Degeneration, sustainability and regeneration

 degenerative regenerative

Sustainability is the mid-way point on a scale between degenerative and regenerative.  It’s not an end point of anything.  As an aspiration, its not saying much to achieve sustainability.  For an activity to be sustainable, just means that you can keep doing it over and over again indefinitely.  Its not saying you’re doing it well, just that it can continue to happen.  We can do better than that.  And to aspire to be “more sustainable” is an even lower ambition.  It only requires shifting in the direction of the centre point, without ever intending to reach it.

With sustainability as our greatest ambition, the possibility of doing something well, of healing, repairing, making things better, this isn’t even considered.  More sustainable is just less harmful, it isn’t beneficial to anyone.  To aim for sustainability is to believe that all human activity is harmful, and to aim for the neutral point between harmful and helpful is the best we can do.

Aiming for sustainability rather than regeneration, this is like aiming to improve your state of health from terminal illness to a hardly-better state of being able to continue to live (to sustain life), while still being extremely ill.  As a civilization, we have been so ill for so long that we can’t even imagine being in a state of health, and no longer desire it.  Our illness is our identity.

So lets try for regeneration.  For healing from the sickness.

Regeneration or sustainability can’t be achieved while there is any degenerative activity going on.

So for either of these to be possible, all harmful activity must be stopped first.

To look away from the harm, this is like trying to build more storeys on a building while the ground level is being demolished.  You can’t build something sustainable on a degenerating foundation.  The foundation needs to be repaired first.degeneration graphIf all degenerative activity stops now, this is the range of possible scenarios.  If it doesn’t stop, follow the descending curve to zero.

The graph isn’t an exact measurement of degeneration.  Given that 98 per cent of old growth forests have been destroyed, 94 per cent of large fish in the ocean are gone, and 80 per cent of rivers worldwide no longer support any life, and the rate of destruction increasing exponentially, I’d say it’s a reasonable representation of recent history.

Once degeneration stops, regeneration may happen quickly, or slowly.  The point of no return for the complete collapse of the biosphere may have already passed.

Degenerative is anything that destroys life at a greater speed that it replenishes it.  This includes mining, manufacturing, commercial fishing, land clearing, agriculture, war, cities, dams, and anything that doesn’t enhance life.

Regeneration is the return to life, the recovery that happens when harm stops.  This part’s easy, life regenerates by itself.

No one person, or one community, can be sustainable while the rest of the world burns.  We all live on the same planet.  Act local, sure, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

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Footnote rant about sustainability:

Products that claim to be sustainable are nothing of the sort anyway.  They are responsible for just as much pollution and resource use as any alternative, they just hide it better.  Think solar and wind energy, cloth shopping bags, bamboo fibre, recycling, light bulbs, shower heads, and imported organic foods.  Sustainable is just a marketing ploy to appeal to a certain target market.  It’s about the image of being “green”, which has no connection to reality.  Even if these products were less harmful, something has still been destroyed in the making.  You can’t make something out of nothing.  The only way a product could ever be sustainable is if plants or animals are harvested from the wild at a lesser rate than they reproduce, and any processing is done with hand-made tools, and the product is transported by walking only.  Good luck making a sustainable solar panel.

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Why did the Australian aborigines never adopt agriculture?

Why did the Australian aborigines never develop agriculture?

This question was posed in the process of designing an indigenous food garden, and I could hear the underlying assumptions of the enquirer in his tone.  Our culture teaches that agriculture is a more desirable way to live than hunting and gathering, and agriculturalist is more intelligent and more highly evolved than a hunter gatherer.

These assumptions can only be made by someone indoctrinated by civilization.  It’s a limited way to look at the world.

I was annoyed by question, and judged the person asking it as ignorant of history and other cultures, and unimaginative.  Since many would fit this label, I figured I’m better off answering the question.

This only takes some basic logic and imagination, I have no background in anthropology or whatever it is that would qualify someone to claim authority on this subject.  You could probably formulate an explanation by asking yourself: How and why would anyone develop agriculture?

First consider the practicalities of a transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

What plants would be domesticated?  What animals?  What tools would they use?  How would they irrigate?

Why would anyone bother domesticating anything that is plentiful in the wild?

To domesticate a plant takes many generations (plant generations, and human generations) of selecting the strongest specimens, propagating them in one place, caring for them, protecting them from animals and people, from the rain and wind and sun, keeping the seeds safe.  This would be incredibly difficult to do, it would take a lot of dedication, not just from one person but a whole tribe for generations.  If your lifestyle is nomadic, because food is available in different places in different seasons, there is no reason to make the effort to domesticate a plant.

