[permaculture] Peak-oil scenario fuels "go local" campaign

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Wed Oct 12 02:44:44 EDT 2005

On 10/10/05 6:22 PM, "Marimike6 at cs.com" <Marimike6 at cs.com> wrote:

>> Yet there is enough land in and near all but the
>> largest cities to grow all the food necessary for the residents.
> But if you are teaching permaculture,
> and permaculture involves the craft of profitably living off the land and
> away from the oil-based economy, exactly what do you teach?

Not quite sure how a suggestion to grow food in and near cities can be taken
as advice not to live off the land, but you've asked a useful question. Just
as Pc is not about particular techniques, it's not about living in a
particular place, either. It's about applying principles where you live. If
we limit Pc to those wanting to live off the land, then in a society where
not even most farmers--about 1% of the population--are living off their own
land, Pc would be irrelevant, ignored. Paraphrasing Mollison, if there is
ethical work you do better than growing potatoes, there's nothing wrong with
buying your potatoes at a responsible market. He never says, you gotta do it
all yourself. As for the oil economy, I use much less gas, oil, and
long-haul trucking in the city than in the country. What do I teach? Working
with what you have, whole-systems thinking, and awareness of the
consequences of your actions. I want people to figure out their own
solutions, not think their only choice is to be farmers.

> Prior to about 1930, everyone on earth except some city dwellers lived
> locally, sustainably and-- dare I say-- permaculturally.

Let's not idealize the past. Local? Pacific NW Chinook used Mexican
obsidian. And many practices of earlier cultures were unsustainable. Like
logging and grazing North Africa's forests into desert, and depleting soil,
trees, and water at Chaco Canyon, or shitting upstream of neighbors almost
everywhere. Other cultures just didn't have the population levels to make
their destructive effects immediately obvious, but many died of ecological
collapse. To be sustainable, we can't go back to the old ways, but must
combine a little old and much new. That journey is going to be monumentally
difficult--it has never been done. I am fairly optimistic, but I'm trying to
encourage people to improve the places they live rather than have urbanites
fantasize about rural homesteads.

If we don't fix the places we live now, why would we expect not to repeat
the same mistakes somewhere else? That's been our pattern. The existing
socio-economic framework, bad as it is, has the advantage of being known and
moderately functional, so the odds of success are greater if we transform it
rather than abandon it (which is impossible, anyway) for something we don't
know how to do.  

> I would like to learn about how we can establish intentional communities,
> such as used to exist everywhere no more than a lifetime ago.

Old communities were not intentional (some religious communities excepted).
You lived in a village because you were born there. There was no intention
or shared vision, and little social justice. Villages had oppression,
oligarchy, feuds, (Tolstoy refers to "the idiocy of village life,") and all
the other problems that have been with us forever. Although I support, and
work with, intentional communities, the ugly reality is that the majority
fail within a couple of years. Knowing how they fail is easily as important
as learning from successful ones.

Community living is supremely difficult. Plus, you need 100+ people to have
a sufficient skill set for even partial self-reliance. How many 100-person
intentional communities are there in the world? And 100 is still not enough
people to support a bicycle factory. Where do the rubber and alloy come
from? I'm not saying "no one should try to start a rural community," I'm
saying, peak oilers, get real. People who think the easy answer is to
traipse off to the woods and live happily with friends, let alone with other
frightened, paranoid survivalists, are delusional. Even moderate
self-reliance is hard work. Total self-reliance at any but a stone-age
standard of living is impossible. I like my iPod and think we are smart
enough to have a sustainable culture in which they can exist, and that means
large, sophisticated networks. That's why cities evolved--large groups of
people are a good way to create a culture.

>And I can't help but imagine that cooperative, rural ventures

(let's not leave out urban ones, with enough ready-made density for
cooperation and no need to develop more rural land)

> have something to do with permacultural ideas, where non fossil fuel based
> inputs are maximized and reliance on store bought items in the city is kept to
> its barest minimum. Is this something like the definition you employ?

(Broken record here: rural life requires more inputs than urban; check the
laws of physics.) Re store-bought: Raising your own chickens is great, but
perhaps even more powerful is buying organic chicken at the natural food
store. The growers and stores thrive, and eventually Tyson and Safeway
notice (as they do now) that they have competition, and they change. A
home-grown chicken is rarely an option for city dwellers (2/3 of humanity)
but more importantly, may not have the transformative social effect that
supporting good business does.

Somehow Pc has been pigeonholed as advocating that everyone move onto enough
acreage to provide all their needs, isolate themselves from society, and
develop a parallel culture that will somehow avoid the mistakes of the
mainstream. That's an impossible goal. And social progress is almost never
made by scrapping the old; it's made by changing it (which is what
"transformation" means).

Also, I don't think it's permacultural to believe that resource use is evil
and to be avoided. Nature uses all the resources she can get her hands,
paws, roots, or pseudopodia upon and converts them into energy and biomass
as fast as sunlight or stored reserves will allow. She's just way, way
better at recycling resources than we are, so I'd rather get better at
recycling than return to stone tools. I don't even object to using fossil
fuels, just to the stupid profligate way we use them. They are an
astonishingly versatile resource. Any mineral resource is non-renewable, but
plants and animals use them all the time. I am not interested in a future of
isolation and scarcity; nature is dense and abundant, and that's a useful

Permaculture is about starting at your doorstep right now, not about
dreaming that someday you will move to the country, start a community, and
then be sustainable. That's what I try to teach.


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