Friday, December 11, 2015

Practical Permaculture: Catching and Storing Energy. And Fighting Vampires.

This is going to be a sensible, practical dispatch about making a living and learning to thrive in the modern world, but it starts with a journey into the deep, dark heart of the wild woods, under old growth forest, with cool, quiet air, the caw of a crow, and soft moss underfoot. 

Because this is one of the few places left that make sense in a modern world of "consumers" and "consumption," that seems to be doing it's darndest to consume all of us. Behind you now! Feel its claws on your shoulders? Do not look at it. Feel its breath at your neck? Hear the rumble in its stomach? It's toying with you - don't look! You would never see it anyway, because it's only in your imagination. 

And we wouldn't want to anger it. 

So, quick! Forget it's there. Focus back on the wood, the crow, the sound of cold water flowing gently over stones and sand nearby. We must travel to the heart of the Wildwood, to find imaginary allies to fight imaginary foes in an imaginary war, that - though it is only in our imaginations - is nevertheless heating the planet, polluting our waters and air, and killing us all. 


There's a reason why all the great saints and sages got their groove in the wilderness, as Robert F. Kennedy has pointed out. "The central epiphany of all wisdom traditions" according to Kennedy, happens on a pilgrimage to wild nature, whether it's the Buddha, Moses, Mohammad, Jesus, or take your pick of dozens of others. 

If you want to find the path to prosperity, the way to live a good life, you'd do well to look in the woods, or other wild ecosystems that naturally grow wealthier, more fertile, more diverse and more resilient over time. Ecologists and Biologists call this charactaristic of all living systems "negative entropy" or "negentropy." 

They are kind systems that prosper but produce no waste, have no need to exploit or abuse, or "export entropy" on to others in the form of pollution, oppression or war. 

Learn the wisdom found there in the wood, the patterns that allow ecosystems to generate increasing abundance over time, and apply it to the human systems that are notoriously subject to entropy, decline and decay, such as our homes, buildings, cities, organizations and civilizations, and you're on the path to plenty, naturally growing wealth. 

Designing this idea of "accumulating prosperity" into our lives is a deeply sensible thing to do. 

And it's the central idea of Permaculture. And it can be applied to all the systems humans inhabit, whether they're tangible ones like a city or homestead, or invisible ones like a PTA or a co-op. 

From that perspective, the key to emulating this "negentropy" is to design human systems to catch and store energy the way natural systems do. 

An ecosystem takes energy sources and converts them into forests, which in turn take energy from the sun, from the wind, from water, and invests it in new trees, which themselves transform energy into more growth.... Nothing is lost, as animals eat the fruit and nuts, reinvesting that energy into living beings. Their waste fertilizes the soil and grows new plants, endlessly reinvesting the energy into more complexity, resiliency, diversity and fertility. 

(Food chain image thanks to: 


We humans generally make things in a much sillier way, like this:

(Note: "outputs" here refers simply to energy lost to the system.) 

If you spend more than you make, you've got a problem. 

A simple in/out linear "open loop" system. But since we live in a physical world tied to the destructive patterns of weathering, deterioration, and fashion trends, the costs of maintaining our cities, homes, etc. are always rising, meaning that to continue, the system must always be growing. But in a finite world, the outputs will eventually outweigh the inputs and the system will decline. 

Incredibly, we've structured our whole economy this way, including our corporations. 

This is because we are deeply silly beings with fantastically overactive imaginations, and we thought it would make life more fun and exciting if we brought all of our most horrible imaginary nightmare monsters into the real world in the form of "corporate persons," doomed to kill, ravage and mindlessly feed on the life energy of non-imaginary people and systems or else they violently implode causing massive amounts of destruction. 

Think about that, we've created LITERALLY imaginary beings, corporations, that only exist in the imaginations of people when they come together to play make-believe and say "we are Shell Oil," yet they can steal, pillage, murder, and destroy whole communities and ecosystems in the real world. 

Humans, huh? 

Since these imaginary corporate persons have to feed and grow and feed and grow or else perish, they have had to grow to take control over virtually every aspect of our lives. One wonders what else is left for them to grow and consume to stave off their self-destruction.... 

