Sunday, June 12, 2016
Hey, I took a bunch of the ideas from this blog and reworked them into a more unified whole. I'm not sure if it's worth it to me to try getting it officially published or to print out physical copies but it is available to read online for free. I just gave it its own BlogSpot page so it wouldn't be so confusing for readers. Here's the link for anyone interested http://aproposalforprimitivism.blogspot.com/
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
This is sort of an addendum to my post A Propsal For a New Cult. Having done a lot more research on these subjects, particularly aquaculture and livestock husbandry, I think some of these ideas wouldn't really work as well as I would have expected a few years ago. While the general idea of spreading people out by relocating people currently in cities to the country is an idea I'm still very much in favor of, I think these perfectly symmetrical building designs are kind of ridiculous. I'm pretty sure I did mention at some point that they were intentionally simplified for the sake of clarity, and that I actually prefer something closer to what Native Americans were doing (maintaining rotational food forest gardens while basically just managing hunting and fishing areas rather than actually going through all the extra hassle, and questionable ethics, of ruling every aspect of animals' lives). The closer we go to the hunter-gatherer side of the spectrum the smaller the population I'd expect to be supportable though.
For denser settlement patterns I do still like the idea of trying to arrange buildings in a way that would double as fencing, probably more oriented to the contours of the landscape than some predetermined pattern. According to a lot of graziers fencing is a constant annoyance that they'd love to not have to always worry about. At this point I think the best way to go would probably be buildings used as a perimeter barrier and either stone, wood or even living fences for interior paddock partitions. If animals break through a paddock once in a while that wouldn't be too big a deal but escaping the whole system causes serious problems. And obviously keeping predators out is a big deal as well, both to protect livestock and not feel a need to exterminate local carnivores. There is also the possibility of having grazing specialists who can manage herds without any fencing or barns at all, acting kind of like the Samburu or something. Like I said, there will need to be experimentation with different arrangements and it's a good idea to allow some "imperfections" just to maintain some cultural diversity.
The idea of grazing around one aquaculture pond is something I don't think I'd recommend trying at this point. While manure tends to be added to aquaculture ponds as a fertilizer and therefore isn't much of a threat to the fish, I think it might be a threat to the livestock using it as a water source. I guess it depends on size and whether it's constantly fed by a nearby creek or something but using one water source that they never leave just sounds really risky to me now. You'd also need some kind of bank protection with ponds, maybe covering most of the shore with willows and alders and having one small section of shore in each paddock lined with stone to prevent erosion when the animals go for a drink. For the most part aquaculture isn't as well developed, at least in temperate regions, as a lot of books and videos might lead you to believe. Without intense management it requires a lot more space than I realized (my idea of making them moat-shaped because the space would otherwise be way too big was totally wrong). Most of them aren't really self-maintaining ecosystems that will last essentially forever as long as they're not overharvested. Some people actually recommend draining them empty every few years and starting over. It seems to me like restoring the health of nearby rivers and lakes would be more worth the effort. Again, most Native American groups seemed to have it right. Rather than maintain fish hatcheries they just found ways to encourage fish coming in from the ocean to lay eggs where they could be easily found and collected so they could be "planted" in new locations. They also had ways of maintaining beaches that clams thrived in. And obviously even with no “cultivation” the nearby fisheries were much more productive just from having less pollution and gentler methods of harvesting. There are examples of more intensive versions of these methods, like Veta La Palma in Spain, but for the most part aquaculture done in any sustainable fashion likely won’t be as productive as food forestry and grazing, at least in temperate regions.
Another sort of strange idea I had since writing this was encouraging some crops that people don’t really like but would eat in emergencies. This would be things like acorns and horse chestnuts. Besides adding diversity to further stabilize the polycultures it would also, hypothetically, help prevent famines when preferred crops fail. My reasoning is that since these are so annoying to process, and not very appetizing, for the most part people just won’t bother. So population densities will stay slightly lower and in the event that they are the only food source available there will still be enough to at least keep everyone alive. Creating some sort of religious taboo on certain foods would have a similar effect but obviously I’d rather avoid that approach. It might sound kind of silly but I think ideas like this are at least worth considering.
And although I focused a lot on these “complexes”, even when I wrote this I preferred the idea of most families just having their own little 5 acre plot and probably one paddock of a shared grazing commons. I like how little infrastructure is required (even composting toilets wouldn’t really be necessary if people are so spread out) and I like that everyone is involved in all aspects of their sustenance while still having some connection to a larger community. Although the idea of having some specialist graziers is pretty appealing too considering how much fencing it could potentially make unnecessary. There are many different ways of arranging things. My main goal with this was just to get people to really think about what a sustainable world would look like with something at least pretty close to our current population and how we could make it happen. So even though I obviously don’t have all the answers, hopefully I accomplished at least that much.
I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this but I think I need to update my update. Having wasted so much time with my “ridiculous symmetrical building designs” I feel like I might as well fix them to show how the general idea can still work, hypothetically anyway. The main problems I was having with my earlier designs I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to solve at this point. The first mistake I noticed, which is actually pretty amazing to have missed, was that I used a square shape while trying to use as few houses to surround the grazing area as possible. The very first thing I should have done is pick out the most efficient shape to use as a model. Obviously that’s a circle, not a square. Squares have a smaller perimeter to area ratio than rectangles (40’ for a 100 square foot area versus approximately 42.5’ with a rectangle whose length is twice its width) but circles are best (approximately 35.5’ for the same area). That makes perfect circles the ideal shape to limit the number of houses needed to enclose the space. So realistically you should try to pick out a building area that allows as close to that shape as possible, but accept that perfectly matching the ideal isn’t going to happen.
Another problem, which I’d mentioned already, was the single pond that animals circle around. To prevent funking up the animals’ water supply you’d likely need at least several ponds so each one would only be used a few days at a time and get at least a couple weeks to recover before animals return again. The paddock arrangement needs to be a little more complicated to accommodate this design but with a little planning it can be done, as the image below shows. You have to keep in mind the slope of the land as well so the manure in one paddock doesn’t wash into the wrong pond when it rains. As the ponds are dug the dirt can be piled up between ponds to prevent this. It could get pretty challenging if the grazing area isn’t a large enough watershed to keep the ponds full but the land used for crops will definitely be big enough as long as a significant portion of runoff can be channeled toward the complex.
