Permaculture, Relocalisation and the Climate/Oil/Water Crisis

D. Beltra (Greenpeace), Upsala Glacier 1928 and 2004

[Wrote this six years ago when climate change concern was undergoing a large public resurgence in Australia during the epochal drought and the local group Climate Action Wingecarribee (Canwin) was formed. Although this wave of concern has largely abated with the drought, the essay still seems fairly relevant with regard to some things that can be done.]

Permaculture, Relocalisation and the Climate/Oil/Water Crisis (2006)

The Public Mood Shift

At long last, 34 years after the publication of the Club of Rome’s Limits of Growth and the British Ecologist’s Blueprint For Survival (anyone remember them?), about 20 years after the public first listened with great (transient) interest to concerns about the Greenhouse Effect and after 20 years of successful distraction and general denial (aided by low oil prices), there seems to be a change happening in the public mood. At least regarding climate chaos or global heating. (I suggest using these terms more as ‘global warming’ sounds rather nice and ‘climate change’ quite benign.) These public shifts have happened before (e.g. mid 60s re ‘Silent Spring’/pollution, early 70s re limits of growth, early 90s re Greenhouse Effect). We may now, however, be in something like the ‘Oh shit!’ phase of cognitive-emotional realisation. The empirical and sensory evidence seems to be becoming more palpable. Panic is not there yet, but perhaps on the horizon. Although understandable as a classic ‘return of the repressed’ (Freud), panic is not a very useful reaction. Relocalisation is.

The Triple Whammy

Let’s go over some of the basic facts first.

• What has at last been focussing a lot of minds is the ‘triple whammy’ of climate chaos, water shortages and rising petrol prices (‘Peak Oil’)

• We are thus starting to have to get back to our most basic needs: energy, water, food. (Enter Permaculture…)

• According to the science since the early 90s, over-developed economies like ours need 60-80% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) over 1990 levels. (Kyoto was looking at mere 5-10% cuts by 2012)

• Instead, Australia and other countries are actually increasing GGE

• Australia, with the US, is the highest per capita GG emitter in the world (i.e. ‘collectively’ not only a co-war criminal, but a main ‘climate criminal’)

• According to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) National Climate Centre , the last 50 years have seen a drying out of southern/eastern Australia (Sydney minus 100-200mm) and increased rainfall in the North West/Top End/Centre (plus 100-200mm). That is, we are NOT just suffering another mere ‘drought’.

• This is also due to the disappearance in the last decade of the north-west cloud bands that used to travel south and east to us from tropical monsoonal troughs in the Kimberley and bring us the deluges we needed to top up dams

• Thus, Australia’s main population and agricultural production regions are drying up in a situation where the latter also have no eco-systemic resilience because they have been degraded and destroyed by industrial agriculture and the former also waste exorbitant amounts of non-recycled water

• According to the BOM, we in southern/eastern Australia thus may face a catastrophic vicious circle: “a massive death of vegetation”, thus huge bushfires, thus a release of vast volumes of carbon, thus further climate change, thus further drying out…thus…

• The acute water crises in the Murray-Darling system, Sydney, Central Coast, Goulburn etc. are of course all linked to this continental/global climate shift (as are the concomitant silly attempts at quick technical fixes like pumping our Kangaloon aquifer dry, wrecking the Shoalhaven etc. via massive water transfers or increasing GG ems via the ‘bottled electricity’ of desalination)

• Australia is also the second highest per capita water user in the world after the US, and this on the driest inhabited continent

• According to oil experts and now even some bureaucracies and mainstream media, we are now in or approaching global ‘Peak Oil’, i.e. the point of maximum oil production.

• The larger trend in oil prices will thus most likely fluctuate up and down on a plateau for perhaps another 2-5 years and then inevitably skyrocket as production rates decline and global demand outstrips supply

• However, as recently seen, short-term oil prices can wildly fluctuate according to unforeseeable events like wars or natural catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina

• The inevitably rising price of oil will directly impact on our over-developed lifestyles in almost all areas (e.g. car and plane travel, food, inflation, interest rates), increasing the unaffordability of many taken-for-granted items and services for most people who can now afford them

As the late and sorely missed founder of Southern Highlands Permaculture Ralph Long used to say, ‘and so on…’

So what to do?

General Solutions: Small Is Beautiful

Logically, if GG ems are the main cause of our global and national eco-problem, they need to be radically cut. If oil- and carbon-intensive industry, agriculture, forestry, housing, suburban settlement patterns and transport are the main sources of human carbon emissions, they need to be radically restructured to highly energy-efficient and low-energy forms. To avoid or mitigate the worst possible (irreversible, run-away) ‘tipping point’ scenarios of climate chaos, we thus need to quickly move towards low-energy, post-oil, ecologically sustainable economies and societies. For both ecological, ‘net energy’ and social reasons, these would need to be decentralised or relocalised societies (with global awareness, solidarity and connections) using both advanced but low-energy hi-tech and wise but labour-intensive traditional forms of ecological husbandry. E.F. Schumacher’s 1970s motto of ‘Small is Beautiful’ is the key element in both.