Agriculture is high-risk.  There are a lot of things that could destroy a whole crop, and your whole food supply for the year, as well as your seed stock for the next.  A storm, flood, fire, plague of insects, browsing mammals, neighbouring tribes, lack of rain, disease, and no doubt many other factors.  A huge amount of work is invested in something that is likely to fail, which would then cause a whole community to starve, if there isn’t a back-up of plentiful food in the wild.

Agriculture is insecure.  People in agricultural societies live in fear of crop failure, as this is their only source of food.  The crops must be defended.  The tools, food storage, water supply and houses must also be defended, and maintained.  Defended from people, animals, and insects.  Growing and storing all your food in one place would attract all of these.  Defence requires weapons, and work.

Agriculture requires settlement.  The tribe must stay in one place. They cannot leave, even briefly, as there is constant maintenance and defending to do.  Settlements then need their own infrastructure:  toilets, water supply, houses, trading routes as not all the food needs can be met from within the settlement.  Diseases spread in settled areas.

Aboriginal people travel often, and for long periods of time.  Agriculture is not compatible with this way of life.

Agriculture is a lot of work.  The farmers must check on the crop regularly, destroy diseased plants, remove weeds, irrigate, replant, harvest, save seeds, and store the crop.  Crops generally are harvested for only a few weeks or months in the year, and if they are a staple, must be stored safely and be accessible for the rest of the year.

Domesticated animals require fencing, or tethering, or taming.  They would be selectively bred for docility, which is a weakness not a strength, so a domesticated animal would be less healthy than a wild animal.

The people too become domesticated and lose strength with the introduction of agriculture.  The wild intelligence needed to hunt and gather would be lost, as would the relationships with the land and other beings.

Agriculture requires a belief in personal property, boundaries, and land ownership.  Australian aborigines knew that the land owned the people, not the other way around, so would never have treated the land in this way.

Agriculture needs a social hierarchy, where some people must work for others, who have more power by having more wealth.  The landowner would have the power to supply or withhold food.  Living as tribal groups, aborigines probably wouldn’t have desired this social structure.

Cultivated food has less nutrition than wild food.  Agriculturalists limit their diet to plants and animals that can easily be domesticated, so lose the diversity of tastes and nutrients that make for an ideal human diet.  Fenced or caged animals can only eat what is fed to them, rather than forage on a variety of foods, according to their nutritional needs.  Domesticated plants only access the nutrients from the soil in the field, which becomes more depleted with every season’s crop.  Irrigation causes plants to not send out long roots to find water, so domesticated plants are weaker than wild plants.

Agriculture suggests a belief that the world is not good enough as it is, and humans need to change it.  A land populated with gods, spirits or ancestors may not want to be damaged, dug, ploughed and irrigated.

Another thought is that agriculture may develop from a belief in scarcity – that there is not enough food and it is a resource that needs to be secured.  Indigenous belief systems value food plants and animals as kin to be in relationship with, rather than resources to exploit.

Agriculture isn’t an all-or-nothing thing.  Indigenous tribes engage with the landscape in ways that encourage growth of food plants.  People gather seeds of food plants and scatter them in places they are likely to grow.  Streams are diverted to encourage plant growth.  Early explorers witnessed aboriginal groups planting and irrigating wild rice.  Tribes in North Queensland were in contact with Torres Strait Islanders who practiced gardening, but chose not to take this up on a large scale themselves.

A few paragraphs from Tim Low’s Wild Food Plants of Australia:

“The evidence from the Torres Strait begs the question of why aborigines did not adopt agriculture.  Why should they?  The farming life can be one of dull routine, a monotonous grind of back-breaking labour as new fields are cleared, weeds pulled and earth upturned.  The farmer’s diet is usually less varied, and not always reliable, and the risk of infectious disease is higher…It is not surprising that throughout the world many cultures spurned agriculture.

“Explorer Major Mitchell wrote in 1848: ‘Such health and exemption from disease; such intensity of existence, in short, must be far beyond the enjoyments of civilized men, with all that art can do for them; and the proof of this is to be found in the failure of all attempts to persuade these free denizens of uncivilized earth to forsake it for tilled soil.’ ”

After all this, I’m amazed that anyone ever developed agriculture.  The question of why Australian aborigines never developed agriculture is easily answered and not as interesting as the question it brings up for me: why did twentieth century westerners never develop hunter-gatherer lifestyles?

The twin sides of the fossil-fuel coin – climate change and energy decline

Guy McPherson presents some projections for an economic crash, peak oil effects and climate change impacts in the near future.  Total economic collapse is expected within months, and climate change expected to lead to the extinction of all sea and land life (yes, that does include you) and leave the planet without oxygen, by 2050.

