Monday, February 26, 2018

Why Gandhi was an A*hole and Why Permaculture has Failed

(Reading time: 4 minutes.)

And with that title, I am now officially trolling my own blog. 

Ok, so sure, cool, he helped lead anti-oppression movements in multiple countries, inspired non-violent resistance all over the world, fought against classism, and inspired several religious traditions and whatever. So what if hippies like me reread his autobiography every few years for inspiration (because, that's a thing I do.) Most people look at his EXTREME lifestyle and say: "Wow what a an AWESOME super-human - I could never be like that." 

What do modern Americans tend to emphasize about him? 

"He lived in shack with a dirt floor and 'wore a diaper'" (an ethnocentrism I think reveals the guilt of our consumer lifestyle.) 

We know he just did all that EXTREME morality stuff just to look bad-ass on Instagram, but he set a model us little people could never live up to. Seriously though, I think we actually use these EXTREME stereotypes to justify a worse version of ourselves than what we really aspire to, as though, if we can't be as good as Gandhi, then what's the point? 

Why do I think that? Because I've made that excuse myself. Because I've had literally over a hundred conversations where other people do exactly the same: invoke the EXTREME as an excuse to do nothing.

It's actually harder for us to accept that Gandhi was just a complex, flawed human being, who made mistakes, felt conflicted about his duty as a leader and his role as a father and husband, made some racist statements when he was young, sexist ones when he was old, failed to prevent religious/ethnic war in India, and probably inadvertently reinforced systems of racial conflict and colonial oppression in Africa. 

Meanwhile, "his" great accomplishments were achieved by the work millions of "regular people" acting bravely and taking action. 
And his lifestyle choices were intended as a model, inspiration and critique within an Indian cast system a century ago - it wasn't all about us - and our EXTREME stereotypes about him have very little truth to them. 

So, I guess the problem is less about Gandhi being an a-hole and more about the ethnocentric, dismissive, and dehumanizing ways we "moderns" talk about him.

And we do the same thing with Mother Theresa, Jesus, the Buddha, Fukuoka, Native Americans just sort of generally, and yes, Hitler. We make Hitler an EXTREME example of evil as a way of denying that we ourselves hold the potential to do both great good and great evil. Hitler too, was just a human like you or me, and it was the complilcity of millions of "regular people" like us that caused great harm.

We focus on what appears BIG SHINY FLASHY SUPERHUMAN EXTREEEEEEME, and we under-celebrate the EXTREME power of regular people doing small acts of meaningful change, kindness and beauty. 


"Why has Permaculture failed?" 

The answer: It hasn't. At all.

It has helped feed probably millions of people, healed millions of acres of soil, provided habitat for billions of organisms, helped change the discussion about climate change and soil loss, and helped people all over the world reclaim a better relationship with nature and community, build happier, healthier, more resilient lives - I personally believe it's been the most important and impactful work in the world for 4 decades now. 
And yet, this idea that Permaculture has failed has become a major topic of conversation within the Permaculture Community. In fact, claiming that Permaculture has failed has become a pre-requisite to being taken seriously within that community and many recent books on Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture literally start by saying so. 

Why? Because we're focussed on the BIG SHINY FLASHY SUPERHUMAN EXTREEEEEME instead of what gets real world results. Even in Permaculture, with our principles of small, slow change and working with the marginal, we LOVE the BIG FAST MAINSTREAM over-complicated projects that use tons of resources, volunteers, land, fossil fuels, and non-renewable materials, and cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, but only produce a few thousand dollars of food/year. We want to follow the dirtiest, smelliest, hardcore-est guy on IG who's living an "EXTREME" looking "rewilded" lifestyle of self-reliance and renunciation - the ONE who's escaped the cage of civilization and modern technology - and documents it thoroughly with daily social media updates, the flashiest email service and the absolute cutting-edge in photography, video and sound equipment. And yes, it's almost always a guy, because it takes a whole heap of privilege to even pretend to live that way, and a whole heap of male authority for it to be taken seriously. 

