It was a bitterly cold May morning in the central southern town of Ansbach, Germany. My daughter and I bundled up the best we could with insufficient clothing we dug out of our suitcases in the trunk of the rental car. We had packed a summer wardrobe for our 5 weeks in Germany and surrounding countries, with only one long sleeved item each. My cousins had warned me a day before our May 7th flight that things were not warm at all in Germany, but it was such a hassle to repack that we opted to just stuff one sweater and a light jacket in our bulging carry-ons. Alas, these were woefully insufficient.
But this was a day we would spend outdoors. This was the day I had been looking forward to the most. This was the day we would meet Markus Gastl and take a tour of both of his glorious and famous gardens to learn about Three Zone Gardening! I had come across Markus on a European permaculture group on Facebook months earlier. I was looking for permaculture projects to visit on my long awaited return trip to Germany. I had not been home for 30 years. It was time. And I was going to make the most of it. Of course I visited all my relatives and friends, an endeavor that took me to almost every corner of Germany. But I also wanted to see what the permaculture scene was doing in Europe.
Markus took the time to message me almost immediately after my initial inquiry. He quickly invited me to visit and take a tour, and soon our texting had to transition to a phone call. What a great conversation! Soon my plans took shape to include his well-known gardens, Hortus Insectorum and Hortus Felix, both near Ansbach.
As we pulled up to Hortus Insectorum, we saw a crowd of folks spilling out of the open doorway of the barn. Quickly digging through the trunk to find a few extra layers, we rushed over to join the attentive audience that was listening to Markus give an interview to a local radio show. We knew about this interview, and Markus had invited me to say a few words, as well. We were introduced as the guests of honor hailing from far-away America. I spoke a few words about permaculture and what we are trying to accomplish at The Earthius Project, ending with praise for Markus' Three Zone Gardening concept and how we would be bringing it to Earthius and the wider American gardening scene.
After the radio interview was concluded, the tour began! We were ushered back out to the front garden where Markus explained the use of extensive bee hotels and a desert rock garden. While he spoke, we admired all the succulents and wildflowers that would normally only be found high in the Alps. A sweet woman who saw us shivering got us cozy blankets from her car to use as capes, so we were suddenly much more comfortable!
Markus started with a story of the typical German home gardener who is terrified of how they are perceived by neighbors. The gardener reaches the gates of heaven only to find that he does not get credit for pleasing his neighbor and is admonished for failing to care for the Lord's creation. This loosens the Germans in the crowd immediately, as they all recognize themselves in this gardener.
However, it helped me, too. Shortly before I left on this trip, I had been accosted by agitated neighbors of the more conservative persuasion and put down for failing to mow the biodiversity I was working hard to regenerate. It had been a hard blow, as I was always super friendly and neighborly. Actually, I was the only one on my one mile dirt road to be so forthcoming with offers to help when a new baby is born or when an elder clearly needed help. But all this had meant nothing to them. It was negated by my pollinator meadow apparently.
I squared my shoulders with pride and new ambition!
In traditional permaculture, we are taught to plan our zones outward, with energy and time inputs decreasing the further away from the home we get. Zone 1 is our kitchen garden and zone 5 is a wild area that ideally is not visited frequently to allow wildlife a reprieve from our constant interference. The other zones are strewn along the interim according to topography, placement of systems (like a chicken coop or greenhouse), and how much time and attention we are willing to devote to that zone.
Three zone gardening simplifies this structure to three essential zones that allow us to close the entire system's cycle, as well as address a key global problem: the great insect extinction event.
The Buffer Zone
The descendant of zone 5 in permaculture, the Buffer Zone takes on multiple roles. Of course it is the ideal spot for wildlife diversity to flourish. However, Markus stresses that in a time of glyphosate use and noise pollution, the Buffer Zone is also a shield from negative outside influence and activity. Tall trees filter downwind drifts of sprays applied by neighbors and nearby farms. Understory trees can protect us from undesirable views. And finally, many of the trees and bushes can produce resources like nuts, fruit, berries, and timber (if our land is large enough).
These human-centric reasons are clear and desirable. But the Buffer Zone goes a step further and reminds us that the earth under our feet and all non-human life on our land deserve protection. Creating a sanctuary for a biodiversity that is rare these days is crucial and an ethical mission.
Although the Buffer Zone is typically a hands-off area, we can greatly enhance its diversity and productivity by adding piles of branches, rotting tree trunks, and other nature modules that enhance its ability to generate animal and plant diversity. If you do not have any wilderness on your property already, the establishment of the Buffer Zone is of high priority and consequence. If your property is too small or developed to have any native wilderness left on it, it likely follows that you are settled among active civilization. Human activity can have a myriad of negative impacts on natural diversity: paved roads (with toxic runoff), buildings that reduce habitat, indiscriminate machinery that kills and maims insect and small mammal life, general environmental pollution like chemical fertilizers, poisons like herbicides and pesticides, and human activity that intersects natural migration and forage patterns.
