Monday, December 15, 2008

Dear Friends,
The images: the first one is of me at a beautiful karst forest over the ‘marble mountain’ (Takaka Hill) from here. When my niece Sky visited recently, we wandered through this extraordinary place.
The second one is of Sydney Harbour from my mother’s house, taken when I visited to help with her rehabilitation after a fall recently.
And the third is to do with the subject of this blog – our friend Gil Claus installing a second rainwater tank at our place.

Some personal stuff:My main ‘work’ over this period has been with Transition Town Motueka. We’ve held a public meeting and workshop on analysis of problems with the current financial system, and the alternative of local currencies, Christoph Hensch visited from Christchurch to speak on these issues. Soon after this the Motueka Skill Swap or MO$$ was resurrected. It’s a local currency system. I’ve yet to familiarize myself with its workings. I’ve been trying to educate myself in this area however. I’ve read Margrit Kennedy’s ‘Interest and Inflation-Free Money’ and have taken an excellent ‘Crash Course on Economics’ by Chris Martenson on line. Now I’m reading Thomas Greco’s ‘Money’. Jack finds it most amusing to see me reading a book with this title, as I’ve been so entirely uninterested in the topic heretofore.
Now I need to resume work on the Reconciliation book with Johan Galtung.
I’ve learned to operate enough of the technology of the local radio station to do interviews for a fortnightly ‘Transition Town Show’. This is fun, and I’m very grateful to the young producer, Duncan Eddy for teaching me. I’ve done sessions on Biocapacity, Energy, Sustainable Business and Complementary Currency, as well as the one I’m drawing from to write the main part of this blog. It also amuses Jack to see me with headphones on, pushing buttons and lights on the control board of the studio – an unlikely scene, he’d have thought.
Jack and I have gone on some good day hikes around here. I’m eager to go further afield. We’ll do that next week, the other side of the ‘marble mountain’, by camping in the wilderness and hiking out from there.

TechnologyI’ll write a little about technology in this blog. Curiously, its etymology has to do with study of arts and crafts, but the meaning for my purposes is more like the study of the tools we use to accomplish our goals. Last week I interviewed engineer Gil Claus for my Transition Town Show on local radio. Gil is French Tahitian in origin, and beyond engineering, he studied graphic arts and information technology. He works for Sustainable Villages on IT issues and on assessing technology for the village. If you want to know what’s the best kind of composting toilet or solar hot water heater to use here, ask Gil; he has researched the issue. Gil also does some hands-on engineering work. He dug, or rather sculpted our irrigation ponds with a big digger, and recently he installed our second rainwater tank, as you can see in the photo. Gil has lived for 20 years in a very beautiful off-grid house he built himself. He is passionate about sustainability issues and has a spiritual orientation to living in harmony with the Earth.
Recently, having brought our electricity use down to a sufficiently low level, we bought photovoltaic panels. It’s necessary to have a back-up generator to cope with a run of sunless days. Gil’s research suggested that the best one for the purpose was an old design from 1929, called the Lister engine. It has few parts, is slow revving, doesn’t make a lot of noise, can be maintained with standard tools, adapts easily to many fuels, including biofuels, and is known to last 40-50 years. It is made only in India now. It is not very expensive. We have one on order.
Some of the principles that Gil applies to assessing technology are:
Durability, ease of maintenance, using renewable energy source (preferably gravity, sun, wind, water height), affordability, easily understandable principles of operation, low carbon footprint from its point of origin, waste can either be used for another purpose or disposed of in a way that isn’t ecologically damaging, social acceptability, aesthetic acceptability, made from local resources, efficient, ethical in all its aspects, integrates with its surrounding systems, fits the skills of the existing society, consequences of use are understood and not harmful.
It would be an unusual tool that met all of these criteria. The Lister engine, for example, meets most, but is made far away in India.
There is the idea of ‘life cycle analysis’ applied to technology. We have a wry smile about this. In Canada we had replaced our car with a Prius hybrid, believing its energy use made it an ethical choice (if one had to have a car at all). Later on, a life cycle analysis became available. The energy and materials used in making the Prius make its impact on the Earth anything but benign, and comparable to many of the gas guzzlers we deride.
There is also the concept of ‘layered technology’ from our colleague in the project, Jurgen Heissner. This is the idea that while high tech solutions to problems exist, if they meet many of the criteria above, they should be used, but that it’s most unwise to depend on technology that may be hard to recreate or maintain in an energy- and materials-constrained world. Essential services, like food, water, shelter, sanitation should be able to be maintained without vulnerable technology. So, in the planned village, there will be ‘intra-net’ computer connexions between houses. Booking a car, for example, will be done on this system, but computers will not run essential services like water supply.
According to Gil, Third World farmers and villagers invent some of the most appropriate technology.
The solar oven fits many of the above criteria. They’re not available in NZ. Of course, I could make one, but haven’t yet. Recently we disconnected from our electrically heated hot water system and installed an ‘on demand’ gas heater. This doesn’t keep a quantity of water hot for instant use. The high intensity heater turns on when the water does, and delivers just the amount of hot water you want after a short delay. This is an old technology, common in Europe.
We dispensed with a certain amount of technology in our experiment in living – dishwasher, freezer, drier, TV and video player. I miss the freezer a bit, not the others.
Water comes from the roof into tanks. We installed the second tank to be able to water kitchen gardens, and in rainless times we use a lot of our grey water on the trees.
Technology is an issue in an entirely other way in my life. In the range of responses to climate change and peak oil, many believe that the answer to these problems is to be found in technological developments. They cite the remarkable record of human adaptation to straitened circumstances over the aeons. The party currently in power in NZ affirms the reality of climate change, but is ready to renege on Bali climate change commitments. The Environment Minister believes that technology will save the day. I do not. I believe we will benefit greatly from further technological developments in our adaptation to the difficulties we’ve brought on ourselves, but that, at least in the coming decades, we will have to learn to live more lightly on our seriously damaged and overly full Earth.
Worse still, in my opinion, are those who look for a geo-engineering solutions to the mess we’ve created – wanting to release millions of floating mirrors to reflect the sun, or create a gigantic infrastructure of artificial trees to absorb carbon dioxide, or seed the oceans to grow more algae to absorb more carbon. To their credit, some of the advocates of these solutions are folk who have an appropriate sense of urgency about climate change. But their blindness to the ecological integrity of the web of life frightens me. We haven’t known what we were doing so far, as we wrecked coastlines to create fish farms, extinguished species, desertified huge areas, exhausted soils and continue to deforest the Earth. We learned about the ozone hole almost accidentally, and perhaps just in time. We still have only the barest understanding of some parts of this ultra-intricate system of Earth. To presume to disturb it further on a massive scale with no way of knowing the consequences seems very arrogant to me.
Finally, here’s another piece of technology some people here are ready to dispense with: consider that carefully engineered article using advanced materials of many kinds that is wrapped around our babies’ bottoms – the disposable diaper. There’s a move among young mothers I know to have their babies ‘diaper-free’. The mums say they learn the babies’ signals and either take them outside or hold them over a pot. They say they miss at times, but find the whole thing acceptable, a lot cheaper than the several alternatives, and very easy on the Earth. I’ve been told that the health authority has even paid to have seminars given to expectant mothers on how to do it.
That’s it for technology for today, folks.
Warmest wishes to all,

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Artichokes andAfghan Puppets

Dear Family and Friends,

A word about the images. The first is of an artichoke plant - the first time I'd seen these exotic things growing.

The second is of some of the hundreds of seedling plants you'll read about below.

The third is Jacques and Joni working to complete the vegetable garden they created in front of our house.

The last is of a performance of our Afghan puppet story at the 2008 Parihaka event (story below).

Spring is turning to summer here and gardens are burgeoning. The air is scented with jasmine and every dawn the birds enthusiastically let all others know about their territory or need for a mate.

1. First of all, news about the village.
The most impressive aspect of progress on Atamai Village is what is happening in the gardens. I want to include here the report just in from Jacques on accomplishments of the last two months. I can hardly believe that all this is the work of two highly skilled, hard-working men.

