HUMANITY: EARTH’S ALLIES

The other day I came across this viral video entitled ‘Sorry’ from a poet named Prince Ea, apologizing to future generations on behalf of humanity. The clip went viral just days after its release. In short, the video apologises immensely for all the damage we humans have created in this century due to our own selfishness and ignorance. Prince Ea has a massive audience and is an inspiration for many young kids, yet I feel that he is extremely misinformed in respective to the immense amount of successful projects within many cities. Being a passionate permaculture enthusiast has led me to see just how much darn good there is everywhere that gets zero media attention comparatively to viral videos like ‘Sorry’ As inspirational as it is, the video fails to offer practical solutions to the crisis mentioned in the clip, so here’s my two cents worth showing the other side of the coin – along with some good-causes & solutions we can all get behind.

Societies and their inhabitant are the reason that ecosystems (such as the Amazon Rainforest) are abundant in bio-diversity and life. In permaculture it is constantly reinforced that human disturbance leads to environmental degradation however new evidence strongly concludes that without human disturbance, eco-systems would not be as thriving if humans were out of the picture.

Worldwide, permaculture practitioners adopt positivism as their chosen outlook towards society and for good reason, as focusing on the dire state of many aspects of humanity can be soul-crushing. Yet through my own anecdotal experience, the underlying mentality seems to suggest that nature without humans would flourish and most forms of human intervention is negative. This is far from reality. Whilst we have the capability to destroy eco-systems, we also have the ability to create them – but to what extent?

In the documentary series, EARTH A New Wild: Forests, the astounding discovery by archaeologists shows how ‘The Amazon was once home to vast civilizations of people that once made the forest more productive, not less so.’[1] Contrary to the common paradigm, the documentary shows how human intervention within an eco-system allows for more bio-diversity to all life forms. The website of the series also says:

‘Cork forests make the Mediterranean among the most bio-diverse regions in Europe. Imperial Eagles, cranes and lynx make this a natural paradise. And it’s largely because of human impact. We strip the trees of their bark in order to sustain a huge international demand for wine bottle corks, and this makes the trees and the forest stronger.’

There are several examples presented throughout the documentary that show ecosystem productivity increasing due to various agricultural practices, and this is precisely what isn’t understood in the mainstream paradigm – that humans living in harmony with nature can create more bio-diversity then nature could itself. And this isn’t limited to small eco-villages or intentional communities, either. 15 minutes into EARTH A New Wild shows 2000 year old trenches and earthworks that would’ve housed approximately 60,000 people.[2] Without viewing the documentary the scale is hard to comprehend, but what is important here is that a dense human settlement co-existed alongside forests without impacting negatively on the environment.

Bill Mollison writes in A Designers Manual ‘At 2000 people, theft and competitiveness is more common, and sects set up in opposition…’[3] This isn’t presuming that the above example of a 60,000 person city would be void of negativity, yet, a society within nature that exists in an over-abundance of food, water & resources, would inherently have less socio-economic issues. As Geoff Lawton so famously stated, ‘all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden’ which reiterates the idea that many wars are created by scarcity of resources, and that future conflict ‘are more likely to be fought over water than oil.’[4] The trend for communities with green spaces, CSA’s etc, is for crime and other socio-economic problems to decrease overall within the first year and rapidly continue this trend as the community expands and connects with likeminded projects in surrounding areas. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that it is plausible for sustainable societies with large populations to thrive without typical issues found in high density living areas.

For further evidence of this, Civic Ecology looks at how people’s inherent love of life and place inevitably leads to the rebuilding of a ‘broken space,’ and how in turn that attributes positively to community rehabilitation, both physically and mentally. I recently watched an online video with Civic Ecologists Akiima Price[5] in which she explains how the rebuilding of a community gardens in Baltimore, USA in commemoration of deceased peoples from her community encouraged drug dealers (who were pushing their products through the communities youth) to give up that trade. In time it was successful – the dealers opened up to their once fearful neighbours and a ‘broken place’ started to heal itself. If green community spaces are encouraged within urban centres, then there is no reason that a city with a large population could not only be sustainable in resources, but a safer environment for all its peoples.

From here I would like then expand on the implications of these conclusions. First and foremost, it allows us to view humanity truly as guardians of the earth with the power to heal ourselves, and secondly, to briefly explore some ways of re-designing and re-thinking our environment and lifestyles to move towards this social model.

