Solutions – Rewilding
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates
Before certain conservationists manipulated the word, the concept of rewilding was always about rewilding the human. It is about integrating the human economics back into nature rather than separating nature from human influence as ‘environmentalist’ George Monbiot subtly suggests in his work Feral, claiming that the only role humans should fulfil in the landscape is that of spectators. Humans are economic animals and they must work with nature in order to understand it and themselves because humans are nature. Solutions to the problems we face can come only in the spirit of true rewilding.
“Until we have demonstrated that we can establish a productive and secure earth society, we do not belong anywhere else, nor (I suspect) would we be welcomed elsewhere.” – Bill Mollison
Sumerian scribes detailed the gradually dwindling crop yields in ancient Mesopotamia. Sumerian farmers could not solve the problem of desertification and so, we are taught, their ‘civilization’ collapsed. But of course it was just the economies and societies of Mesopotamia which went – this being what is often defined as a civilization. In another sense, Sumerian culture continued – the knowledge and much of the wealth of the Sumerians simply transferred to ancient Greece and Persia, with new land to be used. And we remain in the same culture today – essentially we are still part of that civilization.
Comparing agricultural systems to hunter gatherer systems is like comparing stars. The brightest stars burn out the fastest and tend to be explosive whilst the dimmer stars last for billions of years and are much more stable. There may be just the same amount of fuel in the tank, but some stars use it up quicker. Though we have only one example to go off, it seems logical that these dimmer stars, like our Sun, are more conducive to life.
Agriculture and civilization are often portrayed as Pandora’s box. In Sumerian mythology, the words of Enki and Inanna, the god and goddess, claimed: “Once you take the gift of civilization, you cannot give it back.” In Pandora’s seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, anthropologist Spencer Wells explains that becoming agriculturalists and growing grain was a mistake leading to more sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles and crowding up the planet. It also led to diseases caused by living in close proximity to animals, created hierarchy, inequality, religion, extremism, money, stress, anxiety, depression, restricted freedoms and most significantly alienated humans from their connection with the land.
Nafeez Ahmed, author of Crisis of Civilization and writing for the Guardian, reviewed a study by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Centre (SESYNC), funded by the US National Science Foundation. The study ‘Human and Nature Dynamics: Modelling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies’ attempts to amalgamate the factors which lead to the collapse of civilizations, and then makes estimates on our current civilization’s life span and durability.
Using the Nasa-developed ‘HANDY’ (Human Nature and Dynamical) model, this group of scientists take a similar approach to Jared Diamond, exploring essentially the same topics as his book Collapse. Their model concludes that Economic Stratification or Ecological Strain are the two problem scenarios which can independently lead to a Type-L (Disappearance of Labour) collapse or a Type-N (Exhaustion of Nature) collapse and that “In summary, despite the common impression that societal collapse is rare, or even largely fictional, the picture that emerges is of a process recurrent in history, and global in its distribution.”
It continues: “This brings up the question of whether modern civilization is similarly susceptible. It may seem reasonable to believe that modern civilization, armed with its greater technological capacity, scientific knowledge, and energy resources, will be able to survive and endure whatever crises historical societies succumbed to. But the brief overview of collapses demonstrates not only the ubiquity of the phenomenon, but also the extent to which advanced, complex, and powerful societies are susceptible to collapse. The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”
This mathematical approach fails to point out that human work does not inevitably counteract nature (depletion), with the misunderstanding summarised in this line: “The Human And Nature DYnamical model (HANDY) was inspired by the Predator and Prey model, with the human population acting as the predator and nature being the prey.” This false assertion underlying the mathematics of the HANDY model of civilization collapse needs remedying and fortunately the authors note that: “In the upcoming generations of HANDY, we plan to develop several extensions including: (1) disaggregation of Nature into non-renewable stocks, regenerating stocks, and renewable flows, as well as the introduction of an investment mechanism in accessibility of natural resources, in order to study the effects of investment in technology on resource choice and production effciency; (2) making inequality endogenous to the model structure; (3) introduction of \policies” that can modify parameters such as depletion, the coefficient of inequality, and the birth rate; and, (4) introduction of multiple coupled regions to represent countries with different policies, trade of carrying capacity, and resource wars.”   
Though the HANDY modelling of potential civilization collapse is an excellent step forward in recognising that the historical record can be used scientifically and therefore formalise the lessons history can teach us, there are going to need to be almost infinite generations of HANDY to eventually reach some decent level of accuracy because there are just so many extension factors. Ultimately, the very idea that human scientists can input every factor of the natural world and of human nature in various societal organisations, and come up with predictions about where we are heading as a civilization, is silly at best. Just one wrong number or one missing factor (of which there are thousands in this case) in an equation results in totally the wrong conclusions.
It is better to simply observe the patterns of history, the laws of nature and the tendencies of human nature and use logic and intuition to make these predictions. If you are calculating the many factors in your own internal ‘common sense computer’, each of the factors are rationalised and the error potential is averaged out over the whole internal equation (thinking) rather than the error being multiplied out by leaving the thinking to prescriptive computer models.