I added the close up image to fix another amazing mistake that I can’t believe I missed (this is why I’m a huge fan of procrastination). With the ponds not fitting the shapes around them the paddocks ended up being really goofy shapes and slightly different sizes, some probably being close to double the size of others. I also decided to go with the wavy shoreline to provide extra edge for cattail, wapato and lilies like I did in the earlier ones. So the ideal is actually that perfectly round complex with 4 of these ponds instead of the round ones it’s shown with.
The “floating barrier” I talked about in the original post most likely isn’t really necessary but a simple raft or train of canoes can be tied to nearby fences or the alders and willows that I recommended covering most of the shoreline with. Livestock can’t generate as much power swimming as running so it only needs to be a simple deterrent. I mentioned before that even paddock fences probably won’t need to be too substantial, at least with sheep, which I’m pretty sure I’ve decided makes the most sense to use. One compromise between living fences and traditional fences that seems doable to me is to make wattle fences using pollard trees as the fence posts (usually the most work with fencing). The posts then produce the wattle material to fix the fence every few years. As far as I can tell it wouldn’t cause much damage to the trees but if the trunks do show signs of damage you could always just make wattle panels that get tied to the trees instead. I like trying to keep planted trees and shrubs on contour, and obviously these wouldn’t be able to do that, but I don’t really see any other problems with trying it. Even with black walnut guilds for the silvopasture you could use black locust. And even the black walnuts themselves are pollardable (is that a word?) so the fence lines might be the only trees needed to be planted. Not sure how mulberry trees and paw paws respond to pollarding though. It probably works. Just make sure there’s some separation between the walnuts and ponds. Pretty sure juglone will kill alders and willows, and possibly the black raspberries I recommended using in a previous post somewhere. Elderberries are probably the best juglone tolerant and shade tolerant fruiting shrub, but then again shrubs should probably be kept to a minimum with silvopasture anyway.
The only other major issues with the original designs were the number of people required, the total disregard for following landscape contours and possibly clearing too large of food forests at a time. I think the estimate for the original was somewhere around a thousand people, which I didn’t like but had trouble shrinking down while still enclosing so many good-sized paddocks. The newer one I estimate around 48 houses (more like 150-200 people) with 40 quarter acre paddocks and probably about half an acre for each pond. Some houses could be used as barns or workshops instead, making the population even lower. The “realistic” version shows how things would be shaped following contours (I tried anyway) and there are several possibilities for clearing less at a time. The most obvious way is to use longer cycles. Existing examples vary from a several year cycle for alley cropping agriculturists to 50 or even 100 years for indigenous peoples who use fire to clear the forests. Most applicable to this design would likely be anywhere between 10 and 30 years. If you’re closer to the 10 year cycle and have something like 200 acres (what I’d estimate for the above design) and don’t like the idea of clearing 20 connected acres at a time you could always spread them out. Imagine subdividing each of the 10 divisions into another 10 divisions. So 10% of each one (10 two acre patches pretty evenly spread across the full 200 acre territory) could be cleared each year instead of an entire one (20 acres in one spot) every year. It would probably be more beneficial to the land that way.
Even food forests separated in a way that doesn’t follow contours could still use swales that do follow contours. I just think it makes more sense for the boundaries to follow them as well. In most areas of the world, not all plots are as productive as others so if you want each division producing approximately the same amount of food then making them all the same exact size isn’t going to be the best way to accomplish that.
It’s also worth pointing out that the way communities cluster together can make a difference as well. If it’s decided to leave 1 or 2 acres as untouched wilderness for every acre used for production then you could either have each community surrounded by an equal or double amount of wild land or you could keep most “used land” together and most of the untouched wilderness together in larger clumps. A lot of wildlife, particularly apex predators, need vast connected territories. Leaving strips of token wilderness therefore wouldn’t be as beneficial. Below is another crappy picture I put together to show ideal communities and realistic ones organized in clusters to keep wild lands as large as possible. Technically with permaculture landscapes the cultivated land is still tolerable to most animals but I still think this is the way to go if we have any choice in the matter. I made the grazing cells yellow just because it’s too small to see the buildings and I thought it’d be helpful to see where the complexes are. I also used solid lines for each community’s boundary to separate it from the food forest divisions within each boundary. For the ideal (imagined to be working with totally flat and homogenous land) I decided to use honeycomb shapes for the boundaries just because it keeps everything about as even and perfect fitting as I could figure out. The realistic side works with my made up land contours, which I wouldn’t expect to really make sense to someone who knows about contour maps, and allows variation in sizes, layouts, etc. It also shows that realistically some areas within the cropland would likely be too steep, rocky or swampy for cultivation and therefore left wild. I don’t show any paths/roads or other buildings or recreational activity spots just to keep things simple. I’d imagine that paths can flow pretty easily with the boundaries shown since they follow contours. Remember, the idea is a network of communities who basically only use stone age technology and depend as little as possible on trading, so any roads wouldn’t need to be too substantial. I’d hope that it wouldn’t take too long until all that’s needed are dirt or stone footpaths.
