root of all evil. Money itself is. We're enamored by it, we always want more, and why wouldn't we! Money lets us travel, and eat better, buy land, and help our friends and family. For a while. Then it's just paper again. And the view from the ash pile will be surprisingly bleak I'm afraid. Seven billion or so humans surrounded by clear-cuts, impoverished farmland, toxic water, and a whole lot of disbelief.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Spoken Pattern Language

I never studied Latin formally, but like any biologist I have a fair command of the language through scientific names and terminology, and their meanings. "Leucocephalus" means white head; "polypodium" means many feet, or bases - roots in a lot of cases. One simply picks the language up as they study.

What I'm about to propose walks a similar line.

Some sharp friends of mine and I have been talking about what to expect from energy descent. Specifically, how societies will reorganize themselves along shorter, lower energy food chains, supply lines, and loyalties. And we mostly agree that the procession from band to tribe, tribe to chiefdom, and chiefdom to state, will probably just reverse. But along with that realization comes the unavoidable prospect of a return to racism and xenophobia, traits that modern people mostly consider ugly, and gladly left behind. That was our ancestral condition though. No one travelled beyond neighboring tribal lands, if even that far, and tribal societies were extremely intolerant of outsiders. As Dr. Jared Diamond puts it, why would they be on our land except to introduce foreign diseases, rape our women, and reconnoiter our territory for future raids? I think it's safe to say that very few people desire a future like this.

But cultural homegeneity, including racial/ethnic/gender/religious amalgamations, and widespread common language, are anomolies of a mobile high-energy society. Anomolies that most often require oppression in one form or another, if not bloodshed, or even outright genocide. Call it "manifest destiny" or "divine providence," whatever you will, but in the end it's nothing more than steamrolling your neighbors because you think you are better. Not that it's unnatural. All of Nature works that way, but following peak global energy things are changing, and they deserve to be considered.

So instead of a wholesale return to racial and linguistic tribal organization, what might be expected is a realignment along ideological lines. As we begin the descent, I could see Southern Baptists forming Southern Baptist communities, motorsports enthusiasts in motorsport enthusiast enclaves, and permaculturalists in their ecovillages, regardless of race or national origin. Doesn't have to be very big either. Just a neighborhood might do. Foreign immigrants, as well as members of some religious sects, in the United States have been doing this for centuries. It's the majority mixture that's the odd part.

While a little hybrid vigor probably does a species good, if it's unsustainable it's unsustainable, so back to more local organization we go. If you look, you can already see this happening, even in the mighty U.S. The Libertarians were an offshoot of the GOP, now the Tea Party, Greens from Democrats, etc. The balkanization of our world is well underway already, and a declining annual energy budget will only accelerate the process. Doesn't really matter how much we oppose it.

As a permaculturalist, I see myself as somewhat ahead of the curve in relation to energy descent. No doubt there will be people reading this post who don't even know what I'm talking about, or think I'm a loon for even bringing up such dark tidings. But permaculture, in its loosest definition, really is the energy descent phase of human history itself. What one calls it is a secondary matter, as David Holmgren might point out. It is a linking science, a toolbox for navigating changing energetic realities. It's basically a set of ethics and principles, based on the Laws of Nature, that inform our decision-making processes for the brand new situation of declining energy. We've never dealt with this before, so the guidelines are still evolving, and permaculture offers the most realistic, and even hopeful, philosophy I've ever seen.

So not to belabor the point, if permaculture is the next phase of human experience it makes sense that we might attempt to adopt a unifying language for discussion of the matter. But which one to adopt? English is one of the most widespread languages on planet Earth today; it's the language of business one might say. But from a linguistics perspective, English is not a language of diplomacy. It's great for agriculture, and expansion, and imperialism, but not for contraction. There are many causes for why history has played out the way it has, and a society's language often reflects its own history. As natural as the progression of English has been through the centuries, it is a bad choice for what lies ahead.

That said, I'm not English-bashing per se, nor am I endorsing any other extant language, but rather, offering another extinct language, like Latin, for permacultural communication. Only this time it's our real mother tongue. Not just like Latin is for the Italic languages today - Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, but THE mother language for half of the world's population. I'm talking about Proto-Indo-European. PIE for short. It's a linguistics extrapolation, inferred from extensive knowledge of all of its daughter languages, from Norway to Bombay.