The conclusion that ‘economic stratification’ and ‘ecological strain’ are the two primary drivers of civilization collapse is true. But the SESYNC study could have synthesised that conclusion once more and come up with just the one primary driver. My conclusion would in fact be that: Elite interference is the only root cause of civilization collapse. Economic Stratification is obviously caused by elites dictating economic policy whilst Ecological Strain is no inevitable result of human activity, but rather a result of poor economic policy dictated by elites.
If left to their own democratic devices as individuals, families and communities, humans would naturally produce reasonably egalitarian and equal as well as sustainable societies and economies, in tune with nature, and over time, if left stable, enormous wealth and prosperity will be produced by and for those societies. Fred Harrison puts it quite simply: “We know from the civilizations of antiquity that city-civilizations repeatedly collapsed because the elites turned the flow of funds that were invested in the common good that made civilization possible. Those elites hijacked that flow of resources so that they could live lives of luxury, consequently impoverishing the people.”
However, it is no accident that this study gets to some underlying truths – that ‘economic stratification’ and ‘ecological strain’ are civilization’s greatest threats – through stressing the use of a synthesised, multidisciplinary approach. Only the approach of generalists can unveil the whole truth and the root causes of complex, multifaceted problems. The SESYNC study makes a significant and well overdue step towards using generalised science in academia to tackle the most important problems of our time. But generalised science is really just common sense and each of us have the potential to come to at least as assured conclusions as are displayed in this type of study as long as we inform ourselves.
“Given the facts, the common man will always make the wisest decisions” – Thomas Jefferson
If you look up the Greek literal translation of politics (politikos/politika) politi is citizen and kos/ka is Mr/Ms. You could define this as statesman or leader of a city-state. Fortunately for the politicians, or rather by their own decree, this word was redefined a long time ago thanks to Aristotle’s ‘politics,’ because if we interpret it as Plato intended, we can realise a not so hidden truth. Plato’s ‘politics’ implied that the statesman was the city’s own philosopher king – one who was so worldly wise that he knew what was best for everyone and could rule perfectly the affairs of the state although his interests and the interests of the state and of the people may be very different. In other words, this politics is exactly how politicians today see themselves. And it is exactly what they are not. Even if they did have the people’s interests at heart, how can one person ever gain enough knowledge to understand every nuance of a city sized, let alone a country sized society, and keep up to date with every change of conditions? We do not have a political equivalent of the economic process of a market – the democratic and efficient process of using collective intelligence to value and distribute goods and services. Which is precisely why the free market in its true Georgist sense has never really existed – politics has always interfered with it in the system of political economy.
It is simply not logistically possible to represent numbers of people over 150, never mind the power aspects and the gravitation of psychopaths toward this sort of statesman position. That is not to mention the fact that the puppets who are the modern politicians are not the statesmen at all. It is their bosses, the corporate executives and billionaires who fund their parties, who are the statesmen. It was always foolish to create a position of considerable power and not expect money to gravitate towards it. Money always follows power.
The only true democracy is a direct one, where citizens decide on every policy to the extent to which it affects them and their dependents. As Douglas Carswell covers in his book The End Of Politics, The Beginning of iDemocracy, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be trying out an electronic version of this system now. The technological infrastructure of the internet already exists for us to radically change the decision making processes in society. Why must we have representatives in parliament voting on things when we could all just click a button instead. For the moment, education isn’t quite at the standard for a direct democracy to work properly. It is true that in a fully direct democracy, the public will be voting for and against many issues they don’t understand in full, which will most certainly result in bad decision making. And however well educated the public are, they will not all have the time or energy to pour over the information regarding every issue. An internet based system would reduce this problem somewhat as information is so readily available and if you could trust the vast majority of the population to come to a reasoned conclusion using scientific principle, it would be a viable system. It doesn’t need every person to vote on every issue, just for every person who does to approach each issue in full. Perhaps this could include a random computer generated quiz on the facts contained in the relevant documents. The presenting of information to voters could have guidelines controlled only by computer programs – the only accountability issue then becomes a question of who designs the computer program. The potential for bias and persuasion is still there. It could even be argued that in a direct democracy, there would be even more potential for bias in the media to persuade the public into voting a certain way.
So the intelligent balancing of the media between freedom and restriction would be even more vital for this system. Whether it comes about via gradual reform, revolution or a guided transition, when direct democracy takes route, media, communications, knowledge and education must be free from monopoly. Otherwise it will not be a direct democracy but will remain the ceremonial democracy we see today. As Jeremy Corbyn put it in his criticism of Rupert Murdoch: “We have a right for our information and messages not to be controlled by the amoral attitudes of megalomaniacs” Informedness of the public is key for any degree of democracy to function best as possible but as Lobaczewski says “A [representative] democracy composed of individuals of inadequate psychological knowledge can only devolve.” Whereas direct democracy at least allows the public some genuine decision making power and eventually common sense should prevail so that the public vote to have more control over their information and messages – then informedness levels can improve.
