Friday, October 18, 2013

PERMACULTURE & PEAK OIL: Beyond 'Sustainability'

Here is the link to an interview with David Holmgrem I mentioned earlier. It sets the scene for my analysis of people with mobility issues, looking for solutions utilising permaculture, in an energy decreasing future. The interview goes for 25 minutes.

While the interview itself doesn't specifically deal with people with mobility issues, it does discuss the design process of recognising the means to proceed forwards. There is an emphasis on close networks which effectively cut out the "middle man" in today's economic model. In nature, conserving energy is efficient, so when something isn't necessary, nature will simply evolve without it.

Ironically, limitation is something people with mobility or developmental issues, have to negotiate on a daily basis. Their struggle is in part due to the fact, in today's society we run at a pace which is unsustainable in nature. It would never set individuals within a species to run so uniquely by themselves, let alone at such a frantic pace. Tapping into fossil energy, makes that possible for our species today.

But as the future generations have to start negotiating without that concentrated form of energy, it is perhaps best to start with those in our society who are adept at living within their limitations. They can teach us a lot. Not too surprisingly however, the "Middle Man" in our economic model has captured the market on those with mobility issues too. It has found ways to charge money to take care of them. In a fossil energy depleted future however, no one will be able to afford what it costs and our society will have a lot of people stuck in a helpless situation.

Thankfully, there are examples of individuals within a species, encountering mobility issues in nature too. They aren't discarded, they are merely amalgamated into the species and even inter-species relationships of survival. Pods of dolphins and herds of buffalo, as a whole, band together around the young, the pregnant and those who are the weakest. The strongest hold the outside, while the weak are pushed into the centre - and this is how the group survives as a whole. Alone, they can be picked off but banded together, it takes a lot more energy to take them down.

This is why I find it surprising (although understandable, as we're still in the early stages) why the permaculture design process, has developed a system which doesn't include specific weakness of our own species, at its fundamental core. It recognises care of people, care of the earth and fair share, at the core of the other twelve permaculture principles, yet I struggle to find any working models today, which incorporate those with disabilities into that new permanent culture.

Perhaps this is part of natures evolutionary process within our species, as we transcend into an energy depleted future though? It makes sense to send the strong and physically capable in to break new ground first. They can then hold the outside, as we send our more physically challenged into the centre. But how then, will those relationships look? We don't want a repeat of history, where women, children and the elderly are treated as second class citizens, while the strongest are glorified and given the most rights.

Raising this subject today, is mostly about engaging the conversation - getting it out there into our thoughts. Because we've been fed by the economic middle men for so long, we've forgotten our responsibility to those who need the centre of our group the most. As a whole, in our new energy depleted future, we will need each other. This includes the most weakest. Because if we cannot take care of them, the strongest will be left to fight it out amongst each other. That is rarely an efficient use of energy and bodes poorly for survival of a species as a whole.

So contemplate if you haven't already been forced to, what your future would suddenly look like if a weak member (or a few) suddenly entered your life. What would you have to change, being more able-bodied, or perhaps used to a certain luxury of time to enjoy your leisure activities? Things would have to change, otherwise you risk endangering your own survival. This is what an energy depleted future will look like. We are going to have to change how we relate to others, in order to survive as a whole.

I notice in many of the permaculture models we have working well today, it concentrates on animals helping us to maintain a healthy environment, and potentially reducing our workload. Of course the emphasis is on "healthy" animals. This is great if you're consuming them, because they should be healthy to get the maximum benefit. But I'm concerned that we're placing too much emphasis on being capable 100% in our human counterparts too.

As we step down from fossil hungry, to a fossil reduced society, we're initially going to have an imbalance of slightly more incapable people. I don't mean those able-bodied people who never learned how to grow their own food, but rather, those billions of people who make up the statics of illnesses which are dominating our society today. We will need to find a respectable place for them.

If we don't start the conversation on that front, we'll be caught in a future where the economic middle man, suddenly drops the sick and incapable. What if they were one of your loved ones, or that of someone you knew? If you have abilities, shouldn't they be put to more use than simply putting food on your own table today?

I know every time I'm out in the garden, digging a swale or planting a tree, these activities count more than just for me. They will touch some other living creature in due course - be that flora, fauna or a generation of people I will never meet. And yet I don't talk about that. I talk about me, "doing" an activity. That's all well and good, but I'm starting to notice the absence of a bigger picture in my frame of reference. And I wonder if this is something we have to be aware of, in our future societies conversations. What we talk about the most, will be adopted as mainstream practice.

Having the notion of care of the earth, care of people and fair share is wonderful in theory, but we have to start practicing it, as if it means our very survival. Because sometime in the future, it will.


  1. This is very well said Chris. I do keep going back to community as the biggest answer. Our more western Anglo societies have mostly forsaken grannies for example. The elders are in nursing homes and retirement communities but when I lived in Chicago, tne Polish and the Latinos had grandparents watching children, cooking, etc. while parents worked.
    My own grannie urban farmed with her brothers family and later on just cooked- till the end. This was with mobility issues.
    At anyrate, I suggest you submit this article to Permaculture magazine. have a niche.
    Good interview for sure btw.

  2. I guess it's the fact the permaculture movement is focusing on producing food (which is essential to life) that it hasn't addressed the bigger social issues yet. That's what I liked about the Holmgren interview, as it talks about our human relationship to our environment beyond growing food.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned your Grannies urban farming though. Her generation did that sort of a thing growing up, and so it made sense to keep doing it even when age and mobility issues crept up. The problem with the generations which followed is, we stopped linking our food supply to our ability to move. We came to believe our time was our own, and helping in the food chain was optional.

