Monthly Archives: March 2015

Glimmers of Progress…

According to several scientific sources, 2014 was the warmest year on record. The planet, and the oceans, are continuing to warm. The world’s oceans are also rising, and are getting more acidic. Along with a host of other problems, we humans aren’t on a great track, to say the least. But, I’ve seen some glimmers of progress lately, signs that we might be beginning to turn the tide. As an example, consider these two recent articles in The Economist, which each contain some bits of good news—

First, world CO2 emissions did not increase last year, (“CO2 and the Climate: Flatlining“) despite growth in the world economy. This is the first time this has ever happened, and was due to efficiency improvements and to increases in renewable-energy generation. So for all of you out there that have changed some light bulbs to LED ones, or acquired more fuel efficient cars (or electric vehicles), or added solar panels, or purchased renewable power from your electric company, or weatherized your house, or participated in these efforts politically, or grown more of your own food, my hat is off to you. Good job; all of these efforts, large and small, by governments and by individuals, are starting to register.

The second article (“Coal Mining: In the Depths“) is about how worldwide political and economic winds are turning against the coal industry. According to the article, the Dow Jones coal index has fallen by 76% in the last six years, 2/3 of planned coal-fired power plants worldwide since 2010 have been stalled or scrapped, and a strong divestment movement is occurring due to concerns of coal’s role in climate change and health risks.

To put these pieces of news in perspective, consider this—just two years ago I was writing posts where I was discussing how worldwide CO2 emissions were accelerating, and how 1,200 new coal-fired power plants were planned. Neither of those facts is true anymore; these are real changes.

Now, neither of these glimmers of progress is nearly enough, we have much more to do. CO2 in the atmosphere will stay potent for many decades, and total accumulations are still headed upward with no perceptible slowdown. Total coal consumption is still slowly rising, despite the pressures the industry faces. But the type of news I began with is what we should expect to see as things start to change. For years I’ve used the analogy that the task we’re involved in is akin to pushing with our hands on the side of a ship like the Titanic, while it is alongside a dock. We’ve all been pushing, for years, and the ship is finally starting to move. Momentum is gathering. Economies are shifting. Attitudes are changing. So, take a tiny bit of satisfaction from news like this, and then keep on pushing. Your efforts are working.


The only planet we’ve got…

 Image credit: NASA

Paradise on Earth—In Ohio

Chestnut trees, likely circa 1870. These forests are gone, but it's within humanity's power to bring them back. Imagine this photo in color, and imagine what it must have looked like above these men.

Chestnut trees, likely photographed in the 1870’s. These tremendous forests are gone, but it’s within humanity’s power to bring them back. Imagine this photo in color, and imagine what it must have looked like above these men.

Here’s an idea for you, one that I’ve seen or heard repeatedly recently—the idea that “sustainability” isn’t an adequate goal, but rather that we need to go beyond just sustaining our degraded world, and strive instead for restoration. Now, this is a bit of semantics which rests on just how narrowly we define “sustainability”, but regardless, it’s a valid thought. And, something I saw in that video I posted the other day of a talk by Mark Shepard really brought this home. In what is likely to be the longest quote I’ve ever included, let me write it out here. First, he put up a photograph that he had taken, of a soybean field before harvest. That image was quite similar to this one—

A field of soy---not the way the land used to be.

A field of soy—not the way the land used to be.

And this is what he said about it—

“This is a soybean field. Yes, it happens to be a genetically modified soybean field. I am standing, however, right in front of a plaque, looking out over this area here. . . [The plaque is about how,] during the Jefferson administration, before the Louisiana Purchase, they took a bunch of surveyors. . . and told them to go west in a straight line, and carry this steel measuring chain, and every six miles to stop, and record what they saw. This is somewhere in east south-central Ohio, and here, [where this plaque is], the team reported that they had just come out of old growth forest, out of these hills [behind them]. . . [They reported that the forest] was American chestnut, eight to ten feet in diameter, so close together that they had a hard time getting their horses through. As an understory weed, underneath these giant chestnuts, were sugar maples, with three and four-foot diameter trunks, that had no branches until sixty feet up in the air. Imagine sugar maples—the biggest sugar maples you’ve ever seen—as an understory shrub. Amazing. Well, then they come out into this opening, and they were like, ‘Oh, my goodness’. There were scattered . . . three to five gigantic oak trees per acre in this opening, and the list of animal species was a “who’s who” of wild kingdom North America. Mountain lions hanging out in the trees, deer and birds. . . [the mountain lions] had so much to eat, that none of other animals were afraid. There were bison and grizzly bear and brown bear, all east of the Mississippi. There were elk, ground birds in huge flocks, and one of the things that was most noticeable, was that the grasses, in this grassland that they went through, were over the heads of their horses. . . These were real human beings who came out of this old-growth forest, and into this clearing, and really did see this. And that was some of the allure that brought people down the Ohio River valley, this incredibly abundant, fertile, heartland of America in the Midwest. . .”

