The Food Forest

(2006) Permaculture, energy and the future for humans

An email to permaculture designers by Graham Brookman, The Food Forest, May 2006.

We are so bombarded by political spin and energy is so central to permaculture that I thought it worthwhile to share my understanding of where we currently are with respect to energy, greenhouse and a future for humans on earth.

I believe that the path to a liveable future is still very much a permaculture one but what I have always regarded as an ‘energy sideshow’, compared to the long-term need for a sustainably designed future is moving rapidly to centre-stage.

Having watched the cherry crop in the Adelaide Hills and our own crop of pistachio nuts on the Adelaide Plain fail due to global warming this year the greenhouse issue presented itself as a very present threat. It is tempting to suggest that the fact that humans have used up most of the readily available oil and gas reserves of the planet would be ‘good’ if it meant that they had to reduce their use of fossil fuels, but in a fabulous trick on ourselves we are moving towards the production of biofuels that essentially use as much non-renewable energy to produce as they make available and take up land that could have been used for biodiversity or food production purposes. We are also bent on convincing ourselves that the tiny world reserves of Uranium and possibly Thorium will solve the greenhouse problem. Alas it is only the (even rarer) high grade Uranium deposits that will give a positive EROEI (Net Energy Ratio) [of about 10:1]. The lower grade deposits require more energy to dig-up, transport, refine etc than we can extract from them. Taking the full life cycle of a nuclear reactor into consideration it is now not worth building one, for using Uranium at current world levels we will run out of high grade ore in under 20 years (before a reactor has paid itself off in energy terms - in 35 years) (Van Leeuwin and Smith 2005, Diesendorf 2005). Optimistic pronouncements have been made by the Chinese who hope to commission a ‘fast breeder reactor’ by 2010, which they say will produce 60 times the energy a normal reactor would from a kilogram of Uranium oxide; however fast breeders use liquid sodium as a coolant and are more dangerous than ordinary nuclear reactors. So far, fast breeders have all been technical and economic failures. The largest was the French 1200 MW Superphénix, which commenced operation in 1985 as a commercial industrial prototype. It operated only intermittently and was shut down in1998 after costing some A$15 billion.

Even if the fast breeder technology was mastered and the general and long term hazards of radioactivity and uranium’s specific use in acts of aggression were ignored, humanity would still only buy itself decades of relatively greenhouse emission-free power. Back to dirty old coal we would go…still without having effectively harnessed the proven sources of renewable energy or reformed the way we run our society….. and now feeling the full impact of greenhouse in an overall environment which is due to ultimately warm up as the earth’s wobble in orbit around the sun increases world temperatures in the centuries to come (as per the Milankovitch Cycles model).

Having weaved and dodged our way around the main issues by expending critical time and effort on spinning out non-renewable energy, we will eventually have to confront our essential challenges as a species and decide whether we can respond logically to our intellectual understanding of the world’s limitations and thus overcome flaws in our ancient DNA or whether the primitive urges towards procreation, tribalism and power will prevail and we will behave like other plague species and suffer a truly catastrophic situation because we have no control over our exponential population growth or urge to consume. World population more than trebled last century from 1.8 billion to 6 billion in 2000 and has added a population of consumers the equivalent to that of North America since 1998; we are currently adding 3 humans per second. It is ironical that we should be agonizing over this issue in Australia, the continent where wildlife species had adapted their breeding cycles to respond to resource availability long ago and where the indigenous human population had more or less reached a steady state with the environment over a period of some 60000 years.

As an educator I believe that humans can be trained to step back from the abyss, but it will require a level of self discipline and regulation that takes people to the edge of their genetic capabilities.

Dominant religious, economic and political frameworks today fail to take account of man’s capacity to destroy the earth’s life support systems and the concept of divine power excuses believers from taking absolute responsibility for management of themselves and their earth, leaving an urgent need for an overarching set of global ethics and principles through which wise decisions can be made. Permaculture needs to part of such a global agreement on the way forward.

Now that some leaders have accepted concepts of climate change and that oil is a finite resource it is time for the ‘population reduction issue’ to be addressed in public. Limiting the right of humans to reproduce has been a ‘no-go’ area even for most permaculturists but it is clearly the core issue. Our education, legal and medical systems must seriously address the matters of bioregional and national ‘carrying capacities’, school and tertiary curricula, family planning, euthanasia, sterilisation and abortion in a philosophical, humane and scientific manner; every hour that we delay in developing a workable approach to population 11000 extra people arrive on this overstretched planet. Without offending our increasingly mainstream students we need to introduce this issue in our courses. I’d be very interested in any notes that permaculture teachers have developed on this matter. Incidentally Lloyd Evans (ex chief of Plant Industry in the CSIRO), in his book 'Feeding the Ten Billion' put a figure of about 3 billion on a world population sustainable without non-renewable fuels).

Meanwhile it is increasingly important for permaculture proponents to master their design skills and demonstrate robust systems that can cope with global warming and offer sustainable living. Particular aspects of design need attention – design for catastrophe and design for succession. I truly thought the pistachio nut trees on our farm (our main crop) would be a resilient and relatively ‘permanent’ key component of our property design however the warming of Australian autumn and winter temperatures last year caused a failure of the trees to accumulate sufficient winter chill to set their physiological clocks for normal flowering in spring. This reduced our ’06 crop to 20% of the predicted yield. Cherry growers were similarly affected. Maybe next year will be better but the overall trend will be steadily downhill.

So at The Food Forest we will be identifying and planting species with lower chill-requirements for the inevitable global warming ahead over the next half century or more, but we encourage designers to include representatives of species that become uneconomic because of global warming in their systems; ultimately the planet will cool and those species will become valuable (possibly life-savers) again. A chill requirement should be mentioned when describing plant varieties in permaculture resources and we should be reporting maximum temperatures that varieties can tolerate. The calculation of chill hours for sites should be taught in design courses.

Permaculture designs should aim to minimize greenhouse emissions, maximise the capture of energy and enable as much self reliance as feasible. Limiting the size of our families and our consumption and investing in renewable energy systems are some of the many practical ways of demonstrating a low energy future that we can then expect others (particularly politicians) to acknowledge, emulate and build into education and legislation. There is much to do.