September, October report
The big emphasis for the last two months has been on seeding and planting.
In the green house: we have onions and leeks, tomatoes, peppers, squashes, cucumbers and pumpkins all to be transplanted soon in the gardens. We will have Melons, eggplants and gourds too.
In the shade house: we have artichokes, asparagus and rhubarb ready to go into larger pots, expecting 400 plants to transplant in the garden by the fall
Trees in pots (seeded earlier in the winter) they are almonds, walnuts, chestnuts, Northern spy apples, prunes and loquats as well as grapes, figs and some kiwis and pine nuts. We expect to produce 500 potted trees in the shade house.
In the parking lot: Many culinary herbs have been seeded to be transplanted into pots or into garden borders. Our target is to produce 2000 plants. We located the operation there to avoid carrying flats and potting soil around too much.
In the nursery beds We have seeded a lot of trees, walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, ginkgo, honey locusts, locusts, carobs and tree lucernes. I expect to produce 1000 trees in the beds. We also have 100 cuttings of black mulberries, some basket willows and some black currants. Raspberry plants are starting to flower, the strawberries are ripening. Some rhubarb is ready to pick. We just planted thirty thornless blackberries all in one bed.

We made two kitchen gardens by the house. They are fully planted in spring greens. We have started cutting the pine trees that were shading the garden sites.
In the upper med* garden we have broad beans, some wheat and some decent garlic.
In the lower med garden: we have planted potatoes, peas, beans, some tomatoes and beans so far.

The nursery beds have been fully mulched with bark compost (about 30 tons) and some of them have received grass mulch on top of that. The surrounding meadow is completely mowed.
The nursery fence is almost complete (need a gate system)
The nursery irrigation system is fairly complete
The nursery orchard (Asian pears, pears, apples, figs, sour cherries, almonds, Chinese hawthorns) has been mowed and all the fruit trees are stacked, tied, fertilized and heavily mulched and the irrigation lines are installed and ready to go when needed
The south wind break along the driveway has been mowed and mulched
The trees on the slope under the house, (chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, figs, ginkgoes, linden, Chinese hawthorns, mulberries and many more) are growing well and are been mowed, fertilized and mulched this week and next week.
We are installing irrigation for the med gardens and I am looking for an efficient portable pump to bring water up from the ponds to temporary tanks by the house.

Next month will be pretty much all planting and mowing.
We will seed or transplant most of our summer vegetables.

We will mow and mulch trees in the Atamai orchard.
We will cut down the perimeter gorse along the road way.
We will bring in much more bark compost into the lower med garden (this has already been started)
We will fence the lower med garden
We will replant the top of the dam on one of the pond
And so on

*I think this stands for Mediterranean (JSB).

While the plants are flourishing, we have met opposition from some of the ridgetop neighbours to the building plans. Many of you will know this from the recent article in the Hamilton Spectator ( that there is some local opposition to the village project. Jack has written a letter to the editor in response (which may or may not get published, so here it is ( click here for a link). An irony of the situation is that one of the accusations against the project is that it has been secretive. In fact, most if not all the neighbours were told about what was envisioned for the village, and this vision has been on the website for some time. When the formal application was made to council for the project the application was publicly available. We have not been able to discuss specific plans with neighbours because the local council does not like this to happen before the council itself has approved the plans – so we have been in a bit of a bind there. But the application is approaching a point where all interested parties will be able to discuss what is proposed. While we know there will be some opposition, it will be a relief to be able to discuss it openly.
We can understand that people are averse to change. We hope that once they have a better understanding of what is envisioned, and the benefits to the area, that they will feel differently.

There is no doubt that experiments such as ours are important. A few days ago, a UN report on organic farming in Africa came out. It showed that productivity was greater than either traditional methods alone (although traditional methods were incorporated into the organic methods) or industrial farming. The organic operations require small-holder farming, and are more labour intensive than industrial farming. Here’s the link to the report

Another report that came out in the last few days was leaked early from the International Energy Agency. It stated that the 400 largest oilfields in the world are running down at the rate of 9% per year. You will be aware that new discoveries are not nearly keeping pace with this. This rate seems huge to me, and suggests to me that we’re at or over the peak of oil production. Of course this also relates to the reason for what we’re doing in learning to live on much less and eventually no fossil fuel.

2. News about Transition Town MotuekaYesterday, working with Duncan Eddy, the Motueka producer for Fresh FM, we launched the Transition Town Show. This will be fortnightly radio sessions on the myriad aspects of Transition Towns. Last night was an introduction. The next will be on biological capacity of the region to support human population, biodiversity, ecological footprint and ecological deficit. These sessions will go into an i-pod series and eventually provide an audio-course on Transition Towns.
The various working groups are shaping their visions of what Motueka will be like in 2020 in their respective areas eg food, energy, education.

3. News about us.We’ve been working on our own gardens – herb and vegetable. The vegetable garden has a rabbit and pig-proof fence. I laughed when I was reading about a similar project in India run by a group of Gandhians. They had tall electric fences around their vegetable gardens, to protect against marauds by….wild elephants. None of those here, but we’ve had a wicked pukeko (blue-black water-bird with red beak and legs) who goes around uprooting newly planted potatoes, even pulling out the labels, boldly defying humans who try to shoo it away.

I had a wonderful day in Takaka last Saturday. It’s a town over the ‘marble mountain’ , as they say, from Motueka. The choir there had secured the services of a brilliant music director from Wellington . He specializes in world music and had us singing the most exotic harmonies from Africa, Serbia, Georgia, the Appalachians.

Today we were visited for lunch by Kate Dewes and Rob Green. My peace movement friends will recognize these names. Kate was central to the World Court project, and Rob has written important material on nuclear deterrence among other things. Kate is now a member of the UN Sec-Gen’s Consultative C’tee on Disarmament and has something to do with the Sec-Gen’s recent endorsement of the model Nuclear Weapons Convention.

A few weeks ago I travelled to Wellington to attend a meeting of the NZ affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, followed the next day by a meeting of the National Consultative C’tee on Disarmament. I was delighted to meet old friends from NZ and Australia, to make lovely new ones, and by the level of knowledge and experience in the meeting.

I took a day off in Wellington and spent it with the family of my wonderful hosts on Matiu-Somes Island in Wellington Harbour, building nesting boxes for the colony of Little Blue Penguins that resides on the island. The children did the building.
A few days ago, Jack and I performed a puppet story from the Afghan Children’s Peace Programme in an unusual context. The stalwart contingent of readers of this blog from its beginning may recall a description of the commemoration of Parihaka, an amazing manifestation of Maori nonviolent resistance to land invasion. At this year’s Parihaka event they asked us to enact one of the Afghan stories. This was alongside Maori songs and drama.

Warmest wishes to all,

Posted by Picasa

Artichokes and Afghan Puppets

Posted by Picasa

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Preserving Food, Preserving Friendships

Hello dear , dear friends and family.

To those we were fortunate enough to spend time with during August and September, thanks for your wonderful warmth and generosity. To those we didn't manage to see, we were sad that we couldn't see everyone we love and care about.

The first image here is one across the Atamai land taken a few months ago. You can see, if you look hard, the scalloped pattern of the terraced orchards. At the top of the hill with the pine forest is our house, hidden by trees.
The second image is grandchildren, Charlotte and Jackson, playing in a 'band', part of our merriment together. The third is an ancient hut we passed last weekend on a hike. It is for hikers, or 'trampers', as they're called in New Zealand, to stay in overnight, and actually has some amazingly old tins of food in case you haven't brought your own.
The last image I took from our front door in the Fall here.

The Village
In July we had a seminar on food storage. There is a good deal of expertise in this area in the group. Here are the main things I learned:
• Reduce need for storage by eating seasonally. Change diet to get used to eating staple energy foods that grow easily where you are. A reduced variety of foods may be compensated for by much better taste of organic foods.
• Storage is needed for use of surplus, for sale, for emergencies and for seed. It may even be considered as part of a defence system, if privation was very severe – to be able to give food rather than fight over it.
• Storage without energy use includes use of root cellars, built on slope for ventilation. Dry grains can be stored in raised structures or in old freezers. A village should have a year’s supply of grain in storage. Atamai will need a grain mill.
• Storage with energy use includes solar drying (first priority), bottling, vinegar making, processing oils, smoking fish and meat.
• I’d add to the above learnings by suggesting that we all prepare for emergencies by having at least a few weeks’ basic supplies available. Food should be drawn from this stock in rotation so it doesn’t become stale.