One might suggest that Latin is too Eurocentric, or too theocentric even, arising in the Roman Catholic stronghold. Or that English is too imperialistic or agitating for many. But, in the same way that permaculture is a tidal shift from large-scale mono-cropping agriculture and associated attitudes, toward local, integrated, horticultural systems and ways of being, the PIE language transports us back to a pre-imperialistic era. An era of, well, horticulture. Perhaps it would be a stretch to call it a language of peace, but if nothing else, most of us should find it accessible on a cellular level, probably far more so than Latin. Honestly, what percentage of the existing permaculture community descends from the Indo-European lineage? Ninety percent? More?

It's the imperialistic Indo-European cultural family that needs permaculture, because we are the people who expanded to a highly unstable position energetically. We are the ones who invented permaculture because we are the ones with the need for it. And if we're consciously moving toward horticulture, it might behoove us to adopt a common horticultural language. At least while we can communicate over long distances. And even after that we would probably incorporate much of it into our locally-developing daughter languages. I have a feeling that, in the same way English is appropriate for expansion, PIE might foster a more respectful attitude toward Nature in its speakers. Because it was the language of a more respectful era.

I'm starting at zero on this one like most of you. I have no loyalty to PIE, nor do I know more than a few words. But this is a pattern language I could embrace, and learn actively, because like everything else about my permacultural experience, it's been highly worth the effort. It's not as pompous as learning Latin, nor is it as queer as adopting Elvish, and who knows, it might have a real impact on what we are doing.

At this point I'm all ears for anyone who might want to refine this idea.

Thanks for your time,

Tripp Tibbetts

I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray...

In my dream I fell asleep in the orchard and had a chat with god. And I asked god why there was so much hatred toward the purple sticky punch.

And god said, "Yeah, I put cannabis on the planet exclusively for the enjoyment of humans (and maybe a few other animals that tag along with you guys, like rats, they like it too), but my followers have managed to muck up just about everything I did for their happiness."

"Like boobs?" I asked.

"Exactly. They claim they ate an apple and became "enlightened" about their nudity, or at least about female nudity, and henceforth adopted modesty as a blanket policy! Of course you're a sharp fellow, Tripp, you see the cascade of misery that followed, from the resource acquisition to make trousers and shoes, to the pain of bras and girdles, to the sweat shop labor now forced upon so-called "lesser" peoples, all the way to the embarrassment of the Oregon Ducks rotating game day wardrobe."

"Indeed, sir, they are the laughing stock of the BCS, with their diamond plated shoulder pads. But what about the apple itself? Another demonized plant?! What have they got against plants?? There are plenty of real enemies to be dealt with."

"Oh yeah, "the tree of knowledge" they call it. Tree of retardation is more like it. It's an apple for jeebus sake. [That was my son's real name, btw, jeebus, in lower case like e. e. cummings, not Hey-Zeus, like some wetback (sic)]. I thought the apple was a real homerun."

"Why wouldn't you!" I exclaimed.

"Well, Tripp, I've got to run. Still lots of misrepresentations on my behalf to clear up. You understand."

"I do, sir. Thank you for your time."

"Hey, son. I'm glad you permaculturalists are doing what you're doing. It's about time someone listened. And feel free to cheef all you want."

"Thank you, sir. I'd tell the church that you said so, but you know how that always ends up."

"I sure do. Oh, and one more thing, tell your buddy 8M, over at Jim Kunstler's blog, to ditch that fascist Darth Vader view of the future of his. I sent him back in time with the knowledge he has specifically so that he would stop that from happening, not to promote it. Damn."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Speaking of Idiots

Check out this douche. Oh wait, that's me 5 years ago before I grew a soul. My wife says that I killed that 4' Eastern Diamondback rattler out of mercy, since it had been run over repeatedly on our dirt road by some hostile Homo sapiens passing by. But I think I was still just retarded enough at that point to think that this was OK. These guys are beautiful. And rare. And they indicate a healthy ecosystem, one they play a starring role in.

I ate that snake out of pure guilt. Floured it, fried it, and ate it, one 4" chunk at a time. That smarmy look on my face was all show. I was really reeling inside for not trying harder to save that magnificent creature. A little bloody patch on its side, and OFF WITH ITS HEAD! Why not, I have kittens to protect! Of all the absurdities, killing an old diamondback to protect a couple of resource-guzzling kittens. I should've fed them to this lord of the sandhills just as tribute. What a beautiful snake! Or was.