The last thing I wanted to expand on a little more is what it would look like to be a little closer to the hunter gatherer side of the spectrum. First just let me make it clear that this wouldn’t be possible for everyone on the planet without both a significant drop in human population and a significant increase in the health of our ecosystems. One statistic, which I got from Frank Marlowe’s book on the Hadza, and that I’m pretty sure he got from Robert Kelly’s work, is that the average population density of hunter gatherer territories (in some of the healthiest environments to still exist) is around 1 person per 1,000 acres (4 square kilometers). For marginal environments like the Juwasi’s territory I’ve seen estimates of 1 person per 10,000 acres! Compared to my estimate of communities that produce all their own necessities with intensive permaculture that’s literally 1,000 to 10,000 times the space required. Since it’s such an admirable lifestyle though, I’d like to see people experiment with getting as close as possible to hunter gatherer. About as close as realistically possible for any significant portion of the current population would be something more like “trapper gardeners” (pretty sure I got this term from Miles Olson), which is actually how a lot of indigenous people lived thousands of years ago anyway. Basically tribe-sized groups (somewhere between a dozen and a hundred) would still cultivate gardens, which would be steered towards succession to forests dominated by fruit and nut trees just like permaculture mosaics, but instead of raising livestock and fish they’d just set up camp between productive fishing zones and hunting areas that get only simple management (compared to conventional farming). The most famous example of “simple management” is burning grasses and underbrush to keep the land attractive to grazing animals and easy to move through for hunters. Naturally you’d also expect that, whether intentional or not, the nearby landscape would gradually shift to tree species more useful to humans. When cutting down saplings for building materials or to clear paths anyone with even the slightest foresight will choose to let a higher percentage of trees that produce edible nuts and fruits stay standing. If you have to remove some pine trees from a stand of several species and you recognize that one of them produces food for humans then most of the ones you cut down will belong to the other species. So these “semi-wild” areas, although not actually cultivated, will end up with higher proportions of hickory, beech, pine nut, low-tannin acorns and sugar maples than forests that lack human influence. Only in the modern world do humans choose to surround themselves mostly with useless varieties. In my opinion a reasonable population density sustained this way could be around 1 person for every 10 acres, so a pretty good compromise. Below is sort of a bullshit diagram of what a typical trapper gardener community would look like. Notice that the food forests are laid out more organically as people can be a little more selective about what land is worth using. The brown blobs around the dwellings just represent cleared land but it could also be used for growing vegetables or something. And the river could also be a lake shoreline or sea coast.
I forgot to mention why “trapper” instead of hunter. Basically the stereotype image of the wild human sniffing the air as he crawls through the mud with spear in hand isn’t really how most groups got the bulk of their meat. This type of hunting was used but not as effectively as setting traps in most cases. It’s much more efficient to lure animals towards snares, pitfalls and ambushes. Fish weirs were common in rivers and lakes to harvest them by the basketful. And obviously when growing nuts and vegetables a lot of rabbits and squirrels will come to you. Reading one of Gene Logsdon’s books on pasture farming not too long ago I remember him saying that the amount of wildlife that most farmers consider pests is possibly more productive than their domesticated livestock at times, and without them really doing any work. Without having to worry about competing in “the market” to earn the money to buy his necessities there’d be enough on his property to provide what his family needs easily. So yeah, pretty stupid living arrangement we’ve got here. Self-sufficiency definitely obviates a lot of boondoggles.
Even with humane husbandry there are ethical concerns, like choosing who breeds with who, making animals dumbed down and bored as hell, castrating males and separating males from females, manipulating the relationships between mothers and calves to get more milk, etc. I mean, it basically is slavery. When you watch wild animals they do have social lives and do seem to appreciate some adventure. Considering where we are though it does seem necessary. As Allan Savory points out, a lot of the damaged land of the world, what he terms “brittle,” can only heal with intensive planned grazing. If left alone that land won’t get enough animal impact to return to healthy grassland on any time scale that matters to us and will only continue to degrade. In most areas there probably are comparably effective methods that don’t use animals. I’ve seen how much change can occur just from laying out rows of rocks on contour or digging holes by hand that can be planted with trees to slowly spread forests into desertified land. But with how fast and easy animals make restoration it seems worth it to me.
I don’t see any reason why there can’t be vegan experiments though. I personally don’t think veganism is the best way to go but whether we agree with them or not vegans are among us. Can they be accommodated into these communities? I don’t see why not, as long as they don’t try breaking the livestock out or waging a bloody crusade against omnivores. As long as each side respects the others wishes I don’t see why this issue should keep aspiring primitivists too divided to work together. I guess some communities could be reserved for the more zealous animal rights people where they totally forgo grazing, aquaculture, hunting and fishing. Those would actually be much easier communities to design for. They just need to incorporate as many plant sources of complete protein, omega 3 fats and clothing fiber as possible, like hemp, flax, cotton, butternuts, walnuts, seaberries, purslane, soy, quinoa, and supposedly combinations of certain grains with certain beans, etc. They’d also probably want longer cycles between clearing land since the only manure they’ll have for fertilizer is their own, which can work. The more mature you let the forest get the more wild animals will find their way in, shit on it, die and decompose there, etc. In my opinion the safest way to use humanure would be to spread it on food forests after the ground crops have been shaded out but still at least a couple years before replanting. They'd also likely want to set up shop in warm, non-brittle regions. Other than that they have a lot less to worry about compared to the communities that have to integrate crops with domesticated animals. The biggest challenge I can think of is controlling nut-eating and herbivorous animal “pests” without killing them. Simply tolerating their presence will likely result in needing much more land per person. I’d hope that the vegan crowd would just keep the others asking how they can keep making things more humane rather than cause any debilitating horizontal hostility. Like Allan Savory’s work as an example again, he looks for ways to switch to wild grazing animals or allow succession to forests when possible rather than just keep managing the land with domesticated animals forever. At least that’s what it sounds like to me anyway.
I’m pretty sure that covers everything that I wanted to add. Hopefully this didn’t come across as too obsessive-compulsive. There’s just a lot to keep in mind before starting such long-term projects. Even worse is all the considerations needed to actually bring such a project into existence. I’ve mentioned in previous posts possibilities like philanthropy from sincere rich people, mass peaceful protest to demand land reform, violent rebellion by radical environmentalists that forces change and economic collapse that forces people to change even if nobody wants to. Currently the super rich are mostly wasting the wealth of the world on shit that makes no difference, protests revolve around getting more equal shares of the plunder of empire, environmentalists spend all their time worrying about how even the most innocuous actions could hurt something (while the less scrupulous members of society childishly bounce from one whim to the next with absolutely no concern other than their own personal dopamine levels) and environmental collapse appears ahead in its race with economic collapse. Most likely things are not going to end well for our species but I still see no point in the “Fuck it! We’re done for” view that the Guy McPherson types are spreading. No matter how bad things get I’ll still be advocating these low-tech, self-sufficient, degrowth communities. When all things are considered I honestly don’t see how anything else can create a sustainable and just lifestyle for humanity. I really don’t.
