Another response to the Self Sufficiency Myth

Laine has a link to a post by Toby Hemmenway about whether permaculture is capable of providing us with self sufficiency, self reliance etc and even whether that would be a good thing.

I think he misses the point.

Permaculture itself is a response to the question about how long we can go on using the land in an unsustainable way. To be clear about unsustainability; it is the recognition that, if we continue along a path that we already know is unsustainable, then the path will fail and, when it comes to food production, people will die of starvation. Millions of people, no, hundreds of millions of people, will die of starvation. 

Permaculture was developed in Australia in response to the very obvious reality that the Australian landscape is very, very poor in available resources for growing food for humans. It is short of water, its soils are depleted and getting worse. But anyone with a calculator can figure out that much of the world is heading in that direction.

I live in Bombay, if you drive from my place to Pukekohe you pass field after field of rich, dark brown soil growing tonnes of vegetables for the 1.4 million people in Auckland. What you may not see is that most of that soil is dark brown, but it is not rich. It is essentially a pace to prop up plants while farmers feed them fertiliser and water.

The fertiliser is all imported, and depends utterly on cheap, plentiful oil. The water is pumped from local streams and they are utterly dependent on this drought not lasting too much longer.

As well, the system that Toby, and all of us depend upon is financially broken. Every major transaction, the kind that brings us oil, or fertiliser, or 60% of our food in NZ, is wholly dependent on a financial system where letters of credit enable transactions to occur. They permit the process to proceed until payment is received. If we all, at every level, had to pay up front for every transaction, life would be very much smaller, harder and much less comfortable.

The GFC of 2008 occurred because the global banking system suddenly realised that it could not trust its members to pay on their letters of credit. It came very close to seizing up. Since then, instead of moving away from the massively leveraged debt that triggered the crisis, the world's decision-makers have doubled, then trebled the amount of debt in the system. That debt is now mostly held within banks who are using it to prop up their terminally sick accounts. The GFC is not over, as today's report from the Salvation Army shows, poverty in NZ, along with unemployment, ill health and homelessness are steadily rising. If our economies were "recovering" at all from the GFC, those things would not be happening. They are. There is worse to come.

Toby talks about how his work as an educator is a worthwhile thing and, as part of a community, at least as important as growing food. He is wrong. Yes, we need education, we need to learn many things, but there are severe limits to how much education we can afford in a shrinking economy and the benefits of that education. Especially when it comes at the cost of massive, crippling debts that mean young people can't afford homes, families or the taxes to support the elderly. But there are many more "jobs" that are much more optional. Manicurists? Marketing assistants? HR managers? Talk-back hosts and gameshow presenters? There are millions of people now "employed" whose work will become unnecessary or unsupportable as the costs of mere survival continue to rise. Feeding poor people is going to be the overriding challenge of the next stage of human occupation of this planet, because if we can't, we will very quickly find ourselves in the kind of turmoil that we currently, but increasingly nervously, call the Arab spring.

The drought in the US - you had heard that the upper 3rd of the Mississippi river is pretty much unnavigable because there is not enough water? Fortunately, because the grain belt of the central US is also not producing much food, there is much less to move these days. Much of what is not being produced is corn, source of corn syrup, an essential ingredient in a vast variety of foods which would otherwise be unpalatable.

Toby thinks that we might be faced with shortages of some foods from time to time. But with a failing letters of credit system, and massive losses in the corn syrup production, oh, and horsemeat in the food supply chain throughout Europe, we are being faced with much more problematic issues. 

The whole point about Ooooby is that Pete Russell worked inside the global food supply chain and saw for himself how brittle and unreliable it actually is. Whether it is horsemeat or melamine in milk or the rising resistance to antibiotics in US food production, we are faced with an entire food supply system that we will learn not to trust. THAT is the crisis that permaculture, and those interested in self reliance/self sufficiency are really addressing, we have stopped trusting the system on which we depend to supply enough, affordable, safe food, and we are trying to do something about it.

Toby says that we can't be self-sufficient on our own and he is right, but we also need to ask at what scale we CAN be self sufficient. On a global scale, right now, the sufficiency part of that expression is falling apart. If the global economy can't be self sufficient, then we need to find some other form of living that can be. It is a Long, very long way away from the processes we now use to sustain our lives. Is the answer permaculture? I don't know. Permaculture itself can't prove that it can be permanent.

What I am certain of is that depending on an unsustainable system that is visibly breaking down is NOT a path to sufficiency. My best guess is that some form of permaculture will help us make the transition to whatever comes after the failure of our present system. But its still only a guess.

Its a bet. I'm betting my life on it. And, whatever way you choose to earn your livelihood and get access to food and living resources, so are you

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Comment by Earl Mardle on January 5, 2014 at 1:49pm

Hi SMFF. Prior to moving to some serious land we also moved back from Australia to NZ, in part because a 1200 mile deep border zone should be proof against quite a lot of incursion and anyone capable of projecting their forces over that distance are not going to be deterred by one tank.

Interestingly, we are about 50km out of Auckland so we are kind of assuming that any bright ideas about just looting the productive land are going to be constrained by issues of fuel availability which will also be affecting our own ability to travel of course - the tractor will be permanently parked in the barn, or more probably out in the cold.

The critical part will be the transition where a still functioning rump of a state will try to commandeer the remaining resources for itself. THAT will be the hardest moment I suspect.

Comment by Suburban Micro Food Forest on January 5, 2014 at 10:05am

A problem I see in the whole food security debate, which all sides seem to ignore, is that populations of species expand to match the available food. So throughout history, every time we've applied innovation to increase the food supply, the population has just expanded correspondingly, resulting in conflict, and starvation at the margins. Historically, populations have been kept in check by infant mortality, ageing, starvation, pandemics, wars, genocide and natural disasters. Governments, NGOs, business and philanthropist are working frantically to reduce all of these threats to life. Contraception is a relatively recent development and is still not widespread; hence the prediction that an additional 2bn people will be added in the developing countries by 2050. Interestingly this is about when the oil will run out, and the phosphate will be long gone also.  Meanwhile the Catholic church refuses to endorse contraception or abortion. I have been reading histories of both Japan and China, and like Europe and the Americas, prior to the industrial revolution, wealth was derived from agriculture, so control of farm land (and farm workers) formed the basis of imperial wealth, which funded the military and the administration (as well as nice dresses for the concubines). Taxes in China were levied in grain, silk and labour. The increased demand for minerals has complicated the picture by introducing conflict between mining and agriculture. The current tensions in the South China Sea are just another episode in the geopolitical history of the region. Meanwhile China builds golf courses on its farmland while grabbing African farmland via corrupt dictators, who funnel their cut into offshore bank accounts, protected by British, American and Swiss governments. Governments individually or collectively have never been able to manage world events indefinitely, so we should expect more catastrophe. I think youve done the right thing moving to your own land, but you might want to buy another tank - one with tracks and a gun turret.

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