Tag Archives: permaculture

Star Trek or Little House on the Prairie, the Red/Blue Divide, and Imagining Complexly

The US election results of 8 Nov 2016 were a bit shocking to me. David Wong at Cracked.com provided a strikingly insightful explanation of why I and my ivory tower, liberal left coast colleagues failed to see this coming.
John Michael Greer noted that the success of the Trump campaign in rural counties is a predictable result of the frustration and hopelessness that permeate the lives of people who have felt neglected by the powerful elites of the country’s urban centers. This deep cultural gulf between cities and small-town-America is an important consideration for successfully maintaining a symbiotic relationship between urban and rural communities (and remember, the cities need the countryside if they want to have things like food and water). Those of us who care about the future of this planet need to find ways to build a future that includes a vision of a better life that will appeal to the rural and ‘Rust Belt’ communities. And we can’t do this by objectifying or vilifying them. As John Green is fond of saying, we need to take the time to “imagine others complexly,” and a big part of that is learning to get better at listening to other people’s concerns. As with planting a tree, the best time to do tbest time to plant a tree.jpghis was twenty years ago (like, seriously), but the second-best time is now.
I started writing this post a while back, shortly after I had the good fortune to visit the Sustainability Institute at Pennsylvania State University. I put it on a back burner for a time, but realized that it had become even more important since the results.  While visiting Penn State, Jeremy Bean asked me a question that, ideally, everyone should ask and explore on a regular basis: What is your vision of a sustainable future? I realized with some surprise that no one had ever really asked me that question in that way. What I attempted to articulate was the ways in which I see a high-tech world and a deep permaculture world as being not just two alternatives, but in fact two tracks that can, should and perhaps must be run in parallel: not Star Trek* vs. Little House on the Prairie, but both at the same time.

 What is your vision of a sustainable future?