Monday, January 19, 2015
I decided to join Goodreads pretty recently, mainly to get myself out of the habit of writing these longer essays. Although my work could definitely be further refined and better organized I have pretty much said everything that I really feel a need to with this blog already. So little one paragraph book reviews are probably the only writing I'll be doing anymore. Here's the link if anyone's interested http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/35335902-dave Feel free to add me or recommend something. I'm always looking for more crap to read.
Friday, June 13, 2014
I’m starting to sound like a broken record with this idea of reclaiming farmland for sustainable communities but it’s the only thing I really think is worth talking about at this point. There are thousands of other writers rewriting the same ideas over and over again in slightly different words, creating nearly identical books for things we shouldn’t really need any books for at all. I really don’t want to be a part of that problem but using a few different scenarios can help make sense of things. First I brought up reruralization just as a suggestion. Then I simplified things by imagining how I’d make it happen on a large scale if I was the sovereign ruler of the world. Then, arguably even sillier, how the existing governments could potentially incentivize the concept. Now for a new thought experiment, let’s imagine the role philanthropy can play in bringing it about.
Rich People. Celebrities, actors, musicians, artists, athletes, models, business people, politicians, drug dealers…. They have a lot of fucking money. And a lot of people in this country have bought into the idea that there’s nothing wrong with that. Apparently they’re not to blame for any of the problems in the world because it’s government policies that promote their behavior. Well, ignoring the role lobbying has played in bringing those policies about and in keeping them going, it is at least true that not all rich people support those policies, even though they are benefitting greatly from them. And I understand that the way things are now these people can get away with claiming to need more than average (ignoring the fact that “the way things are” isn’t the way things need to be). Gated houses to keep the psychotic fans out, security guards, agents, lawyers, and masses of capital can be real necessities for the upper class in the modern world, just as a lot of us normal folk can get away with calling computers and cell phones necessities. Over and over again what start as luxuries become necessary just to earn a living. What’s totally unjustifiable though is $5,000 remote controlled toilets, private jets, personal collections of sports cars and 100,000 square foot mansions. To spend a quarter million dollars on your daughter’s wedding gown is the same as deciding that a dress she’ll wear for one day is more important than a year’s supply of food for a hundred starving kids. That’s not a decision anyone should be able to make. And it may be true that such things benefit some businesses and give the lower class more work to do but with the effect this has on the environment and on society, such businesses shouldn’t be supported and such work shouldn’t be done. You can almost a make case for spending $500,000 on a sports car or $500 on a t-shirt when you consider the fact that a Ferrari doesn’t use much more material than a typical car, maybe 2-3 times more, yet costs 25 times more. So using the same amount of money to buy 25 cars would actually cause something like 10 times more damage. It still doesn’t justify spending money on vehicles when it can be spent on more important things though. Frankly, not a single Ferrari should even exist. Half the food being produced is thrown out because poor people can't afford it and houses are left empty even though there's enough homeless to fill them. Then those houses crumble from the lack of simple maintenance. So I'm not suggesting that wealth inequality is actually benefitting anything. I’m just pointing out that bringing more of the world’s poor into the middle class lifestyle isn’t the answer. More on that in a minute.
I’ve mentioned already in a previous post the impossibility of a true democracy with such obscene levels of inequality (two other prerequisites being an educated populace and elected leaders who are held to their campaign promises). For some reason the idea of a dollar being a de facto ballot is easier for people to grasp than the idea of the upper class being a de facto oligarchy. I want to talk now about the difference between earning something and deserving it. Somehow large portions of the lower class, mostly conservatives, still believe that the rich deserve what they have and the poor what they don’t, as if they could all reach the same level of wealth if everyone just worked harder, like one planet is capable of providing so much and as if those who’ve acquired thousands of times more money have worked thousands of times harder. To earn something is to accept payment, or some other form of reward, for providing some type of service. Somebody wants something done and has the capital to entice someone else to make it happen for them. If the laborer completes the task and isn’t given the previously agreed compensation, he can justifiably say “Hey, we had a deal! I earned it!” However, to say “Hey, I deserve it” wouldn’t necessarily be true.
People do all sorts of horrendous things for money, things that make prostitution look admirable by comparison. In fact, one definition of prostitution is “the unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for the sake of personal or financial gain.” Sounds like a pretty good description for how most of us spend our days. We’re basically pandering to the base desires of addicts, even exploiting their addictions when we can. And that’s more of a middle class work description. The upper class are the real pimps, profiting from the labor of their whores while keeping them dependent by forcibly injecting heroine into their arms or dumbing them down or threatening them or any other technique for keeping them on their corners. To deserve something is to say that you’ve shown to be someone who will use it (whatever it is) responsibly, for the best of society. And unlike earning, there are limits to what can be deserved. Frankly, there’s no invention, medical breakthrough or cherished piece of artwork that can make anyone worthy of living in Oprah’s $85 million mansion, or even one of her spare mansions. The world only has so much to go around. She can brag all she wants about giving away millions of dollars but it doesn’t change the fact that she lives as if her luxury is more important than thousands of the world’s poor simply being able to survive. If she gave away literally 99% of her wealth she’d still have more than most of us can imagine ($29,000,000 by my calculation) and yet by giving away something like 10% of her earnings she’s built herself a reputation as one of the world’s most generous, caring human beings. Give me a break. The average middle class American gives away a comparable percentage to charity (7.6%) despite the fact that to give away just half of their earnings would put them into poverty. If you’ve ever given someone a dollar so they could get a drink from a vending machine you have more of a right to brag about philanthropy than Oprah does. Even if that doesn’t account for 10% of your earnings at least you didn’t convert so much of the world into flamboyant energy-guzzling structures, lawn grass, decorative plants and private beaches that are now off limits to people who would actually swim there more than one weekend per year. To take so much then give to charities that were set up to deal with the problems that your lifestyle has caused is like breaking into someone’s house, stealing all they have and taking them out for a beer afterward.
