On Abundance

Like any religion, permaculture was founded by idealistic visionaries with relatively demanding requirements relative to the mindset of the average citizen, a path for fanatics and those on the fringes of society. Over time as a movement gains momentum and expands the strictures are relaxed to make it more palatable and accessible to the everyday public. For example original ascetic Buddhism (that demanded lifelong discipline and sacrifice) was watered down over time into the feel good platitudes and occasional rituals of popular Buddhism for people who couldn’t be monks.  Permaculture has undergone a similar shift of emphasis from whole landscape design taking decades to suburban herb spirals you can put together in an afternoon, from fundamentally transforming society to a fun hobby to replace a few frozen veggies from the supermarket. To broaden the appeal of permaculture everyday people are lured in with promises of abundance. Despite the original books barely mentioning the word, abundance is now “a hallowed concept in permaculture……what we permaculturalists aim for*”.

The ideal of the food forest or edible landscape looms large in the collective imagination (despite how few working examples exist in reality). According to the legend in a food forest all you have to do is open your mouth and let the delicious food drop out of the sky. To me the very idea of an edible landscape reminds me of the old Simpson’s joke where they briefly show a “food chain” that shows every organism being consumed by humans in the center of the diagram ( http://i.imgur.com/biO0Oc2.jpg ). Even a plague of locusts leaves some plants and animals behind.

History shows that humans are incapable of managing abundance well. Paleolithic hunters discovering new lands and abundant ecosystems immediately set about slaughtering every large animal in sight, rapidly driving these keystone species to extinction. The Neolithic revolution in agriculture gave abundant crops followed by a human population explosion, leading to crowding and novel epidemics on a monumental scale and broad scale landscape degradation. The abundance unleashed by the more recent green revolution led to an even more spectacular population boom with the results we see today. No other living thing restrains its own consumption of resources or reproduction. The cooperative storage and rationing of food in social organisms like bees with honey is about as close as anything comes, but the hive as a whole could never choose to limit the amount of nectar it collects from flowers. Humans are unique in even considering voluntary austerity but it is unlikely that eight billion of us will collectively agree to do so.

Even if it was possible, should permaculture push the ideal of abundance? If a zoo figured out a way to raise an elephant in a 10 x 10 m enclosure it wouldn’t be a miracle, rather an abomination that would reduce the elephant to a stunted remnant of its full self. Likewise the idea that developing systems that support humans off tiny parcels of land is horrible (luckily they don’t work without massive industrially supported inputs). The notion we could choose to farm smaller spaces to leave other places wild is misplaced as it again relies on everyone agreeing to limit consumption and reproduction forever. The ever shrinking average farm size in densely populated Rwanda as populations grew was one of the key factors leading to their horrific genocide. If I developed a plant that would grow a complete human diet on 10 square meters I would destroy it before anyone found out as the consequences of that abundance wouldn’t be wonderful but utterly dystopian.

So what can we focus on as an ideal if abundance is a trap? I would like to suggest embracing the alternating cycles of abundance and deprivation, glut and dearth. It is virtually impossible for a system to constantly produce the exact amount of anything to meet human requirements day after day, year after year. Food can be stored during times of abundance for lean times, but preservation inevitably consumes extra resources and results in “waste” (a concept worthy of examination itself). Stored food needed to be divided to last through lean seasons (the probably foundation for our mathematical instincts). How many people would know how to assess a larder to calculate how much food they can eat each day? (and how to make decisions if there isn’t enough for all). A household that invested produce and energy into preserving an over-abundance of stored food would have missed an opportunity to do something else with that time (including doing nothing). A glut can be just as bothersome as a dearth, often demanding immediate attention to prevent spoilage. On the other hand a restriction can be productive in unexpected ways. Traditional calendars contained as many fasts as feasts. We now know that controlled dietary restrictions can have profound positive effects on human health. In temperate zones the lean snow season would provide a prolonged period of rest indoors, making time for handicrafts and socialising. For me a drought means less fresh produce, but also a break from the otherwise constant chore of weeding and harvesting. It also means my pastures start to look a bit worn down, but that is a useful reminder that it is time to cull my herd for the good of the whole system.

With the sputtering out of industrialisation and its accompanying cornucopia of easy abundance we would do well to learn to appreciate the pros and cons of both glut and dearth. We would do well to not lose sight of the generations of deprivation that likely lie ahead of us as we will need to muster a wide range of long forgotten skills to navigate them together.

* https://permaculturenews.org/2015/06/25/abundance/

Lazy days of abundance, followed by scarcity soon enough

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