The majority of people are sensible enough that they can be trusted not to make any truly disastrous decisions as long as media and education are protected from monopoly private interest. There’s no doubt that a direct democracy, even with the current levels of mis-information, would work far better and make far less bad decisions than the current UK government, for instance. It is true that what the people want is not always what the people need, but only if they have already been indoctrinated or distracted by the existing educational establishment and propaganda. Essentially, all people want a better life for their children and will make political decisions to see that provided by the economy – it’s the economy stupid. The public may not be as informed as it should be but accountability must be secured before informedness is, otherwise corruption will not stop. The level of political corruption in the world today continues to escalate and if it isn’t tempered soon, the out of touch politicians will soon suffer the fate of Caucescu, where a person at one of his rallies just shouted out “You’re lying” and the public turned on him. The return of populist politicians throughout the Western world is perhaps the signal that this is happening already.
But if direct democracy feels like too big a step, we can at least implement some measures to move towards it, such as more referendums. In fact, Switzerland has gone much further. And who would argue that Switzerland isn’t better off than the rest of us in the West? And it is because their democratic system is at least semi-direct. The public have the right to put any decision made by their government to a general vote after gathering 100,000 signatures. So whenever a politician starts moaning about other parties being undemocratic or anti-democracy, they should be questioned as to if, on that basis, they would support a move towards direct democracy as that is a fundamentally more democratic system than a representative one. And if they don’t support it, they can have no reason other than that they are corrupt.
How can we make this simple change? It shouldn’t be that difficult to get support for this idea once people understand it. But I suspect the self serving parts of the press and government would prefer never to mention how Swiss democracy works and the public are unlikely to understand it if they don’t know about it. Even the liberal media are cautious about raising awareness due to their high brow mistrust of the general population.
Lawrence Lessig, in his bid to become the 2016 Democrat candidate for U.S. president, is running on just one issue – reforming the campaign finance and electoral systems. He reckons that because the system is so corrupt and entrenched, running on just one issue is the only way to gain a big enough mandate to get a policy through. Lessig believes, probably correctly, that the priority for change is reform of the mechanisms of the political system. He says, if elected, he would push through his proposed reforms, and then immediately resign. In a sense, he is attempting to use the age old political tactic of divide and conquer, but turning it back against the elite. If the public could only latch on to this tactic, change might be quite easy to achieve. Political activists could come together to democratically vote on all policy changes that are proposed, then decide to all buy in to the issue that turned up at the top of the list. All political protests could be focused on this one issue, and it would not take long to force it through the political system no matter which party is in government since the elite are so horrendously outnumbered in these situations. Once the first policy proposal is forced through, it is ticked off the list, and we move on to the next. No more energy would be expended on protest and political action than is now, but that energy would be far better channelled through the use of basic military strategy.
Juries are possibly the greatest political invention ever instituted in the civilized world. Elites have never liked common criminality – since they don’t like competition – so they have had to find a way to make sure common criminals get their punishment in a fair, accurate and consistent manner to maintain the system’s legitimacy and mandate. Fortunately, we can use the same mechanism to benefit the commoners, not only the elites. Forget scientific bodies, the use of a jury is the best way to find facts because jurors are randomly selected by lot and are voluntary and temporary – ensuring equality and preventing corruption. If there are 12 randomly selected, normal citizens (looking at the science of group sizes might suggest a number other than 12 to be ideal, but it is not far off), it is pretty much guaranteed that most of them will be good, well intentioned people with common sense and the ability to make good decisions given the facts. And it only takes one of them to bring forward a key piece of evidence for the others to be better informed. Permanent board members with careers to look after simply cannot compete with rotating juries for decision making ability, no matter what expertise they are considered to have.
But we know that political democracy, no matter how many checks and balances are in place, will only devolve into oligarchy unless it is founded on economic democracy. That means decentralization and localization. For all of human history, power has resided where wealth has resided. There have been no exceptions to this rule. Power will never disappear and nor will wealth, but they can be dissipated. So if you believe that too much power is a bad thing, you must support democracy and localization as a rule, since this dissipates wealth to the maximum extent possible and democracy dissipates power to the maximum extent possible. If it must have a label, this politico-economic system may be called anarchism, the mode of organisation practiced for 95% of human history. There may be peaks and troughs of democratic involvement such as activist movements, dictatorships, wars and slight variations in the behaviour of politicians, but if the distribution of wealth doesn’t change, the power won’t.