Now, there IS a role for legit pioneers exploring the limits of self-reliance. But I'm more impressed by the "regular" gardeners, farmers, organizers, and just plain "livers" I know who are taking small steps that reduce their footprint, cut their reliance on the psychotic corporate food system, and building healthier lifestyles than I am by somebody who's "living" (part time) in a hovel in the boondocks but has increased their personal fossil fuel and plastic consumption 10 fold to pay for it. How about starting with growing some of your own food (easy) and figuring out how to use as much of it as possible (difficult) before you go saving or "feeding the world?"


And so it goes... We raise up the EXTREME unhealthy "fitness" celeb with the well-chiseled abs cut by dangerous drugs, rather than the human-looking knowledgable local trainer with a practical, healthy lifestyle. And in politics, we gravitate towards the EXTREMES that looks ideologically pure on Facebook, over what will actually serve our cause. And diets go EXTREME on purity too, even if it costs a fortune and harms our health. Our houses? Extreme! Our cars? Extreme! Our vacations? Extreme! And our spirituality? Extremely EXTREEEEEME!!!

Yes, I have fallen into this trap myself, working on experiments so obscure that they'd only be practical for a very small group of self-reliance and natural living junkies, but impractical for almost everyone, difficult to teach, and ultimately low-impact.
So, how could Permaculture be improved? Maybe by focussing less on being hardcore and flashy, and more on being EXTREMELY practical, helpful and impactful. If we want to get serious about changing the world, we can just work on that 20% that will have the 80% most effect (the 80/20 principle I write about a lot,) rather than push our efforts well beyond the "point of diminishing returns" to get approval on social media. 

We can cut the BS and be hardcore about helping real people take meaningful steps towards happier, healthier, more reslient lives with more control over their food and livelihoods, and a better connection to nature and community. We can each "be the change we want to see," model real, achievable change, and help maximize the happiness of as many beings as possible, while minimizing suffering for as many as possible. That's something every one of us can participate in, and that is extremely transformative.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Vegan Permaculture? at Lillie House?

(Our beauty rat. She is our friend and garden collaborator, not a meat animal.) 

Nope. I have no interest in entering the grand debate over veganism. Not going to do it. As per usual, I have no interest in taking sides. Most of the time, the opposite of a wrong idea is NOT a right one, but another wrong idea. In this case, I believe there is a time for being vegan, and a time for not. It is another great tool, which can either be used for good, or misused. So what I am interested in is some discussion about this tool, and how we can use it. 

Some people so strongly associate Permaculture with animals that I often hear people wonder: Can Permaculture be vegan? 

Does being vegan preclude being a Permaculturist? Or vice versa? 

No! Absolutely not! There are many examples of people doing veganic Permaculture. In fact, most people who have a Permaculture design for their yards, businesses, farms, etc. don't have farm animals. And for those interested in Pursuing a strictly veganic form of Permaculture, I recommend the Vegan Book of Permaculture. 

(Our other critter. Such lazy critters.)

However, the topic is a hot one and worth writing about with a little more depth. There are two common debates at the intersection of veganic Permaculture: Do animals belong on the table? And do animals belong on the farm?

First, the table.  

After deep reading, years of dietary experimentation including being vegan off and on, and research into the sustainability of veganism, here's my position: 

Being vegan is a good, simple tool anyone on a standard American diet can use to have a MORE humane, sustainable (and probably) healthier lifestyle. 

Let's be clear: After reading literally dozens of critiques of the sustainability of veganism, I haven't seen a single article EVER that disagrees with this point. Every critique of veganism I've seen compares it to an ideal non-vegan food system that COULD exist, somewhere. The only critique I've ever seen is that veganism is not perfect. It could be more sustainable. It could be healthier (for some people at some times.) If you get your meat from an idealized regenerative farmer doing perfect best practices in a humane way, it could be both those things and fight climate change at the same time. But what remains is that for most people living in the actual world, who don't want to do years of experimentation and in-depth research comparing avocados to butter, and who don't know the Perfect Farmer, veganism is a totally legit choice. Anyone arguing otherwise is probably just being defensive because they love bacon. 