If given the opportunity to build a new house you’d put no thought at all into energy saving designs or non-toxic materials, even now that the effects of climate change, pollution and over consumption are so dire, you don’t deserve that opportunity. If given the opportunity to decide how a parcel of land is used, now that we all know the problems of habitat loss, large-scale farming and long distance transportation, you’d convert it to lawn grass, non-edible decorative plants, pavement and chlorinated water, you don’t fucking deserve that opportunity. I still can’t believe how many people make these same stupid decisions. Building something with south facing windows, more natural materials, composting toilets, edible landscaping and fish ponds is more beautiful, less expensive and not even much of a change in lifestyle to a typical suburban house with septic system, lawn (which requires the same amount of work as maintaining perennial crops and is nowhere near as interesting), decorative yew trees (as if these are better looking than fruit or nut trees) and a plastic pool. It just shows how unqualified office workers and businessmen are to make these decisions. How much money you have or how hard you’ve worked isn’t even a factor. Actually, the way things are set up now, how backwards the rewards of our economic system are, the more you’ve earned the least you probably deserve. That’s generalizing though.
I’ve had wealthy friends and some of them seemed as caring and generous as anybody else. I’ve tried to argue in the past that it’s impossible for good people to acquire so much but there are people out there who just kind of get handed these fortunes and don’t know what to do with them. And there are celebrities that I think are a little more sincere than Oprah. While Oprah, Bill Gates, Bill O’Reilly, the Koch brothers, Waltons, Rockefellers, Carnegies and Morgans all fit into the “efficiency in philanthropy” model, where they donate in conspicuous ways that help them win fans, sell books, and promote their own business interests, there are others who seem to just realize they have way more than they know what to do with and that don’t really feel they deserve so much. While they don’t necessarily deserve to be glorified (I’ll point out the hypocrisies as I go) they at least show some potential to help with real solutions.
First let me say how much I abhor celebrity gossip and how irritating this little bit of research was for me. Hopefully it helps me make my case. Anyway, there’s Keannu Reeves. After cashing in on one of the Matrix movies he decided to give a million dollars to each member of the special f/x team, unfortunately creating more rich people who will buy more stuff and build bigger houses. Harrison Ford and Tom Friedman work to spread information about ecocide with the show Years of Living Dangerously, then go back home to their $12.6 million and $9 million mansions. Beyonce makes the poignant video for her heartfelt song “I was here” expressing concern for the footprint she leaves on the world. I guess that explains the 1,000 square foot shoe closet (there’s really nothing crazier than worrying about leaving your mark on the world right now. With plastic and nuclear pollution, dammed rivers, hidden sewage infrastructure under otherwise fertile land, the future will know we were here, that we lived like greedy assholes and loved every second of it, and they’re going to fucking hate us for it). Brad Pitt plays the role of Tyler Durden, a character that opened up a lot of people to anarcho-primitivist ideas, narrates eco-themed shows on Link TV and gets a $20 million heart-shaped island from Angelina Jolie (another supposed philanthropist) as a birthday present.
A little less hypocritical would be Ellen Page. She takes a permaculture design course, spends a month living in an eco-village (maybe just for research before filming The East?) and even uses the word “permaculture” on TV. Yet she still decides to live in a mansion. Rosanne Barr decided to take the simple living even further, starting a 50 acre farm in Hawaii specializing in macadamia nuts but hosting a large variety of other crops as well. And obviously she’s come out with some great criticisms of the U.S. government during her presidential run, which was kind of interesting. Although being a little more down to earth than most people with $80 million she still fits in a little too much with her celebrity friends. Joe Rogan has come out against the drug war, interviewed tons of people on his podcast, spreading awareness for whatever issues he can. I think he’s sincere and on the right track but a little confused with his analysis of things. He seems a little too firmly ensconced in the upper class to really get it, like saying the prices of medical marijuana are fine and that taxing the hell out of it isn’t a problem. I’m sure millionaires aren’t that concerned with having to pay thousands of dollars a year for cannabis oil if they get sick but if it can be produced anywhere for practically nothing I don’t see why anyone else should be ok with that. On a more positive note, he also keeps his own chickens. Danny Glover is a great example of a celebrity-activist, being the only one I know of to actually challenge the concept of economic growth. Understanding that, why does he live in a 6,000 square foot house? And just to mention one more, Tim Mcilrath. He writes amazing songs for his band Rise Against, spreads awareness, makes millions of dollars and still lives like a relatively normal middle class American. I don’t really have any dirt on him besides the whole being a millionaire thing.
So there’s all these people, they care about the problems of the world and have a shit ton of money to do something about it. What would help out more than simply helping the poor buy more stuff? Why not actually empower the poor by funding the transformation of destructive farms into self-sufficient eco-villages? Take away the need for consumption for as many people as possible. Take away their dependence on destructive industries and reverse the toxifying, carbon-emitting effects of agriculture. Force the government to put more consideration into steady-state and degrowth economic models and cause irreparable damage to companies like Monsanto and Cargill. Help make simple living the new thing. Money can make accomplishing those things a whole lot easier.
Farmers around the world are under serious pressure to keep the same stupid business model going. Being indebted to big agri-biz companies makes them unable to make changes even when they want to. The first thing to save that land would be to pay off their debt, something any celebrity could easily afford (at least one farm per celebrity anyway). With a little more funding they can start the transition to organic perennial polycultures, hiring more help to dig swales, plant trees, graze animals outside and harvest crops by hand. That alone would be huge. There’s currently something like 90 million acres of corn monoculture in the U.S., the majority of which being GMO, and 80 million acres of soy, being 90% GMO. Those 2 crops alone account for 170 million acres (approximately the size of Texas) of degrading land, enormous quantities of toxic fertilizers and pesticides, and depleting aquifers. That land is a blank slate as far as I’m concerned. If we can prevent it from becoming desert (and a new carcinogen-laced dust bowl), we can design it to be ideal habitat for human beings.
Imagine a farmer with a thousand acres of corn is given all he needs to turn it into a thousand acre food forest. Why wouldn’t he do it? He knows the land is degrading, that he’s contributing to pollution and climate change and that his own family’s health is being compromised every day that they live this way. He hates the corporations that put him in debt and doesn’t want to keep contributing to their profits. The first step of the process is a no brainer. And that first step alone already makes at least as big a difference as any other existing charity. Convincing farmers to let people live on their land and people in cities to adapt that lifestyle is a bigger challenge. That next stage decreases the need for mechanized harvesting and transporting, as well as the need for hundreds of people, potentially a thousand for a thousand acre farm, to produce or sell worthless crap for a living. That would be enormous. If the idea spreads to thousands of acres more, hopefully all farmland, it could show the world that we still deserve to exist as a species.