And, then… they proceeded to cut it all down and start plowing, which degraded the soil, continually, until today.

But, I think, if we all put our minds to it, that, as challenging as our environmental problems are, that they can be overcome. The technology exists. We can quit destroying the planet, we can safeguard natural species, we can let paradise regrow. In fact, with regard to the American chestnut, groups like the American Chestnut Foundation are working very hard to develop chestnuts that have genetic resistance to the blight that has killed billions of these trees. 

Later in the same talk I quoted above, Mark Shepard mentions that we often think that someone else will fix our environmental problems; that someone else will provide a solution. “They” will fix it. But, and I agree with him—there is no “they”. There is only us. You, and me, and other people that understand. It is up to us, to understand, and to act. It’s time to get to work.

Let's plant more of these, and let them grow...

Let’s plant more of these, and let them grow…

 Chestnut forest image: Forest History Society.
Soybean field: “Soybeans at Harvest”, by the United Soybean Board, Flickr Creative Commons.
Forest: Pavel Ahmed, Flickr Creative Commons.

The Promise of Permaculture, Part Two

“Permaculture needs to be based on reality… that’s real design, vs. play design. We need to get real…” —Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture.

The soil---the foundation of nearly everything.

Rich, fertile, soil, full of life—the foundation of nearly everything.

I was talking to a friend about soil yesterday, and describing that industrial-ag, soil-destruction sequence that I was discussing in my last post. He was really following along with me, and then, after much discussion, asked the question—“So what do we do about it?” Well, that part is complicated. And here’s where we get to the permaculture part, because permaculture is really at the exact other end of the spectrum from that industrial cornfield.

An example—if you take a piece of land, and manage the flows of water across it, and plant it with a wide variety of plants, and quit tilling the soil, and make sure that nutrients aren’t leaving the system, then that system will become progressively richer, more fertile, and more full of life. Life begets life. If left alone, nature will do much of this on its own. But, and here’s the “a-ha” moment that Bill Mollison had a half century ago that led him to develop what we call permaculture today—with just the right interactions, humans can accelerate this process. And, with proper design choices, the system can be made to provide abundantly for people, at the same time it grows richer and more diverse. From these ideas came Bill Mollison’s three ethics of permaculture—earth care, people care, and the return of surplus to the system. By the way, a trailer for a new film about the subject—

Now, I won’t try to explain all of permaculture here (though the trailer above actually gives a pretty good overview), but suffice it to say that permaculture methods can indeed be used to create little Gardens of Eden. The systems can vary in size, from small urban balconies, to homesteads with enough acreage to approach food self-sufficiency, to larger farms run by many people. The dream of the permaculture community is for these paradigms to become the norm, and for the human presence on the planet to become regenerative, healing the planet and all the life on it. Permaculturists typically seem to envision a reduced-energy future, with reduced consumption, much fewer material goods, but with a richer and more meaningful existence.

And, it is at this point in the train-of-thought that I begin to grimace just a bit, because the narrative begins to break down. For those of you that have been with me for a while, you’ll recognize the issue right away, because I’ve written about it repeatedly, from the very beginning. In short, we can’t all be self-sufficient (see post, “The Amish Question“). We can, with lots of work and plenty of knowledge, and if we happen to have land, approach food self-sufficiency. But we can’t be self-sufficient in clothing, and metals, and electronics, and solar panels, and PVC pipes, or electric fence chargers, or window glass, or any of the thousand others things that go into a food-self-sufficient homestead, not to mention medical care and education and government. Now, some of us can approach food self-sufficiency, and that’s good for the planet. The more permaculture yards and homesteads and farms we have, the better (see my post, “The Role of Self-Sufficiency“). But we can’t all spend our lives on permaculture homesteads, we still need doctors and teachers and researchers and people making clothing and shoes and steel, etc. And, those people will likely live in or near cities. City-dwellers can grow some of their food in urban balconies and street medians and empty lots, but this production won’t come close to feeding the urban population. Cities, as they have throughout history, will depend on the countryside around them. Food will flow in, and wastes will flow out (and, in the future, renewable energy will also be made in “the country”, and flow in).

