Permaculture Blog

Natural economics ~ have we invested badly?

Birds often migrate incredible distancesIt’s unusual to get to the end of the day at the moment, without hearing the word ‘recession’ (look there I go mentioning it again!). But these cycles are to be expected as they are a completely natural thing. Each year we enter a different kind of recession, but one that we are always much more prepared for ~ winter.

Life employs two main strategies to get through these lean times; migration & hibernation. Plants don’t have a lot of choice as they are rooted to the ground, but being mobile gives animals & birds an extra option.

Migration is an effective way for many species to cope with the ups & downs of the natural economy. When one habitat goes into recession, they just head off to another that is about to b(l)oom again. Instead, over centuries we humans have opted for an adapted hibernation option, but has this been a crucial error that has led us into the environmental mess we now find ourselves in?

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In celebration of failure…

There is always a reason to celebrate...

So that went well… my new year resolution to write every day failed at day 2. Many would call that pathetic, but I (after a short period agreeing with them), have decided to celebrate it instead. Am I mad? Some might say so, but there is reason in my apparent insanity.

You see, everything I have really learned in my life has come from trial and error. Sure, I have a lot of stuff in my head that has got there from books & TV etc., but that isn’t genuine learning. That stuff might not actually be true. Or it might be true for others, but not for me. The only things I really know are those I have learned from my own personal experiences.

And those understandings have come from trial and error. Starting with the likes of how to make sounds, then crawl, walk and so on, to the present day. To discovering that it just isn’t realistic, given my current situation, to expect to be able to write every day.

So OK, I’ve discovered something that I wasn’t doing before my resolution; but what’s new?

Well, the difference is that now I have examined the reasons behind my failure. I have more understanding. I have more patience. I can set more realistic goals.

I’ve certainly learned how well I have been programmed to beat myself up for ‘failing’.

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I gave up hot drinks for the environment!

Habits can have long term effects...So what’s your new year resolution? Have you thought of one yet?

The turning of the year always provides us with a great incentive for a fresh start, but what is the secret to maintaining any new habits?

Well for me, it has to be something important, or I lack the helping hand of my conscience. Those past habits that I have successfully changed have been those where the benefits were to more than just myself.

Which is why last year I finally decided to give up hot drinks for the environment… A pretty contentious thing to do I know, especially at the time of year when a nice cup of tea is one of our favourite ways of getting warm. Why such a drastic step?

Putting on the kettle for a cup of tea has long been a British institution, but all our habits were once new behaviours. We probably started boiling water simply because it was the only way to be sure it was safe to drink. Tea (& later coffee) was a habit born out of British colonialisation, & one that was initially affordable only to the upper classes. No doubt, like those energy hungry & unproductive lawns we now all have, it was seen as a sign of affluence & so ultimately adopted by us all as a result. Indeed we have adopted a great number of energy wasting habits over the years. The big question (& one posed by transition culture) is ‘would we rather give them up one by one in our own time, or have a massive change forced on us at once?

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Fording the floodwater with fingers crossed…

We're making a risky crossing...Last weekend, on my way to teaching one of my weekends-based permaculture design courses, I was offered a leap of faith. It had rained heavily the night before, so I encountered areas of flooding on the first half of my journey which I carefully negotiated. It all seemed manageable, but then I came across the big one…

Ahead of me lay about 150 metres of road flooded by a river; one which normally flowed several feet below, under a bridge. How deep was it? Thankfully I had a guide; a 4×4 driver was fording from the other direction. It looked touch & go, but I wasn’t sure there would be any way around & 25 people were going to be waiting for me…

I decided to plunge in. My car is a diesel, which I figured made her a bit less vulnerable to the flood water, but how much depth could she cope with? Of course once committed, there really isn’t any way back. It was only then that I pondered such things as ‘what about the exhaust?‘. I guessed that moving forwards & the pressure of gases through the exhaust would keep the water out, but what if she stalled? And if she did, how long before the interior flooded? I began pondering the bravery of my decision to not purchase breakdown cover ~ one based upon me always being in the right place with the right information & tools whenever a problem had occurred in the past. At this point though, it seemed courageous, but crazy!

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Feeding the soil to feed ourselves

The soil is a complex and dynamic organismThe soil is vital to everything that lives on Earth; if we want healthy bodies & a healthy planet then we need healthy soil. So we must make choices that encourage this & support farming systems that feed the soil rather than deplete it. Soil is a miraculous substance, a place where air, water, minerals & micro-organisms can work together to nourish plant growth, but they must be present in the right proportions. A healthy soil has good structure & consists of approximately 25% air, 25% water, around 40% minerals & up to 10% organic matter. Natural systems build such soils & modern farming practices degrade them. The normal rate at which nature builds soil is around 0.2 tonnes per hectare per year, yet the rate at which it was recently being lost on US farmland was measured at around 40 tonnes per hectare per year! The reasons for this dramatic loss lies in the increased wind & water erosion facilitated by the removal of surface matter (mulch & cover vegetation), natural windbreaks & the effect of ploughing (& digging) in particular.

Whilst ploughing is done to accomplish certain tasks, there are so many more reasons why we shouldn’t do it. The structure of the soil is vital for healthy plant growth, but ploughing damages that structure in several ways. When the level of organic matter in the soil falls below 3.5%, the soil structure cannot be maintained. Ploughing permits excessive amounts of air into the soil, which oxidises this organic matter, causing it to break down & as a result this structure is lost. Most arable land has only 1-2% organic matter & a close look at any such field will reveal a compacted unhealthy looking soil. No wonder farmers are throwing so many chemicals at it to get anything to grow!

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Survivors ~ the toilet papers

It's nothing to be ashamed ofI guess that going to the loo just isn’t dramatic enough to be discussed in the new BBC1 series of Survivors.

But don’t you just want to know all the details?

We’ve seen plenty of the cast foraging for food and water from abandoned shops, but nothing of the way they are managing to keep their toilet going. With no mains water to flush with, they would have to be using rainwater and then only flushing when they really have to. It must be pretty smelly by now with so many of them sharing facilities but no one seems to be moaning about that.

Flushing loos are just one convenience (excuse the pun) that rely on us having plenty of water. Around a third of our household water use goes straight down the toilet. That’s water that has been purified to drinking standards, taking a lot of extra energy (that also means CO2 emissions these days). And yet for little investment, we could easily harvest enough water from our roofs to perform this job and immediately make a big impact on global warming. Alas, we’ve got very used to having flush loos, even though they cause more problems than they solve. Our bodies separate solids from liquids for a very good reason, because mixing them leads to anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition and that’s what creates those bad smells (methane ~ a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2).

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