Permaculture and Climate Change in Western Australia

Warwick Rowell, Monday 01 July 1991

Permaculture is not about sheet mulching, or organic gardening. Permaculture is a sensitive process for designing sustainable systems for living. It is based on a collection of the new and old experience of huge numbers of people, all over the world, but it is more than the collection. It is about how each item in this collection, be it a technique, a species, or a piece of knowledge, can be placed in relation to another to make the system more resilient and better able to meet the needs of the people within it. Permaculture is about careful, prolonged and thoughtful observation, rather than prolonged and thoughtless labour.

Permaculturists see the issue of global warming firstly from a systems perspective, and then from a practical, regional and local perspective.

Systems theory (Beer, Forrester) has contributed much to the way we see our world. It emphasises the interrelationships between the elements of a system. Before a systems perspective was possible we looked at individual parts of the system from the perspective of say, physics, chemistry, or biology. These frameworks have lead to detailed but incomplete views of the world. “Ockham’s razor can be a dangerous weapon in Biology.” (Williams 1991). Systems theory attempts to look at the features of the system as a whole and to identify which factors, internal and external, impact on its stability or vulnerability.

A systems view is often difficult. It is not easy to lift one’s intellectual sights to the scales of time and space required. One of the major contributions over the last fifteen years has been that of the Gaia Theory, which advances the view “the earth is alive”, rather than “life exists on earth”.

This Gaian perspective requires a real stretch. Firstly we need to think in geological time spans, where a million years is a terribly short time interval. We need to think about the movement of tectonic plates as short term, and the slow cycling of (comparatively) molten rocks underneath these plates as one of the key recycling systems of the planet – geology becomes planet physiology! Secondly we need to trace the connections between bacteria and cells, and the planet wide system. Thirdly, and probably the most difficult, we need to see ourselves as minor actors in this system, and subject to its influence.

Lets look at how systems behave. Systems are very stable – through a series of complex interrelationships, they maintain a wide range of conditions at equilibrium, or between stable limits. For example, despite the Sun’s radiation output increasing by 30% since the earth was formed, the atmosphere, the biosphere and the rocks and oceans of the earth have interacted in such a way as to preserve the earth’s average temperature around 20 degrees Celsius.

But when the stable point moves closer to the limits of the system, the oscillations around those (moving) average values become greater and greater. The stabilising mechanisms are not as sensitive, or as well timed, and so the system “hunts” – it oscillates around the mean without settling to it. The commonest example we know is a sick child’s fluctuating fever and chill. Another is the air-conditioned office that has poor placement of thermostats vis a vis the north facing panes of glass – it is a frustrating experience as you cycle from too cold to too hot.

With this fairly straightforward idea, we can start to explore the dense field of fact, interpretation, prediction, and criticism that makes up the burgeoning field of Climate Change. Present discussions about climate change and the greenhouse effect at least seem to agree on history, so let’s start from there.

About 145,000 years ago the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 190 ppm. Over the next 5000 years, that is, quite rapidly, it rose to 300 ppm. Then it slowly dropped back to 190 ppm 20,000 years ago. The CO2 concentration has risen back to 275 ppm over the last 20,000 years. Looking at more recent history, from a level of 280 ppm in 1840, the concentration of CO2 has risen to 345 ppm today. (W.C.R.P. 1990. 10,15.)

So, in the last 150 years, the concentration has changed as much as it did over 5000 years, way back, and already the concentration exceeds previously known levels by 20%. It is also agreed that if today we could stop all CO2 emissions, levels would continue to rise for about another 50 years; let’s conservatively say to about 360 ppm. As well, it is agreed that CFCs and other industrial gases (Methane, CFCs, N2O and Ozone) (Main. No date. 3, 9) contribute to Greenhouse effects much more potently that CO2.

