A Maybe to Hunter-Gatherers

SUBHEAD: A continuing dialog on modern agriculture and sustainability with Mitch "TheOldTechnician".

By Juan Wilson on 21 July 2013 for Island Breath -

Image above: Package photograph of Swanson Hungry-Man XXL Backyard Barbeque frozen pound-and-half dinner. From (http://syungin919.blog42.fc2.com/blog-entry-39.html).

[IB auhtor's note: This dialog began with a comment by TheOldTechnician in the article Big Island NO GMO Bill on 7/2/13. A new posting was made with followup comments with this author in No to Agriculture! on 7/15/13 and subsequently Yes to Horticulture! on 7/17/13.
By Mitch TheOldTechnician:

"Local transfer station", table scraps, chicken manure, yard clippings, nitrogen fixing plants."

That's the rub about eschewing synthetic means. The nitrogen necessary to keep your yields reasonably high on the actual crop areas requires inputs from other land areas, such as where those table scraps came from, the chickens' area of eating (and any additional feed you buy for them also needed land to grow on), the land for the nitrogen fixing plants, etc. Either through permanent assignment of land areas, or via crop rotation, the organic method will require much more land for the same crop yield as conventional. Yes, fertilizer plants and their supporting structures also take up land but their nitrogen fixing yield is far, far higher per unit of land than natural means.

As far as, "burning", water to make that fixed nitrogen, that's exactly what natural processes do ! Their isn't free hydrogen gas in the atmosphere nor in the soil. Water is the ultimate source for hydrogen in both nitrogen fixing and for most of the other organic molecules that plants make. Eventually, the water is recreated when biological matter is broken down by bacteria. Water won't be permanently consumed by synthetic fertilizer production.

This also bring into question the use of any other chemical reaction, including fire itself. Can permaculture survive the exclusion of any intentional chemical process, including iron production? Are you really advocating going back to stone and wood?

I, also, must take to exception to terms like, "Soylent Yellow", an obvious attempt to appeal to emotions rather than facts and science. Especially since, in spite of whatever faults you may find, that GM corn and soybeans are helping to allow the 6+ billion people that are alive today to not starve to death.

Yes, growth without end is impossible, particularly population growth But to deny hungry people food (intentionally or simply by producing less) lest they have more children is inhumane. You say that it would be better know to cut loose the 4 plus billion, "unsustainable", part of the population now to avoid an even greater number to forsake later. But, that makes a big assumption that we would not be able to find another solution to population control. And it bets 4 plus billion lives on it. Indeed, we already see much reduced birth rates in developed nations, to the extend that some, like Japan, actually worry about population decline. And all without having to force a return to simpler times.

By Juan Wilson of Island Breath
Yes  - the "Local transfer station, table scraps, chicken manure, yard clippings, nitrogen fixing plants." are all part of the solution.

As time goes on we are all going to be moving away from the industrialized, packaged, transported, refrigerated, temporary or or single-use items that make up the bulk of consumer products. Those products tend to rely on:
  • overextended transportation systems relying on cheap fossil fuels to deliver food and water
  • synthetic processes that require our diminishing unrenewable resources
  • centrally organized bureaucratic regulations unrelated to my location
  • corporate privatization of the commons that includes patenting of life forms
Here on our half acre in the middle of the Pacific we will never smelt iron, or build a boat big enough to cross the sea. We have to rely on the rest of our island, the other Hawaiian islands and the continental mainland for many things. We do use the Home Depot that is 15 miles away. But we are also in the process of weaning ourselves from total dependence on industrialized systems.

The goal is to increasingly rely on local resources as much as is practical. Food and water come first.

While it is true we still have external inputs of some food, water, power, and industrialized materials (steel tools etc.); we have greatly reduced those inputs. We have probably reduced our consumer intake by 50%. We can do better easily.

For example, back at our nearby county transfer station I keep my eyes open as I pass the scrap metal pile. About a year ago I found a pile of shovel blades. They may have been from the recently closed sugarcane plantation. I selected three in the best shape and took them home.

As long as I can find an appropriate guava tree branch for a handle, those blades will probably keep me in shovels the rest of my life. I have also found abandoned bed frame angle steel and heavy bailing wire makes excellent miscellaneous metal for small structural engineering needs.

My point is this, as our overextended and complicated consumer industrial system grinds to a stop we will will have to become a scavenger society reusing the castoffs of our present life style in new ways. We will have to provide the things we need with whatever means are at hand… and that will be much more local than in the recent past.

You wrote:

"Can permaculture survive the exclusion of any intentional chemical process, including iron production? Are you really advocating going back to stone and wood?"

The answer to both questions is a hearty yes!

I'm not saying we are going to do it immediately, but we will work our way back to something like the the Stone Age in many parts of the world - and it won't be so bad.