When we rely almost exclsively on corporate solutions to meet our needs, we end up with a system that looks like this: 

Obviously, this isn't a "sustainable" situation. It isn't even a situation that can be made "sustainable." It certainly isn't a situation that's good for our cities. And this isn't something our politicians typically talk about, but it's a pretty obvious cause for Urban Decay. In such an unsuatainable system, cities are forced to convert their shared assets into waste to further feed the hungry imaginary beasts. Re-label that smaller circle "declining nation" and you've got a good picture of our national situation in the US.

If you re-label it "my family," does it still hold true?  

The basic thing to understand is that these imaginary corporate persons are at war with us. They don't care about you, your family or your city. Being imaginary, they didn't evolve, so they do not have cerebral cortexes, or the handy mammalian adaptations like empathy and love that are found there. According to the very silly rules of the game ("laws") in which we made up these imaginary beings, they only care about one thing: converting your life energy into "profit" and growth. They are literally, legally required to only care about that one thing. If a corporation were to prioritize "not being evil" for example, it could be found guilty of abusing its shareholders, either in a court of law, which would give it an imaginary slap it on its imaginary wrist, or in the "market," which would rip it to shreds ruthlessly and feast on its bloody corpse. 

So, whether you want to save yourself, your family, your city, your country or the world, fighting off these imaginary, but very deadly, beings is a good first step. 


And so we find ourselves now at the heart of the wild wood. 

Cool air,
Scent of pine, earth and deep memory,
Utterly still peace thunders through the trees. 

Here we must blow the ram's horn, paint our faces with mud and make a strong tea of the moss and lichens. 

Wait and be very still now. 


The Green Man and Woman, the warrior ethos of forest, will come to tea. Together, they can teach us how to change the rules of the game, to recruit the help of powerful forces to aid in our quest: mother nature, biology, physics, practicality and sensibility. 

Sensibility is a stake in the heart to imaginary corporate monsters and the deeply silly day-dreamers who imagine them into reality. 

Practicality is a wreath of garlic.

The Green Man, the Green Woman, together draw a circle in the sand, to teach us a practical, sensible approach to redesigning our City system in the image of nature: 

Such a city, designed like an ecosystem, becomes insulated from the energy-sucking attacks from outside entities, be they corporations or other communities. The BIG change here, is that this city is structured to grow wealthier from within, instead of from the outside. It survives off of photosynthesis instead of predation, both literally and figuratively. It DOES capture outside energy sources, but it uses them to invest in building internal sources of wealth. Meanwhile, it limits losses to the outside, especially corporations, keeping this wealth and energy inside the system, and intentionally investing it into more assets that generate wealth. When we structure our communities in such a sensible way, we strike a death blow to the monsters. 

I told you, sensibility is a stake in the heart. 

The same applies to the household or individual economy. A conventional home economy looks like:

Conventionally, we focus almost exclusively on corporate solutions to life. We get make-believe jobs from the corporate system and do make-believe "work" helping it in its silly cruel game. If we can't meet our needs or pursue our wants with what it pays us, we look back to corporations for ways to meet our needs in less costly ways, cheaper products and services. Usually, corporations accomplish this by "externalizing costs onto ecosystems or other people" ie, pillaging, raping, murdering, causing climate change, and other monsterous behaviors, all in our names.

Permaculture invites us to redesign the home economy so that it also looks like the forest food web:

We'll be going into this in more detail soon, but lets look at a concrete example of "catching and storing energy."

Polls show over and over that most Americans these days say they are "living pay check to pay check." Money comes in from work, and goes straight back out in order to meet needs such as food, transportation and housing. In/out, a dead-end losing game. 

Instead, what if we take part of our yearly food budget and invest it in food, but in a way that also builds a permanent, perennial food forest system to catch and store energy for us. A well-designed food forest will pay for itself in the first year, providing as much food as would have been purchsed from the corporate system. And beautiful, edible landscaping is known to be one of the best home investments you can make, so it's like putting every penny you spend on your forest garden into the bank. It will add financial value to your home over time. But more importantly, it is a "generative asset," meaning it will continue to produce an increasing value of food for every year thereafter, decreasing the amount of money leaving your system and freeing up capital that we can reinvest. Eventually, it will likely produce an excess that can generate income or feed your friends. But a food forest is also a "procreative" asset, meaning it reproduces itself, creating more food forests that can be spread or shared with neighbors for a stronger community. A well-designed food forest should more than reproduce itself every year after 3-5 years, creating exponential growth in wealth! Show me any corporate investment with that kind of return. 