Yet the intense and expensive world-wide discussions about greenhouse effects are about what climate changes will occur if we double 1900 levels of CO2 in the atmosphere – from 300 ppm to 600 ppm. (W.C.R.P. 1990. 19) , or is it 350 to double to 700 by 2025? (Working Group 2, 1990. 1). We already have enough data to judge that the system is reaching the limits of its control mechanisms.

What happens when systems reach the limit of their control mechanisms? We know that volcanoes and meteorites have had effects on climate that are much more devastating than the change we are talking about. One of the heartening things about the Gaian analysis of the Earth’s life story is to discover that the balances can restabilise from these massive, unpredictable events.

This ability to restabilise is much more than balance. I use the term poise – which implies a momentary imbalance from which recovery is possible, like a skier at the edge of a curve. This adaptability reveals another principle of systems dynamics. A system will not survive if the disturbing events consistently occur closer together in time than it takes the system to adapt to the last change. For example, people can have their mental and physical health substantially reduced by a number of small changes in their daily lives, if they occur all at once, or fairly quickly one after another. Most murders are done by a close relation, at the end of a holiday period…

So a crucial question to ask is will the system have time to recover its stability, or are there other factors which might push it into catastrophe? (Postle 1980). This question is much more important than the detail of the exact amount of CO2, and what causes it, and arguments about whether temperatures might rise 1 or 2 degrees C. We must take a broader view.

Greenhouse effects are primarily the result of many industrial processes, many of which involve burning fossil fuels (Main. Undated 9). Without going into the fine detail, we can see that increasingly rapid removal of tree cover is also pushing vegetative control systems of the planet to the limit. A recent composite satellite photo of the globe without clouds impressed us all. But did we see the huge swathe of pale yellow desert across North Africa, the Middle East, and right across southern Asia to the Chinese coast? If we saw it, did we connect with the fact that as recently as 3000 years ago much of that area was under dense and complex forest systems? Just using our eyes shows us the impact increased reflectivity has on what was previously a more stable system, without further statistics about desertification, and the subsequent drought and famine. (Hare 1985. 19 – 27)

So far we have identified two system wide impacts of increasing human population and our associated industrial and agricultural systems. At a more human scale, we see world wide the impacts of urbanisation and pollution, and the social and health breakdowns that result. A systems perspective would classify these too as signs of system overload.

It is not being alarmist, but rather pragmatic, to suggest that we humans are placing the life system of the planet under threat. If the Gaian perspective is correct, then our threat is one that will be easily dealt with. One of the design features of any system is an ability to remove and isolate subsystems that go out of control, and threaten the whole system. The living earth has repeatedly and systematically eliminated threats to its existence – even if they are its own creatures.

From the limited evidence given above, it is reasonable to conclude that the human species is under threat from its own reproductive and productive behaviour. “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment .. ” was the opening phrase of the statement by the world’s governments from Toronto. But this incomplete experiment on man, by man, of increasing industrialisation, population, and urbanisation has been taking place over about 15000 years – what can we do?

Permaculture can be described as a contraction of both permanent agriculture, or permanent culture. Its focus is designing, setting up and maintaining systems for living that are sustainable in the long term.

Some of the major principles of permaculture that relate to solving our multi-faceted impact on the planet include:

In Permaculture we design a property in terms of zones.

Zone 0 is the centre of activity; here we focus on energy conservation, temperature mediation, efficient use of space, and meeting the needs of the residents. Zone 1 is the area immediately around the building. We come here once or twice every day for domestic needs and to manage it very intensively. Zone 2 has small domestic stock and orchards. As it is larger, we will have less intense use of resources, and spend less management time here. Zone 3, further out again, contains our major crops, forage systems, and water storages. Zone 4 is a semi-managed semi-wild area of forest, natural pastures, and some wildlife yields. Zone 5 is the wilderness.

One aim is to minimise the amount of time and resources we expend moving ourselves and equipment and crops between Zone 0 and elsewhere. This will maximise both our yield and our free time. But the fundamental aim of Permaculture is to design Zones 1,2,3, and 4 to meet our needs in the smallest space possible, so we can maximise the wilderness. This is because the complex Zone 5 system of forest, savannah, swamp or desert can look after itself better that we could ever hope to, and because it provides incredibly complex buffers for our activities. We need to leave wilderness alone so we can observe it, and learn to approach its subtlety and sophistication in the inner zones.