(There are two alternative scenarios to the Small-Is-Beautiful scenario I cannot go into here. (a) Given current awareness and power structures, the most likely is the Business-as-Usual Techno-Fix road: greater efficiency savings, ‘clean coal’, nuclear, a sprinkling of centralised mega-non-renewables, carbon sequestration, carbon ‘offsetting’, carbon trading, genetic engineering and cloning, nanotechnology, desalination, water transfers. (b) The alternative Green Capitalist Techno-Fix road: all of the above with a little less ‘clean coal’/nuclear, genetic engineering, desalination and water transfers and more mega-renewables run by Big Business in the mix. Both believe in techno-fixes to ultimately ecological, social and political problems, both intend to have their middle class affluence and consumerism cake and eat it even if others and the planet must suffer, both ignore the embodied or inherent energy-intensity/carbon pollution of ALL centralised mega-technology, including ‘green’ versions.)

National Level Solutions

A sane, rational, ethical (i.e. post-capitalist, utopian) national government would, as a minimum, immediately introduce a carbon tax on everything (with social justice compensations), declare a state of national emergency and renewal and start by investing the $110 billion assigned to military spending in implementing the transition to an ecologically sustainable post-carbon society. This would centre on building the decentralised energy, water, food, transport and settlement infrastructure we will need to move towards a relocalised low-energy society.

This kind of government would also possibly need to introduce equitable forms of energy and water rationing and call on a lofty national spirit of sharing and sacrifice of ‘affluenza’, as in natural catastrophes and wartime. (‘Sorry folks, it’s bitter but no more jet skis, car races or frequent flyer points!’ ‘It’s also time to pay off our ecological debt to the planet, poor countries and future generations!’) As in wartime, some form of, hopefully democratic, planning would need to take over from ‘markets’ (Capital, the rich) deciding everything. However, ‘the markets’ and Big Business would not go quietly… (‘And so on…’)

Obviously, we are light years away from such human and social awareness and thus it is not likely to happen any time soon. The market and techno-fix mind set still reigns supreme in most people’s souls, not only in corporate and political leaders. It’s been there for quite a long time. (Decades, centuries?) To overthrow this mind set would mean a psychological, spiritual and social revolution.

Local Level Solutions

In the meantime, what can we do on a local level?

Basically, what many of us are doing already. Permaculture, in the widest sense.

In regard to enlightenment, Zen Buddhism speaks of ‘looking for the ox while riding it’ or ‘putting legs on a snake’. That is, ‘ultimate truth’ or ‘enlightenment’ is not our ‘other’, not some future state ‘out there’ and thus to manically ‘strive’ for. We already are ‘enlightened’, we can never fall out of our real or ‘Buddha nature’. We just need to ‘get out of our own way’ and realise what is already the case.

In a similar way, ‘utopia’, the ‘anti-market revolution’, ‘humane survival’, the ‘low energy, post-carbon society’ are not somewhere else in the future but here already, nascent or fully. On one important level, nothing needs to be done but realise, expand, intensify what we already do as well as withdraw more energy and consensus from the crazy ecocidal system and its media-hogging representatives. Have a Laugh-In outside Parliament or the Stock Exchange. Or more practically and specifically :

• Inform ourselves, get together, discuss the issues, toss practical and imaginative ideas around, cooperate and support each other emotionally and materially where possible, find psycho-spiritual means of keeping sane (music, arts, meditation, yoga, tai chi etc.)

• Review needs and see where you could reduce consumption; work out your oil use or Ecological Footprint (web-search calculators) and reduce

• Garden, garden, garden productively. And/or eat locally (e.g. food makes up 30% of your average oil consumption). If you have no garden space, consider growing fungi, aquaponics, joining a community garden.

• In gardening, focus on soil improvement, perennials, water and nutrient harvesting, seasonal food cycles and storage

• Engage in Community Supported Agriculture and/or WWOOFing (WWOF: Willing Workers On Organic Farms, an Australian organisation)

• If possible, use sustainable firewood and forest thinnings (rather than fossil fuel heating)

• Consider passive solar retrofitting your home and solar hot water

• Walk, bike, train, bus, use the car less, fix and maintain old cars, car share, car pool; don’t fly if you can avoid it

• Help the local economy: shop and trade locally, engage in barter and/or LETS systems

• Pay off debts, consider a cottage industry or working from home if feasible

• Share home with WWOOFers or lodgers

• Put spare savings in ethical investment/ethical super

Local Council Level of Solutions

Some of us have been involved in trying to ‘think globally and act locally’, i.e. educate and change things at a local Council level for many years. The work is usually very frustrating, at least here in Wingecarribee Shire. The key to sanity here might be to not ‘piss against the wind’ and risk burnout by realising the very narrow limits of (a) Council powers, and (b) popular awareness. With that caveat, activities like the following may be worth pursuing:

• Educate citizens on global connections of local issues

• Work for local ecosystem regeneration (Landcare)

• Work for productive (food, fuel, fodder, fibre) species on common lands (including ‘green guerrilla’ planting/seeding tactics)

• Work for localised, non-car-dependent services and recreation facilities

• Support a ‘buy and eat local’ campaign

• Work for ‘water wise’ urban planning (stormwater retention, swales etc.)

• Work for solar housing and settlement patterns

• Resist unsustainable, energy-intensive over-developments where possible

Positive Proof of Global Warming

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 6, 2012.

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