At the very least, the edge of your property should signal to humans and wildlife alike that this is a place of protection and diversity they may not encounter outside of it. This area has surprising biological, water, climactic, and soil benefits that will impact your entire property, including your Production Zone. The Buffer Zone entices diverse wildlife to enter by providing a safe habitat full of shelters and forage. It is therefore preferable to demarcate your boundary line with a thick hedge, rather than impenetrable obstacles like vertical fencing or a wall. Even butterflies will tend to fly along a barrier rather than fly over it. This means your hedge cannot be too tall or dense if you want the maximum number and variation of pollinators to reach the interior. However, to reduce the likelihood of larger, more destructive animals (including humans) entering, you can add lots of native brambles to this hedge. Placing your twig and branch piles near the perimeter provides convenient access to shelter for wildlife and increases the barrier to larger animals (and humans).
Before installing and developing your Buffer Zone, take a look around and note that most boundary hedges are monospecies, non-native, and evergreen, whether it be boxwood, cypress, or bamboo. These often have no blooming flowers for pollinators and do not contribute to leaf mulch in fall to feed the soil. This means they will have to be fertilized and trimmed regularly, are prone to disease, and are useless to native wildlife and insect populations.
Native grasses, bushes, vines, and nut trees have many advantages over the typical installation:
With so many clear advantages, why are we not installing more native and diverse hedges, instead of that single row of Leland Cypress, for example? Because the typical garden center is profit driven. Not only do they limit what they offer to those items in clear demand (so the ball in in our court as consumers), but they will always tend toward those plants that will ensure a lengthy and costly commitment to the purchase of after-products, like mulches, fertilizers, pest sprays, and fungicides.
So if diverse, native hedges are so great, why add more nature modules? Because the plants are not the only elements included in the diversity. Plants may signal a promise of shelter, forage, safety, nesting sites, predation and more to passing animals and insects, but they do not offer all this to every species. For example, the solitary wild bee may be attracted by the blossoms on one of the hedge bushes, but that is still a far cry from meeting her complete habitat needs. She will need sandy ground or decaying wood to nest, depending on her species. If she finds only mulched soil or a lawn abutting the hedge, she will move on.
While eventually the hedge will mature and grow together to form a fairly dense transition, there will be plenty of gaps and crevices while the plants are still immature and in their leafless season. These areas provide a wonderful opportunity for us to pack in as much diversity in structure, materials, shelter options, and nesting sites as possible. Some nature modules to consider:
For many animals some or all of these nature modules can help complete their habitat requirements for nesting, warmth, moisture, shelter and food.
The Hot Spot Zone
The most innovative and insightful element to Three Zone Gardening has to be the Hot Spot Zone and its unique logic. I will start with an anecdote. When we moved into our beautiful house with 2 acres on a private lake my first observation was that, for decades, rain runoff had stripped the sloped land of topsoil. My instinctive concern was that fertility had been washed away and that it was of primary importance to build up soil fertility, mass, and life. I felt overwhelmed at the task before me: an acre of sloped land above the house that was to become the orchard at the top and the wildflower meadow over the septic drain field. I envisioned dump trucks delivering wood chips and costly compost and the labor it would take to spread them!
Thankfully, I discovered permaculture. I dug huge berms and swales where the orchard would be to control runoff and build up strips of plantable soil where tree roots could take hold. I over-seeded the meadow with rye, oats, and native wildflowers, adding a thin layer of bulk compost to germination. Then I waited. And watched.
Much developed as expected, and I was thrilled at the successes in the orchard. But, to my dismay, the meadow did not flourish. Not in the first year, not in the second, nor in the third. What did flourish were nitrogen loving, invasive, non-native weed species. No oats or rye in sight. Almost no wildflowers. A costly failure. And the battle I had been waging with my husband, who wanted to just mow the unsightly field of weeds, became more and more difficult to justify.
Markus explains that for many of us gardeners who were reared in traditional gardening and farming logic, it was just intuitive to want to "build up" the soil, mulch grass cuttings, and increase nitrogen in our effort to support plant growth. What was not part of this traditional knowledge, at least not in recent decades, was the fact that the undesirables weeds and invasives adore rich, nitrogen-heavy soils, as well! This is why dandelions are such hardy competitors with healthy, dense lawn. It is also why non-native species can become destructively invasive.