Splendid work has proceeded developing the food-producing capacity of the land, under Jacques’s leadership. The trees on the terraced orchards, planted a year ago, are doing very well. The contoured gardens, created in a maze-like drainage pattern, are planted with vegetables. Another very large contoured area on the same hillside has been tilled.
There is so much to learn for one as ignorant as I. I thought I might be able to help weed around the trees on the terraces, and imagined ripping out the copious weeds to leave bare brown earth. But I asked Jacques’s advice. Here is his interesting answer:

From the ecological, permaculture point of view weeds in an orchard have several important functions.
They mine mineral nutrients from the subsoil and from the air, hold it in their tissues and return it in a stable organic form to the top soil and the fruit trees
They shade and protect the soil surface from UV rays and prevent surface erosion in rainy weather
They shelter and feed a balanced population of microorganisms insects and predators, limiting the development of diseases and pests.
They attract and feed pollinating insects outside the flowering time of the fruit trees
The ecological orchardist want to see a healthy diversified sward growing under his trees
With this outlook no weed is truly undesirable in an orchard provided, it does not shade a tree or compete for irrigation water with its roots.
The best approach for tall weeds (Mustard mainly, lupins, also night shade)away from a tree and shading it is to clip it and use it to mulch a tree.
In the root zone it is better to pull a weed out to prevent water competition. But lupins (important nitrogen fixers are better clipped or broken
White clover need only to be clipped. (It also feed rabbits and deter them from eating the tree)"

This kind of detailed knowledge fascinates me.
Other aspects of the Atamai Village project need to move much more slowly than hoped. The global financial crisis has significant repercussions in New Zealand. It has suddenly become impossible to get loans for the kind of thing we’re doing. This means we can proceed only at a pace that matches the investment of potential villagers in village plots. And we can’t advertise these until we get the District Council’s consent, also a slow process.

Transition Towns
In June, when I made the last blog entry, we had barely begun this effort to facilitate the process of adaptation of the town population. In July we held two public meetings – the first to present the idea of Transition initiatives to interested people of Motueka and surrounding settlements, the second to begin the process of self-organization into working groups. These were very successful. About 70 people came to the first, and there was a feeling of enthusiasm about it, a mood of ‘It’s about time. We need to act.’
The second was attended by over 60 people and was well facilitated in Open Space process. People designated areas of their passion and expertise and worked in small groups. The following groups formed: Food Production, including Community Supported Agriculture and Open Orchards (public plantings of fruit and nut trees); Transport, including organized carpooling and hitchhiking, and making walking and cycling more attractive; Energy, with a focus on solar energy; Sustainable Business; Voluntary Simplicity; How to stay sane, have good meetings and resolve conflict; Liaison with Government.
These events were well covered by local newspapers and radio.
A meeting last night (September 25th) showed that efforts were moving ahead at a steady pace in this very creative group of townspeople.

Us – Sept 1st.
July was dominated by organizing the Transition Town meetings for me, and by pressing Atamai Village issues for Jack. August began for me with a week in the village of Statdschlaining in Austria, teaching a course in Peace Psychology at the European Peace University. I had 25 Master’s level students who represented a rich range of experience in nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies, and an extraordinary range of national origins – Ethiopia, Uganda, Turkey, Australia, Canada, USA, Austria, Switzerland, Germany… I began each day with an hour’s walk in the surrounding hills with the rector, Dietrich Fischer, a gentle man with a great depth in Peace Studies and an extraordinary ability to recount jokes to match any topic. His hospitality extended to providing breakfast and lunch to visiting instructors. One day we decided to challenge him by just calling out topics to see if he could match a joke to them. ‘Cheese!’ He had three cheese jokes. ‘Shoes!’ He was equal to the challenge.
The rest of August and the first week of September has been for Jack and me a simply wonderful time visiting family and friends in Canada. We returned to our old home, now occupied by son and daughter-in-law Jonah and Penny. There we got to know our new grand-daughter, Bianca, now 6 months. Nothing matches living with a loved child, seeing her in all her phases, laughing her glorious baby giggle, bored, a little grizzly, playing with her adoring subjects, enjoying her bath and so on.
We’ve had similar opportunities with our other grandchildren, Jackson and Charlotte. We have come to a place dear to us, The Dekars’ cottage on an island in Georgian Bay, where we’ve spent summer weeks every year for the last 14 or so. Here we’ve had these two little ones with us, together with their parents, Josh and Tracey. We’ve had hikes in the bush, enjoying their mastery of rockclimbing and finding their way, swum and canoed and sat at night around the campfire chatting. Nothing is so conducive to leisurely conversation.
In the second week, youngest son, Jeff brought his girlfriend, Becky to visit, together with old, dear friend, Doug Reberg. Long mealtime chats, lying on the dock watching the stars, canoe journeys for the young ones and birdwatching for Doug have been part of the overall awe at the beauty of this place. For me, each day has a glorious beginning, as I sit on the rock and watch the sunrise. The sky just now is beginning to redden, reflected in the still lake, and the first birds of the morning are making tentative noises.
Jack and I spent some of yesterday preparing talks to give at an event in Hamilton tomorrow, organized by Environment Hamilton and Hamiltonians for Progressive Development. Jack will give an overview of the Village and I’ll speak on Transition Town ideas.
In six days we leave. It’s going to be hard.

Us – Sept 26.
I was enormously gratified while in Canada to hear how many people read and enjoy this blog – thanks, friends. Hard to account for my long gap in communicating. Back in harness in New Zealand we are; it’s mainly Jack who is harnessed, I must say. I have an easier time. Last night I was able to participate by ‘phone in a Telemed conference with nursing stations on northern Ontario First Nations communities – the very same communities I had visited thirty years ago as a mental health consultant. The topic was how to deal with the issue of media violence with children of these communities, where interpersonal violence is often a serious problem. My colleague, Marilyn Koval, family physician in Sioux Lookout, organized this. The only problem was that I needed to do my bit at 1am my time, and I nearly wrecked things by not waking when the microwave timer beeped. However, it all worked out and I was happy to be able to do this.
We’ve found time to do a couple of good hikes since being back.
Very warmest wishes to you all,

Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Hello, dear Friends and Family,
The image below is of one set of the new ponds on the village garden area, with the beginning of tilling for Spring planting on the slopes to the right.
These are hopeful, encouraging things, but my mood has been one of unease, as you will see below.

Our personal life continues to be very pleasant, apart from missing beloved people. Jack works on the village, I work on the Transition Towns endeavour and preparing a course on Peace Psychology.
Yesterday, the architects who specialize in 'green' buildings met at our house to discuss the design of the first houses. And last night we spent with a small group of friends planning the first large public meeting for Transition Town Motueka. First all five of us went to a film in 'The Gecko', a tiny movie theatre. We saw 'Grow Your Own', a British comedy I recommend to all. It's about healing through gardening and the acceptance of refugees in a community - delightful film. We walked a few steps to a pizzeria which we often use as a meeting venue and began our planning over pizzas. When the pizzeria was ready to close, we moved back to the movie theatre and occupied one of the small theatres with permission from the very friendly guy running the place. We completed our planning there. This kind of informality is one of the delights of a small town.

I hope you're sitting comfortably with a cup of tea or coffee by your side for the next bit. I see darkness and fog out there.

The unravelling has begun

A few weeks ago I made a presentation to Tasman District Council, as part of a public consultation process about their annual plan. My purpose was to get them to factor oil scarcity and climate change into their planning. I led with the point that the plan was based on a stated assumption that oil cost $60 a barrel and would remain at that price for the year. As we all know, this assumption is laughable. I pointed out that their vehicles would be able to travel only half as far as planned on the budgeted fuel and that they would be able to build or repair only half the road kilometers planned. I went on to discuss climate change impact. At least four other people presented on closely related topics to the council.

They listened most politely. A week or so later, the mayor mentioned to me in conversation that he was considering joining the Communities for Climate Change Protection, as he had found it didn’t bind him to any difficult commitments. Several of my colleagues had made this specific request. This is, without doubt, a good thing, and I will certainly want to convey this to the Council if they go ahead and do it. But what about this extraordinary budget discrepancy? What do they think is going to happen? I assume they think, along with many others, that the price of oil and food is a temporary ‘spike’, to use the term commonly applied. (Of course if oil ‘spikes’ at $120 for half the year, it will need to be totally free of cost for the other half if it is going to average $60, but this absurdity hasn’t occurred to the planners, it seems.) I don’t think so. I think this is the lower slope of an ongoing upward trend in prices, inevitable on the other side of Peak Oil. It will never be the same again.