For example, I live on Kauai. It was the first Hawaiian island reached by western society. After Britain's captain Cook exploring much of Polynesia and landing in Waimea, Kauai, Hawaii, believed the natives of the Polynesia where generally an intelligent, resourceful and healthy stock. With only stone age technology they were able to expertly explore and settle in much of the Pacific with a coherent and rich culture. This is without metal or a written language.

The lives Hawaiians lived before contact with western technology and education were good - and undoubtedly better that the lives of most today. Due to diet (High Fructose Corn Syrup) and now sedentary life styles (Ford F-350) obesity and diabetes are rampant among the remains of native Hawaiians.

I have argued in the past that the sooner we move to re-localize our lifestyles the higher a level of technology we will be able to maintain into the future. In the early 19th century, with only a billion people on the planet, we may have maintained a technology that could have included steam ships and railroads without much of a loss or suffering.

To reach that level of technology today would include suffering at a level that makes the world wars of the 20th century look like a walk in the park.

GMOs are failing as "pests" to monoculture become immune faster than we can device new and more potent pesticides. The nitrogen and energy cycles are failing too as  topsoil is washed into the Gulf of Mexico forming lethal algae ad petroleum stays above $90 a barrel causing the economy of agriculture atrophy.

The following is a scene repeated everywhere in America everyday.

You live in Phoenix and your hungry. You jump in the air-conditioned pickup (hell it's 110ºF) and drive the mile to the refrigerated Safeway and purchase a Swanson frozen Hungry Man XXL Backyard Barbeque dinner. It's a pound-and-a-half of Tyson factory raised chicken breasts with two "Rib-Shaped" Pork patties floating on a mountain of mashed potatoes. Simply drive back home then microwave and eat. The motto on the box:

 "It's good to be full!"

That scene won't abide long.

Living on an isolated island is in some ways like living on a small planet. A green round world in a blue sea of sky and water made of hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Our roads are connected to no others. Our power grid and water supply are connected to no others. In some fundamental ways we are really on our own.

Yes, I know that rare traces of elements here necessary for plants was blown here as dust from east Asia. I know everything is connected. But everything is separate too. Living on an island has been instructive
for me in understanding the plight we are entering as the Earth becomes like a desert island in the ocean.

For solutions to nitrogen and other vital cycles look to nature. The closer we rely on natural cycles the easier it will be for us in the long haul.

Finally, as to the cruelty of adjusting our numbers on Earth.

Is it cruel for humans to drive tigers, rhinos, sharks, elephants, gorillas, polar bears and countless other megafauna into extinction? This doesn't even include the thousands of species a year we have not even catalogued that are going extinct on our watch. Is it cruelty or just part of being human and plentiful?

An adjustment is coming.

I probably won't see it play out, as I am old already. Usually it is the old, sick and young that are culled from the herd first. But if I had the chance I'd rather live in a world of a million heroic hunter-gatherers than in the Matrix with 20 billion test-tube babies eating Soylent Yellow.



Gelfling said...

The argument that we need to keep feeding billions of people with GMO corn because otherwise they will starve doesn't hold water. Whoever is doing this is an enabler of an unhealthy system of dependence. They are setting up a situation where even more people will starve down the road. The only way a people will be able to survive long term is if they can have the means to feed themselves. If they cannot feed themselves, the sooner they face the reality the better - before they have more children, or turn farmable fields into privately owned vacation resorts, or amass debt from expensive degrees in documentary film making. If you were thinking first of the happiness and health of the "billions of people relying on GMO food" you would find ways to help them create local resilient systems with free seed sharing and farmer cooperation. Also, how can you in good faith claim that you are supporting starving and needy families when you are making so much money off of them? It sounds more like you are just using them. If there was another system where all these people could feed themselves, but it meant you would stop seeing all that profit- would you really be inclined to listen to that option and help it along?

TheOldTechnician said...

20 billion test-tube babies minus the just one million hunter gatherers may want to disagree with you, if it even comes to that.

Hawaii may have had a good economy that fed most of their people before being discovered by the Western world. But you assume that Hawaii's splendid isolation would have protected her from resource depletion. Actually, remainning stone age and isolated is no guarantee of remaining balanced forever with your resources. Easter Island is a glaring example of a stone age culture running out of resources.

By your own admission, if Hawaii was to convert of permaculture, it won't be able support nearly the same amount of people on the same amount of farmland. You'll have to convert more forest to farm or vote people off the islands. I'd imagine they won't go willingly.

The zeal to rely totally on local food production is also a recipe for disaster. In a global distribution system, if a few areas fail, the other areas ship food to the failing ones. This happens rather automatically as during the great drought of 2012 in the American Midwest. No one even had to form a special committee to do so. Yes food costs went up, but it was distributed across many areas rather than hitting the drought sticken hard. Everyone still got to fill full at the end of the day. If you rely totally on your own area, if it fails, you have to go hat in hand to others to get food. You'll get it, if you're lucky.