Positivism is key when discussing the ‘current state of affairs’ as it is too easy to fall into the trap of helplessness. Whilst an impending doom may be real, the other side of the coin is that humans have the potential to undue all the damage, and to help nature to flourish.

Looking at many areas of high soil fertility (thus bio-diversity) like in South America, North America & Australia,[6] we can directly attribute this to human movement. In North America before European contact, the only lumbricids [earthworms] native to the United States were some lacy species of Bismatus and Eisena, essentially worthless soil builders.’ On settlers boots lay dormant earthworm eggs that were introduced to North America upon arrival and quickly spread throughout the continent. From there, the wonderful little critters got to work munching, pooping & procreating and thus the introduction of the earthworm by humans to the North American continent can be directly attributed to the creation of the lush agricultural lands of New England, the Mid-West, and parts of Canada.[7]

Tribes from all over the globe that practiced selective culling & burning of trees, which freed carbon and precious minerals to be reabsorbed back into the soil leading to a sharp increase to ecological productivity which would not have been possible without human intervention. To increase productivity in an Old Growth Forests, the selection of specific trees for burning allows for a stagnant eco-system to have more available nutrients, more sunlight to the forest floor, and more niches in the forest for young trees (which are greater in productivity, typically) to grow. It takes a keen observer to know which plants should be removed and which to leave as is, and is regarded as a sophisticated from of tribal agriculture.
So whether it is the unintended introduction of the earthworm into foreign lands or conscious burning in delicate forests, humans have a vast potential to be the creators for nature.

The focus for Social Planners, Permaculture Designers, Civic Ecologists, Council Members and the public in general then becomes an issue of how to effectively integrate this knowledge in practical fashion. This topic is far too broad to be succinctly condensed into a short article however herein lies a short list of obvious practices we can, should, and need to communally support to move towards a healthier, green society.

Urban Food Forests/Replanting of Nature Strips

At the very least, nature strips should be planted with indigenous species, not ornamentals. Food Forests in recreational parks have been discussed throughout Melbourne. Progressive councils might allow the planting of fruit trees which is common (and at one point compulsory) in the inner suburbs of Canberra, Australia. Better yet, if we rally our neighbours support enough people can convince the local council to turn the sidewalk into an edible landscape as is seen throughout the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne – one street hosts an annual ‘Most Edible Sidewalk’ prize to encourage the community to pitch in with communal gardening!

Urban Apiaries

The legalisation of urban apiaries in New York 5 years ago marked a massive milestone for beekeepers of the city. Societies are seeing the benefit of such policy with many cities following suit since. Nowadays it is fairly easy to cut through the red tape of establishing hives on rooftops, and as awareness spreads around the harmlessness and importance of bees in urban environments, neighbours, housemates, etc, want to contribute their energy towards beekeeping if someone (like you!) leads the way.

Environmental Education (in all levels of schooling)

‘Alternative’ schools lean towards incorporating gardening as part of their curriculum though it’s unfortunate that this has been labelled alternative. All schools, regardless of the level of education, should have an element of permaculture/environmental education as part of their compulsory curriculum. As a permaculture teacher, I have taught children as little as 6 years old how to grow veggies and was always surprised just how willing the kids were to get involved if they were encouraged to do so. The brightly lit faces of the kids when they harvest produce from their own garden is about the most heart-warming expression in existence.

Urban Restoration Projects

Every city has degraded land, and a cycle observed by Civic Ecologists is that a community will tend to come together to restore and rebuild what was once a useable, green space. Common examples are city creek clean-ups, restoring urban plots into community gardens/spaces, rebuilding landscapes after natural disasters. Such projects are always looking for more volunteers. Civic Ecologists observe that such projects connect likeminded organisations in time, and most importantly have a huge positive impact on the individuals, and the neighbourhood at large.

Divesting in Unethical Banks

Most big banks invest in fossil fuels/mining companies – most likely you are indirectly investing in unethical companies if you are a member of a big bank. Market Forces has a wonderful website that shows most Australian banks & credit unions ethical and environmental statements, and rates which companies are ethical, and which aren’t. Also from the site, you can directly email your bank threatening your divestment if it doesn’t reconsider to whom it invests in – I wrote to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia who responded promptly saying they are re-considering their current investments in fossil fuels, surprisingly. Check it out, it’s a great website!