Those who write history are the victors and the economic rights about which Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi often pointed out as key have been deftly cast out of the public consciousness by decades of propaganda. Both King and Gandhi’s strong principles, led them inevitably to the subject of economics. In Gandhian economics, as with any useful economic visions, there is no distinction between economy and ethics because the purpose of an economy is to fulfil the needs and genuine desires of humans – physically, mentally, spiritually and in all other aspects. There is a rejection of the idea of possession and a focus on self-sufficiency, where Gandhi envisioned an India full of villages producing for their own needs using the land in their immediate vicinity.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X both encouraged people to spend their money in and amongst their local community to make sure that wealth didn’t flow out to the establishment who then used it to oppress the black community. The element of race politics, though necessary to refer to at the time, perhaps misleads people from the larger point, which harks back to Gandhi’s localised economics. The best source for localised economics inspired by Gandhi is probably E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.
Aldous Huxley was not the eugenics obsessed elitist he is painted as by some. In fact, he is quite the opposite and he advocates the common sense philosophy that we all relate to and understand deep down to be the solution to the world’s problems: “If you wish to avoid dictatorship by plebiscite, break up modern society’s vast, machine-like collectives into self-governing, voluntarily co-operating groups, capable of functioning outside the bureaucratic systems of Big Business and Big Government.”
“If you wish to avoid the spiritual impoverishment of individuals and whole societies, leave the metropolis and revive the small country community, or alternatively humanize the metropolis by creating within its network of mechanical organizations the urban equivalents of small country communities, in which individuals can meet and co-operate as complete persons, not as the mere embodiments of specialized functions.”
“All this is obvious today and, indeed, was obvious fifty years ago. From Hilaire Belloc to Mr Mortimer Adler, from the early apostles of co-operative credit unions to the land reformers of modern Italy and Japan, men of good will have for generations been advocating the decentralization of economic power and the widespread distribution of property.”
“And yet, in spite of all this preaching and exemplary practice, the disease grows steadily worse” The reason, Huxley analogises: “Free as a bird, we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unrestricted movement in all the three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded.” If the dodo farmers step up their demands, Huxley says, “the dodos will clamour for their wings.”
We are, conveniently, living at the same point in the political awareness cycle as Huxley was in 1959 and we should all embrace to the re-emergence of the protests of the 60’s. “The young people who now think so poorly of democracy may grow up to become fighters for freedom. The cry of ‘Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty’, may give place to the cry of ‘Give me Liberty or give me death.’”
As he says, Huxley’s novel Brave New World describes a world where the dictators had added science to their list of tyrannical tools and were therefore able to “enforce their authority by manipulating the bodies of embryos, the reflexes of infants, and the minds of children and adults.”It is very possible that if we don’t have a full awakening in this next period of political agitation, then there will be no next time – these technologies have arrived, and one more period of domesticity may allow the tyrants to physically restrain the dodo’s for good.
We must ensure then, that these dodo’s don’t just want wings when the sailors and their pets come ashore on Mauritius, but realise that there is an historical and biological inevitability that the sailors will come and that therefore they must retain their wings and use them every day whether they need them at that moment or not. Only a population of individuals informed on the subjects of historical patterns, psychopathy, human nature, evolution, oligarchy and real economics can keep their freedom forever.
In ‘Dwellers in the land’, Kirkpatrick Sale envisions a human world structured around ecological and cultural diversity rather than the meaningless national and political constructs of boundaries and borders. The landscape itself should to a large degree dictate population divisions, where people are spread more evenly across the landscape in decentralized self-sufficient economic systems using appropriate technology and having much more in common with indigenous life than civilized life. This is essentially the goal of permaculture and designing such systems should take into account not only the nature of the landscape but also whatever we know about the nature of human beings. 
There is some suspicion, for many, that actually, the only revolution that will work is a long term, unorganised, grass roots, personal revolution – where normal people, one by one, family by family and community by community, disengage from the establishment’s political system and refuse to co-operate with its economic system. Permaculture and decentralized, self-sufficient economies would obviously have to be the major part of that striving for economic independence. And that can only happen once the people of the world have a united consensus to stop cooperating with the elites at every level. Ultimately though, to feed 7 billion people, land will need to be retaken from the elites who currently own most of it. And so we cannot talk about perma-forming the planet without readdressing the original injustice – the enclosure and monopolisation of the commons.
To me, it seems that Henry George’s land value tax proposals are the best way to return the commons to the commoners. If there is one political issue to unite behind, it is this. Land taxes are really very environmentally friendly in their intended outcomes. Georgism and the concept of land value taxes includes the use of pigovian taxes (fines for pollution and externalities) and it may even be possible to judge this on a market basis by looking at an area of land or ocean that has been polluted and imposing a fine on the polluter equivalent to the loss of earnings accrued from that site not being usable compared to a similar site in productive use.
One of the criticisms of a Georgist land value tax is, that if we understand economic growth will be encouraged and the income from economic rents on land will increase year on year, then government will grow also. Government enlargement is not a good idea, and to guard against this, the annually increasing funds of land value taxes should be immediately distributed as locally as possible and decisions on the investments of those funds must be extremely democratic. It may even be possible to design land taxes in such a way that they necessitate their own local and ultra-democratic distribution. However, economic forecasts are usually wrong and my confidence in the morality of Georgism leads me to suspect that, after a certain period of stability, a properly designed land value tax may in fact produce continually decreasing economic rents.