So, are we vegan? Nope. 

I have been vegan for lengthy periods of time, and I still aspire to be vegan, but ultimately I have other priorities that outweigh being vegan. Being vegan is not perfect. At least not for me. 

One of those priorities is our particular health goals and situation. For years I believed the common saying that I could get enough protein from plants without worrying about it. And that the modern diet has too much protein. I never questioned this and I never looked into the science. It sounded truthy. 

(Meme spread far and wide on FB. I double-checked most of these numbers on Google.)

For me, the recommended minimum daily intake of protein is 64 grams on a relatively sedentary day.* That's about what's in a single chicken breast. Half a chicken breast added to one meal guarantees I hit that minimum, and stay at a reasonable carbohydrate and calorie count. Unfortunately, I avoid eating chicken. Using vegan sources, hitting this minimum target is more complicated. Lentils are often listed as the single best unprocessed vegan protein source. One large bowl of vegan lentil soup will have 20g protein, and is very filling. I can eat nothing but lentil soup all day long and still not hit my protein minimum. Meanwhile, I've had over 200g of carbohydrates. If I decide to eat anything but lentils, it gets harder to hit my minimum, while the carb rate sky-rockets. For example, I have to eat about 5 cups of black beans, 6 cups of baked beans, or 7 cups of quinoa per day!

I feel stuffed just thinking about it.  

But the truth is, most people with a sedentary American lifestyle probably don't need that much protein, most of the time. With some effort, you can probably get close enough to avoid negative health impacts. 

But as soon as I become very active on the homestead, or go into a calorie deficit, researchers say my protein intake should go above 100-120g of protein/day (or higher) to avoid negative health consequences, aging, metabolic decline, increase in cortisol (stress hormone) and loss of muscle mass. Now I'm dependent on commercially processed food sources like tempeh or seitan products if I want to get anywhere near that on a vegan diet. Still, this would be very, very difficult.

Realistically, as a homesteader on a vegan diet, my protein intake was closer to 30g/day. Often less. Over the years, this had started to cause health problems, including the vexing issue of simultaneous weight loss (muscle loss) and fat gain. 2 years ago, I weighed 10 lbs LESS than I had in my entire adult life, yet my waist was 6 inches larger than it had ever been and I was getting out of breath going up the stairs! This is exactly the result that a large amount of research would predict given my level of activity and protein consumption. Which is why I have come to rely on eggs, dairy, and occasionally even meat to get closer to my minimum protein target. I still rarely hit that minimum. But the intentional increase in protein reversed the muscle loss and fat gain I was experiencing on my low-protein diet. 2 years later, I weigh 10lbs more and my waist is 6 inches smaller, and I can't deny that the mindful protein increase was a major part of this. 

Those on a prescribed diet from a doctor or dietician for dealing with diabetes or obesity might have a goal of getting 160g protein with only 160g of carbohydrate. Unfortunately, I cannot find a way to make that work on a vegan diet, period. 8 bowls of the lentil soup (which makes a best-case high-protein vegan food) hits the protein, but also close to 400g of carbohydrate. See the difficulty?

So many vegans dismiss these goals instead of trying to meet them. I find it difficult to dismiss the research in every case. Rather than present the nutritional research myself, here's an article that includes a great deal of citation to the science available on protein in the diet. * The recommendations at the end probably aren't necessary for most average people, even those looking to get into better shape. However, it's worth pointing out that even the lowest end of this spectrum becomes virtually impossible to achieve on a vegan diet - even for a single day - without supplementing with several protein shakes per day. (On a side note, our personal evaluation of protein supplements found dairy to be almost certainly more sustainable and less impactful to animals than any vegan source. It's also dramatically more affordable.) This isn't to say that it's impossible to be healthy and vegan. Simply that there are some reasonable nutritional goals that are difficult to meet as a vegan.
Please prove me wrong. I invite anyone to come up with a few days of vegan meals that can hit the nutrition goals. I couldn't get close without eating tempeh at every meal, which comes with its own health and environmental concerns.