The Hot Spot Zone is somewhat counter-intuitive at first glance. Strip the soil, don't mulch your grass cuttings, don't add compost, don't build humus, even going so far as to suggest scraping off the top few inches of very rich soil to get down to hard pan! The heresy of it!!!
But fortunately, there is a very logical, even scientific method to the madness. After hitting the gong he has at a junction between the Buffer Zone and the Hot Spot Zone at Hortus Insectorum, Markus prepares his audience for the unique logic of the Hot Spot Zone by telling us about his two-year cycling trek from the southern-most tip of South America all the way to Alaska.
Markus experience the entire range of emotions on that trip. The wonder of seeing vast stretches of what looked like desolate landscapes, only to discover an abundance of life and blooming biodiversity at his feet. Likewise, he cried tears of anger and disappointment when he rode through once Eden-like areas that had been touched by the selfish and unthinking hand of human activity.
When he came home to southern Germany, he had an epiphany. In the Alps, where the ground is hard, rocky, and dry, the most wondrous assortment of wildflowers and wild grasses grew without human intervention. This biodiversity was filled with insect and bird life! When he looked around the typical German suburban garden, however, he found lawn and a very small range of imported, non-native plants repeatedly used and prized. Enormous labor and inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, water, and machinery are pumped into these gardens to keep them afloat. Sound familiar?
The constant battle with weeds, invasives, and pest pressures is almost like a badge of honor for the typical gardener. Hybrid rose or hydrangea or rhododendron varieties that provide no scent or pollen for bees or butterflies are all the rage. Liter after liter of gasoline is consumed to mow and manicure the "English Rasen", as the Germans call lawns.
And parallel to this laborious gardening, an insect extinction occurred right before our unseeing eyes, in Germany, as well as here in America and elsewhere. According to a 2018 article in National Geographic*:
"In October 2017 a group of European researchers found that insect abundance (as measured by biomass) had declined by more than 75 percent within 63 protected areas in Germany—over the course of just 27 years."
Yes, that's right... inside "protected areas." This means it is probably much worse in unprotected and heavily populated areas. In particular, species like butterflies, bees, and decomposers like dung beetles are the worst hit.
Why does this matter?
Insects are near the bottom of the food web, yet also near the middle. What this means is that an enormous array of animals eat insects. Likewise, the next tier eats the insect-eaters. If insects decline, so do their predators, then those that eat the insect predators, and so on up the food chain. A severe decline of larger animals and apex predators (already in progress) means that the system is exiting homeostasis. This, in turn, spells catastrophic and unpredictable chaos for biomes and weather.
As if this was not enough, we also rely on pollinating insects to produce about one third of all our food! Without them, we have to adjust what we eat and find artificial ways to pollinate and grow our food (not to mention make goodies like honey). Every almond grove in this country is dependent on honey bees being trucked in to pollinate blossoms.
So the purpose of the Hot Spot Zone is to bring back native habitat for native insect populations because they are inextricably linked. This is a mission that reaches far beyond our desire and need for pollinators in our own production zone or for our own fruit and nut trees. This is a matter of human survival. Besides pesticides and herbicides, you can blame microwaves via cell phone towers, mono-cropping, and human suburban sprawl. But what it all comes down to is a lack of biodiversity that meshes seamlessly with native insect species. We have gardens... let's do something about that!
Let's look at the area on The Earthius Project where I envision a wildflower pollinator meadow. This area is about half an acre, edged on the south by paved driveway, on the west by the dirt access road (from where I am taking this picture), on the north by orchard and woods, and on the east by the fence that marks the production zone just above the house. Underneath the topsoil is a network of perforated pipes that distribute the effluent (fluids) from the home's septic system. It is clearly visible at times where these pipes run, because the grasses along them are much greener. This is a clue to our problem and our solution.
While much of this meadow has sandy, dry, hard-packed soil, there are many areas where the soil is clearly very fertile. High nitrogen infused by the drain pipes of the septic system in those areas entice non-native seeds that blow in to germinate. Dandelions, crown vetch, Chinese bushclover, paper mulberry, hairy crabweed, sedge, mugwort, ragwort, mullein, poison hemlock, spiderwort, and other nuisance plants started popping up after I attempted to introduce wildflower seeds, a thin layer of compost, and stopped mowing. I was not at all familiar with the identification of these exotic invasives and what they can do to hinder my efforts.
This year, I purchased a scythe. It will allow me to cut and remove weeds and grasses before they go to seed and use that stored energy in my production zone with Mulchrolls (in German, Mulchwürste). These rolles of grass and weed cuttings become convenient and effective matts of cover for the bare areas between production plants to suppress weeds, retain moisture, and make hunting for pests very easy.