Few such wilderness areas are left, and these are increasingly under threat – another danger sign at a systematic level. It is very clear that any biological systems’ stability depends on the diversity of species, niches and structures in that system. This diversity provides the system with mechanisms for feedback, balance and control which are characterised by varying degrees of coarseness and sensitivity; for example, there are two sets of mechanisms controlling climate, a fast one in the atmosphere, and a much slower one in the ocean depths (W.C.R.P. 1990 21). We further destroy our land and the huge variety of life forms it contains at our peril.

To successfully manage the negative impacts of industrialisation, desertification, urbanisation and over population, we need to apply the idea of zones to our towns, our cities, and our trading and financial patterns. We must redesign our systems of production and distribution so that the vast majority of human needs are met locally, from their bio-region. (Young 1991, 89)

One of the major problems we face is the excessive flow of resources from many different country areas into the cities. Increasingly our resources are expended in huge transport and trade infrastructures to maintain these cities. We need to set up urban farms – we can no longer afford the middle class demonstration of our social superiority by tending useless lawns and decorative parks and gardens – we need edible landscapes. The reframing of city life so transport needs are minimised and more easily met by mass transit systems is imperative. Trebling parking fees to pay for free public transport would be a start.

We are under increasing pressure to free up our markets to international trade, and to become more internationally competitive. This argument is based on several assumptions which are systematically incorrect. It is also interesting that most of the advancers of the argument are those who are currently dominant in world trade.

Firstly, as soon as I have to trade, I am no longer in a free market. If the crop is rotting, or the bank wants its money, I must sell now. At whatever price I can get. The fundamental definition of free market is that there are many buyers and many sellers and all are free to trade. Permaculture systems make sure that there are many subsistence and cash crops. Farm income is not dependent on just one crop, and family survival is not as dependent on farm income.

Another incorrect assumption is that present levels of international transport will continue. International trade will be dramatically reduced when we start to pay the real price of oil in our transportation systems – very few items will be transported more than a couple of hundred kilometres. The systematically ridiculous situation of it being “economic” to have Jumbo jets flying fresh vegetables around the world each day will stop, with what is an ominously new term in economics – a “dead cat bounce” – straight down, and with no prospect of recovery, ever. The more we limit our purchases of items from distant sources the better, if only to minimise the eventual shock.

Systematically, the resilience of a system is decreased by taking resources from a weak area to feed up a rich area. Yet we continue to act on the limited economic assumption that we are better off by investing our savings for the highest returns wherever they are available on the world capital market. Practically, you will have more control, more say, less worry (and more fun) from an investment in the local high street that you would have over one in Taiwan. You might even create a local job, and increase the local market for your own products or services.

This leads back to a less formal proposition of Permaculture design:

Start at the back door, now.

We can always do something today, in our own individual way. Focusing on our local community and neighbourhood can be a good start. Until we change our own habits and perspectives, we cannot expect others to do so. We must first set up sustainable practices in our homes, before extending our care to larger areas, using only the genuine surpluses we generate from this first step.

These small steps to what will end up as massive social change must become part of our lives soon. The dispassionate technical language of the many reports does not give this enough clarity or emphasis. A better example is the local report which explores some of the social changes needed, because “.. the actual levels of Greenhouse gases must be expected to eventually increase well beyond a doubling unless comprehensive international changes take place in the many processes which produce these gases.” (Main undated 10)

How do Permaculture ideas relate to the effect of climate change on agricultural practices, those “human activities most sensitive to climate changes” (Henderson-Sellers & Blogg 1989 133), and whose effects cascade throughout the social and economic structure of Australia. (Henderson-Sellers & Blogg 1989 150)

The Zone analysis and planning outline above is about managing energy within the system. Another aim of Permaculture design is:

Control and utilise the external energies coming into the system.