There is nothing unusual about the people on this Council. It’s very hard for all of us to get our heads around this shocking fact. And there’s lots of noise to help us deny it. Price-gouging by Big Oil, excessive government taxes, intransigence of Middle East oil sheiks, too little investment in oil infrastructure, pesky environmentalists stopping drilling in national parks…. And above all, the faith-based mantras, the market will take care of it, and new technology will save the day.

Coal (climate change disaster), biofuels (human hunger disaster) and nuclear energy (ecological, economic and security disaster) are the immediate solutions being sold. Some assume that energy from wind and sunshine will fill the gap, not realizing that it will take decades and lots of scarce oil to build their infrastructure, and the amount of energy to be hoped for from these sources will not come near that available from cheap oil in the near future.

While wishful thinking and bad solutions hold sway, airlines are going broke, cutting staff, routes and passenger space, merging and grounding planes. Automobile companies are closing plants. Food is increasing in price, affecting the poor in rich countries and the masses in poor ones, refugees dependent on food aid perhaps most of all. Here’s a cheerful datum: in the US there’s less car use and fewer car accidents. Urban houses are diminishing in value. Economic recession seems about to hit everywhere in the globalized economic system. Recession? How about collapse - slow or fast ?

We are not ready for this!!

A friend who works for the Department of Conservation here remarked cheerfully over lunch last weekend that we had better prepare ourselves for when the DoC is unable to continue its pest control functions. DoC is a heavy user of helicopters, aeroplanes and four-wheel drives to keep habitat and agriculture-destroying pests under control. ‘We’ll be overrun by possums, pigs, rabbits, weasels, stoats and goats,’ she said. (I thought of our orchardist neighbour whose eyes light up with joy at the thought of a pig to hunt.)

I am not ready for this!!

But we are trying to prepare ourselves. We have largely stopped eating fossil-fuel dependent food that gets to us by fossil-fuelled transport over long distances. We’re working on our own transport modes, using bicycles more and sharing a car. I’ve even had one pleasant experience hitch-hiking, which I definitely will try again soon. I have a substantial store of staples in case supermarket supply chains should be suddenly cut. We are trying to build a community that will incorporate people with many skills contributing to self-sufficiency. We are learning from experienced gardeners how we can together grow much of what we need. We are trying to work out what we need to get that might be hard to find in the future, or unaffordable – solar panels, for example.

It’s very clear that governments will not lead in these areas, as my above example with our municipal government shows. Our former municipality, Hamilton, Ontario, was worse. Here the Green Party, from whom we might expect most, has made a conscious decision that it will not talk about consuming less, or about the problems of a growth-based economy, because it will lose seats if it does. That’s a pretty dismal state of affairs. (I must add that the Maori Party does address these issues, thank goodness.) In both NZ and in Canada, government will not lead in these issues. We are on our own with the unravelling of the infrastructure of our society and our economy.

Energy supports complexity of society. We can expect a less complex society as available energy diminishes. Highly elaborate divisions of function will diminish. To avoid collapse, we must plan intelligently for devolution of complexity, evolution of human-scale communities with appropriate technology not available to human-scale communities 200 years ago before fossil fuel energy spike, for example, modern windmills, large windows for passive solar architecture..

We need planning at a global level for fair distribution of the remaining oil, with steady cuts in use. If this doesn’t happen, poor countries will be totally unable to buy oil at all and their slender essential industries and services will grind to an early halt before they have had time to make an adequate adjustment. We need measures to promote food self-sufficiency in poor countries – trade rules to prevent dumping, support of small-holder, organic farming.

We need planning at a national level for the priority use of oil. We should assign a very high priority to building infrastructure for the post-carbon society - erecting windmills and making photovoltaic panels, rebuilding the rail network, expanding public transport, retrofitting buildings, supporting changes in agriculture towards sustainability.

We need planning at the municipal level for public transport, for assistance to local food production like farmers’ markets, community gardens. We need changes in land zoning, the retrofitting of existing buildings to use less energy, requirements for new buildings to be passive solar, support of small-holder organic gardening.

We need planning at the personal level - engagement with others to form communities and plan self-sufficiency with backyard food production, Community-Supported Agriculture, food co-ops, protection of peri-urban rural land, forming one or two-child families, giving up the car for alternative transport. Readers of this blog know the rest of this list. But let me add water care, composting, vegetarianism, jobs near work, jobs that make sense with future projections of a less complex society, more time gardening for food production, and time to push governments to do the planning at the level only they can do.

We are not ready. It is very difficult to prepare in the face of such uncertainty. Might we overprepare? What if the unraveling is not as bad as predicted? Wouldn’t we look silly? Maybe, but not nearly as silly as we’ll look when our children and grandchildren wonder why we didn’t begin the work of an easy energy descent and prevent enormous misery for them.

Well, dear ones, that's my mood for the Winter Solstice.
I send you all the warmest wishes,

Sunday, May 18, 2008


The first image here is tonight's dinner for us. The second is one of the sketches of Jacques, the land manager, for food growing areas of the village we're building.
Dear Friends,

Food is on my mind a great deal as item after item crosses my screen on rising food prices and shortages. More people are hungry, more kids are malnourished. I want to share some thoughts on this, but first...

Personal update:

The month has been a fairly hard one for Jack, taking over the general manager's tasks while Jurgen (co-director and general manager) visits his parents in Germany, and coping with expectable bumps in the road of this innovative project. He has stayed sane and fit by running on the beach, swimming and taking a pick to cut a bike path across the land so we can cycle up the steep hill. He spends a fair bit of time in meetings. Mondays Jack cycles into Motueka for a general management meeting with the now 7 employed people and with various consultants.

We spend a fair bit of leisure time with other people, particularly those involved with the village. The four young guys lacked a kitchen until a few days ago, so we had them up for dinner several times. We sit around with others discussing the fascinating aspects of building a village like what mudbrick-making machine to buy, should we get a grain-mill, how to make houses affordable, how to get heritage apple seeds, how to make arbours and where the walking paths will go.

Since coming to live at Te Mara (the house lower on the ridge), five-year-old home-schooled Lucien has decided I'm part of his daily routine, so makes the long hard climb up the ridge to see me. We spin stories, draw, make music (broadly defined), and act a little crazy.

Jack and I are using our bicycles more, and I'm very impressed that the battery can get us up the very steep climb of the ridge. We can get to town in 35 minutes and home in 40, so we do this for day-time journeys.

I continue to be impressed at the cultural life available. I've been recently to a string quartet performance and one of baroque harp, and I've joined a group singing for pleasure. The skilled director, one of the treasures of the old community of Riverside (she may have been born there), has us singing in 3 and 4 part harmony with ease.

Once I found that my sewing machine worked with the transformer dealing with the voltage difference between North America and NZ, I rediscovered the pleasure to be derived from making garments this way. I made Jack a black polar fleece, hooded dressing gown. He looks like a character from Star Wars in it.

Atamai Village:

While Jack sits at a desk and works at a marketing plan and what covenants will apply to purchases of lots, Gil, the engineer has been operating a digger and has dug five ponds for irrigation. Jacques has tilled graceful curves of garden over the hillside of Te Mara to be ready for Spring planting. The young guys Nick and Nigel have constructed a big shade house for new plants, a new guy, Johnnie is taking care of the orchards, and another new guy, Bomun has created a woodwork shop in the garage of Te Mara and will begin constructing cold frames, etc.. The ponds are filling already, and astonishingly, Gil has seen eels in them.
We are resuming our monthly potluck seminars, with the next being on food preserving and storage.
Motueka and region:

A group is forming around the idea of Transition Towns (Google it), a concept that began in the UK and has now been picked up in a few dozen towns in NZ. It concerns how a built urban settlement can respond to peak oil and climate change in areas such as transport, land use, domestic heating, insulation, water provision, local food provision, and so on. We have made brief presentations at the Council meeting, at the Community Board (the Council includes several small towns, the Community Board is the Motueka representation), and on radio.
Besides the food issue, another one that has aroused me in the last month has been further attempts to silence criticism of human rights infringements by Israel against the Palestinians by labelling such criticism anti-Semitism. This is a sneaky ad hominem argument, and when made recently by Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister, had to be strenuously resisted. I wrote to Harper and to the Ottawa Citizen on this.