Next, I overseed each scythed section with native wildflowers and grasses. I cover the seeds in poor and sandy soil to protect them while they germinate and to suppress the invasives. Over time, the soil will become poorer and sandier, giving the native seedlings the advantage.
What are some of these native plants? Well, for central North Carolina, they include the following:
For a complete list of North Carolina natives, visit the North Carolina Native Plant Society or look for a list of plants native to your area by checking out your state's agricultural extension website.
Some additional nature modules you can put in your Hot Spot Zone would be anything that increases the diversity of habitats and forage for native insects. For example, the center circle on the meadow at Earthius will become a sand and rock garden, planted out with native succulents, mostly varieties of Hen and Chicks, and will include structures from rocks to attract heat and provide crevices to hide in. The sand will give native bee species a chance to nest in a safe, traffic-free zone.
Likewise, a water module, like this pond, adds immense opportunity for wildlife and plant life to diversify. In this case, I simply dug up some native plants growing at the edge of our lake and transplanted them here. Soon, this waterfall and the pond itself became virtually invisible, due to the profusion and vigor of the native plants. Countless frogs, toads, dragonflies, and watersnakes enjoy this oasis. Even the bees, both the honeybees and the wild bees, come here to drink.
The Production Zone
So why would we plant a kitchen garden in an age where even organic produce is relatively easy to come by and more or less affordable? The most important component of the answer to this question involves a principle mandate in permaculture: to strive as much as possible to produce more and consume less.
This principle takes into consideration all three Permaculture Ethics: caring for earth, caring for others, and limiting our demands so that all get a fair share. When you produce something for yourself, you have reduced pressure on an industrialized system that is borrowing resources from the future. If you produce 50% of all the produce your family eats by gardening, you have cut in half your demand and dependence for food on a system that functions primarily on the premise of eternal growth. And you know by now that eternal growth is not possible on a finite planet. Indeed, we have hit many ceilings already. We are finding out in real time what it means to be the victim of a system that borrowed from the future. We are already experiencing the beginning of the fallout of greed and irresponsibility, corruption and power, that ruled economic growth over the past 80 years.
It is time to step out of this system. Some use immense courage to change it through rebellion, some valiantly try to change it from within through political action, some try to take it on by force. Ultimately, the individual has the power to be part of the solution and change by what he or she chooses to do, the decisions they make. The most powerful and impactful decision here will be the choice to produce more and consume less, and not just in the garden.
Greater self-sufficiency is only a small part of the benefits. Becoming more resilient in the wake of natural disaster, armed conflict, economic instability, societal collapse is a huge advantage. Becoming a good land-steward is a moral striving that will benefit the entire community and future generation. Having complete control and knowledge over your means of production means you can ensure nutrient-dense, non-toxic food is on your family's table. And finally, the knowledge and wisdom of how to live with nature, coax her to produce food you like, keep her healthy, and how to help her regenerate where once humans only degraded is priceless. Passing this wisdom on is ethical, moral, and responsible.
It takes time to garden productively. Not only will you have to fix and regenerate what others before you have degraded and poisoned, but you will have to hone the skills, timing, and management required for successful harvests and healthy land. But it is critical to human survival that an overwhelming percentage of industrialized citizens relearn and practice these skills.
What is the most important factor in a successful garden? The soil is by far and wide the most critical component that should engage your time and attention... all else will follow. The primary ingredients in any soil are clay, silt, sand, water, air and organic matter (humus). The balance of these components determines how well they can intermingle and create that ideal habitat for soil life, the absolute prerequisite to building regenerative soils. Ideal ratios hover in the range of 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. Once this ratio is roughly achieve, the addition of organic matter that breaks down over time and provides food for soil animals like the earth worm, will ensure that nutrients are available throughout the soil layers and that water and air can reach roots via tunnels and chambers left by soil organism activity.
Connecting the Zones
I will not go into the details of how to grow food here. You will, no doubt, need to research how to go about that for your bio-region at any rate. What is far more important is that you understand that the inter-connectivity of these three Zones is critical and can be achieved by introducing a variety of nature modules to each zone.
Creating a sunny stone and sand garden on the edge between the Buffer Zone and the Hot Spot Zone can lure wildlife and plant life from one zone to the other. Harvesting energy accumulated in the Hot Spot Zone by scything biomass after seed distribution and redistributing it to the Production Zone via Mulchrolls creates symbiosis. Likewise, placing the branches and trunks of a tree cut down in the Buffer Zone into one of the other two zones as fencing or just a pile, strengthens the ties between zones
What is perhaps necessary to mention at this point is that by no means do each of the three zones need to be a single swath of land. The Hot Spot Zone can appear in bits and pieces throughout your Production Zone, and your productive fruit and nut trees will be perfectly happy in the middle of the pollinator meadow you have made your Hot Spot or on the edge of your property among your Buffer hedge! Get creative!!