Similar approaches can be used to transform your housing, heating, transportation and virtually every "need" and want you're currently spending money on. 

Again, when we use such a life-enhancing, practical approach to living and thriving, we fend off systems that suck away our prosperity. We start investing our life energy into assets and systems that generate more weath for us and heal our community, instead of ones that simply exploit and steal from us. 

When we build communities on this principle, we finally have solid ground to stand on as we fight back against the vampires. More importantly, we create a model of a beautiful, meaningful way of living and that doesn't require us to make up hideous monsters in order to have an exciting life. 

Soon, we'll be going deeper into the details, as we travel deeper into the wood. What streams of energy can be put to work for us? What kind of regenerative assets and structures can those energies be invested in to create a better life? Will the monsters (us) get the best of our hapless heroes (also us) or can the Green Man and Woman help us win the day? 

(To be continued...) 


  1. A comment I received through email:

    Your imaginary pathological corporate "person" at war with humanity and Earth is admirably exposed in the following:

    The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit & Power (book) and The Corporation (film) by Joel Bakan

    When Corporations Rule the World by David Korten (co-founding member of BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) and co-founder/contributing feature writer, in conjunction with his wife Fran) of Yes! publication.

  2. Mike

    I like your story/ narrative framework.

    Corporations (as you say) are unreal, unprecedentedly destructive legal abstraction monsters who rule the world, are single-mindedly obsessed with profits and growth, and make the laws both directly, and through their cash-and-asset rich lobbyist surrogates (from which they are exempt and immune). They (their capital-ist owners and intermediary managers-plutocrats-meritocrats-technocrats) are akin to the plantation slave-master-owners of our global slavery economic ego-systems of yore....and they are too big to fail or be regulated because of their systemic importance. Scary!

    Multi-national corporations are the basis of rapidly growing and expanding private globalized oligarchic empires in almost every industry. Read Private Empire, Steve Coll's story of the collective psychopathic paradigms, behavior and culture of Exxon, the largest and most deadly corporation in America and arguably the world. Putin has modelled his Russian nation-state empire after Exxon whose worldview, practices and strategies he learned and studied intimately during the Bush,Jr- Chaney administration.

    You present local permaculture communities as bounded (bi-furcating insiders-outsiders, we-they, win-lose thinking and realities).

    I urge you to consider an alternative paradigm: other as self---as expounded in Ken Gergen's Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community. The oneness of humanity and the environment without borders. The concept of global citizenship through inside-out human transformation, and the widespread lateral cooperative dissemination of horizontal collaborative Earthly community building. "Home" as all humanity (a single identity) living in peace and harmony and fraternity on Earth (a single place). Humans as a part of the whole eco-system rather than separate and dominant. Jared Diamond admonishes that any other thinking/being could well lead to COLLAPSE. He urges us to choose life rather than war, death and self-other annihilation.

    1. "You present local permaculture communities as bounded (bi-furcating insiders-outsiders, we-they, win-lose thinking and realities)."
      I wanted to respond to this comment.

      It's not my intent to define Permaculture communities as bounded, separate entities.

      I'm simply proposing a strategy for transformation that is viable in America's current political landscape.

      Since studies show that the political participation of most Americans has literally 0 measurable effect on policy decisions*, we need an alternative strategy to effect change.

      Permaculture presents such a strategy: self-selecting people and communities choose of their own free will to invest in building better systems for meeting our needs right underneath the existing one.

      I think Permaculture embodies the symbolic "oneness" of humanity and nature, fully.

      That said, on the practical side, I'm not sure I agree with a strategy where humanity acts out of oneness. I'd rather people and self-organizing communities be empowered as equals to act as they see fit, with as much freedom and diversity as possible, so long as they aren't hurting anyone. This is the way nature organizes extremely complex systems effectively. Nature, governs through "dissensus."

      IF nature had ever adopted such a system of "oneness" and universal consent, life on earth would have gone extinct shortly after.