To elaborate somewhat on my response, I see these two directions or modes of improving sustainability (shiny high-tech on one hand, and an engaged horticultural society informed by both ecological science and more ancient ways of knowing on the other) as having the possibility not only to co-exist amicably, but in fact to synergize. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing could release human resources to allow for a more hands-on (yet intellectually demanding) kind of small-scale, locally specific, intensive food production  (“Hello computer, make me a mattock head that will work the best around my hazelnut bushes and apple trees, and design a yoke I can use to team my mule and my llama”). We may need to consider alternative economic systems to accommodate this very different suite of human occupations.
I emphasize the plurals in the last sentence, because I think it is important to try to imagine the future complexly. Specifically, we should neither expect nor seek a monoculture. Resilience, and therefore our chances of suvival, are best served by the healthy pursuit of multiple strategies. Evolution works not by a steady chain of progress along a single line, but by the differential survival of diverse organisms. If we see human economic-social-ecological systems through this lens, diverse societies with different strategies will yield a much better chance of surviving and improving upon the present than a single, unified strategy.  So what I would advocate is for different locales and communities to seek alternative ways of balancing post-industrialism, agrarianism, pastoralism, and nomadic foraging economies, using either novel or traditional models. Some yak herders may use satellite imaging and GPS to make migration systems more efficient; some urbanites might rely on hydroponic produce and lab-grown proteins in complex systems based on the latest renewable energy and water management technologies; some rural communities may choose isolated self-reliance with a cap on technology at the 19th century level (as in some Amish communities), or perhaps earlier still (to connect with more ancient lifeways and traditions).
In general, I think the majority of people are unlikely to want to give up some of the benefits of our current global levels of knowledge and interconnectivity, and I would be personally opposed to any kind of enforced primitivism (or enforced techno-urbanism, for that matter). There are challenges to keeping lines of communication and personal options open between diverse economic-social-ecological systems, but these are not insurmountable. Even within more rural Transition Town strategies, a diversity of personal choices regarding technology may be able to co-exist harmoniously.
The question of technological reliance is but one factor. Other questions to be addressed in articulating a vision for sustainable futures engage more deeply with the meaning of sustainability: How do we save what needs to be saved?  What kinds of limits do we set? What technologies are most important and useful to a sustainable society, and which technologies should and could be effectively abandoned? What systems do we use to ensure we stay on a path towards future sustainability?
Maintaining healthy ecosystems is my highest priority. This may now require some fairly heroic efforts to preserve functioning biodiversity, especially in maintaining what remains viable in old-growth rainforests (both tropical and temperate) and aquatic habitats (coral reefs, lakes and rivers), especially in the face of at least some ongoing climate instability. This will mean committing ourselves to reducing harvesting of renewable resources (forest and ocean products, and anything that degrades air, soil or water quality) to below the rate at which they can be replenished or repaired. It will also mean eschewing extraction of non-renewable resources, and finding ways to recycle instead of wasting what has already been extracted.
At the same time, I also don’t want to lose our capacity to maintain and even advance the progress we have made in many of our complex technologies, and I definitely want to advance the benefits of science and these technologies to all humans (assuring not just basic subsistence, but also universal access to medicine, sanitation, communications, transportation, education, research and exploration). I expect that there are many important linkages between the technological achievements and the social progress of the last three centuries, and I do not relish a future in which those gains are abandoned.  I believe the challenge here will be to judiciously determine which technologies are most worth maintaining, and finding truly sustainable ways to maintain those while abandoning some technologies which are no longer ethical or viable.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, it is clear we need to consider some deep transformations of our current economic system. The challenge is not small. An industrial/post-industrial economic system that supports and incentivizes sustainable behavior while dis-incentivizing unsustainable behavior has yet to be developed. Some may argue that only our current model of capitalist economy provides the proper freedom and incentives to maintain our spectacular rate of innovation. In some senses this may be true, and I also expect that in the coming decades, the pace of research and technological advancement may slow. However, we are have more brainpower now on the planet than ever before. Average IQs and similar test scores are going up (probably not the best way to measure actual individual intelligence, but somewhat indicitave of collective intelligence nonetheless). In 1950, there were only about 17.5 million people with any post-secondary education; by 2010 there were over 318 million – an increase of more than 18X (data from Barro and Lee, 2013).  We almost certainly have more PhDs alive now than the total number of people who ever had PhDs before 1950. In addition, we have the benefit of all of the accumulated information from this history, and increasingly improved ways to search and analyse it. So while innovations may not progress as quickly in the next fifty years as they did in the last fifty, it would be amazing if things slowed down by more than a little, at least when it comes to things that are important and useful to genuinely improving sustainable quality of life.
We don’t really know what these post-scarcity, post-growth economic systems will look like, we only know that we haven’t seen them yet. How would such systems intersect with emerging social and political systems? Can we find ways to get people working more on caring for the earth and caring for one another, and still assure that everyone can have a healthy and rewarding life?  There is no shortage of work to be done, in repairing damaged ecosystems, in re-inventing our food systems, in caring for children and the elderly, in educating those whose current or recent jobs are not sustainable. Perhaps new economic systems will find ways to better reward people who work toward a net-positive ecological ‘footprint,’ leaving ‘credits’ for indulgences (travel, amusing gadgets, more consumptive hobbies), rather than facilitating wealth concentration regardless of environmental harm.
While I cannot yet form a clear image of what will be required of us, I do see some blurry shapes that we might anticipate being resolved by our efforts. max_temkin_poster_550I suspect that most of us in the industrialized world will probably have to be ready to embrace things being  slower and less convenient. Hopefully, the trade-off will be less soul-crushing, meaningless drudgery for wage laborers (many of the people whose rage and distress were voiced in this week’s election results). I believe the best approach to healing the rifts that this recent U.S. election revealed will be to come together to develop more self-reliant, socially-engaged and emotionally rewarding ways for more people to make a living, recognizing the need for maintaining healthy rural communities and lower-tech options for those who prefer them. If we put our minds to it, we can figure this out.

*It turns out that Star Trek actually did presage this vision, at least in small ways. In 1990, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Family” showed something that might have surprised a lot of Trekkies – Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s brother as a Luddite, Slow Food movement kind of guy, getting along just fine as a traditional vintner in the 24th century – neither isolated nor unaware, just choosing to use less technology.

Other Trek universe episodes were likely to portray those who choose lower-tech lifestyles in an even less favorable light (e.g. “The Way to Eden“, “Paradise“), but at least they continued to acknowledge the possibility that some would go for voluntary simplicity despite the appeal of Star Trek’s techno-cornucopian society.

Cultivating Ecosystem Gardens of Health and Hope

This is a talk I gave last week at the conference “Spontaneous Beauties?” World Gardens and Gardens in the World at NTU (YouTube video of practice talk, and SlideShare of PowerPoints).

 

 

Three different approaches are transforming humanity’s relationship to the wider biosphere through innovative ecosystem stewardship, informed by our deepening understandings of ecology and complexity.  Microbiome management promotes human health by cultivating the ecologies of microorganisms in, on and around our bodies, seeking to encourage beneficial symbionts and discourage invasive microbes that can trigger illness. Permaculture is a philosophy of gardening, food production and homestead management that fosters beneficial ecological interactions to cultivate healthy habitats for humans and other species.  Rewilding is a strategy of landscape management that seeks to restore the balance and diversity of historic or prehistoric ecosystems by introducing species to fill trophic niches emptied by local extinctions.  These approaches represent a radical shift of the post‐industrial human role in nature, from one of dominance, produce maximization and pest eradication to one of regenerative alliance and collaborative cultivation.