At The Earthius Project we have swaths of Hot Spot Zone between each of our swale and berm rows on which the orchard trees grow. I grow tons of rosemary, mint, sage, and amaranth out on the meadow, my Hot Spot. Muscadine grapevines climb up trees and are super productive at the inner edge of the woods that make up some of my Buffer Zone. And in the Production Zone you will find an Eden full of Zinnias and Aster to attract pollinators into the garden.
I encourage you to observe, brainstorm, create, and then stand back and love your earth, love her with all your creative energy, love her like your life depends on it.... because ultimately, it does.
If you have not familiarized yourself with permaculture ethics and principles, please do so here before reading on.
Closed-systems thinking is the idea that a system that minimizes external inputs and limits "waste" by recirculating output within the system is central to permaculture thinking. But few really delve into the details of what this means for them and even fewer actually apply it to real-world decisions and actions.
It takes discipline and practice to think this way, as we have all grown up in a linear world. We are encouraged to consume, then throw "away," then repurchase without ever questioning the fact that we have brought resources into our lives that were extracted from somewhere else, another system, and whose waste we will ship to yet another system (usually the landfill or the wider environment). The introduction of community-wide recycling projects and bins has done little more than assuage our feelings of guilt when we purchase a non-compostable, externally extracted item. Perhaps, these programs have even made the consumer culture more extreme. We have traded ethics for convenience.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Indeed, closed-systems thinking is not a new concept. We have adopted it from nature, where these interlocking systems are highly efficient and prove that they are worth their upstart effort.
The twelve principles developed by David Holmgren in conjunction with the work he and Bill Mollison did when they first developed the concept of permaculture, are a guide, a sort of worksheet or checklist we can utilize to create highly self-regulating, balanced, and efficient systems (aka designs).
These twelve principles help us plan, organize, implement, and correct any design process. These steps were developed with the production of food and the stewardship of land in mind. However, they can be applied to any decision-making process. All aspects of life function better as closed systems. And to prove it, I have put together the following guidelines for the application of permaculture thinking to graphic design.
Firstly, let's revisit the 3 basic ethics as they would be utilized by the designer, whether architect, gardener, farmer, business owner, or branding specialist.
Placing these ethics at the starting point of all decisions and designs allows the designer to prioritize strategies and ideas efficiently and ethically.
It follows that, using the 12 permaculture design principles to practice graphic design, we can:
1. Observe and Interact – developing an in-depth understanding of the client’s business objectives, obstacles, and culture is a respectful and vital part of a successful design process, engendering confidence in the client and producing more efficient campaigns.
2. Catch and Store Energy – identifying a client’s incoming energies and their ability or inability to capture and store that energy, whether that is a new customer base, a grant, or an ingenious and clever new employee, is paramount to how the client reacts to opportunities and crises.
3. Obtain a yield – providing a measurable way to track the design implementation gives the client a sense of control and the designer a bird’s eye view of the campaign.
4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback – accepting critical feedback from the client and being willing to implement changes is a vital characteristic in the designer that validates the client’s insight and concerns.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – adopting this responsible attitude toward the resources the implementation our design activities use, models for the client a sustainable way to move toward the future.
6. Produce No Waste – investigating and planning for the waste that is produced by the implementation of a project, especially a print project, can allow the designer to help the client close the system, or transfer the excess waste to be productively used in other parts of their strategy or organization.
7. Design From Patterns to Details – acknowledging that nature is the perfect designer opens the designer’s eyes to possibilities that are not evident to others; modeling a campaign on natural patterns and closed systems helps the client to meet their goals in the most efficient manner possible.
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate – establishing symbiotic relationships between the various components of a campaign can save time, energy, money, and confusion;
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions – factoring in incremental stages of implementation allows the designer and client to recognize and react to the feedback each stage creates.
10. Use and Value Diversity – recognizing that nature employs virtually unlimited diversity in every aspect of production, the designer is equipped to instruct the client on the immense value of diversifying every aspect of their strategy; from bringing on board a wide array of skills and personalities, to utilizing resources that can play multiple roles, to targeting a diverse range of customers.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal – whether it’s the fringe audience or the outdated methodology, understanding that the greatest effect is seen at the interchange between what’s going out and what’s coming in is pivotal to effective design management; new cell phone models sell when they are first released because customers inherently contrast the new with the old.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change – accepting that change is the status quo in nature, we can see value in transitions and help the client to capitalize on, not fear, the changes that they need to address and the changes that will inevitably be initiated by the campaign.
I encourage you to plug in responses to each of these principles for a design, decision or system you are planning to execute. You can use this worksheet to get started!