I'll simply conclude that being vegan might not always be a sustainable option for everyone to meet their health and diet goals all the time. 

A second conflicting priority is ethics, both general sustainability and minimizing harm to human and non-human animals. For example, as a vegan I was using almond milk rather than dairy. However, the almond industry is a leading driver of cruelty to bees (both domesticated and wild,) cause of colony collapse, user of water and oil, and exploitive labor practices. It became hard for me to argue that even average organic dairy isn't more humane and sustainable option. Once I saw that, I stopped buying almond milk. I have similar concerns about soy, avocados, palm oil, coconut oil, bananas, jackfruit and most of the high-quality proteins listed above. While being vegan certainly remains a good option compared to the standard American diet, some of us may want to go "beyond vegan" in terms of ethical impact, which may mean limiting some of these foods that are essential to maintaining a healthy vegan diet. For me, this outweighs "purity." Of course, we also don't have to be "purists" about outcomes when being vegan is a good enough positive step for most. I won't judge any vegan for chosing almond milk as part of a complete vegan diet, but I am unwilling to do so myself. 

A third conflicting priority is local economics. Many vegan staples are tropical. If I can sometimes substitute locally produced dairy and meat products which help strengthen our local economy, I sometimes make that choice. 

And a fourth conflicting food priority is growing my own. In most years, we try to grow as large a portion of our diet as practically possible. Again, this is difficult if my diet is based on a large quantity of protein field crops, processed foods, and imported tropical goods. But with just dairy and eggs, I can turn garden produce into a complete healthy diet throughout the whole year, and make the most of what we grow. As a busy homesteader, I can have restaurant quality omlettes ready from garden to table in less than 10 minutes and ensure that the eggs came from a local, ethical source. And again, if a large portion of my calories are coming from home-grown corn, potatoes and sunchokes, (rather than lentils and tempeh) I have to work even harder to get into a healthy protein range.

Still, veganism remains a goal and ideal for us, and we still manage to eat vegan meals probably 50% of the time. And for many people, a vegan diet is a great tool to improve the ethics of their food choices without a great deal of thought and research. 

Similarly, our garden COULD be 100% vegan, but it isn't. 

(Or perhaps it is, depending on the perspective.) Veganic farming is another great, practical tool. Despite theoretical debates, there is simply no good, replicable research showing that domesticated animals are necessary to a healthy ecosystem or for farm fertility. Indeed, all the research I know of shows that net fertility is lost when you process plants through animals. Despite all the critiques in the Permaculture community, a cow is not a perpetual motion machine. A cow does not amplify the raw carbon or nitrogen from its feed, but subtracts from it, causing a net loss. I know of no reason why domesticated animals are necessary for farm fertility. I'm skeptical of the common argument from Permaculturists that cruelty is acceptable, because it is necessary. Ethicists tell us we should always be skeptical of claims that the end justifies the means.

Moreover, I'm skeptical of Permaculturists who frequently argue from a different perspective of "purity," as though the ideal hypothetically perfect Permaculture system justifies cruel or unsustainable practices.

I DO agree with the countless articles outlining the THEORETICAL reasons why meat farming might be more "natural," or sustainable, or regenerative than some othe hypothetical veganic system. And, I've personally seen same great farms I trust. But in practice, not all Permie farms are equal. I cannot eat meat from Joel Salatin's famously idealized PolyFace Farm, because what I see is unnecessarily cruel and inhumane treatment of animals in the name of "cleverness" or sustainability. 

But again, the lines aren't clear and there are conflicting priorities. And some farms may be more sustainable and even more humane by NOT being strictly vegan. 

We do not import manure, blood or bone meal, or other non-vegan products. However, we do engage in 3 questionably non-vegan practices: we compost (including vermicomosting,) we use rabbit manure from our (rescued) animal companions, and we encourage wildlife on our site by creating habitat. 