Now, Food.

It's no news to any readers of this blog that more people are hungry, that there are food riots in Africa, Asia and South America. If it's not crossing your screen with at least an article a day, you're catching it in the mainstream media, where, after a lag-time of a few years, it's beginning to appear. How is the average person to understand this, and how is the average person to respond? As a non-expert in any relevant area, here is how I understand what is happening in terms of predisposing structural vulnerabilities and precipitating events.

Predisposing vulnerabilities:

  • Land tenure: Highest productivity from agricultural land, other factors being held equal, is from small-holder or cooperative structures. Comparisons have been made in China, where there are diverse structures of land ownership. Large industrial holdings and communal holdings are less productive. Over the last several centuries the trend has been towards larger industrial agricultural holdings, with the former peasants who lost their land to this process working as labourers on the properties or migrating to city slums. The global economic institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have pushed this change strenuously. Some call it the 'depeasantization' of global agriculture.Most remarkably, recently the heads of these three institutions have made a statement saying that what is needed to deal with global hunger now is a return to small-holder farming. Oxfam has echoed this. The UN statement on food and agriculture agrees, and adds that there is a need to turn from industrial agriculture with oil-based inputs, to organic methods. The western writers who talk about response to peak oil and climate change speak of the need for 'reruralization' of the countryside, which has been extensively depopulated by industrial agriculture. It will need to be repopulated to provide a more productive and more labour-intensive agriculture.

  • Closely related to the above point about the relationship between land tenure structures and land productivity is the kind of farming done and the kind of food produced. WTO, WB and IMF pushed indebted poor countries into what is known as 'structural adjustment', which among other things, meant that regional agricultural arrangements that produced for local consumption and a degree of food self-sufficiency were shifted to industrial agriculture producing food for export, such as tea and coffee, and non-food products, such as flowers for western markets. Countries such as Haiti, which were once self-sufficient in staples like rice, quickly became net importers of these staple foods. New Zealand, which some describe as 'one big farm', exports huge amounts of food all over the world. Does it feed itself? No. Half of what NZers eat is imported. This dependency on oil-based agriculture for exports to get the cash to pay for imported food brought in with oil-based transport is catastrophic for a country like Haiti, where the rise in food prices immediately bites as worsening hunger.

  • Population increase. Up until recently, most of the literature dealing with feeding the world insisted that there was no problem producing enough food to feed all the people in the world. The problem was one of distribution - the poor didn't have the money to buy the food available. There was much evidence to show that famines in various parts of the world were caused or exacerbated by political decisions, and would have been averted under democratic functioning.

Now we must consisder that the population that can be supported sustainably depends on the kind of technology being used and the throughput of materials and energy. I don't see anyone asserting now that we can grow enough food for a world of 9 billion people insisting on the lavish use of energy, some of which will be biofuel.

Precipitating factors:

  • Climate change has affected food availablity in several ways. Drought causes crop failure; most outstandingly the years of Australian drought had a major effect on global wheat production. Some query use of the word 'drought' as meaning a time limited condition, being convinced that the change is permanent. Climate change also causes increased number and severity of cyclones and floods which destroy crops.

  • Oil scarcity. My reading of this is that we are on the plateau of global production while global demand is swinging sharply up. This leads to high prices of fuel and other agricultural commodities (especially fertilizer, which has more than tripled), which leads to higher food prices. It actually leads to some land going out of production when farmers cannot afford the fertilizer on which they are dependent in the system of modernized agriculture.

  • Oil scarcity leads to biofuel production, causing agricultural products to be diverted from food to fuel production, and increasing food prices.

  • The increased global demand for meat leads to diversion of grain to feed animals and away from feeding hungry people. Of 2.3 billion tons of grain produced in 2007, less than half went to feed people. The rest went to feed animals and biofuel production.
  • The enormous global speculative market. Speculators buy up what is scarce. Food is scarce, so speculators are buying it, increasing prices for hungry people. This has been called a criminal activity. In recent months I've read, mainly from US newspapers, several informative analyses of the food problem, ending with advice on how to make money out of it.
  • Of all of these factors, my reading of the situation suggests that high oil prices, biofuel production and speculation on food commodities top the list for pushing hunger to present levels. As I write, the radio tells me that 6 million Ethiopian children are malnourished, 60,000 of them so ill they require specialist feeding, because of drought and high food prices. Aid money to alleviate the problem is scarce because people are giving to Burma and China.

    What's to be done?

    Global measures:

    • A global moratorium on biofuel production would help. A possible form for this would be a change in the requirement many governments have made for inclusion of a percentage of biofuels with fossil fuel petroleum. This would increase global availability of grain and lower prices. It might allow restoration of the depleted global grain reserves. It would contribute to lowering carbon emissions and require rich country populations to face the necessity of adapting to lower energy use patterns. The claim that there are no problems in using non-food plants for biofuel requires careful examination. Whatever plant material is used, organic material is extracted from soil or water, depleting the ecosystem from which it comes, and leaving it less able to keep producing.

    • Support food sovereignty for nations. Economic globalization of food provision needs to be reversed to national or regional food self-sufficiency. The transition in agriculture is likely to need state support, and to require economic instruments to protect it. Trade in non-essential food items is desirable, but the capacity of regions to feed themselves needs to be restored, after having been systematically and deliberately destroyed. This will increase food production and the problematic level of nutrition in many areas. It will increase employment.

    • Support land reform. This is a notoriously difficult area politically. However there are few measures with such a dramatic effect on food production and population health.

    • Support organic agriculture. Techniques of organic agriculture have benefitted from global knowledge growth. Permaculture principles are recognized widely as maximizing productivity, diversity and resilience of food production. Not only is more food produced, less fossil fuel is used and more carbon is sequestered with these methods of agriculture.

    • Take food commodities out of the speculation market.
    • Support the discussion of population policies, which have largely been an unmentionable topic in discourses like this one.

    What can we do ourselves?

    Right now, as usual, the adversities of hunger are affecting mainly developing countries and not most readers of this blog. This may not continue. The factors listed above that will not change in the near future are oil scarcity, climate instability, population growth. They will all get worse, of course. We don't know how they'll affect us in the lucky countries. It will be increasingly difficult to import food and to keep growing it with oil-dependent methods.

    • Grow your own food to the extent possible.

    • Join or create a community garden if you haven't land to plant.

    • Get your food from a Community-supported Agriculture farm (CSA) This is likely to be organically produced, and is, of course, local.

    • Move towards vegetarianism.

    • Consider joining a sustainable village, which will enable you to move further in the direction of low-energy self-sufficiency and provide a greater range of food and other products locally grown.

    • Help your town or neighourhood make these transitions by organizing under the Transition town, Natural Step or Post-Carbon Cities frameworks. The first began in the UK, the second in Sweden, and the third in North America. All are now global, and aim to enable a broad range of adaptations to peak oil and climate change, beyond food self-sufficiency. (See , , )

    • As part of such moves, the need to adapt to lower energy use is central, shifting away from the maladaptive move to replace oil with biofuels.

    • Make sure none of your invested money is going to food speculation.

    Some of the readers of this blog may have insights that will deepen my understanding of this complex issue. Please consider posting comments that may help us all.

    Warmest wishes to all,


    Friday, April 11, 2008

    Transition Towns

    Greetings, dear Friends and Family.

    A little on our lives

    The photos are of Jack having an early morning consultation with Jacques (Belgian-French land manager) and Gil (Tahitian engineer) on building new structures in the village; and of me watering our little kitchen garden.

    The unpromising shed-like structure with the glorious view has been converted into a home now. We've had old friends Ed and Maxine Crispin to stay en route from the IPPNW Congress in New Delhi, and now there is a flow of young people coming to see what we are doing here. The house is so small that guests sleep in the living room, so we are discussing adding a room.