Please comment below with any epiphanies you may encounter, questions you have, clarifications you need, or even your own completed worksheet for all of us to admire!!
Through an economist's lens, I have seen the way the winds blow for a while now. One of the insights that got me into the field was that capitalism is a hungry beast that has prowled its way across the globe through predatory and destructive means for two centuries. This definitely was not taught at schools of economics across this country... quite the contrary, neoclassical economics (as ordained by J.P. Morgan himself) was conveniently put in place as the holy grail at the most lauded schools, especially in the northeast.
The language of history is very revealing, and it will never fade from my mind that colonialism is the mechanism by which "the core feeds from the periphery." How very beastly. And indeed, colonialism (in service of capitalism) has and continues to do just that. As the decades marched on, however, and fewer and fewer civilizations remained at the "periphery," the appropriation continued in more insidious ways. Britain may no longer have military running India, the great Trail of Tears may no longer be marching in America, South Africa may no longer have official apartheid, but colonialism is alive and well. How can it not be, so long as free-market capitalism is alive and well?
A quick refresher. Neoclassical economics holds three assumptions:
So, as I am sure you can glean from just this cursory overview, there are some serious problems with these assumptions. But first, let's review how these came to be. Modeling, in any field, includes assumptions. We may wring our hands and cry foul, but in the end, any mathematical or logical model that is created to predict future outcomes MUST have constraints... otherwise, we'd be looking at thousands upon thousands of possible variables that would quickly bog us down in a quagmire.. in other words, we would just be re-creating the reality we are living. And if we could not figure things out living in actual reality, what good does it do us to try and figure things out in a model of virtual reality?
Secondly, these assumptions, which were barely refined over two centuries, were devised in a very different time and a very different world: a world without the telephone, radio, television, and now the internet. So the very idea that consumers have complete and relevant information is based on such a vastly different set of quantifiers that we have a hard time understanding the actual intended meaning of this statement.
Lastly, we must address the one industry that was created strictly to serve capitalists and that has arisen to conquer capitalism and the consumer in just the last 100 years: advertising. Informing, persuading, marketing, and, more recently, psychiatry (or social science) and big data, are all evolving outgrowths of an effort to ensure that the consumer has "complete and relevant" information. However, this spectrum that reaches through time and cultural shifts from informing back in the nineteenth century all the way through to data collection used today is broad and duplicitous.
What we must not lose sight of is that one of the founding principles of free-market economics, that people are self-serving, greedy, and inherently competitive, is still accepted today in many neoclassical economics schools, and, thus, in corporate boardrooms, on Wall Street, and in the political realm. This is not by coincidence. An adaptation of Darwin's survival of the fittest, this assumption looks to the idea that evolution is fueled by the elimination of those those too weak to "win" the procreation race. And so, the evolution of a product, service, business, or industry dictates that it's qualities compete with its rivals. Every advancement is an effort to survive, to win. Of course, this type of competitiveness engenders cut-throat tactics and savvy ingenuity. This used to result in innovation, but that has changed. No longer are production decisions made primarily to better the product or to "maximize its utility" to the consumer. Indeed, most producers no longer put the majority of their resources into improving their products.
No need. We have advertising.
Over the last 60-70 years, industry has moved from selling products that aim to maximize utility to the consumer, to simply maximizing satisfaction of the consumer. In other words, the ad industry has succeeded in shifting resources from producing the most competitive product to producing the most competitive illusion of satisfaction, contentment, happiness, self-perception... of dopamine. While products still need to deliver on the general expectations of utility, they no longer have to necessarily compete based on our “rational value preferences.” It is now simply a matter of providing us with a sense of self-worth. It is not about what the product does for the consumer, it is how the consumer feels when they buy it. This is true of every sector, every product, every service, every endeavor… even charitable activities meet their triumph or failure based on how donors feel, and not necessarily based on whether the work they do has value.
So what does any of this have to do with capitalism, social and economic collapse, and humanity’s downfall? Oh, were you under the impression this was an economics lesson? No, no… this is just background intelligence to prepare you for the reality check. This, ladies and gentlemen, is about how climate change is a direct result of environmental degradation, which is a direct result of hyper-consumerism. And why do we consume far beyond our needs? Why do we consume things that we throw out and replace almost immediately? Why do we consume things that can never be made to “go away?” You got it, because we were made to believe these equal happiness and self-worth.
We are talking about climate change so vast and precipitous, that it is poised to take down every institution, cultural norm, political structure, and sense of humanity with which we identify. Yet advertising and marketing strategies continue the push to sell products whose resources are irreplaceable and unethically sourced, whose distribution carries a vast carbon footprint, whose off-gassing is making us sick, and which will not biodegrade in thousands of years. Or, worse yet, which will bio-degrade into a form more invasive and deadly than we ever anticipated (like micro-plastics).