Well, joy of joys, this particular usurpation visited me again this weekend. We were up north looking at some family mountain property, and on our way out the neighbor we had just met decided he needed to pop a couple of 9mm rounds into a "copperhead" laying on the wooden bridge that is the only way out by car. He managed to wound the poor thing, knocking a little bit of its face off, but couldn't quite manage to put it out of its misery in a timely manner.

Here I intervened. I parked the car and walked up to our champion copperhead to see what condition his condition was in. A robust 24" inch snake writhed in pain before me - not a copperhead, not even a cottonmouth - down there by the creek; water moccasins don't live that far north. What we had here was cutural breakdown. This great big, smart, hairy fella had blown a couple of splinters out of the bridge, but despite his far superior technology, was coming up short against this mighty Northern water snake. Non-poisonous of course, just catching some morning sun in a bright spot of the forest's gloom before slithering off to catch a crawdad for lunch.

You'd think that every snake out there can fly, and has jaws big enough to swallow a linebacker. Which couldn't be farther from the truth. I don't want to over-emphasize how important snakes are to their ecosystems, but killing them willy-nilly is both ignorant AND stupid, and eventually leads to local food web collapses. Just what we need at this junction in history is for Nature to further withdraw her support for our cause. Imagine if we didn't have black kingsnakes out there, munching on their usual diet of rattlers, copperheads, and water moccasins!

Blam! rings the artillery fired around the world at our own rear ends.

I put that poor water snake out of its misery with my soil probe. One swift shot to separate its head from its body. It felt even more disgusting this time than the last, but this guy left me no choice. Some way to begin a friendship.

We have to stop killing everything we meet. Intentionally, collaterally, ignorantly, it won't matter why when our life support system collapses around us. Educate yourselves in the direction of cooperating with nature, as fast as you can. Plant food, make your garden comfortable for wild animals, but mostly just take some heat off of the industrial food chain so farmland can be left fallow, and wild food webs have a chance to recover. Energy descent will guarantee this result in the long run, but will it be fast enough to help us through the mess we've made?

I don't really want to say which way I think it will go. But I very much understand why people believe in god.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Big Debate About Climate

I'm afraid if you're looking for a chicken little article you've come to the wrong site. Like any other reasonable human being I can look at the fossil climate record and see for myself that weather on this planet has traditionally been anything but consistent. Sometimes it goes through periods of stability, no doubt we've been witnessing one of those for our collective retrievable memory, and sometimes really incredible things happen abruptly. The so-called "Snowball Earth" must've been a pretty weird time in our planet's history! Surely the Permian extinction, when about 95% of life on Earth was wiped out, was not a pleasant place to be either.

But to say that burning 85 million barrels of oil a day is having no affect on life around us is potentially one of the most selfish, myopic opinions ever known to our greedy species. I'm not sure who exactly is promoting this junk, but I'm glad I'm not that naive. It's having a big time affect on life around us. Many of the indicator species have gone extinct, amphibians in particular. Water and air quality have been severely compromised, despite such pleasant sounding progams as "Clear Skies." We walk a taut line on the freshwater supply, having already dropped fossil aquifers (i.e. aquifers that don't recharge) by hundreds of feet in some regions of the world. Saltwater intrusions, into the freshwater aquifer nearby, are common in coastal areas. Six years ago the regulatory agency I worked for was already developing de-sal plants, and buying water rights from privately owned reservoirs on Mormon lands in east-central Florida.

And still we drop off our waste several times each day in a couple gallons of drinking quality water, and sprinkle 1000s more on useless lawns. Why? Well, having a lawn was a sign of prestige in England, where the practice comes from. It meant that you were wealthy enough to set aside a portion of your land for something useless. Needless to say, it's become quite the pissing contest, with 50,000 square miles of the stuff cultivated intensively in the United States alone. 50,000 square miles of some of the most toxically-maintained real estate in the world. More poisons and oil are dumped on ridiculous lawngrass, per acre, than any other landuse in the world, short of toxic waste dumps. And I'm certain we have way too many of those as well.

Are humans impacting the climate? Probably. Are we slowly killing the biosphere? Definitely. And I'm being nice by putting in the word 'slowly.' A lowly swamp darter might not mean much to you, certainly not as much as a farmer. But this is just another false dichotomy really. We can have farmers and swamp darters. We just have to change the way we farm. We have to drop the hubris a notch, and stop acting like we're the only animals on the planet that matter. Even if it's just to keep US alive. Something that selfish still depends on the presence of biodiversity. When we kill the swamp darters we start digging our own graves.

