Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Quick Update

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.

*Edited 1/17/16


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.