Why has this incredibly fast and exhilarating ride been so impossible to slow down, much less stop? Many environmentalists and activists shake their heads, confounded by the sheer political and social “UNwill.” The push back when activists point out the huge environmental catastrophe that factory farming has become, the election of a president who can get away with rolling back climate initiatives, the blasé reporting of red algae blooms along hundreds of miles of the Florida coast that killed everything in the water and made people sick… these are all indicative of a nearsightedness that seems incomprehensible to some of us.
And yet, it is all rather predictable when the veil of free-market capitalism is cast aside and the inner workings of industry, corporations, and financial institutions are examined. When the revolving door between pharmaceuticals and government spins perpetually, when banks are bailed out for their crimes only to repeat them, when wages stagnate below poverty levels while the top 1% accumulates an exponentially increasing amount of wealth, this is when bubbles burst. And the collapse of financial markets is only the first step in the total collapse of humanity, according to Dmitry Orlov, author of The Five Stages of Collapse.
I recently read a social media post of an encounter a mother of a sick toddler had with a healthy grown man in a Walmart the day a “boil your water” warning was issued in Austin this past October. There was no shortage of water, there was electricity, the roads were open, emergency services were up and running, public transportation was functioning, there was food on the shelves of every store. The ONLY thing that was going on was this “boil your water” notice. The man had piled up his shopping cart with excessive bottled waters, while the mother of the sick toddler had none… the shelves were bare. She politely asked the man if he would share a case with her. His response: “f**k off”. This same man might have opened the door for her the day before, might have donated $5 to charity at checkout the day after. But at that moment, all sense of community was severed. Commercial, political, social, and cultural collapse had just occurred between these two humans. Their faith in the market, their faith in government, their faith in neighborliness, and their faith in humanity had been shaken. All five stages of collapse occurred between these two people on a day when a “boil your water” notice was issued. Can you imagine what will occur nationwide when there is an actual collapse of any of these sectors?
The question I therefore lay before you is not, “how do we prevent these sectors from failing?” because, as has been established, there are no breaks on this ride. But rather, I pose this question: “when these fail, what are the most important things to know and do?” Because it is now no longer a matter of “if” but “when” and “how.”
This is not an essay on prepping. This is not an essay on bugging out. This is not an appeal to eat less meat. This is an invitation to enter the first stage of grief. Grief over the impending doom of human culture as we know it. Because, only once we get to the last phase of grief, acceptance, can the real work begin. The work of Deep Adaptation.
The next essay: The Work of Deep Adaptation.
After months of hemming and hawing back and forth about whether to take the plunge and get chickens, I finally obtained two birds and a small coop. The first was an old chicken that was the sole survivor of the flock my next door neighbors once had. The chickens were a project that the semi-retired husband was passionate about, but after he passed on, his wife was not keen on the upkeep. I started taking care of the 3-4 birds and rooster whenever she was out of town, and they all died off one by one. I benefited from the manured bedding for my compost and the occasional egg.
Once only Holly was left and my neighbor sold her property, I adopted the elderly chicken and brought her to our place. I then purchased a 4 month old, Doily, and the coop she came with. I was extremely stressed out when we first set them up because I felt I was not protecting them well enough and was not prepared to house them. But very quickly, I relaxed and found that they have amazing inborn survival instincts and will flutter up to a low branch or railing when ground predators are near (we spotted a fox scoping out the front yard from the meadow), and they would run into their coop or under the bushes when a hawk circled overhead!
This does not mean that nothing can or might get them... but I feel better about giving them the freedom to free range, which provides a high quality of life, than I would over-protecting them by caging them, which is the life old Holly had before I got her. Now, they forage for the seeds I scatter every morning and peck apart the kitchen scraps I throw over their fence daily. And in the process, they are turning the woodchip covered soil into luscious, rich, manured compost. Although Miss Holly has stopped producing eggs, she is wonderful company for Doily, who, at 8 months old now, is producing a reliable egg every day!
I feel that their social contentment is evident when I muse how bitchy Holly used to be and how shy and nervous Doily was when we first got her. Now both allow me to pet them, they come when I call, and they talk back when I chirrup or purr at them. It is a great pleasure to have raised Holly's happiness and health quotient so dramatically in her final months/years. She has great value to me and to Doily, even though she does not produce eggs. She has taught Doily the social rules of chickenness and the skills to forage and survive predators. She is a source of friendship and companionship for Doily and is always the first and loudest to sound the alarm when a predator is near. She seems to even have "trained" the border collie to alert us in the house when she hears Holly's warning cackle!