There are very good reasons why we struggled out of the stone age that you'd like to bring back. We are reminded why every time there is a storm, a drought, a medical emergency. It's also fascinating that a permaculture advocate that aspires to bring back the stone age has an internet blog !

- Mitch

P.S. I do enjoy the occasional Swanson dinner but we mostly cook our own meals.

Juan Wilson said...

Aloha Mitch TheOldTechnician;

It has been good corresponding with you and I will respond to your latest comment, but I think we've plumbed this well.

TO begin with, the 20 billion test-tube babies and the million hunter-gatherers will never meet or even exist at the same time. The few will follow the many so there won't be anybody to disagree when it comes to that.

There is no guarantee anywhere or anytime that that anyone will be balanced forever with renewable resources. Hawaiians were here about a thousands years before contact and were doing OK. That's longer that all but the most durable mainland empires that had literacy and metallurgy.

If you read Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" you'd know how thin the resources were to begin with in the Easter Island group. In the book he gives examples of societies that avoided total collapse.

One was a Pacific island Tikopia "a tiny, isolated, tropical island in the Southwest Pacific Ocean... with an area of just 1.8 square miles, it supports 1,200 people, which works out to a population density of 800 people per square mile of farmable land. That's a dense population for a society without modern agricultural techniques. Nevertheless, this island has been occupied continuously for almost 3,000 years."

Hawaii is overpopulated on the island of Oahu and boasts Honolulu, the 11th largest city in America. With almost a million inhabitants (and 70% of the state's population); Oahu cannot feed itself - granted. That is not true of Kauai or the other inhabited islands.

Here on Kauai, with a population of 60,000 living on not much more than 15% of the island that's as big as Oahu, we could feed ourselves with permaculture indefinitely.

With discipline and effort and relocation to outer islands from Oahu the Hawaiian islands might be sustainable as it reduced its population down a few notches.

Of course this is in a reasonably stable climate not fried and dried to a consistency of Mars by an overpopulated.

You misinterpret my "zeal". I'm aiming to provide 50% of my own food needs not 100%. I plan to trdae, barter and gift exchange with neighbors and those nearby.

I am no detractor of ocean trade. Polynesians sailed the Pacific for centuries. We have plenty of wonderful (and transportable) products that the world will trade for - among them cacao, coffee, marijuana, koa and sandlewood.

Because of the huge flywheel effect of being in the middle of the largest body of liquid water in the known universe, Hawaii has been blessed to date with the most stable climate imaginable.

The interior of the great continents won't be so kind - in the USA that is particularly true of the Southwest, Tornado Alley and the Hurricane States of the Gulf of Mexico. Some places will not only lack local food, but be uninhabitable - take Phoenix and Las Vegas.

As a side note: I find it ironic that if you ask most adult Hawaiian residents where they want to go on vacation the predominant answer is Vegas.

As to embracing the Stone Age; you mistake resignation for enthusiasm. I grew up in the TV age of big finned cars and electrical resistant home heating; the American Golden Age when a gallon of gas, a cheeseburger, a coke and a pack of cigarettes would cost you less than a dollar.

I've been a techie most of my life. I've made my living off computers for over 30 years. I am reluctantly letting go - to go with the flow. I am learning to live where I am with what's here. It has not been unpleasant.

I'll be growing food and plinking away on the keyboard until the internet goes down; is unaffordable or merely censored out of its usefullness.

Everything else is gravy.

By he way Mitch, where are you? What food is available where you are? Do you grow any food?

PS: Here's a link to an original Swanson TV Dinner package. Note price stamped on it "61¢.


TheOldTechnician said...

Hello again;

I live in Pennsylvania where we have a temperate semi-humid climate. I've only grown a few tomatoes, squash, zuccini, snap peas. It's hard work and doesn't always go well. I've learned it's much cheaper and easier for me to buy from the farmers, however indeirectly than grow my own. In turn the farmers find it much easier to buy the tools, clothing, machinery they need than to their own.

However, i grew up in Brooklyn where growing your own food in all but miniscule amounts was not an option for most. So i grew up in an area that couldn't feed itself either.

I wouldn't use the Tikopia Island as a model for resilence. They did show great husbandry of the resources they had at hand but, when Cyclone Zoe came roaring through, they were up their fresh water lagoon without a paddle. If it wasn't for the intervention of the modern world that built them a dam to keep the seawater out of their lagoon, they would've largely died out or abandoned the island. Or both! They also don't rely just farming as they do quite a bit of fishing. Which, i guess, you would too.

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