So, it follows logically that we will therefore need farms that can produce food. And they can’t be like today’s industrial farms, because these methods are ruining the soil. What we need is for the ideas of permaculture to be scaled-up, and for the labor productivity of permaculture to be increased. Humans with hoes and wheelbarrows are usually lucky to feed themselves; we need mechanized farming operations that can feed many times more people than it took to produce the food. Fortunately we have some moves in that direction, moves that answer my friend’s question of “So what do we do about it?”.

I can best illustrate this, I think, with a series of videos. The first of these— “The Difference in Tilled and No-till Soils”. If you’re in a hurry, fast forward to 3:30, though what you’ll see will be amazing enough that you’ll want to back it up and get the details.

So, a dramatic demonstration of what tilling does to the soil. Now, here’s a video about the “no-till” part, where farmers sow cover crops, and then “terminate” them just prior to planting their cash crops–

These methods are much better than tilling, BUT, if you didn’t catch it, these farmers are still using glyphosate (“RoundUp”) to accomplish the “termination” part; to kill the cover crop prior to planting the main crop. But, there are other ways to do this—cover crops can be crimped or rolled, they can be mowed, or they can be grazed. Here’s the next step in my series, a farmer named Gabe Brown, from North Dakota, who has become something of a guru in the world of those concerned about soil.

Now, I don’t think Gabe Brown thinks of himself as a “permaculturist”, but he’s getting pretty close whether he realizes it or not. Nearly all of the elements are here—diversity, design systems that imitate nature, earth care, return of surplus. But he’s a large-scale farmer and rancher, and he farms for a living. Now, Gabe Brown mostly uses grazing to terminate his cover crops, but he also still uses some glyphosate (in another video he discusses how how is trying to quit using herbicides altogether, but still uses some, what he described as “one pass every few seasons”). Nevertheless, his system is amazing, and could, and should, be widely implemented. (Among other things, it could eliminate the confinement feeding of beef, and all the environmental damage that flows, literally, from that industry). So, is it possible to farm like this, and completely eliminate the use of glyphosate? It is indeed, and it is being called “pasture-cropping”. It was developed in Australia by a farmer named Colin Seis. Watch him tell his story—

Here we are approaching a system that is natural, holistic, diverse, and can be accomplished without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Again, very close to permaculture.

One last video here, a farmer I’ve written about before, Mark Shepard (post, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“), who actually does refer to himself as a permaculturist. This one is long, but really explains the entire ball of wax—

So, to sum up—cover crops, mob grazing, plant and animal diversity, care of the soil, pasture-cropping, silvopasture, alley-cropping, regenerative systems, all on a larger scale. These are all being done today, for profit; these aren’t homesteaders trying to approach self-sufficiency. In the words of Mark Shepard, these farmers are “getting real”, and that’s the real promise of permaculture.

Earthworm image credit: “20071017_123755” by yama_hokkaido, Flickr Creative Commons.

The Promise of Permaculture, Part One

In a post the other week, I mused about where soil fertility comes from. In fact, what I was really wondering was, “where does the soil itself come from?” I suppose I knew the basics, but I’ve gotten a firmer grasp on it, and it’s pretty amazing. The very short version—physical processes like wind and water and glaciation grind or wear down base rock into sands and silts, and then when living things take root there, they put roots down. These roots harbor and foster myriad soil life, from bacteria and fungi to nematodes and earthworms. This soil life actually extracts minerals from the tiny particles of rock. Then a symbiosis begins, where the plants provide the soil life with sugars exuded from their roots, formed by photosynthesis, and the soil life in turn provides the plants with minerals and nitrogen. Then, when the plants (and the soil life, for that matter) die, still more bacteria and fungi decompose the remains and recycle the carbon and nutrients right back into the soil. The more green things that are growing on top, the more soil-building is happening below. Over time, such a system just gets richer, and more fertile, unless outside forces break the cycle. A beautiful film on the subject, “Symphony of Soil”; is available on Vimeo. Here’s the trailer—

The film costs a few dollars to rent, but it’s well worth it.