How could this be? A lot of Georgists correctly assume that the introduction of land value taxes would lead to an increase in efficiency of cities. There will be no more disused brownfield sites and land speculation whilst people look around for jobs and affordable housing. Every inch of the city will be utilized by normal people for the most productive purposes thanks to the new found freedom of access to land. The city will become densified, better connected, better served, more diverse and the economy will grow at a rate never before imagined. Quite right, this will happen for a while. But what is it that humans really crave when given true freedom? Do humans crave to live in dense cities and to their labour? The selling of labour is the very reason cities exist and the reason cities have grown comes down to the enclosure of the commons and the stealing country peasant land by the elite. If you have free access to land, wouldn’t you want to set up home out in the open air of the country at some point or instead beautify their city? Wouldn’t you want to live the good life and become fairly self-sufficient, and so not being forced to sell one’s labour? It doesn’t have to be along the lines of nuclear families, it can be community based and more sociable than life in the crowded yet simultaneously socially atomized cities. So maybe it’s not for everyone, maybe the allure of grey concrete is too great for some. But I should suspect, seen as we have evolved to live on, with and through the land, most people would prefer a rewilded life if they had the choice.
If people, given the freedom of access to land, will prefer to rely on their own labour rather than the sale of it, that should reduce the amount of monetary wealth in the economy – to be replaced with real wealth. A de-monetization of the economy will take place as people use permaculture as a design framework for land use. They will do so since this is the most efficient use of land and a land value tax would incentivize intelligently designed food production systems in order to get the most out of the smallest piece of land. Permaculture simultaneously makes people more self-sufficient and not reliant on the sale of labour. The market will exist only to the extent of an effective community economy eventually to be composed of around 150 people. The ever-increasing economic rents will continue to increase in terms of wealth but will actually begin to decrease in terms of money. So instead of wealth being represented by money and being able to flow to some centralized authority to be undemocratically directed, the wealth goes straight into the community or if not then straight back into the soil from whence it came. Earth care, people care, return of surplus – the ethics of permaculture and the ethics of a real economy.
Permaculture may be seen as an evolved form of hunter-gathering or a revolutionary form of agriculture. If we do wish to pin it down though, permaculture is the third economic system. The first, hunter-gathering is sustainable but cannot support large populations. The second, agriculture can support large populations but is not sustainable. Permaculture can achieve both and, frankly, to argue against it is too argue against the real subject of economics itself. As Geoff Lawton puts it, “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.”
Each human wants a wide range of resources. As well as fuel energy (wood, electricity) and water, we want a balanced diet of many different vegetables, fruits, nuts, fungi, meats and grains. We want different metals, stones, ceramics, woods, straws and textiles for cooking, building and clothing. And clearly some of these things must involve some capital investment in technology. But the best way to produce varied foods and the simplest re-usable resources is through a functioning ecosystem. Instead we increasingly separate out the foods we eat into different growing areas, causing unnecessary economic imbalance and terrible wastage due to our ancient specialisation mentality. Nature works in exactly the opposite manner to a production line.
Specialisation compartmentalises people and doesn’t allow them to see what is really important, and this is particularly true in academia, with its awful understanding of the connectedness of nature. When scientists give names to species, they usually go off the closest genetic relatives to give it a classification. But colloquial and popular names for plants and animals are in fact much more useful since they give a better description of ecological function. An Australian marsupial rat, for example, is no relation to the Asian brown rat but the two fulfill equivalent ecological niches. It would be far more useful for the real world and for trying to develop sustainable systems, if scientists could use ecological classifications rather than biological ones. Foresters refer to land without trees as ‘bare land’ whilst a farmer would consider land with trees as of no use. The division of labour, even when the specialisations created are as land-based and within nature as farmer and forester, creates totally different perspectives on the world and can therefore engender differing attitudes, many of which end up being destructive without meaning to be.
The aim has to be to move human lifestyles as close as possible to what a natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle involves without throwing out completely the positive and appropriate technologies which civilization has produced. And at the same time tackling economic, environmental and social issues in a far more structured and efficient manner. If that sounds too much, it shouldn’t be. Because the closer our lives are to what they are programmed to be, the more efficient we become, the healthier we become, the happier we become and obviously, the more in tune with the natural world we become. It’s just common sense really. As John Seymour states, “I know that the modern Birmingham factory worker is supposed to lead an ‘easier’ life than, say, a French peasant. But I wonder if this supposition is correct. And I wonder if, whether ‘easier’ or not, it is a better life? Simpler? Healthier? More spiritually satisfying? Or not?”