Resistance to global power structures is the only strategy available to us that could save at least some living beings from this annihilation.  Sustainable living, renewable energy, nonviolent protest, or a few cans of beans in the pantry, won’t help anyone.  Guy doesn’t say this.  He says plant a radish.  I don’t reckon a radish would be at all useful in the face of total global destruction.  Let’s start thinking outside the vegie garden box.

from Nature Bats Last

The Black Death

I’m standing on the cliff overlooking Christies Beach after a brief downpour.  Suddenly a surge of black water bursts from the outlet pipe below me.  It thunders over the rocks, and fans out across the beach.  The white beach becomes black.  The ooze reaches the sea, and forms a dark mass that moves south through the water, across the reef.  The Black Death.  A blob of motor oil, organic matter, topsoil, garden chemicals, and plastic trash.  Killing everything in its path.

The suburbs smell fresh, look clean and new.  The downpour has washed away the dust and debris.  Washed into someone else’s home.

Cleaning the streets is killing the neighbours.

This is happening in my home.  This is where I swim and snorkel the reef.  The reef-dwellers – fish, kelp, shellfish and starfish, rocks and rays – are my friends and neighbours.

I imagine their feelings as the black death arrives.  An inescapable, oily, choking cloud appears with the rain.  Breathing and feeding stops.  Many die quickly.  The poison stays.

The abundance of life on the reef has visibly diminished the last few years.  I see nowhere near as many fish this year as I did last year.  Bright green algae (or seaweed, I’m not sure of its name) is more prominent than it has ever been.

When I was ten years old, I wrote a story very similar to this.  It was about returning to visit Jervis Bay, where I had lived as a younger child, and enjoyed swimming in a pristine lagoon.  On my return, the beach had changed.  The lagoon was smaller, and darker, and sported a warning sign – polluted water, no swimming.  I remember my feelings of anger and sadness at seeing the impact of the industrial world on a place that I was attached to, that was so far away from the cities and factories.  An untouched beach, neighbouring bushland.  Now too toxic to touch.

And now, 25 years later, it’s the same story all over again.  But a whole lot worse this time.

It’s not just this outlet that’s spewing black death into ocean communities.  It’s every creek and stormwater drain along the Adelaide coast.  Maybe the whole gulf will soon be a dead zone.

And the same must be happening in every city in the world, after every rain.  Coastal cities are massacring their marine communities.  Inland cities murder their rivers, with the black death going all the way to the sea, harming all human and natural communities who live downstream.

No-one left alive.  This is biological warfare.

This is my breaking point.

This is real.  This is my home.

I considered blocking the outlet, but realised that the result would be that the black water would just flow over the street and the cliff and then onto the beach and into the sea.  So I scrapped that idea, as I’d just be polluting the land above the beach.  Mycoremediation or a wetland could filter the water.

A more practical response would be to prevent chemicals from entering the catchment [watershed], and every catchment, which would require preventing chemicals from being manufactured in the first place, and also directing water into the ground rather than sending it out to sea.  And that takes acknowledging and challenging global power structures.

I can’t do that by myself.  Will you help me?

Making rapid progress toward a crash

By the end of the century, the planet we live on will likely be uninhabitable by humans, mammals, and nearly all living things.  And yet nothing has been done to avert this disaster.  How is it that I never knew about this before?  Why is no-one talking about this?  This claim comes from the UK government chief scientist.  It was published in a prominent newspaper.  Is it just too much for people to comprehend, so we collectively ignore it?  Are our delusions so large that we cannot accept that we require a living planet?  Does this information just not fit in the conversations we have about the way we live?

I feel like I’m in a speeding car.  It’s only metres away from hitting a brick wall.  The driver has his foot full on the accelerator.  Maybe he doesn’t see the wall, or maybe he doesn’t want to see it.  Acceleration is the whole of his identity.  His identity is more important to him than his life.  In his world, speeding is all there is. In his world, speeding is what everyone wants, what everyone needs.  Solid walls that will destroy him, his car, and his passengers, cannot be seen.  The millions of living beings he’s running down with the car, they too cannot be seen.  Economic growth at all costs.

Next to him, the shotgun passenger is suggesting easing off the acceleration.  He sees the wall, but doesn’t understand the effect of hitting it at speed.  He can’t grasp that it’s a solid object.  He’s not suggesting slowing, or stopping, but continuing at a steady speed.  In his world, the wall might disappear into the distance, maybe it can be driven away with some new technology, or if we think about it differently.  Sustainability.  Steady state economy.

Behind him, another passenger sees the wall.  He knows we can’t continue at this speed.  He suggests slowing.  Degrowth.  Transition.  Energy descent.

I’m sitting behind the driver.  I can see that the only way to survive the crash is to stop as soon as possible.  A gentle deceleration will be too little, too late.  And even if it were a good idea, it would require convincing the driver, who refuses to hear.  Voices from the back seat are a threat to his identity.  I suggest we passengers kill him, and slam on the brakes. He’s clearly not going to stop the car himself, as he values his identity more than his life.  Resistance.