To some, this does not preclude being vegan. But to others, it does and we're not interested in arguing for the sake of "purity."

It is not veganic to use animal manure in the compost pile or garden. But for us, dealing with our wastes in a regenerative, closed-loop way takes priority over being strictly "vegan." And some argue that vermicomposting is not vegan "if it is not a natural process," but that composting with worms IS vegan when it is "natural." For others, it's ok so long as it is humane. We try to be as humane as possible and minimize handling, but if someone else questions our purity, I feel no need to argue. The benefits of vermicomposting to the health of our ecosystem outweigh the need for purity. 

And finally, in a healthy veganic Permaculture system, the interactions of domesticated animals need to be replaced by the interactions of wildlife. But the line of "domestication" gets complicated when one starts "keeping" wildlife on the land. For example, bee-keeping is generally regarded as non-vegan, though this is controversial and frequently debated. Likewise, some sources have problems with wildlife habitat that is not "natural." We cultivate wildlife, including native bee, bird, mammal and reptile habitat, and are keen to "exploit" them for their positive interactions. If someone wants to argue that's not vegan, then it's fine with us. 

In the end, veganism isn't a badge of supperiority for us, it's a tool we use to get inspired and make better choices. And that's exactly what it can be for most people, whether we're talking about the diet, the wardrobe or the landscape. If you're going to knock it for not being perfect, then you better have a perfect system of your own, or at least a demonstrably better one. But at the same time, a purist approach might not always be the best for every situation. The key might be to just keep doing the best we can at moving in the right direction. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Most (and Least) Important Tasks for High-Value Gardens (and Farms)

(Draft design sketch for a Habitat for Humanity project.)

Sure, maybe you're willing to put in $30 of cash and work for a single tomato because it's your hobby. But honestly, most people I see start this way end up letting the garden go after a few years because it just isn't worth the time.

From my observations, the people who harvest the most value, satisfaction and, well, produce out of their gardens are those who take gardening seriously. We keep things simple, but we also plan, prioritize and intend to progress over time, becoming better and better growers. Over time, we get better results.

The same is true for those who want to turn their growing into an income through farming. 

One tool we can use to maximize our garden value is the Pareto curve, which shows us 80% of our returns will come from just 20% of our efforts. This is often called the 80/20 principle. Take weeding, for example. The pareto curve implies that 20% of our weeding gives us 80% of our results, yet many gardeners continue weeding to sterile perfection, long past the "point of diminishing returns" where the hours of weeding will have no noticeable results on yields. As it turns out, research on herbicide and pesticide value confirms exactly this!

Over 30-something years spent involved in farming, foraging and gardening, here's my list of the MOST (and Least) Important Tasks for a High-Value Garden or Farm:


The Least Important Garden Tasks:

1. Weeding. Each hour we spend weeding dilutes the real value of our produce, period. Past a point, it has 0 value, yet we slave away (or make the kids do it!) And still, the perfectly, painfully weed-free garden just takes one vacation, bad cold, or family emergency to turn into a weed-covered mess and total loss! I've seen it 1,000,000 times! Yet, you don't have to weed at all to have a good garden....
2. Tilling and digging the soil. It destroys the soil, wastes time and gas, and breaks your back. And yet it is completely unnecessary, in fact -  We haven't tilled or dug in years. 
3. Strimming. Again, unnecessary. Add gas-powered lawn mowing to this list, too.

4. Fall garden clean-up. No value, actually harms garden health. 

5. Fertilizing. Most conventional and even most organic fertilizers have been shown to be completely unnecessary, and even harm long-term soil health. 

6. Most fancy irrigation - especially drip irrigation. While they DO have a place in a smart design, research from multiple sources have been unable to document any value from the time and investment put into fancy irrigation systems. 

7. Most greenhouses. Again, they may have their place in a well-designed system, but it has been difficult for researches to document any good returns on most greenhouse projects. And they're unnecessary for winter produce!