    Friends drop in. Yesterday, Jacques and his wife and son came by to drop off Sid, the sheep-dog, at the end of the day. Lucien, five years old, said, 'I wonder if you're going to invite us in for a cup of tea and cookies as you usually do.' And, indeed, that is becoming a pleasant pattern, particularly at the end of the week.

    We've taken a bit more time for leisure in recent weeks. There are surprising cultural offerings - tonight a Tibetan instrumentalist performs at the cultural centre of the nearby long-established community of Riverside. We'll dine with Gil and his wife before going.

    Jack is extremely busy. There are now two directors of the project, the third having dropped out. Jurgen, the other one, is away for two months visiting aging parents in Japan (his wife's) and Germany (his). So Jack is carrying the development of the village. There are five people on staff, Gil and Jacques in the photo above, an admin assistant in the office, and two young guys, Nick and Nigel, who do a lot of the physical labour. Right now, Jack is slashing bush to make a cycle track, as a form of exercise.

    Attention has shifted away from care of the 7000 trees since a drip irrigation system was established, relieving the need to manually water them. Now the focus is on establishing a plant nursery, identifying and buying trees to plant on the garden property, Te Mara, for both orchard and shelter belt purposes. Vegetable oil, I gather, will be from walnuts. Olive trees are expected to do well. (It's easy to buy olive oil grown within a few km of here.) Currently there are 15 cows grazing on the land, but they are visitors, paying rent. Jacques plans to have sheep and is especially keen on a small breed called Jacob's sheep, whose fleece comes in many colours. (Sid will be very happy when this occurs.)
    This reminds me of a delightful visit I made a few weeks ago to a sheep farm to buy some newly shorn lamb's wool, which I hoped to use to stuff cushions. The farm had sheep of every colour you can imagine sheep to be, and beautiful displays of raw fleece, carded wool, spun wool and knitted garments - a feast for anyone who loves textiles. I bought a large bag of wool. When it is teased, it's excellent for stuffing cushions. The teasing is both time-consuming and sensually pleasant. I began teasing as I chatted with Jacques, Cheryl and Lucien over tea and cookies yesterday. Before long, everyone was teasing. Jacques, who often seems to know just about everything, told me that having built spinning wheels in the past, he has decided that the world's best spinning wheel is a Louet (or Louette), a Canadian wheel. He also remarked that, while he regards a frig as an optional extra in life, he sees a sewing machine as an absolute essential. Having admired the knit tops the family of three wears, I told Jack I thought they must be imported from France. I later found that Jacques makes them himself.

    I occupy myself in various ways. I had an article on Canada's role in Afghanistan published in the online Globe and Mail last week. Today I finished a book review of three books dealing with the transition of towns and cities to adapt with the need for sustainability, energy decline and climate change. I'll append this to this blog. My colleague, Neil Arya and I are doing the last bits and pieces on our Peace through Health book. Seems to me I've said that before; surely these really are the last! I've started designing a display for Transition Towns (see review below) for a Motueka festival in a few weeks' time. I hope this helps me identify folk who are interested in doing something about the issues.

    Just came back from the Motueka Sunday morning market. I stopped at my favourite spray-free vegetable stall and filled my bag with aubergine, broccoli, beans, peppers and potatoes. I handed the bag to the farmer so he could add the bill, but he smiled and said, 'That's $12.50. I watched you put them in.' My friend, Margot the dancer, at the Riverside stall had me taste some wonderful apple juice from their orchard. Irresistible!
    Very, very much love to all my dear friends,


    Book Review:
    The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience, by Rob Hopkins (Totnes, UK: Green Books, 2008).

    Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty, by Daniel Lerch (Sebastopol, USA: Post Carbon Press, 2007).

    The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices, by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2004).

    Joanna Santa Barbara
    Atamai Village Council, Motueka

    Are you looking for inspiration and ideas to transform your town, city, neighbourhood into a vital community, producing its own nutritious food, supplying its own energy, resilient to expected shocks of climate change and energy depletion? All three of these books offer therapy for those suffering from ‘post-petroleum stress disorder’, to use Rob Hopkins’s apt phrase, or from climate-change catatonia.

    There is no doubt that a soul can get shaken to the core by facing the realities of the multiple ecological crises facing our planet, together with descent from ‘peak oil’ production, and now also threats to global financial stability. Facing uncertainty in many dimensions, a very strong argument can be developed for a risk management approach. The potential gains are greater and losses are fewer in preparing for the worst than by hoping that life will proceed as usual indefinitely.

    But what does such preparation look like? Some folk are electing to start ‘from scratch’ to build the infrastructure of communities that can work in a post-carbon, climate-unstable future – the sustainable villages movement. Others start where they are, planning to convert both structure and function of their towns, cities, islands and regions in the direction of sustainability and resilience to shocks. These initiatives will all surely complement and aid each other. These three books are about the conversion of existing urban areas. The difference between the books is that Rob Hopkins (UK) describes the movement from below, the grassroots, the people’s initiative; Daniel Lerch (North America) directs his recommendations to local governments, that is, to city councillors and town planners; James and Lahti (Sweden) begin with local authorities and move to a democratic community development process. The three books fit very neatly together. Their visions are strongly compatible. Their approaches are sufficiently different to make reading all three worthwhile.

    The UK and North American books begin with an overview of the problems of ‘peak oil’ and climate change. The Swedish book begins with an explanation of the Natural Step – four principles of sustainability which will be applied to the structure and function of towns and cities. These are: In the sustainable society, Nature is not subject to systematically increasing:
    1. concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust
    2. concentrations of substances produced by society
    3. degradation by physical means
    and in that society,
    4. human needs are met world-wide.

    It can be readily seen that such principles lead directly to limiting fossil fuel use (responding to both ‘peak oil’ and climate change issues), use of natural materials, organic agriculture, systematic protection of all ecosystems, as well as attention to justice and equity. These fundamental markers of sustainability underlie and guide a great range of derived principles and strategies.

    Community resilience is an organizing principle of Rob Hopkins’s thinking about Transition Initiatives. He foresees shocks to human settlements from oil decline and climate change and asserts that the features that enable resilience of a system to shocks are diversity, modularity and ‘tight feedbacks’. Diversity refers to kinds of people, connexions between them, kinds of land use, kinds of economic activity. Modularity refers to the capacity of parts of the system to self-organize in the event of a crisis. Tightness of feedback concerns how easily the system registers when things are going wrong or right. A resilient community will be self-reliant for basic needs, although it may benefit from trade relationships for nonessentials. The community will be capable of feeding itself, providing its own energy and water. It will build with local materials and have a strong local economy, possibly with a local currency. There is therefore a focus on smaller-scale communities – town or neighbourhood-sized.

    A strong feature of Rob Hopkins’s book is his inclusion of many ‘tools for transition’, teaching devices and exercises for groups working in this direction. Both his book and the James and Lahti book deal with the psychology of change, recognizing that the change in values and attitudes required to build resilient, sustainable communities in harmony with the biosphere requires major shifts for most people. Those who want to move to action on transition in their own communities will find the pathway mapped by Rob Hopkins extremely helpful, even though it is recognized that each community will tread a unique route. To whet the activist appetite, his suggested twelve-step programme is:
    1. Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset.
    2. Raise awareness.
    3. Lay the foundations by networking with pre-existing groups and activists.
    4. Organize a ‘Great Unleashing’, an inaugural event.
    5. Form groups around major theme areas, for example, food, retrofitting houses, energy, land use.
    6. Use meeting strategies that maximize inclusion of the ideas of many people, and release creativity, such as ‘Open Space Technology.’
    7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project, such as a community garden or a structure built with local materials.
    8. Facilitate the ‘Great Reskilling’, recovering dwindling skills for survival in a low-energy future, for example, food preserving, composting, scything, tree grafting.
    9. Build a bridge to local government.
    10. Honour the elders, who have experience in living at lower energy and material consumption levels.
    11. Let it go where it wants to go.
    12. Create an Energy Descent Action Plan.

    One might add to the latter step, create a plan that also includes adaptation to climate change, water problems, and sea level rise if that is relevant to the site.