Bill Mollison doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t under-think or over-think his philosophy. Instead, although clearly academically intelligent, he arrives at the truth via the use of basic intelligence. This common sense approach produces conclusions which the so-called great philosophers would need whole lifetimes to describe, and even then not be sure of themselves: “We have expanded our right to live on the Earth to an entitlement to conquer the Earth, yet ‘conquerors’ of nature always lose. To accumulate wealth, power or land beyond one’s needs in a limited world is to be truly immoral, be it as an individual, institution or nation-state.”
Mollison’s vision of change is of grassroots permaculture movements in every region of the world aiming to demonstrate to people at a local level how to gain at least some degree of economic independence for themselves. Once a point of critical mass of people spending time on earth repair has been passed, they will “cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us.” “The place to start change is first with the individual (oneself), and second in one’s region or neighbourhood.” Though we may not be fully economically independent at this point (we know who owns all the land and weapons) we will at least know how to achieve that independence. At that point, no fighting is necessary but only a program of non-cooperation. “A people without an agreed-upon common basis to their actions, is neither a community nor a nation. A people with a common ethic, is a nation wherever they live. Thus, the place of habitation is secondary to a shared belief in the establishment of a harmonious world community. Just as we can select a global range of plants for a garden, we can select from all extant ethics and beliefs those elements that we see to be sustainable, useful, and beneficial to life and to our community.”
Critics of the decentralized approach include Michael Albert, who suggests that ‘green bioregionalism’ which will produce differences in the power of nations based on the natural resource differences in different areas, therefore leading to imperial domination. But if some areas are richer than others, the resulting wealth of nutrients may instead be given over to the wild (zone 5 in permaculture) and art. The extra wealth may simply lead to more non-productive leisure activities. And since empires are based on excesses of capital (surplus) and in permaculture systems, their very function comes from the necessity to return surplus. Only a return to agricultural production would re-ignite empires.
As long as the third principal ethic of permaculture – the return of surplus – is observed then there should be no issue with certain regions having more biosphere resources than others. A tropical or subtropical area will obviously have more wealth-creating potential in its land than arctic tundra. Although, it must be understood that wealth-creating potential lies in seas and soils as much as in the suns direct heat (deserts are hardly productive). Through currents and rainfall patterns, such as the Gulf Stream or monsoons, some less-well-sunned areas can extract more biosphere wealth than the better sunned areas. But the wealthier regions will compensate by having larger populations to support, and in a truly democratic global society, this means individuals across the world have just the same amount of power – and even if they don’t, they will have no need for dominating others since in a permaculture system, they have everything they need and want contained within their region.
The moral circle about which Pinker and Harari talk of in their studies of tribalism and empire is suggested to be growing greater and therefore reducing feuds and fighting between different cultures, and that this is one of the positive things about empire – the monoculturality, ‘we are all connected’, hopeful John Lennon internationalism as it may be called. Despite the poor evidence for any legitimate defence of civilization and empire, perhaps some systems of information exchanges (not physical economic exchanges) between peoples on separate sides of the world do need to be kept alive in a decentralized world. And there are technologies such as the internet and 3-D printers which lend themselves to decentralized economies but which can simultaneously be inter-connectable.
There does remain, if we want an agreeable standard of living (one still way above the current standard), a problem regarding the inclusion of modern technologies in the permaculture Eden. Clearly, technologies cannot be un-invented and nor would we want most of them to be. Though it would be at a hugely reduced level – due to efficient recycling – any future permaculture society would not want to forego the benefits of the internet, solar power or 3D printers, if only as democratic tools, and we would need to still mine and extract buried and renewable resources to some degree. We would clearly need to do much of this on an industrial scale and need specialists and experts to man the servers and design the robotics, on which these industrial processes would hopefully be reliant whilst humans enjoy a life with nature and not in the pit. Also, those areas rich in buried or renewable resources should not give advantage to the people inhabiting them. Perhaps the only solution for not allowing these specialists to be at an advantage or disadvantage is for everyone to be taught these expertise and each work in these fields for a limited amount of time, whilst completely re-thinking the idea of ownership. However we go about using this part of future economies, it will be very much necessary to use participatory democratic methods of organisation as well as having a plethora of constitutional checks and barriers against oppression – as many as can humanly be taken in by each person – allied to the physical checks and barriers provided by permaculture systems and a decentralized economy.
A ridiculous article in the Guardian completely skirts around the subject of permaculture, so much so that it seems almost deliberate, although the comments section is open and as usual informs the reader far better than the article itself. It talks of an organic farmer in Tennessee who struggles to make a living selling high quality produce at organic farms, and complains of the seemingly impossible task of competing with big industrial agribusiness and mass food production. The farmer correctly points out that industrial monocultures are “the most efficient model of agriculture anywhere.” But he is of course talking about profit-making efficiency, not productive efficiency. And the article fails to question whether agriculture is the most efficient model of food production.