Attitudinal Shifts Towards Society

Perhaps this is the first issue we should be addressing – our own internal revolution before expecting anyone or anything to progress. For anyone involved in permaculture we understand that excessive conversation about the ‘state of the world’ leads to a negative state of mind, but it really is our duty to share all the excellent doings of successful projects. Focusing on the progress of successful micro-projects is key here – and there are countless examples in nearly every neighbourhood. Always keep in mind that there is an exponential growing number of people pushing for change and progress who are winning. By shifting our focus will inevitably allow us to view the truth already staring us in the face: that humans are both biophiliacs (lovers of life) and topophilacs (lovers of our surroundings).

My first permaculture teacher once said ‘Humans need nature, she doesn’t need us’ – and whilst the message of that saying is loud and clear, the evidence clearly suggests that the nature of humanities relationship with the earth is co-dependent. The more we care for her, the more she takes care of us – so, it is time to stop seeing ourselves as the destroyers of the earth, and to realise our full potential as earth’s allies.

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[1] http://www.pbs.org/earth-a-new-wild/episode-forests/

[2] Earth: A New Wild episode 3, Forests. 15:00 approx.

[3] Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers Manual pg 523.

[4] Lester R Brown, http://www.earth-policy.org/press_room/C68/stockholm_transcript

[5] The video was apart of a university online lecture series in which the content cannot be shared, nevertheless I am directly quoting that video. Apologies about the lack of citing here.

[6] Peter Tompkind & Christopher Bird, Secrets of the Soil pg. 41-42, 58.

[7] Secrets of the Soil pg. 42.

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Russell Brand on Localizing Food Production

I’ve always enjoyed Russell Brands eccentricity and passion ever since watching that hilarious video of him appearing on MSNBC’s morning program and completely making fun of the news anchors interviewing him. If you haven’t watched his alternative video’s before it’s easy to presume that Brand is a shallow single-faced celebrity, yet this is far from the real character behind the fame-facade. Flicking through youtube, there are interviews of him talking about Transcendental Meditation, empathetic spiritual centered drug rehabilitation programs, debates on capitalism and alternative economics; the list goes on and on and is worth checking out.

Over the past year Brand has been engaging greatly with social activism and has supported many local campaigns by being present in rallies, protests, and using his online fan base to spread these messages. On his youtube channel, titled ‘The Trews’ – which stands for true news – he posts his opinions on many topics, and recently tackled the issue of local food production.

Brand and his guest, Helena Norberg-Hodge, discuss how the worlds agricultural needs can be met with localized, organic farming – a statistic released from the UN, along with recent trade tariff agreements and what that actually entails.

A interesting little video with many interesting issues worth discussing:

Evolving Intentional Communities

Over the past 18 months, I’ve been travelling through Australia and Asia jumping between ashrams, gatherings, communes, festivals and communities – sometimes I’ve been backpacking, other times studying, volunteering or teaching, and I’d like to share observations and thoughts from the conversations and experiences I’ve had.

All of the communities I have visited have either had spirituality or permaculture as the thread that binds the community together but never have I seen the two harmoniously combined; the most obvious observation is that permaculture projects tend to lack spirituality and intentional communities lack good permaculture. And this is ironic for both permaculture and spiritual communities as permaculture at its core has strong sound values and beliefs that extends beyond the material, and spiritual communities are dependent upon the abundance nature provides though often fail to realize their environmental footprint due to mindless consumption.

Integrating Permaculture with Spirituality

Combining mindful sustainable design with mindful-ness is the necessary key to bring harmony to any community regardless of its central values. Building or being a part of a community is challenging and for long-term success permaculture and spirituality need integration – both are interconnected, and both have similar goals in mind. Permaculture projects aim towards sustainability; harmony; care of the earth and its inhabitants; to share equally in the abundance of our gardens, all through clever, practical, efficient design. Spirituality, by deepening our own knowledge of ourselves, alleviates our pain and suffering to bring us into peace, harmony, and happiness. Both are so remarkably similar it is baffling that so often the two are seen as separate and distinct from one another.

This separation comes from a clear misunderstanding as to what a spiritual practice actually is. When I was staying on projects I repeatedly met resistance when mentioning my own spiritual practices – namely meditation – through misunderstanding exactly what that entails. The assumption I constantly met was spirituality is for far-out esoteric la-di-da daydreamers who have little concept of reality, science, and the governing laws of planet earth. Many practices are certainly imaginative and may seem bizarre from an outsider’s point of view, but this is far from the actuality of what a practice can be. Spiritual practices, in whatever form, simply bring happiness and peace to the practitioner. Spirituality itself is immensely vast and can be utilized in anyway – it doesn’t have to be rituals or routines; there doesn’t even have to be a specific regular practice – it merely serves as a practical tool for our own individual growth.