    All three books agree on the sectors of needed action, although each has different emphases. Lerch, writing for city councils, begins with urging cities to join global networks of other municipalities working in the same direction and to sign the Oil Depletion Protocol as a city, in order to reduce vulnerability. He goes on to say, ‘Deal with transportation and land use (or you might as well stop now)’. He charges city councils with responsibility to encourage energy conservation in private use, assertively engaging the business community ‘to reinvent the local economy for a post-carbon world’. His slogan is ‘Reduce consumption and produce locally.’ He cites several case examples of cities on the way to adaptation to a post-carbon world.

    The Swedish book by James and Lahti is organized by sectors of action: renewable energy, transportation, housing, green businesses, ‘eco-economic development’, ecological schools and education, sustainable agriculture, waste, land use and planning. The book is rich with case studies. The approach is being used in scores of towns and cities around the world, including the city of Christchurch, and is also applied by businesses. It is perhaps the most extensively applied of the three approaches.

    While Rob Hopkins’s book focusses primarily on the process of change. he does examine specifically the envisioned sectoral changes in food and farming (with emphasis on the merits of Permaculture), medicine and health, education, economy (with emphasis on the merits of local currencies), transport, energy, housing. There are several case studies of Transition Towns in progress, and many examples of creative ‘visioning’, as recommended by the writer.

    The Transition Towns approach is being rapidly adopted by scores of UK towns and about 35 New Zealand towns.

    I found all three books to be potent sources of learning and will return to them many times in the future. I have a couple of criticisms.. The first is a failure of the Hopkins and Lerch books to place their creative recommendations in the very big picture of inquiring about the scale of human impact on the region or bioregion of interest: ‘How much human economic activity, of what kind, can this segment of the biosphere cope with without degradation? How many humans, at what levels of consumption, can it support?’ It is possible that we may reduce consumption significantly and still continue to degrade the place we live in, though at a slower rate. The answers to these questions are not easy to come by, but we need to know. Secondly, we need to get our minds around working out an economy with a steady-state material through-put, that is, no material growth in the economy. This idea clashes seriously with the prevailing assumptions. All the more reason it needs to be incorporated into our ideas of envisioning and moving towards future resilient, sustainable communities.

    That said, all three of these books provide a feast for those wanting to take action on these issues. Judging by the entries on the Transition Towns website, this group of folk and the list of towns in which they live are multiplying by the day. Networks of interest are:
    New Zealand Transition Towns
    Living Economies, Aotearoa/New Zealand

    Tuesday, February 19, 2008

    How to feed people and conserve soil

    Dear Friends,
    The previous blog on Permaculture led to an interesting conversation with an old and treasured friend, Herb Jenkins, professor-emeritus from McMaster University. When Herb's enquiring mind played on the issues of our present endeavour, I knew we were in for an interesting conversation. This blog will reproduce part of it, with Herb's permission. I'll begin, however, with

    What's happening to us.

    Jack and I have moved to a house we'll be in for some time, ending our nomadic phase. This house was already on part of the village land and has no aesthetic or ecological merits, having been built with a permit for a shed! It is redeemed by the marvellous views of ocean and mountains, sunrises and sunsets. Our goods arrived and, amazingly, have made it feel something like a home. We even have a temporary dog. Sid, a working sheep dog, arrived with his owner who became the project's land manager. There is no other convenient place for him to stay, and I enjoy having him.

    Jack has been working hard on the necessary planning to get Regional Council approval. He and I worked on the section on Recreation and Conservation, in both of which areas the village provisions far exceed Council requirements. The conservation measures planned are quite extensive, especially with respect to native forest.
    Jack has just attended the board meeeting of the International Forum on Globalization in San Francisco. He presented a discussion paper on the population issue, a delicate one for any organization. The IFG Board is strong on Third World representation, which ensures a wide range of views on this issue. Energy issues was another area in which Jack had particular interests and responsibilities.

    He has gone from there to have an immersion experience in frolicking with the two grandchildren in Troy, southern Ontario, and is hoping that the third, due any day now, arrives while he is there.

    Last month I spent some time at workshops on democratic functioning - seeing this as very relevant to developing a well-functioning community. It was more experiential than any learning I've ever undertaken, and I think has added to my understanding and skills. These were held at Riverside, the established community I've mentioned - a great asset to the region.

    Now to the conversation with Herb.

    Discussion of how to feed people and conserve soil.

    Herb's letter:
    Hi Joanna,
    We have read your blogs with great interest. The one on the idea of a village was very provocative. I was struck by the boldness of what I take to be the major claim behind village based permaculture; namely, that living in major urban concentrations dependent on distant sources of food produced by large scale specialized food production is not sustainable. Urban depopulation, rural repopulation, and ecologically sensitive, science based, smaller scale, village based, agricultural production could be sustainable.
    The prescription appears to go against the view that we need residential intensification to contain or reverse the environmentally costly, land gobbling, urban/suburban sprawl. But maybe it doesn’t really go against that view since residential intensification is talked about in the context of agriculturally non productive land use. But are you worried that if the village-permaculture movement became widespread, it might entail the conversion of much undeveloped land to habitation and mixed agricultural production? Does village permaculture lead to low density sprawl?
    A major part of the argument for village based permaculture is that the combination of a big reduction in food transportation costs and more ecologically sensitive agricultural methods means that village permaculture is more conserving and less polluting than our present system. I have the impression that the assessment of net environmental cost of different systems is complex and in many cases uncertain. The present system in industrialized countries is highly specialized. Large areas are planted in one crop, or in the production of one kind of farm animal. Isn’t this specialization efficient? If so, might the gain in efficiency in production balance the environmental cost of transportation?
    I understand that there is also the argument that permaculture conserves the soil and other land based resources. But is it not possible to go some distance toward a more soil and water conserving agriculture without giving up on large scale specialized production? It seems to me that is also an important goal because large cities dependent on distant food production are going to be with us for a long time (if there is a long time).
    I recognize that village permaculture has appealing values quite aside from its possible role in moving the planet toward a sustainable way of living. What I am questioning is its potential for increasing the chances of the survival of a planet with, say, 10 billion people on it.
    I think that what you and Jack are doing is really admirable. You have the courage of your convictions, a rare and wonderful thing. I can see that the enterprise is totally engaging and exciting. I trust that you will take my questions as an attempt to understand, not to undermine.
    With all best wishes, Herb

    Our responses:

    Dear Herb,
    You are the very model of a modern inquiring mind; you asked great questions - thanks.

    I'll have a go at answering your questions and send my effort to Jack and others for more comments. Here's my best for now:

    You wonder if current agricultural practices, often referred to as 'industrial agriculture' (see second photo above), may be the most efficient way of producing food for Earth's population now, and in the future as we increase to the projected 10 billion. You recognize the fossil fuel emissions involved in the global network of food transportation, but ask if this might be balanced by the efficiency of the process. You wonder if industrial agriculture could be modified to improve soil and water conservation.
    You ask if reruralization may incur the array of ecological problems of suburban sprawl.

    Current agricultural practices are not sustainable. They contribute a very substantial proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions. They do this through the use of agricultural machinery, through the heavy application of fertilizers necessitated by depletion of soil nutrients, the application of herbicides and pesticides necessitated by monoculture practices, and by the huge amount of oil-fuelled transport the system involves.. In addition, heavy tillage of soil releases carbon to the atmosphere. (No-till systems sequester it.) We must find ways to grow food that restore the carbon-sequestering property of soil, the fertility of soil, that do not contribute to gg emissions and that are minimally dependent on oil. These things must be done for two reasons - to mitigate global warming in the long run and to avoid potentially grave effects of peak oil in the short run.

    It is not surprising that we experience the present system as efficient; global food prices have been steadily decreasing, at least since after WWII, and until 2005. (Now they are increasing, because of the impact of global warming on agriculture, the steady rise in the price of oil and because food, and food-producing land is being used to produce ethanol. This increase is haing serious effects on some populations.) Oil-fuelled farm machinery has replaced human labour, reducing production costs and depopulating farmland. Oil-based inputs to agriculture have replaced the need to take care of soil. This 'efficiency' in producing food is theft from those who come after us, and must deal with global warming and depleted soil. A related problem is the reduction of genetic diversity caused by industrial agriculture, with loss of many species and variants of such things as potatoes and rice, reducing resilience conferred by diversity.