Keywords: microbiome, permaculture, rewilding, ecosystem, biodiversity, complexity

 

 

Decolonizing Permaculture

An important, deeply thought, and carefully articulated response to some questions that have been gnawing at me for quite some time.

Unsettling America

Herb spiral built during a permablitz in Micmac country near Presque Isle, MaineThis article was originally printed in Permaculture Design Magazine (formerly Permaculture Activist) issue #98, Winter 2015. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this issue.

By Jesse Watson, originally published by Midcoast Permaculture

Exploring the Intersection of Permaculture and Decolonization

This article is meant as a primer on decolonization in a contemporary North American context, written specifically for permaculture designers, teachers, activists and gardeners. It is offered so that we may think critically and philosophically about “sustainability” and our role in our culture as designers of novel ecosystems.

In this article we will seek to answer the following questions: What is decolonization? Why should permaculture designers care? What is my experience with this topic? We will attempt to make a clear critique of settler colonialism here in industrialized North America, and demonstrate how we can simultaneously be both victims and perpetuators of settler colonialism. As a bridge to the challenge…

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Sustainability Strategies Sampler

I had to throw together a presentation for a Sustainability Salon at the beginning of this otherwise-very-busy-with-grant-writing week. Despite its hasty nature, I think there are some interesting and useful things in there. I tried to explain and organize some of the current sustainability mindsets/movements in terms of their visions of the future, whether these were more or less complex, globalized and high-tech, and how extensively they believed social, economic and cultural norms need to change to accomplish sustainability goals.

Sustainability Future Visions M Merrill 24 Aug 2015

Here’s the PDF of my slideshow and notes from the Sustainability Strategies Sampler 24 Aug 2015  salon.

[note: this post has been updated on 25 June 2017 to replace broken links to NTU website]

Aside

Leaf blowers are another pet peeve of mine (I collect them by the bushel). Here’s a clever idea from Owen Dell that I found on the Terra Nova Landscaping blog: My dear friend and colleague, landscape contractor Ken Foster of Terra Nova … Continue reading

Are you a nutter?

A Fall Field Guide: Nuts.

Ah, Mother Earth News… I knew you when.  In fact, I probably read this article when it came out in 1988, in the library at Diablo Valley College.  My fondness for MEN was one of the things that began to distance me from the other members of Dark Refrains and Velvet Darkness, the RHPS casts to which I belonged in my late teens (in contrast, my fondness for young men was widely known and made me rather popular in those circles).    It was partly MEN and partly a natural history class at DVC that got me so interested in wild foraging.

Now, the interest is mostly intellectual.  I read about it (faves include The Flavors of Home and Mushrooms Demystified), and I look for plants I know when I do go out for hikes, but mostly I’ve restricted my foraging to berries and miner’s lettuce. I did gather and prep some Valley Oak acorns once (fairly tasty, if labor-intensive).

Sadly, the nuts described in the MEN Fall Field Guide to Nuts are mostly those from the eastern half of Turtle Island (or Isla Tortuga, or if you must, North America).  Out here in Cali, we get acorns and pine nuts.   What about hazelnuts?

Still, the thing I liked most about this article was the use of “nut” as a verb.  Go nutting, be a nutter.  It just made me smile.  Hopefully, you too.

Pitchapalooza! « The Imagined Worlds of Michelle Yvonne Merrill

Pitchapalooza! « The Imagined Worlds of Michelle Yvonne Merrill.

A bit about the pitch for my latest fiction idea.  I’m developing a young adult novel for a couple of strategic reasons:

  1. I think it’s the best way to reach the most people quickly with important ideas. (Of course, I’d be delighted to sell out, given the opportunity.  Just because I have a lot of disdain for the money culture doesn’t mean that having money would be a bad thing, given that it’s not going away tomorrow.)
  2. It’s an even better venue for talking about both traditional permaculture approaches and the promise of sustainable technology.
  3.  Honestly, I love the story and the characters, and I’m having so much fun writing it.

The Imagined Worlds of Michelle Yvonne Merrill

Greetings Earthlings! « The Imagined Worlds of Michelle Yvonne Merrill.

Yep, I’m actually putting it out there… my writing projects have a public place.  I’ll also use that blog to focus more on speculative fiction and fandom, while this continues to be a more real-world venue.

So, check it out & enjoy!

My first sketch of the gurita, the mysterious alien from Pulau, for my far-future, offworld novel.