Getting farmers to share their land will take some serious salesmanship, especially those of the staunch Republican ilk, but I don’t think any bullshitting is necessary. No matter how you look at it, it really is in their best interest. Even if they don’t agree that there’s no future for humanity if they don’t sequester carbon, it’s hard to deny that there’s no future in the current industrial farming model if they don’t save their soil, or even just if oil prices go up. Even if they don’t agree that the very concept of business is a problem, large-scale agriculture isn’t as profitable per acre as small-scale. Breaking one 1,000 acre farm into 200 separate 5 acre plots could increase profits. Corn makes at most a few hundred dollars profit per acre after expenses while a diversity of specialty organic crops, given more attention and harvested by hand can make a few thousand dollars per acre. Taking 10% of the harvest from each plot, still leaving them enough to sustain themselves, would yield the same return while requiring much less work for the farmer (obviously all farmland can’t be used to grow expensive specialty crops but the first batch of eco-villages could definitely be sold that way. It would take a real revolution in our economy for the majority of farmland to be self-sufficient communities anyway).
That idea may bear a scary resemblance to feudalism but I’m open to it at least as a transition stage, and others will be more interested in such living arrangements as things break down in the not too distant future. Already with unemployment so high, the lack of confidence in the economy recovering and more people turning to the black market for their livelihoods, more and more people are gaining an interest in going back to the land. With the huge surge in survivalist shows on TV, filming the project and turning it into its own reality TV show or documentary could cut back on expenses. That may even have added benefits like keeping corporate intimidation at bay (cameras are the new scare crows) or spreading public interest. I’d hope that it doesn’t come to that but more ridiculous things have been done. Worst case scenario though, just buy the farm. Pay the guy off and hire some permaculture designers to take over. Considering that the cost of farmland in the United States averages around $3,000 per acre, for 1,000 acres a few million dollars could get things started.
It would take 10-20 years to diversify the harvests and detoxify the land enough for people to actually live on it, and likely only if they have rainwater collectors for the first decade or so. The goal is to set up a living arrangement that requires no dependence on any destructive industries, meaning no plastic, metal or even glass eventually. Being dogmatic about such things immediately though isn’t realistic. As long as things move steadily in that direction that’s the best anyone can hope for. It’s going to take a long time to relearn all these skills and the artifacts of industrial civilization aren’t going anywhere any time soon. To ban cooking pots, nylon clothing, eye glasses and windows would be the same as letting the damage caused to create those things have been for nothing. The inhabitants just need to keep asking themselves “how will I still get what this gives me when this is gone?” Sure the affluent world will be calling them a crazy cult but they don’t have to actually live up to that title.
Funding the actual homes built on the land shouldn’t be too challenging. When I suggested building “simple dwellings” on the land, I wasn’t talking about earthships or a new “green” suburban development. I meant simple dwellings, yurts, teepees, cob, adobe or stone huts, pit houses, wigwams, etc. Human beings survived in structures of tree sapling skeletons covered in tree bark in the northern U.S. for thousands of years. The people of the sub-arctic lived in tents of whale bone and seal skins, using snow as their only building material to shelter them during hunting expeditions. The Bushmen of the Kalahari slept in structures no more formidable than a bird’s nest while surrounded by lions and hyenas. We have no good excuse for building anything more lavish than cob huts or longhouses, although adding simple composting toilets and rocket stoves or similar heating technologies made out of mud bricks or stone should be acceptable luxuries. I’m sure there’s legal bullshit to deal with (safety codes are set up more to protect businesses than people) but those with money have shown to be good at circumventing such issues. I’m sure their lawyers can come up with something.
There are different variations for how such a community can be arranged. So far what I’ve described is sort of individualistic, what might appeal to people who like having their own property and privacy, probably only making grazing land a commons. And it’s easy enough to visualize some dwellings being plopped on a plot of land that I don’t think anyone needs a diagram or anything to make sense of it. Since part of the idea is to get people out of cities though, the plan should be more appealing to urbanites. Those in semi-rural suburbs are already living in low enough population densities and with enough land to have some potential for sustainability. Their houses are kind of a problem but technically even constructing teepees in their yards would use more materials than just staying in their huge houses (although in the long term the larger amount of heating fuel, replacement of windows or need to add insulation and other retrofits may still justify tearing them down immediately in my opinion. I actually cringed rereading one of my older posts where I said retrofitting these houses could make the suburbs self-sufficient. That really just buys more time because a trombe wall heated house obviously isn’t producing its own glass or any of the other materials needed to maintain the structure).
I’ve been extremely averse to cities in previous posts, and my opinion on that hasn’t changed. However, clustering houses together can have some serious benefits regarding security, less building materials to house the same number of people, having a more communal feel, etc. You can’t get too carried away with it though. There are still the problems of spreading disease easier, too many people living together to know each other, loss of personal accountability, and when you start building vertically it defeats the purpose of saving materials because walls need to be thicker and stronger anyway. Also the larger the project the more sedentary life has to be. It’s too solid a structure to take down and move with you, although this is true of even the smallest cob, stone or adobe structure. Most preindustrial, non-civilized humans avoided totally permanent buildings. When overrun by ants, fleas or other pests in a world where you can’t just call an exterminator it’s generally a better idea to just accept defeat and set up someplace else, and it happens everywhere eventually. Also, to build or reconstruct houses regularly helps keep the knowledge of how to build alive.
Clusters of 50 to several hundred houses hardly compares to the insanity of modern cities. For New York City to provide an acre of local land to each of their inhabitants would require 12,500 square miles (can that even be considered local at that scale?), roughly the size of Connecticut and New Jersey combined, which already have twelve and a half million of their own people to provide for, which means even that land is too crowded already.