Though the intentions of many organic farmers are laudable, the movement won’t progress or have a chance competing with industrial agriculture if they continue to follow traditional farming methods (though the endless greasy handshakes and government subsidies big agribusiness get is probably the largest factor). These organic farmers are essentially using land in the same way as industrial farmers but without the GMO seeds, pesticides, fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides or quite as much oil fuelled machinery. And there is a good reason they use all those chemicals – because it doesn’t work without them! If you tried – as Jeremy Clarkson amusingly did – to plant a huge field full of the same organic seed and committed to not using chemicals, you would see abysmal results because nature doesn’t do monocultures. Organic farmers clearly realised this early on and so have moved away from specializing in one or two crops. Instead they use smaller fields – like crofts or bocages – and often intensively managed vegetable beds with a variety of crops. As organic farming develops, farmers will continue to diversify their land-use and so eventually, if they retain their laudable intentions, they will hit upon fully developed permaculture systems naturally. But it is quite ridiculous that in such an interconnected world, permaculture should have to evolve through innovation rather than be developed by information being passed around.
The results of permaculture are more productive, more efficient and sustainable. You don’t have to ask some scientist for evidence – ask a poor farmer in Africa who can now support his family through agroforestry when he could barely when he embraced traditional agriculture. If someone is so underprivileged that their only concern is to feed their family each day, then they are not going to embrace a less efficient system of food production. This is not some kind of hippy, green, utopian approach. The world’s small scale farmers and gardeners produce 70% of the worlds food on 30% of its arable land whilst industrial-scale agriculture produces 30% of the worlds food on 70% of its arable land. Small scale farmers produce around 10 times the energy they use whilst agribusiness uses around 10 times the amount of energy they produce. Industrialised agribusiness is not just cruel, it is economic insanity. Permaculture works in the here and now – it is functional design and applied common sense. Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” The Earth contains many different habitats, and so agroecological systems will have to be designed differently everywhere – and permaculture is the science of non-prescriptive design which enables that.
Permaculture designs, in their most intricate forms, never really were possible for our hunter-gatherer ancestors – they could only use the tools and capital they had available, which was not very much compared to what we have available to us now. They were of course working to gradual increase the intricacy of their economic systems, but thanks to the accelerated socio-cultural development caused by agriculture, we have all the tools we need to implement those intricate systems. What we have available to use are swathes of books and knowledge, the ability to connect to people on the other side of the globe, a huge variety of genetic capital, and the technological capital which can quicken implementation of permaculture systems. As the director of the Agroforestry Research Trust, Martin Crawford details, overall it makes sense to incorporate non-native plants in permaculture design. “The fact is that in the UK we have a poor native flora compared with mainland Europe, and we could not possibly feed 60 million people on available edible native plants – we have no choice but to eat non-natives, which currently include wheat, barley, onions, garlic, potatoes, sweetcorn, squash, carrots, parsnips and most brassicas. To rail against non-natives while eating a loaf of wheat bread is muddled thinking!” “As a general rule, I welcome plants from elsewhere that increase self-reliance and the efficiency of growing systems.”
Converting all the agricultural land to permaculture systems must be the long term plan but it is the transition that is the biggest step. Some rich hippies may be able to oversee this transition, but farmers could not just wait for 20 years, letting nature take over while designing their forests. They need to be supported in the meantime while their farms are not economical. Converting to permaculture wouldn’t be too complicated though. If there were a will to do it, then maybe 10% of our current agricultural land at a time could be allotted for conversion, and there are intelligent technological and horticultural methods that can be used to speed up this process. Converting from an agricultural system to a permacultural system can be as gradual as you like, with Joel Salitin’s Polyface farm in Virginia being a great example of a transitional food production system. Salitin focuses on local markets, humane livestock practices, rotation methods, diverse ecologies, and natural fertilisers to make a profitable, animal, human and environmentally friendly business out of pretty standard, marketable products. The most important difference between Salitin and most agriculturalists is that he employs a process called thinking.
Life on Earth, however resilient, needs particular conditions to exist and if those conditions are lost, desertification takes hold. Though life can be found in deserts, there is not enough of it to prevent or reverse the process of entropy as ecosystems tend to do. The Sahara’s dust is said to be responsible for fertilising the Amazon rainforest having been whipped up by Atlantic winds whilst the hot winds that it creates ultimately drive hurricane season in the West Atlantic, cooling down the Caribbean reef ecosystems in the process, so its existence does have connection to important Earth ecosystems. Ecosystems in those other regions might be different if it weren’t for the Sahara but they would still be rich, diverse and important. When deserts rule the landscape, erosion rates both from wind and water are very high, creating sand dunes and flash flood-formed canyons. If there is no life, the energy of water goes instead into sculpting the landscape and the soft green Earth starts to look more like the fractured, potholed surface of Mars. Deserts are a part of the natural world we can change, or at the very least we can reverse the agriculture induced desertification, which is responsible for a significant portion of the worlds desert area – all civilizations have ended in desert.