The Konohana Family situated southwest of Tokyo serves as a prime example of a completely sustainable (bar spices, oil, and salt) intentional community that has, at its core, spirituality binding it together. The direct translation of their philosophy from Japanese to English is ‘Polish the Heart,’ and that is what all of the members of Konohana are there to do for themselves. That being said, there is no collective religion or belief of the family; there are Buddhists and Christians, and others with their own faith – yet all look to nature as a source of inspiration and each individual is there to polish their own hearts.

Konohana started in 1994 with 20 members and has quadrupled in population in its 20 year life. The communities land is decentralized; its members live spread around multiple buildings within a few kilometer radius to one another and daily the group meet at the community building to for gatherings and meals. Konohana owns 16 hectares of land, producing an incredible amount of vegetables, grains, fruits, eggs, milk and honey, much of it is sold locally as a source of income for the community. Their environmental impact is extremely small, using half the amount of CO2 emissions and overall has an ecological footprint one-third of Japans national average. What the Konohana family has achieved environmentally is phenomenal and should be looked to as a model for building future communities, though their aim initially was not to be entirely sustainable but is a bi-product of sound core philosophies.

Each day at the community hall the family gathers to update one another about necessary farm matters, but more importantly they gather to share their feelings, emotions, troubles, or struggles of the day from their hearts. It is known as the ‘Meeting For Harmony’ and is the glue that holds everything in place; without it, the community would not have survived the length that it is. Here’s an excerpt from their profile on ecovillage.org describing the evening meeting:

‘…we always keep our eyes open to invite those who are not aware of their problematic points or who are unable to share them with others, to look within and communicate what they find. Family members are positive about problems and issues, because they are opportunities for spiritual growth once brought to the surface. This fundamental attitude of constant self-reflection through every aspect of daily life is key to the harmony that exists in the Family.’ (1)

Beyond and behind the farm, the family, each individual member and their own personal beliefs lies this practice of sharing, speaking and listening from the heart. Beyond and behind permaculture’s many facets lies the 3 core ethics; care of the earth, care of the people, and fair share. The 3 core ethics are immaterial by nature and approach spirituality; if spirituality is a quest for growth then at the heart of permaculture is spirituality – and it isn’t far-fetched obscure non-sense – it is practical and powerful, and the Konohana family is a solid example of the possibilities of valuing and using spirituality above and before everything.

The Next-Step For Spiritual Communities

Spiritual communities – or ‘Conscious’ communities, on the other hand, tend to have minimal environmental awareness. Communities labelling themselves ‘conscious’ who consume plastics, GMO’s, have luscious and bountiful material abundance are, indeed, not conscious – at least not entirely. People practice mindfulness in endless ways – eating, walking, speaking, and listening – but the mindfulness seldom moves past the self, and herein lies the problem. Being conscious of ones’ actions and thoughts is a good beginning; the next step is to look outside and become aware of the consequences of those actions and decisions. Consumption choices should be scrutinized regularly by asking questions like, where does this come from, how far has it travelled, what is it made from and where did the materials come from to make it, what is its packaging made out of and is the company that manufactured this product ethically sound? And is there, perhaps, a more sustainable solution?

Conscious communities provide the space for amazing personal transformations, however critical thinking in regards to the impact of individual consumption is a rare trait. Questions like the ones mentioned above are at the heart of anybody who is environmentally empathetic when purchasing goods, and mindless consumption in conscious communities needs to forever be eliminated for them to grow. If anything, consuming wisely by eating local organic produce and therefore not supporting the horrible use of herbicides/pesticides on the soil is, at the very least a big thank you to our planet who gives us so much – though the impact of a conscious choice of consumption ripples far. It is a statement that says caring for the planet is greater than over-indulgence. It is the diversion of a dollar away from a multi-national co-operation. It is so many wonderful things and for the evolution of spiritual communities environmental awareness is the missing link and can be achieved through the integration of good permaculture design. Nature has and always will provide for us with food, water, resources and through her sheer endless beauty; spirituality needs permaculture as both a means of giving back and to ensure our planet keeps on giving.

Permaculture and spirituality depend upon harmonious integration for long-term success; they are deeply interconnected to one another – and both aim for the same goal; to grow. And what exactly is it that we’re growing? In Masanobu Fukuokwa’s own words, ‘The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.’

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(1) Konohana Family, Japan :http://genoa.ecovillage.org/index.php/country-activities/japan/15-konohana-family-japan