With those caveats out of the way, let’s look at how a more clustered community could be set up. When I first started playing around with this my biggest concern was figuring out how to have an intensive rotational grazing system without miles of annoying fencing to deal with. Almost everyone who does holistic management uses electric net fencing, which isn’t going to be around forever. A lot of permaculture designs I’ve seen rely so much on technology that they really shouldn’t get away with calling their system permaculture. In some cases it’s not really a huge deal. They can slowly build up certain things knowing that the technology can’t be relied on indefinitely. Others though put almost no thought whatsoever into how things could function without electricity or water pumps or green houses. I’ve even heard Bill Mollison recommend running more machines on compressed air because he sees a lot of potential in trompe compressors for producing cheap and relatively clean energy far into the future. I can’t say I’m a fan of that idea. I absolutely hate seeing toxic infrastructure covered with a pretty eco-veneer, such as plastic lining to seal ponds or hidden plastic drip irrigation pipes. I used to have neighbors obsessed with keeping their grass perfect who would inundate their lawns with poisons to keep all dandelions, clovers, plantains, purslane and wild strawberries at bay, leaving them with a ridiculously artificial looking green carpet, complete with little warning signs along the perimeter so people know if their kids or pink sweatered dogs play in this yard they could get sick. Fucking disgusting.
One thing I think can work is to use the houses themselves to enclose the animals in courtyard paddocks. The general idea I came up with is to elongate the houses (making them more wall-like) and arrange them in squares. Then those squares are arranged in a larger square, making a giant ring of courtyards. To minimize the need for fencing even further, an aquaculture pond/lake can go in the middle. Depending how detoxified the land is by the time construction starts, most of the building material could come straight from this excavation (I’m not advocating walling off existing ponds or lakes that wildlife already depends on). With all the designs I’ve played around with on paper the space for aquaculture is disproportionally large so excavating more of a ring and leaving an island or several islands in the center could be interesting as well, maybe with a wavy shoreline to provide as much edge space as possible for growing cattails, wapato, water chestnuts, water cress or whatever shallow water plants can grow in the climate. Even better might be something similar to a Central American chinampas system, digging out more of a grid pattern that leaves many small square islands for more crop production. The space could also house ducks, grow extra forage for livestock, be a safe area to keep bees, be planted with more nut trees or even just be a cool little hangout spot if production elsewhere proves sufficient. There should be community areas for games and meetings someplace. While traditional cultures do provide a lot of examples of work doubling as games, such as dances being used to tamp down soil for their buildings’ floors, it is a good idea to provide venues for less cooperative activities where people can get their aggression out. An island might be a fun place to do such things. Digging out some smaller ponds on the island could help diversify the water habitat as well, creating areas more appealing to frogs or turtles. Swampy land can be extremely productive for anyone open to new dinner options. There are a lot of possibilities.
Obviously cows can swim so water isn’t the best option for a barrier but what the water does, besides easy drinking access for the animals, is allow for an easy to move floating wall, removing the need for dozens of static ones. With rotational grazing only one paddock is used at a time, or with a succession of species, such as cows followed by chickens then pigs, only a few at a time. Not having as many walls to build really adds up when you’re talking about 40 paddocks or more. This also means that the gates enclosing each paddock can be moved to other paddocks as well since most can remain open, this time being small enough for a couple people to carry by hand pretty easily.
To minimize the need for fencing even further, vegetables can be grown on raised beds on the roofs. I imagine the complex looking almost like a one story pueblo, maybe even with entrances accessible by ladders like the Native Americans of the southwest used. The interior walls could also be removed connecting all dwellings like an Iroquois longhouse, further reducing needed building materials. By doing so, this would represent the extreme opposite of the individualistic model, where virtually everything, including living space, is basically a commons. Both extremes and everything in between are worth considering in my opinion.
Below is a rough drawing of one possible layout (I was tempted to make more illustrative drawings since this blog is called Doodles and Prose and I do technically have the ability to create more interesting images than this. I really want nothing to do with art anymore though), this being about as generic and simple as it can possibly be for the sake of clarity. It shows 200 20’x80’ houses (a little large for austere living but when you store food all winter you do need lots of storage space. Even Native Americans constructed some surprisingly large structures) enclosing 40 paddocks, each being approximately 1 acre, and 81 potential acres in the center for aquaculture (most likely leaving a lot of that space as an island). In the drawing it almost looks like a cattle prison, which I’d definitely like to avoid. Each paddock being a full acre and likely set up with trees as well, it should have more of a park-like quality when actually standing on it. Trying to keep everything proportional with a design like this is a bit of a puzzle. You have to consider the number of houses and people living in them, number of cows needed to give them their dairy products and meat, the space needed for that number of cows to fit in one paddock, and making it all fit around 40 paddocks. On average cows produce 6-8 gallons of milk per day and if they have a calf to feed that still leaves around 75% of it for their human parasites. Several gallons per day should be enough for several families, so I estimated 1 milkable cow for every 2-3 houses. With 200 houses that’s 66-100 cows plus their calves, which should be about right for an acre with intensive rotational grazing.
While I originally wanted something for only a couple hundred people (what a lot of primitivist types consider the maximum for a functional community) I found that there’s no way to arrange so few houses around anywhere near 40 paddocks, not without using super tiny paddocks or having to build extra fencing (not that I could figure out anyway). People’s morals will never totally match so some will be ok with sacrificing the happiness of their livestock and even their own happiness for extra production. To me, using paddocks less than a quarter acre in size is something I want nothing to do with. A little less of a puzzle to scale up or down with population size, the outside of the complex is surrounded by 10 food forests in different stages of development, and that always stay in 10 stages of development. These would be something like one tenth of an acre each for every person living there (a full acre of food forest per person in total). The Native Central Americans used what they called the milpa cycle, clearing land with fire and planting it mostly with corn, beans and squash but mixing in long term perennial crops that will take several years to grow. It’s basically what Eric Toensmeier and Dave Jacke call a rotational mosaic in their book Edible Forest Gardens. By a section’s third or fourth year of succession it’s mostly perennial crops. After year 10, the trees and shrubs are coppiced (not burned, at least as long as metal tools are available. At some point resorting to fire management may be the best option though) and planted with corn, beans and squash again the next year. Another good choice for early stage annuals would be hemp. It needs to be designed keeping in mind that clothing fibers and building materials are just as important as food, which is also provided by hemp in the form of seeds actually (as well as medicine and entertainment depending on which strains of hemp you can get away with growing). Done right, this is a system that remains fertile for thousands of years.