The Great Green belt is a plan to plant a literal belt of trees 15 kilometres wide across the entire Southern edge of the Sahara desert, but the project is a little more complex than that. It is to create a mix of agricultural and forest areas, each tailored to the needs of the local community so that the trees can contribute to food security, poverty alleviation and biodiversity as well as stopping desertification and providing a carbon sink. The Permaculturalist Geoff Lawton pioneered the ‘Greening the Desert’ project in the Jordan Valley and permaculture has shown how earthworks and intelligently designed tree planting can keep water in the landscape as long as possible so that life can take back the desert. This kind of project is proof that, using our brains, humans can be as much a positive influence on the Earth’s biosphere as much as they are now a negative influence. Agriculture might be said to not be a system of life, but a system of death since it appears to be entropic while all other life (especially humans when they engage their brains as hunter-gatherers or permaculturalists and play the super-keystone role of landscape architects and gardeners) is anti-entropic.  
A curious thing about Earth’s history is that other than the influence of our star, plate tectonics have been the major driving force for changes in climate. The super-continental cycle has a very great effect on the climate of Earth and indeed the extent, evolution and biodiversity of life. There is a roughly 300 to 500 million year cycle caused by plate tectonics whereby the great continents collide and mountain building takes place as they form a supercontinent; then they are broken up through rifting, where islands are formed surrounded by shallow seas.
In general, when the continents are colliding sea levels are low, the climate is cooler, more arid and it leads to an ‘icehouse climate.’ In this situation, there is less biodiversity because populations of organisms are more easily connected and so a few species dominate while others become extinct due to the competition and overall, evolution slows down as there is less genetic diversity. This is exacerbated if the supercontinent is spread East to West along the same latitude as then there is little in the way of different climate zones to be inhabited by varying species.
When the continents are spreading apart, the sea levels are high, the climate is warmer, wetter and it leads to a ‘greenhouse climate.’ In this situation, there is more biodiversity because populations of organisms are less easily connected and so all sorts of different species inhabit the ecological niches in their own isolated localities and evolution speeds up due to greater genetic diversity. And this is exacerbated if the islands are spread in a North to South arrangement due to the inability for species to move through different climate zones which they find uninhabitable. Take polar bears and penguins as an example – isolated in their respective poles. These effects on biodiversity are obviously less pronounced for oceanic creatures who don’t have the same physical barriers (unless there were to be strips of land encircling the Earth, which is unlikely given how plate tectonics work) but the higher sea levels of greenhouse climates – because of a high rate of seafloor production from the rifts – causes more of the continental shelf to be flooded and so environments such as the shallow seas of the Caribbean are created where species like the Manatee find it far more difficult to colonize other areas of the globe than deep sea creatures like the great whales do. So even in the seas there is likely to be a slight increase in biodiversity when the continents are dispersed. Dispersed continents not only produce more biodiversity, but more ‘edge’ and therefore more productive capacity and more biomass.
Today, the continents are arranged in a reasonably balanced pattern but are beginning to move towards collision and the bulk of continental mass, aided by ice, is connected up in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning less biodiversity here than in the Southern Hemisphere – compare the isolated marsupials of Australia and the lemurs of Madagascar to the narrow gene pool of the wolves of the Northern continents. We are said to be in a small greenhouse phase within an ‘icehouse climate’ period. But with the ‘Anthropocene’ age upon the Earth it looks as though, in many senses, civilization has artificially induced a collision of continents. Through globalization, species have been moving around, connecting and communicating with each other without needing the physical geography to do so – just human transportation. This lowers biodiversity whilst our agricultural production exacerbates species loss and creates deserts, which in turn lowers biomass and increases the amount of salt in the oceans. And the burning of fossil fuels represents an artificial period of the type of volcanic activity we would expect to see during super-continental collision. What exactly the effects of all this will be short term and long term is uncertain since the physical geography of the continents remains the same.
The intervention into the super-continental cycle is what humans will really be remembered for, but like any great power, the potential for good exists as much as the potential for bad and permaculture is the framework by which we can turn our shaping of the planet into a positive one, benefitting humans and the rest of nature. It is possible through permaculture to hold water on the continents (agriculture is causing the opposite to happen as aquifers are not being allowed to recharge), creating shallow lakes and islands and increasing biodiversity, edge and productivity this way, manage the carbon cycle as we wish, and even the potential for de-salinating the oceans exists (through collecting sea salt by evaporation ponds as has been done for thousands of years) if that is something which is positive. In natural forests it can take up to a thousand years to make an inch of topsoil, so if permaculture gives us the ability to increase that rate whilst providing us with bountiful resources, it also gives us the ability to sequester carbon at a higher than natural rate. Controlling the carbon cycle to suit our needs is something humans may have to do on a global level not just now, but long after our climate change worries have passed.
In short, with decentralized, localized, diverse, self-sufficient, small-scale, permacultural, separated physical economies humans may be able to harness their individual and collective brain power to ‘perma-form’ the planet to make it more abundant and diverse, fuller with biomass and make environments stable and even resilient to uncontrollable environmental changes such as plate tectonics or sun cycles.
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