“My bet is on the hairless monkey.”

From the Center for Pattern Literacy (Permaculture visionary and Gaia’s Garden author Toby Hemenway’s site) comes this refreshingly sober and calm blog entry on the realities of Peak Oil: Apocalypse, Not | Pattern Literacy.  It emphasizes the flexibility of our species (our ability to embrace the Anthropocene?) and the responsiveness and resilience of human eco-cultural systems, even in the face of TEOTWAWKI (“The End of the World as We Know It”).  The author may not know the difference between a monkey and an ape, but this post has some interesting things to say about shifting the idea of employment, economics and the “need” for work.

Humanity has reached the stage, finally, where basic survival is not in doubt for many people. We have not yet grasped that the struggle for survival is essentially over, and we have overshot. Instead of noticing that as a species we no longer need to labor all our waking hours for the basics of food and safe shelter, and to fight off disease and predators, we cannot get off the survival treadmill. So we just keep making more stuff, rather than looking up, taking a breath, and enjoying all the wonders possible from being a conscious, intelligent animal that has mastered survival. Perhaps Peak Oil, and a return to a time when resources are dear and labor is abundant, will remind us that there is much more to life than the manufactured desire to have more toys. Perhaps we can lose our small-minded obsession with getting and spending, and finally grow into maturity as a species. (Read this: Apocalypse, Not)

Aftershocks

The immense human tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is just starting to fade from the headlines.  The crisis of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility is at a plateau, but still far from resolved.

As I reflect on the enormity of what happened on the other side of the ocean we share, I see some cause for my usual Cassandra-esque blend of gloom and repressed rage tinged with the darkest glimmers of optimism, some small bright linings to the heavy smog.

First,  the prevailing winds.  While there does seem to be radiation coming to ground on Japan, most of it is blowing to sea.  That’s the half-full. The half-empty is that… it’s going to sea.  Yes, as long as there are no major fires like Chernobyl, it shouldn’t be enough to pose an immediate threat to human health, at least in the short term.  But how will it affect small sea life (algae, krill, etc.) and the bigger things that feed on that and might concentrate it?

And the silvery glimmer… this was a wake-up call about Black Swan events and nuclear power plants.  In the last several years, I’ve been discouraged to see more greenthinkers turning to nuclear power as an option to prevent the worst effects of climate change.  Not only did they seem to be overlooking the high carbon price we pay to get the damnable things built out of concrete and keep them operational (and we still don’t know exactly what it will take to decommission them since we don’t have a good way of doing it yet), but they apparently forgot a basic tenet of the Precautionary Principle – if the outcomes of a mishap are intolerable, even if the perceived likelyhood of such a mishap is small, just don’t do it. “If the Japanese can’t build a safe reactor, who can?” James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, et al. – what do you have to say for yourselves now?

Next, all that other stuff.  Videos show the tsunami grabbing and tossing things – heck, even the little one that tore through Santa Cruz harbor did that – and as it receded it pulled lots of those big and small things out to sea.  Now, my students in the Cabrillo Sustainability Council have been planning an event focusing on plastic waste and its impact on our oceans, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the gyre in the Pacific that lead to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  The big ocean current comes right off northern Japan, and moves across the central Pacific, and that’s where things that float just get stranded in the doldrums. Affluent, convenience-minded Japan had an awful lot of plastic to go around.  How much is this adding to our already awful mess in the middle of the mighty Pacific, and how will that affect marine ecosystems?

Finally, there are the economic ripples that will spread from this latest shock.  In our globally interconnected system, the disruption to Japan’s mighty industrial output is going to cause shivers and shudders worldwide.  Our ridiculously long and convoluted supply chains will experience gaps, though I’ll admit that they’re actually embedded in networks that provide some resilience – if you can’t get your widget from Japan, if you look around you can probably get one from India or Belgium or Argentina or Singapore or…  Now, economists say Japan’s economic woes won’t be big enough to derail overall global growth, especially when they consider all the GDP boosts from reconstruction in the coming months (yet another example of the twisted logic of money culture economics – horrific disasters are good for the economy!).  But I still have hope that Japan’s unexpected plunge into the Ω-phase of release and destruction in regards to their energy-intensive industrial economy might open the way for a very creative re-emergence in the α-phase.  After all, one of the seminal books on permaculture philosophy – The One-Straw Revolution – was penned there back in the 1970’s, so the seed of a new approach is already present.  And if permaculture gets big in Japan…

See, hope amid the rubble.  It’s not all gloom and doom, all the time.  As we begin the work to heal Japan, perhaps we can learn ways to heal some other world wounds, too.