According to Toensmeier and Jacke the rotational mosaic isn’t necessarily the best way to do food forests but when dealing with a world of generalists who can’t focus on one little field of study their whole lives and with them managing hundreds of acres collectively, I think simplifying things a little bit is probably the best way to go. Remember, the “cult” I’m advocating won’t have the internet or even books at some point in the not too distant future. If we need to understand every micro-organism in the soil to maintain the system then it’s not going to survive.
Below is a variation of the same design I described above with the same number of houses, all the same size, and the same number of paddocks. As much as I thought I was onto something with the gimmick of having no walls that weren’t part of a house, the whole idea is to set up an eco-village that wastes the least building materials. One thing I missed was that the shared walls were the shortest sides of the houses, and also it’s almost like having 2 walls separating each paddock instead of just one, so while it was an intriguing idea, it might not actually be the best way to go. After some quick math I found that by compromising a little bit the below design needs 720’ less wall length (approximately 2% of the other design’s total), and can get away with using shorter walls in between paddocks, which is at least significant enough to take note of. The orientation of the first design allows for the possibility of more windows on the houses so depending how dogmatically primitivist we want to be that one could still have its own benefits.
It’s important to remember as well that different things work best in different areas. Local conditions always dictate how people live. Trying to set up one universal philosophy will never work. People who prefer to eat mostly vegetarian shouldn’t automatically judge anyone who eats meat every day. In colder climates that’s the only possibility for getting all your nutrients. Eskimos used to eat meat almost exclusively. Compared to the other extreme, veganism, I don’t know of any preindustrial cultures that survived that way. I don’t know if I consider it as dangerous as the Paleo crowd claims though. Having tried it myself a while ago I just decided it wasn’t best for me. As long as people are able to produce what they need locally with responsible land management techniques, they should all have the right to put into their bodies whatever they want as far as I’m concerned. The same goes for drug use, sexual behavior, parenting techniques, spirituality and many other cultural variations. If they’re producing their own necessities locally and sustainably, maybe even regeneratively, and not invading anyone else’s land, then no matter what else they decide to do they’re causing less damage than normal Americans. They can decide for themselves what’s taboo.
I’d love to think that this type of land use becomes what we mean when we say “sustainable development” and that the whole country turns into a network of self-sufficient communities and abandoned cities with vast stretches of unoccupied wilderness (I calculated in a previous post that that if everyone lived this way we could support the same population size with less than half the land use). I can’t say I’m holding my breath for the total revolution but the idea of at least some of these totally primitive eco-villages getting set up isn’t so unlikely. While the more hardcore rewilders won’t be satisfied even if the majority did convert to this lifestyle, I don’t see any chance of anything more than a tiny portion of the population being able to rely on hunting and gathering for their sustenance. Even in the most productive environments it takes at least 10 times the space to support a hunter gatherer as it does a horticulturalist. In the more extreme examples, such as the Kalahari it took 6,400 acres (10 square miles per person). Chestnut trees accounted for nearly half the trees in some areas of the United States 500 years ago (thanks to Native American management) and rivers were full of fish and safe to drink from. The idea of living like a wild human animal appeals to me but it’s not something I’m ever going to see. We just need to accept that.
Some popular environmental writers are completely insane when it comes to identifying the root of our problems. Obviously it goes deeper than just having some corrupt politicians to replace. Abolishing the Federal Reserve and capitalism still won’t fix everything. I have no problem with going down to industrial civilization, and even non-industrial civilization. Domestication is certainly worthy of a trial. Taking away an animal’s autonomy so it can be used as your personal vehicle, or deciding its mate for it so that you can ensure a dumber and weaker progeny to be used as cuddle slaves or denying a bird its ability to fly are all things I’m hoping humanity will get away from eventually. Hierarchy I don’t consider inherently bad in at least a minimal role, such as trusting a group of the wisest elders to make decisions for the group. Patriarchy, whether an accurate description of modern society or not, is worth discussing. “Separation from nature” is definitely a major one but it’s really just kind of a cute way of talking about some of these other ones without naming them. Religion is in kind of a gray area since some, while not necessarily making sense, do promote beneficial behaviors, even if just by sheer coincidence. Others create obligatory rituals that must be performed at any cost, even if say cutting down a tree or sacrificing some animals isn’t “affordable” at that particular time. Sometimes it’s just creating things for the sake of impressing others that leads to undue standards of living (one reason to question these gift giving rituals that New Agers are so fond of), or personal addictions that does it. Trying to use one word labels for root causes should be considered a root cause itself in my opinion. We’ve already seen this with masses of stupid people blaming everything on “problems” like Jews, Muslims, gays, blacks, pagans, women, wildness, Democrats, etc. Some purported root causes that I put in the “too far” category and that really annoy me are things like symbolic thought, language and the use of fire. I mean, what the fuck do you want me to do? Grow a tail? Maybe some gills and flippers and reestablish my rightful place in the ocean? I’ve heard relatively well respected writers suggest we should all be fruititarians (FRUITITARIANS!!!) or that using a language that has words for numbers inevitably leads to abusive behavior because it denies the uniqueness of all things. This shit is not helpful.
I want to believe that we’re converging on some good solutions and working to make them happen but I’m still seeing each new generation of parents getting their kids even more hopelessly addicted to plastic crap than the last. I’m still seeing movie makers resorting to using expensive, high-tech and violent films for environmentalist propaganda (Avatar being a good example, and even a lot of the good messages are questionable. I mean, the humanoid creatures are basically born with car keys growing out of their hair and the ungulates were born with key holes. That seems like more of a romanticized depiction of domination than a metaphor for symbiotic relationships in nature). I’m still seeing ideas like roads made entirely out of solar panels being taken as a serious option for sustainable development. People are still arguing over the efficacy of high-tech medicine instead of asking if the process of creating it is ethical or sustainable in the first place. People are still trying to use cool inventions and interesting discoveries to justify our atrocities. “Look at all we’ve learned. Clearly civilization wasn’t a mistake.” Really?
There’s a fine line between clever and dishonorable, brave and foolish, nationalism and racism, what we pride ourselves in and what we should be ashamed of. Those who have accepted the rewards of the modern world should keep that in mind when deciding what they should give back and how. Frankly, if you have the means to help turn things around you really owe it to the world to do it.