Permaculture acknowledges our dependence on the natural world, and uses many methods found in nature to moderate the extremes of broad climatic variations. If climate variations increase due to the stresses we are placing on the system, Permaculture designed agricultural systems will cope more easily with the variation.

Permaculture designs for catastrophe.

It is not sensible now to rely on drought relief and flood relief programs from Government. If these climatic variations increase substantially, it is going to be even less sensible.

So Permaculture dams have a “double depth” section somewhere, to preserve aquatic life, and provide emergency water during drought. Spillways and floodways are wide, planted, and maintained. Tree belts minimise the impact of wind, pests, cold, frost, and fire. Some of the many tree belts are specifically designed with many edible species as emergency fodder for stock and native animals as well as people. Roads, dams, and fireproof trees and shrubs are positioned to decrease the probability of fire getting to the house. Cropping methods, dams, swales and banks, houses and sheds are designed to cope with flash floods and intense storms. Slopes are never denuded, and extra mulches minimise run-off.

The “Greenhouse” (doubling only) predictions for Southwest WA provide an imperative for the change from broad-acre, mainly monocultural systems. In summary, the models predict warmer winters in the south, and cooler summers in the North. Summer rainfalls will increase by 50%, and extend further south as the monsoon penetrates further. The Southwest will be drier by 20%, with less frequent, less predictable, but heavier falls. (Main 1990). Tropical cyclones will increase in intensity considerably, and extend further south. Other wind speeds will drop. (Main undated 10)

I disagree with Main that “These changes will not become noticeable in the daily life of most West Australians until they occur in some combination ..” – they will always occur in combination, and there are large areas of our agriculturally dependant system that are precariously balanced on the predictability of winter rain onset and duration.

To cope with this less predictable environment, we need to intensify and extend rotational systems for soil building, develop alley cropping methods, establish thousands of miles of multi-functional multi-storeytree and shrub belts, and importantly to develop better water control systems (Ayling 1990. 43, Sharp 1988 9-14, etc etc). But mainly we need to allow large tracts of the most vulnerable land to return to native systems which we occasionally forage or graze. Huge increases in the area of Zone 5 makes sense at an individual level as well as at the system level. The more intensive management required by truly sustainable production systems will mean that we cannot resource the present large areas. More intensive management with fewer imported resources will provide more income, so we will need to crop less area anyway.

As well as ameliorating the effects of climate variations,

Permaculture designs create more extreme micro-climates.

For example, careful placement of shrub and tree belts can create or displace frost zones on the side of hills. Shelter belts, slope and sun traps can allow the growth of tropical fruits well south of Perth. Well designed swales can gather and retain water for trees species requiring double the local rainfall. A series of keyline dams can allow sheet irrigation of crops on the slope below. Water masses can modify local temperatures. Low sun reflected off water can be used to ripen crops. Trees and surface plants can substantially reduce dam evaporation.

Designers use sector, slope, edge, aspect, and elevation to provide widely varying microclimates, which allow growth of substantially different varieties and species from those considered “normal” in an area. The ability to grow different species decreases our dependence on specialised locally adapted varieties. This decreases our economic vulnerability to substantial climatic (or market) changes that make one crop impossible to grow economically, consistently. The natural selection of appropriate specimens of a species in a number of different micro-climate niches will allow nature to do the analytical work for us.

There are many different techniques, species, and methods of Permaculture that are relevant to the tasks of prevention, mitigation, adaptation and utilization we face in dealing with climate change (Henderson-Sellers & Blogg pp 182 – 189). Many more techniques will emerge from careful observation of the results of our design efforts.

But the most valuable contribution of Permaculture will be based on its starting point, which is to ask “How little do we need?” rather than “How much do we want?”. Permaculture goes on to provide many positive ways of meeting those needs that will “allow us all to exist without the wholesale collapse of biological systems” (Mollison 1991 v).


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