8. Spraying herbicides and pesticides. Just don't do it, ever. Totally counter-productive to a happy and healthy garden. 

9. Cultivating the soil. Again, unnecessary. Haven't done it for 15 years!

The Most Important Garden Tasks:

There's not much in the world I'm certain of, but this list is one thing. Here are the tasks that have unquestionably given us the biggest yields:

1. Day-dreaming in the garden. Specifically, creative daydreaming about issues of design, project vision, and if you're a farmer, branding. This is probably the single effort that has paid me back with the most value. If you don't have a clear vision about what you really WANT out of your landscape, garden or farm, you're extremely unlikely to get it. It's not enough to think: "I'll start a farm = profit!" You need a clear vision of what kind of farm, what kind of garden - and what kind of life you want those to support! Then you can start assessing whether that vision is realistic and making a plan to get where you want to be. For farms, a study from MSU found that one of the biggest determining factors of profitability was the ability to charge a higher rate at market. And that was all about having a compelling vision and brand. 

2. Design. "Permaculture is protracted thought and design, instead of protracted labor." Almost every grunt-work task on the list above can be designed out of a garden! For example, why spend hours per week weeding when you can design a low-weeding or weed-free garden system that will last for years? Why spend time watering, when you can design gardens that water themselves - without expensive, time-consuming irrigation systems! In Permaculture, we use a variety of tools to maximize the design of our own personalized food systems to ensure truly healthy food and gardens that really provide value. To start that adventure yourself, I recommend our Community Supported Permaculture Program

3. Planning. Now, this is a research-based approach to a profitable farm and valuable garden. Research from MSU, Vermont and UCLA have all found that one important factor is associated with profitable farms: planning for success. This means creating goals, keeping records and using that feedback to improve over time. Even if you don't want a profitable farm, that becomes key to a valuable, enjoyable garden. But "diminishing returns" applies here, too. You'll get 80% of that value out of a few simple efforts. 
4. Listening to community members (family members) and customers. This is the single thing that transformed our business from a low-impact money-loser to a high-impact profitable business helping real people achieve their goals. Give the people what they want and need. If you're a home gardener, this goes a long way to getting the fam or friends to help out!

5. Investing in community-building. For farmers this is crucial. But for gardeners this is golden, too. The community of gardeners will be your best source of information, seeds, plant material and people to exchange produce with. Community-building is 80% of the point of having a garden. 

6. Education. I grew up gardening and farming, and have apprenticed on a few permie-inspired farms. But taking a Permaculture Design class and really learning my local ecosystem revolutionaized the value I get out of my relationship to the land. Completely worth it. 

8. Nurturing the Soil. Finally, we've come to an actual physical garden task. Each hour you spend mulching, building biodiversity and fertility in the soil will pay you back for years and years to come in better, healthier produce with less work.

7. Nurturing "Systems" and "Regenerative Assets." In Mollisonian Permaculture, "regenerative assets" are those that produce for us and replicate themselves.  When we invest our time into creating and establishing such powerful assets, they to will pay us back for years and years to come. Nurturing a young forest garden, vegetable guild or perennial vegetable patch will take less time than almost any annual garden, yet that investment will produce food for us for decades! Each year, that annual garden will need to be recreated, but the perennial system will keep on producing with minimal effort. And while the annual garden will forever require new seeds, new investments, new energy to create, the perennial systems will actual "reproduce," giving you plant material you can use to spread them further and further, creating more and more valuable perennial systems. Now that's a smart way to spend your time, and a smart way to garden!

8. Observation. Often, we rush to action at the first sight of disease or pest issues, without taking the time to understand the underlying causes, or how the plants and ecosystems might be able to fend better for themselves. Pests are natural! But so are predators, who will eventually show up to reduce pest pressures for us, if we're patient enough to observe how nature works, rather than stepping in at the first sight of trouble. On a different level, observation can show us where appropriate microclimates are what good plant companions or agonists we have growing, or where we need to direct more (or less) water.

So there you have my list. What do you think? What garden tasks do you find most valuable?