Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Permaculture limits Hierachy

In my last post I drew the link between the concentrated storable surpluses agriculture produces and the rise of hierarchy. I believe that societies which are able to produce large surpluses of storable food will inevitably have institutionalised hierarchy develop because the energy supply is sufficient to support rulers. As well as the problems inherent in agriculture we are facing a bleak situation as peak oil hits and fertilisers and machinery begin to disappear. We are facing a double whammy where depleted soil deprived of petrochemicals stops producing food.

Permaculture and horticulture (see here) are generally aimed at producing food throughout the year in a steady flow with a larger amount in summer and less in winter. Permaculture is very strongly geared to the use of perennial crops which bear steadily year after year with trees producing at different times throughout the year. The number of different food sources on a permacultural property is often vast for example I have 50+ different perennial food producing species on a suburban section. For a permaculturalist a steady food supply is ensured through diversity and keeping areas wild to serve as food banks when the going gets tough. This is in contrast to agriculturalists who produce vast amounts of one crop and store it for long periods to ensure against disaster. As many permaculturalists have learnt the hard way the food they produce is staggered in production and not very easily transported to markets.

The staggered harvest and low storability and transportability often present in permacultural designs is often seen as a drawback. This is because its not very well suited to our current energy intensive food distribution system. However these “problems” are perfectly suited to limiting the growth of hierarchy and ensuring communities remains local and interdependent. Small self sufficient permacultural properties are good at supporting neighbours and communities but they cannot generate the vast amounts of storable foods needed to support citys. Because scale and complex social organisation are limited by Permaculture a high degree of freedom and autonomy for communities is ensured.

Because a population of permaculturalists is relatively self sufficient they could only be kept under control with a huge amount of effort and energy on the part of governments. As food and energy supplies diminish the ability for governments to control self reliant permaculturalists will diminish greatly. As governments grapple with food supply and distribution problems laws against permacultural practices such as dealing with human manure sustainably rather than concentrating it will eventually become a memory. Staying under the radar and focusing on enriching community will become a prudent and distinct possibility for rural permacultural communities.

In permacultural models food production cannot be increased arbitrarily and it cannot produce the huge surpluses that specialisation requires. As spare food throughout the year is limited complexity above a certain level is limited. Performers, priests and other specialists many of whom who travel from community to community could be supported temporarily by excess production but the huge machinery involved in government would be impossible. The levels of technical specialisation necessary to survive in our culture would be a hindrance in a Permacultural society as Permaculture demands that an individual as capable of many tasks.

Agriculture is focused on the production of a few staples almost all of which are adapted for disaster. The handful of annual grains the world has come to rely upon are designed to grow quickly in areas in which regular flooding clears the soil and deposits fresh silt for the grains to grow. Because of this farmers must simulate disaster every year ploughing the soil and depositing manure or other materials to enrich the soil. This disaster year after year with completely bare soil leads to a rapid breakdown in soil structure, loss of Organic Matter erosion and salinisation. All of which means one thing; agricultural societies inevitably create deserts.

Because of this inevitable decline in soil productivity and the rapid population growth encouraged in agricultural societies conquest and genocide become staples of the civilised life. Agriculture always depletes soil over the long run and as populations increase more land must be conquered to sustain the current population. Agricultural populations have been in a kill or be killed state of mind for the past ten thousand years. As surrounding agriculturalists increased in number their demand for land has increased, to stop themselves being conquered each group had to increase in size faster than the others. As Permaculture improves soil quality and improves yields over time much of this pressure to increase land under cultivation decreases.

With an agricultural population conquest is relatively easy, move in raid the granaries and slaughter the animals burn the crops and kill a few villagers. Because the population is probably reliant on one crop of grain for the entire year any disruption is disastrous and an agricultural population can be brought to its knees by an invading army or by natural pest and diseases. The invading army can also easily get high calorie transportable grains from wherever it invades. Permaculture makes conquest a lot more difficult, destroying a multi layered food forest full of root crops decade’s old trees and wild animals is a difficult task indeed. Invading army’s would not be able to just burn the fields and because food is produced throughout the year there would be no granaries to destroy. Because Permaculture is designed to include foraging and wild food sources the risk of starvation for a permacultural population would be much lower than an agricultural one.

Because Permaculture is so effective at transforming degraded areas there is a possibility that in the long run soil may be improved to the point where large scale agriculture is again feasible. Potentially permaculturalists experiencing population growth may cut down their food forests and put land back into high yielding grains. Climate change will however limit the areas where cultivation of grains is possible, most of our staples cannot tolerate major swings in temperature or rainfall. Also the one shot nature of oil means that no matter what happens industrialised agriculture will never again occur.

Civilisation has chopped down forests and killed off or enslaved forest people whenever it has come across them, the only way to guarantee an end to hierarchy and civilisation is to adopt a radically different means of food production.


Marcy said...

This post makes me happy.

Tyler said...

Nice post. I'm not sure about the relation of large-scale agriculture to easy conquest part though. The interdependency of the global economy means very few countries or cities are any where near self sufficient and bring a lot of food in from elsewhere. I think recent conflicts have shown that there are more effective targets to hit in an invasion such as power plants, water supplies, hospitals and bridges.

John said...

Good point, in an industrialised society distribution networks, powerlines, pieplines etc are probably the easiest way to bring a country to a stop. I guess I was writing from the coming deindustrialisation I see happening as the worlds supplys of easily available fossil fuels dwindle over the next decades.

Rach said...

I came across this post when googling for info on what grains grow in Auckland. We are on a suburban block here with lots of fruit trees and we grow most of our veges for ten people through teh summer (dont get the winter garden in quick enough for it to do its quick spurt growing to get much off it in winter - need more space). We are looking for more land and want to grow all we can, permaculture style (combining Woodrow's and Mollison's ideas). Noone seems to know *what* we can grow in AUckland grain-wise. We are all so reliant on wheat and oats from the rest of the country.
Any ideas? I still want to be able to bake my bread, even when we can no longer haul our wheat up from an organic farm in Marton!!