    In a fossil energy reduced future though, it won't be optional any more. People, who may have the same limitations as your Gran did, will suddenly have to provide for themselves. Hopefully they'll work as part of a team of able bodied people, but we're not planning for them in the permaculture design systems I've seen to date. They might actually exist - I just haven't come across them yet.

    Whatever system catering to those with mobility issues to date however, I'm guessing would have a large component of fossil energy to operate and/or set up. Something which modern, little old ladies, don't have the income to pay for. Yet they've been taught their whole life, to be dependent on fossil energy solutions.

    Thanks for adding your comments about your Gran. Funny how it seems to be something of that generation though. Many modern elderly folks have been raised on industrial existence.

  3. Perhaps transition Town would be better able to tackle the issue. I was ordering books yesterday and meant to order the handbook but forgot. I have attended a T.T. event but the idea folded in this community. I think though that if a T.T. Was formed, outreach is crucial so once again.
    In actuality, if permaculture is a tool, it's not widely used as of now. If the demand for handicapped access to this tool were greater, we'd see alot of ideas.
    I think that fossil fuel is not the real issue. I believe that we are dependent on thinking of it being apart of every solution. We have to unthink a bit.

  4. We tried pooling the community together to start a Men's Shed, but the problem was everyone was busy working outside the community earning an income - people had little time to be in the planning and establishment process. There was a real desire for establishing the Men's Shed, with the people who put their hands up (including us) but in practice, people could only contribute small portions. It wasn't enough.

    But that's not to say it will always be the case. Like you, we keep returning to the community for outreach in more manageable ways.

    Thanks for the reminder of Transition Towns. I guess what I appreciate about the permaculture approach however, is that it's design process is linked to our natural environment. Transition Towns, while brilliant and much needed, tend to specialise in urban areas - mostly, I believe, because they have more people and resource networks to draw upon. That's a very good thing too. It's just harder to become part of a Transition Town, when the members of your parts are large land owners, with little time to do anything else.

    It's not a hopeless situation though, just more challenging to adopt solutions. :)

  5. Chris,
    T.t. Can be done in a rural area. It was tried here and there was an interview with a successful rural t.t. spokesperson. I will try to dig it out for you.
    Ours apparently folded and I believe it was because most of the steering committee members were not willing to allow sub committees to form since this was naturally out of their control. It started to look elitist to me since I signed on and never heard back and judging by their Facebook page I was not alone. Like anything, egos are an issue.
    I am hoping to restart it on a smaller sale though and strictly rural. Even if three families begin, it's better than nothing.
    What is a " Men's Shed"? And I'm sorry it didn't work out.

  6. Great! That sounds wonderful if you can attempt another round of TT. All the best for you. I hope something comes together, whatever form that takes.

    I don't know how to do hyperlinks in comments, so I'll supply the web address for a description of a Men's Shed.'s-shed/.aspx

    Women are allowed to join as well, if they want to, so its not exclusive. It's just that the design was based primarily around bettering men's health. :)

  7. In an energy depleting future we will look after the weak for as long as we can, but when push comes to shove, they will have to look after themselves or die. Natural selection decides and the fittest survives.

  8. That is certainly the cut and thrust of it, and has been for many centuries before the 21st one. But I also think a lot of fossil fuel energy is used caring for the mobility challenged and those with chronic illness. It would be nice to have more options for them to consider using today, before the energy supplies become so critical. It could save them money too, the less dependent they are on fossil energy.

    I guess I'm contemplating that transition period, where people still have the option to choose. If we're thinking of solutions for the able-bodied people in our society to be less energy dependent, it would make sense to include options for those with physical challenges too. Especially as their day to day operations are utterly dependent on it.

    But thank you for your comments. They're true statements to make. I don't disagree. I'd like society to contemplate moving our most vulnerable away from the industrial giant though, because it increases everyone's chances of survival into the future.

    While its true the fittest survive in nature, it is also true that groups within a species can create enough diversity, they can better survive tougher conditions together, than apart. That is hope for what could be a morbid outcome for those with ailments, in the future. :)

  9. Well Chris (and FoodandStuff too:) I am living proof that one can be fairly healthy one day and have a deadly disease the next so perhaps the more people who realize that it can happen to anybody overnight or in an instant (think accidents) the more people will accept that "the strong" will be redefined constantly.
    The "weak" will be an every evolving issue and I beleive that its one thing to be weak physical while being extremely useful mentally or spiritually. Think Stephen Hawking as an example.

    Society needs the super intelligent as much as the super fit. Society needs spiritual leaders even if defined in different ways than we are accustomed to today. Shaman for example are notorious for being chosen because they overcame serious illness.

    I agree too with what was said but I also think that applying what we have known to the unknown future is not necessarily the answer.
    I don't mean to step on any toes but am writing this in the hopes of not discouraging Chris from researching this very important topic.

  10. I definitely want to keep looking into this area, for a plethora of reasons too. I will write more about some of those reasons later - it has to to with cultural immobility as much as it has to do with the physical immobility of individuals.

    We need a cultural shift towards recognising our abilities in our environment, no matter what our entry level is. It's why I respond a lot to the permaculture philosophy, because it attempts to address that failed modern design of monoculture, and shifts it towards a complex network of relationships. We need complex involvement if we are to weather the rapid changes happening to our environment.

    I think it's true, that failed health can happen to anyone at any age, and we seem to have a moloculture approach in regards to medicine too. Sometimes the solution does not have to be more medicine, but a less toxic environment. If you're physically challenged though, we tend to move them closer to toxic environments in order to receive treatment and more mobility. Maybe that is necessary for a short time, but what happens afterwards?

    Anyway, interesting discussion and I'm glad you both contributed to it. I think it adds diversity. So thanks for stepping into the arena of thought. :)


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