Just how dug those graves are already is debatable for sure, but if we continue doing what we're doing, knocking down forests for new strip malls, dumping our sewage in estuaries - in short, converting natural ecosystems into more humans - there will be a threshold that trips and makes life pretty ugly for us first world humans. And by "ugly" I mean potentially a lot less of us first world humans. Count on that. The laws of physics dictate it. When you create an island economy and an island ecosystem out of a planetary population, which we basically have with our numbers and trade, you face island ecology consequences. Coal, and particularly oil, have given us the energy necessary to overshoot our planet's carrying capacity, and overshoot is only ever followed by one thing in nature: collapse. So something has to give, and since I am ever the optimist;) I'd rather it was our impact on the place than the bulk of people that I love. If we went back to pre-Columbian carrying capacity, pre-fossil fuel carrying capacity, we're talking maybe 50 million in the present United States? US population is 300 million now, and I guarantee you none of us are as qualified to live off the land as your garden variety native* was. Imagine, IF we all got real good at this real fast, "only" 5 out of 6 people you know starving to death. And I can't even imagine the learning curve from Wal-Mart and Little League to subsistence farming and foraging.

Maybe the planet's carrying capacity is up for debate, but I can almost assure you it's under 6billion. At least 6 car-driving, suburban house-owning billion. And according to pre-industrial age history, it's more like 1 billion. Maybe. And that's when we were using a LOT less energy per capita. We have other things to worry about besides climate change.

So instead of a hissy fit about global warming what you'll find instead on my blog is discussion of resilience measures. Resilience being the property of an ecosystem which characterises its behavior in response to perturbation or disturbance. A resilient system can "bounce back" in one way or another. What if climate did change abruptly? What if it was 5 degrees F hotter than "normal" for the next decade? If you're pushing your self-reliance limits every season, and let's say you're looking for sources of fat for your diet, could you be growing olives in preparation for a drier, hotter climate? Maybe they don't fruit now, but they don't take up too much space either as young trees. They grow quite slowly, and are kind of lanky, so just pretend they're not there taking up room in your garden. (I mean besides planting them with friends.) If they get to a point where they are taking up too much sun, and not doing you any good, you can always take them out, one at a time preferably, just to hedge the bet a bit longer. And the wood is beautiful! Use it to turn a new set of cups, and make some cooking utensils out of the branches. Celebrate those trees that contribute to your site's resilience in whatever way presents itself.

OK, so we've all seen "The Day After Tomorrow," and as unlikely as something like that is to happen, there is plenty of evidence in the fossil record of rapid climate shifts following some sort of threshold breach. In fact, it's not uncommon for ice ages to start in a matter of a couple of years, not a couple of centuries, as previously thought when catastrophism was out of vogue. So are we nearing a breach point? Maybe. We already know by the laws of physics that the human population on Earth will be much lower in the future. And according to human history and pre-history we number about 7 times the typical population. We also know that, compared to pre-industrial humans, we use several times more energy per capita. The signs of the biosphere collapsing are all around us (if you look for yourself instead of being told what to believe). We've covered the fact that freshwater is looming large as a limiting factor for continued human expansion, (this I tell you first hand), yet we still poop in it every day, and dump it on the grass by the trainload.

But the only way to convince people that this behavior is killing us rapidly and absolutely has to be abandoned at our earliest convenience, is to set the standard. There are many people out there that I admire for bringing me up to speed by their example. You can only write about it if you know it, and I'm just getting to know it, so I'm very much standing on the shoulders of giants here. My deepest hope in relating all this is that I can inspire someone else to make some radical changes in the way they inhabit the landscape.

So I don't want people coming here to pick fights about details. I want to hear from intelligent people who want to talk about answers to the problems we should all be familiar with by now. To still be fighting about whether or not we are actually compromising our ability to persist on Earth is to be very far behind in the only conversation that really matters. I won't waste much time with deniers. Too many important things need to be sorted out. I don't think "low-fat" is something we'll be eating by choice for too much longer.

Hope to see you around.

*The term "native" has a loaded meaning in our culture today. I'll argue in a later post that our concept of native should be re-evaluated.