    Jack: One way of understanding the inefficiencies ( and thus unsustainability) of current agricultural industrial practices is to look at the net energy return of the food produced. I don’t have the reference handy, but the calculations show that for every calorie produced by these methods, it takes at least 10 – 15 calories of inputs. This is the very definition of unsustainability – take away the high energy inputs and you can no longer produce the outputs. We are about to lose the inputs with peak oil and peak natural gas. We are also fouling the water required, and the levels of phosphorus are declining. The pulse in food production (and population) created by the introduction of fossil fuels into agriculture over the last century and a half cannot be repeated ( at least I know of no reasonable hypothesis of how it can).

    Another perspective on industrial agriculture has to do with the introduction of genetically modified organism – eg to grow in saline soil (created by poor irrigation practices), and other high tech solutions. These approaches which interfere with the natural flow of ecosystems and their slow evolution will undoubtedly have unintended consequences we cannot begin to appreciate ( note the unintended consequences of both CFCs for refrigeration and the extensive use of fossil fuels). Nature is the way nature is because it is the most efficient way of creating biomass and protecting living organisms. I suggest that as a species we are much better off trying to understand the complexities involved and working with these natural processes rather than attempting to “improve” them for our short term benefit.

    I have my doubts that the human population will ever reach 10 billion because of the vulnerability of our food system. But I also believe that more people will receive adequate nourishment if industrial agriculture ( and a host of other energy intensive practices that are unsustainable and essentially unhealthy for people and the planet eg mining, warfare, etc) are abandoned and we base our food system on local production with permaculture and related food production practices.

    Just a few days ago we had a small workshop here at Te Mara to plan for food production on the land here and for the village. The first stage will be to prepare a little more than 1 Ha of land for crop rotation. With two full time people and two part time, we expect to be able to feed about 20 people from this parcel – with a surplus. We will use a combination of permaculture and French intensive gardening. The process grows soil as well as crops, insuring the sustainability of the practice. We will use some fossil fuels to begin preparing the land ( and we will try to measure these inputs so we can establish a baseline and reduce it in the future) as a temporary measure. The objective is to move quickly to a fossil fuel free system and we believe this can be done in just a few years.

    Permaculture (see first hoto above) and other organic agricultural practices counter these problems. I understand they can restore depleted soil, minimize external inputs, and minimize tillage. I also understand that the food production per hectare is greater in total than in monoculture, the product comprising many diverse foods rather than one. The implication of this is that a change to this for of agriculture would have a better chance of feeding human populations than would industrial monocultureagriculture. Organic practices involve small scale monocultures, are strong on nurturing soil, and are labour intensive. Permaculture practices, I'm told, after achievement of a mature garden, involve rather little labour input, mostly focussing on perennial plants. But the permaculturist must live in their garden to observe and make adjustments.

    It would seem possible to apply such agricultural practices to urban centres up to a certain size. This happened successfully in Cuba after their sudden loss of Soviet oil in the 1990s. They implemented multiple adaptations,including input from Australian permaculturists, intensive urban gardening, use of draft animals for agricultural energy input and a science-based approach. I understand that Havana was able to supply 80% of its food from within a 5-10 km radius of the city centre, and smaller towns were able to grow 100%. I imagine this meant people moving out of the city into the near countryside.

    Jack: see above. I would also add that I think cities will and must shrink in population. Sustainable agricultural practices will require more people on the land and involved in food production. Reruralization is needed. See the writing of Richard Register for the thinking of an architect who has been looking at these issues for some time, and who has useful ideas about how to transform cities into a system of villages.

    Keep in mind that cities also now contain a lot of people who are essentially unproductive from the perspective of meeting basic human needs - think of people in the financial services, insurance, advertising, PR, even the food and trucking industries, etc. Many of these jobs could go without too many people really missing the services provided (aside from those whose jobs might be lost). A return to localization of the economy, especially regarding basic services ( food, shelter, education, health care, culture, etc) will create a much more efficient system and allow many more people to survive.

    Does this mean worse urban sprawl?
    Not in the form of settlement we're working on. The problem with urban sprawl is that water, sewage and electricity and roads must be supplied over a huge area of urban infrastructure at great expense, and then people must travel long distances to work and education. Also there is likely no meaningful community in their settlement area, and certainly little economic interdependence. In the form of settlement we are developing, water, sewage and energy will be taken care of in the village, food will be grown in the village area, and there will be a strong effort to have as many jobs as possible based in the village. Some of these may depend on internet (while this technology is available), and it is recognized that some people will need to work in the nearby town or city. Transport will be shared. Houses are to be built on the less productive land, usually rather steep slopes.

    Jack: Much of current “development” takes place on green fields ie agricultural land ( this is one of the big issues about the expansion of an industrial park around the Hamilton airport). It takes productive farm land out of production and transforms it to a use that requires ever more energy and material inputs. No matter how “efficient” this process becomes, it is inherently unsustainable on the scale it is now occurring (and perhaps at any scale).

    Several of your questions talk about improved efficiencies. I have two comments: Jevon’s Paradox needs to be considered – whenever there is an increase in efficiency there is also an increase in total material throughput – when things are more efficient we use more of them. Secondly, being efficient at the wrong thing cannot be sustainable. We have become increasingly efficient at creating unsustainable practices and are approaching “peak everything” ( a recent book by Richard Heinberg – recommended). A basic principle of ecological economics is – frugality first ( set limits to ensure we stay within the capacities of natural systems to regenerate) and then be concerned with doing that efficiently.

    One of the things that really excites me about the project we are doing is that we are taking marginal land (only good for grazing sheep at best – which NZ has too many of anyway) and turning it into productive land thru permaculture, making it visually attractive (again via permaculture), and providing basic services for people (water, waste water management, energy, food) from the land itself. We will require almost nothing from the district council in terms of services ( in fact, I can think of none). Even the materials for the homes will largely come from materials on the land itself. I am hoping we can do a materials and energy audit of both the construction and operating phases to learn more about what we are actually doing and to learn how this can be improved.

    Can this form of settlement pattern take care of the needs of 10 billion people? I don't know and I have doubts that it can, despite the claims of higher productivity in Permaculture. While I have seen predictions that the present form of agriculture can feed 10 billion, these projections take into account none of the problems of GHG emissions and peak oil. The recent notes on rising food prices and diminishing grain reserves suggest that we are running into problems of food supply (rather than only food distribution) right now. I am very interested in understanding more about how many humans can live sustainably on the Earth.

    Jack: Again, see my comments above. When I hear questions like this, the I = P X A X T formula comes to mind. We cannot separate the population (P) question from consumption ( A for Affluence) and technology ( T). Clearly, the total impact we have on ecosystems that support and maintain us ( and everyone living thing) is a complex function of P, A and T. We tend to focus on improving T ( because we have some much excess energy with fossil fuels),and generally avoid looking at A and P. But there are three parameters we have to work with, and if we are going to be losing the unrepeatable energy services of fossil fuels( which has made the incredible T we have possible) then we had best learn to deal with both the A and the P. The real goal is reducing our I ( impact on ecosystems), and we will need to radically alter all three parameters – making technologies more efficient and focused on doing the basic tasks, learn to live more frugally ( which is totally consistent with high levels of both human satisfaction and well being – objectively measured), and reduce our population. Ultimately, it is the I ( for Impact) that counts.

    Well, dear Herb, that's it for me now.Warmest wishes to you and Adair,
    Further comments: I read the following account the other day: When the massive exodus of Tibetans flowed into India, they were given land in various parts of India and began agriculture. This was in the hey-day of the green revolution and the adopted its methods. Much later it was realized that the soil had become sterile, devoid of all the living matter that makes up healthy soil, due to these methods. the dalai Lama pointed out that the infrastructure of all Tibetan settlements must be nonviolent. Agriculture changed to organic methods and productivity improved. (Chris Turner. The Geography of Hope, 2007 )

    Alternative Currency
    One friend, commenting on previous blogs, noted that nothing has been said about a complementary local money system (like the Toronto dollar). I had been imagining that this would be worked out at a later stage. However, some more recent reading, stimulated by Joy Kogawa who was instrumental in the Toronto Dollar system, suggests to me that sooner rather than later should be considered. I was very happy to find that our ecologist, Helle Janssen, has past experience in establishing alternatie currencies. I'm sure to return to this topic.
    Warmest wishes to the enduring souls who have read all of this.