The other two are shocked.  You can’t stop the car, they say.  That would stop our progress.  How can you not want progress?  And you can’t kill him, they say.  He’ll lose control of the car.  And how dare you not be grateful to him for driving us all this way?

He’s driving us into a wall, I say.  He’s already out of control.  How can I be grateful? 

You can’t kill him, they say.  That would be violent.  You don’t want to be violent.

He’s killing all of us, and everyone in his path, I say.  If I kill him, I’m stopping the violence.  They don’t want to hear.  They don’t want to stop. 

I lean forward.  I put my hands around the driver’s throat.  I kill him.  I slam on the brakes.  The car jolts.  The brakes scream.  The windscreen shatters.

The crash is inevitable.  Some may survive.

 

 Image

Image credit  Top choice from an image search for “economic crash”.  There are a disturbing number of books with titles like “how you can profit from an economic crash”.

The Zero Food Pop Quiz

Zero Weedkiller and Coke Zero

One of these products claims to be food, the other to kill all food plants it comes in contact with.  Can you tell the difference?

Match the ingredients list to the product.

–    Phosphoric acid, Acesulfame potassium and Sodium benzoate

–   N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine andHexahydro-1,3,5-tris(2-hydroxyethyl)-S-triazine

What are these ingredients made from?  How are they made?

Which product contains the most nutrients?

Which tastes better?  This one’s entirely subjective, I’m not willing to taste either product to form an opinion.  The weedkiller smells slightly sweet, according to the safety data sheet, so might come out ahead in this one.

Which has a higher LD-50 (lethal dose)?

Which is more effective at killing plants?

Which kills the most humans?

Which would cause the most harm if spilt on skin?

Are these products identical, with only the packaging and the slight variation in name to tell them apart?

Would you drink something that was advertised as having no nutritional value, and contained no ingredients derived from food sources, and several ingredients known to be harmful to human health?

Would you drink weedkiller if it was marketed as a food product?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and I’m not bothered to do the research to find out.

Four minute shower

I was taking a shower, thinking about saving water, and shower timers, and the idea that a four-minute shower is the solution to the problem of wasting water.  And how this can only make sense when a five-minute shower and a four-minute shower are the only possible options.  This solution makes no sense at all if any other factors are taken into account.  Factors like the possibility of taking a three-minute shower, or a bath, or not showering at all, or flushing the toilet, or collecting rainwater, or using shower water on the garden, or using shower water to flush the toilet. Or mining industries that use billions of times the amount of water any one person could ever use at home.  Billions of times the amount that all the people in the world could ever use at home.  If everyone in the world cut back showering time, the amount of water being wasted would hardly change. In a world where irrigators deliberately waste water so as to use their whole allocation, and not lose their allocation for next year, a concern about showering time seems misplaced.

Then there’s all the larger factors: the infrastructure required to make showering possible. The dams, pipes, pumps, sewers, chemical treatment, electricity, mining and pollution that showering could never happen without.  Damming a river destroys whole natural communities, living beings both upstream and downstream, and impacts on the livelihoods of everyone who depends on the river.  Reducing showering time has no effect on any of this.

Most of our water use happens not in the shower, but as embodied water – the water used to produce the things we buy.  A 200mL glass of milk requires 200L of water to produce, a hamburger 2400L, an egg 135L, an A4 sheet of paper 10L.  How much water in a round of golf?

You could install a low-flow showerhead, which is claimed to save 16 000 litres of water a year.  This happens to be the same amount of water it takes to produce one kilogram of beef.  The showerhead advocates don’t say how much water it takes to produce the showerhead.

Are our cultural beliefs around showering and access to unlimited water more important than the lives of those who depend on the rivers we are stealing from?  How long can we sustain our beliefs before either these others fight back, or we disrupt natural processes to the extent that this water is no longer available?  I was going to include “until we poison our water supply so badly that its no longer safe to shower in it” but then realised this is already the case.  Here is South Australia our water supply contains pesticides at well above the safe level recommended by World Health Organisation, but this doesn’t make news.  I’m literally being showered in toxic chemicals.

Even if none of these factors are taken into account, a four-minute shower, rather than being the solution to water waste, is still wasting four-fifths as much water as a five-minute shower.  So for this solution to make sense, you’d need to not only ignore all other factors, you’d need to first make these assumptions:

  1. showering every day is essential for everyone
  2. showering requires at least four minutes
  3. showering is always done using mains water
  4. shower water must go into the sewer
  5. stealing water from other watersheds is a human right
  6. polluting water and dumping it in the water supply of others is essential
  7. none of these assumptions can be acknowledged or challenged.

I thought all this through while I was in the shower for somewhere between four and five minutes, which, if I was to make the above assumptions, would leave me somewhere between being the solution and the cause of the problem.

Waste water and energy! Install this completely unnecessary shower timer, which required more water and energy to manufacture than you could use in months of showering! Only $275!