I am planning to purchase a slightly larger and sturdier coop this weekend and add one or two hens to the family to increase our egg production. Let's hope that these two will be able to accept them graciously.
How do you provide natural care for your flock? Share some pictures of your setup!
I find it absolutely staggering, how western culture, specifically, the “consumer culture,” has groomed several generations of farmers and gardeners to ignore mother nature completely in favor of gaining “complete control” over her. There is a misconception out there, perpetrated by consumerism, that in order to have growth in the production of food and GDP, we must take over nature’s job, burdening our economic and physical limitations with work that nature would willingly do for free. Not only that, but the assumption that we need this growth, a basic tenet of capitalism, is erroneous.
Coming from a background of economics and statistics, teaching and researching, I am aware that much of our food production techniques and paradigms, whether crop or animal farming, grew out of a devastating doctrine in capitalism that we must feed from the periphery in order to sustain ourselves and a ceaseless growth. This has led to endless suffering as capitalist enterprises, be it corporations or nations or missionaries, flooded into unexplored areas of the globe and colonized peoples and their resources.
Now, I realize this topic is nothing new. But linking it to today’s issues of food and water scarcity and inequity has not been explored enough. I propose that western civilization, and I use the term loosely, is much like a heroin addict: we just cannot get enough of the products and services that spring from the syringe of capitalism and will do anything to get more or at least maintain the stream of supply. We go through “withdrawal” when the media announces that we are decreasing or leveling off (gasp!) in the production sectors, we blame anyone but ourselves for depressions in economic performance, and we turn our backs on friends who provide no direct, material benefit to us or our national financial and economic growth.
And like the addict, we need more every year to sustain the same high.
What IS that high? What drives Wall Street? What drives the suburbanite? What drives the kids of today? What drives consumption?
The answers used to include things like “needs” and “better quality of life” and “providing for our kids’ future.” However, all these have morphed in the last century from “needs” to “wants,” from “better quality of life” to “faster and more convenient,” and from “providing for our kids’ future” to “recklessly destroying the planet’s ability to provide for our kids’ survival,” to say nothing of a thriving future!
How did this happen?
It is an endless and futile exercise in philosophy to try and find the initial root cause. Needless to say, there are many; most of which can be clumped into categories like colonialism or consumerism or capitalism or a war mentality… whatever. These analyses do not produce solutions in most cases.
Having morphed from an economics professor and researcher, to a full-time parent, to a caretaker for my mother, to a fine artist, to a fine art print maker, to a graphic designer, and finally, to a permaculture designer and practitioner (deep breath here), I am shocked to discover that at the root of everything I know, everything I yearn for, everything that is important to my survival and happiness, lies nature. Yes, nature. Not doctrine, not dogma, not financial abundance, not psychological stability, NOT. THE. EGO.
… you will find something rooted in nature that has been severed …
Yes, it all sounds a bit hippy-ish… but I assure you, that if you drill down to any of your concerns and worries, your stresses, your anxieties, your problems… you will find something rooted in nature that has been severed. This is the result of a pervasive manifestation of a consumerist brainwashing that has happened for decades. And this does not just affect the west anymore, but has been exported and is also a plague in “developing” countries.
Why am I using quotes around developing?
Because the use of the word "developing" illustrates precisely the extractive and condescending mentality with which we view progress. The idea of progress piggy-backs on each of those addictive behaviors and perceptions of wants instead of needs I talked about. Why do you want that ATV? Because it will tow that tree trunk you cut down to provide firewood for the winter? I doubt it. More likely, it’s so your can say you “provided” for your kids’ entertainment “needs.” Are they having more fun on the ATV than on a bicycle? Are they safer on an ATV than on foot? Are they gaining physical prowess on an ATV they would not get running through the woods, climbing trees? Are they learning more? Are they benefiting in ANY way, shape, or form?
Most likely, your answer to all these inquiries will be no.
So why do we make these purchases? Because we have been taught to equate accumulation with progress. And we have been taught to believe a narrow and erroneous definition of progress. Progress for progress’s sake? Progress as the epitome of betterment? Progress as a surrogate for fulfillment? Progress as an immunity to oppression?
I suggest that we redefine progress.
To do that, we need to identify the role capitalism has played in history and in our own lives. How has our perception of “progress” been molded by culture, society, and economics?
And finally, we need to question whether progress is even desirable in its current form.
I propose that we redefine progress in terms of our own well-being. And our well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of the earth. It is not tied to whether we make it to Mars. It is not tied to our earning potential. It is not tied to competition or a “competitive edge.” It is not tied to accumulation of material objects or “likes” or how big a bullhorn we possess.
It is tied to making amends with Earth… only then will everything else will fall into place.
How will you make amends?