If you want to see a great example of how this soil creation works in real life, check out another film, “An Oasis in the American Desert”, where Geoff Lawton visits a swale system installed in the middle of the Arizona desert in the 1930s as part of one of the New Deal programs. It’s nearly unbelievable. It’s not in this shorter clip, but in the full version he digs down with his hands and pulls up soil that appears to rival what you could find in Iowa. AND—other than building the large swale that has captured water runoff, humans didn’t do anything at all to create this soil; nature created it without any human intervention, in eighty years, out of desert gravel and sand.

Now, the more one understands where soil comes from, and how it underpins nearly all life on earth, and certainly the existence of humankind, the more destructive, or even suicidal, our current agricultural methods appear. We are used to thinking of industries like mining and fishing as “extractive”, but a great many agriculture techniques are just as extractive. We grow many crops at the expense of the soil, and we use that soil up. Nearly all Industrial agriculture fall into this category, but so do the subsistence farming methods of many of the world’s poor.

As an example, take a typical industrial cornfield in the US. Everything that happens here is a disaster for the soil. The field is usually first sprayed with glyphosate in the spring, (“Roundup” or the like) which kills every living plant on it (here in Vermont, I’ve seen them spray as many as three times in the spring, before the soil is finally warm enough to plant corn). All those soil organisms, if not killed outright by the glyphosate, start to die when the plants above them quit growing, and quit exuding sugars. Then comes the plowing. The soil structure is pulverized, and the fungi hyphae that move minerals and sugars through the soil are physically cut and disrupted. The plowing also introduces large amounts of oxygen into the soil, and the soil carbon begans to “burn up” into CO2, which is released into the air. No plants are present to replace the carbon in the system, so the carbon content of the soil drops. As it drops, the soil can’t hold and retain as much water. At this point, thoroughly disrupted and devoid of plant life, the soil is wide open for erosion, from wind and water.


Water erosion of plowed farmland in the Red River Basin. Once plowed, such erosion under “conventional” agriculture is virtually unavoidable.

Because soils with reduced carbon content can absorb and hold dramatically less water (the carbon, or humus, acts like a sponge), the water runs off far more readily, and takes soil with it. Then, also because the soils hold less water, they dry faster, and once dry the wind takes yet more soil away.

Eventually the field is planted, usually with GMO seeds that allow yet more applications of glyphosate (just as a clarification, I don’t necessarily hold that GMO plants, by themselves, are horrible things. But in the case of GMO plants that resist glyphosate, they enable a form of farming that is quite destructive). The soil, lacking much of the life that gave it its original fertility, now needs to be dosed with fertilizers, which are nearly always derived from petrochemicals, as are the pesticides that are also applied. So, throughout the season, the soil endures the likes of anhydrous ammonia and Atrazine. The chemicals make it nearly impossible for soil biology to thrive, and the once-living soil begins to revert to “dirt”. Then, once the corn is harvested, the fields are bare yet again, and will stay that way until the next season.

Once land has been through this cycle a few times, its fertility begins to drop, and the crops become naturally weaker. At this point a truly vicious cycle ensues, with the crops needing ever more fertilizer and chemical supports, which is more and more destructive to the remaining soil biology. Over time, more and more carbon is lost, which contributes to global warming, and makes the soils ever more erodable. As the soils become more erodible, not only does more soil end up choking rivers and streams, but more chemicals go with it, and aquatic life suffers as well. In the US, the entire process is a disaster, from the soil in a Midwest cornfield, all the way to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the runoff of chemicals and fertilizer. And as the soil disappears, inch by inch by inch, the future of humans on the planet gets puts into greater and greater jeopardy.

So, what to do? We do have some options, and as you can tell from the title, they have something to do with permaculture. I’ll discuss those next time, in “Part Two”.

 Erosion image credit: USDA, by Keith Weston.