Tag Archives: Human nature

Essays in Social Permaculture – using natural succession

I recently attended an amazing waananga just outside Whāngarei, at a place called Permadynamics. It was run by Klaus Lotz and Frida Keegan on the subject of syntropic polyculture. That sounds complicated but basically syntropic is the opposite of entropic: it means a system which becomes more ordered. Polyculture is the opposite of monoculture, and refers to a diverse and deeply interconnected cropping system. The particular polyculture at Permadynamics is anchored around the banana, and Klaus is the biggest commercial banana grower in Aotearoa.

The system was first developed by Ernst Gotsch. As far as I know he hadn’t heard of permaculture when he first established its principles, but it meshes perfectly with permaculture thinking. I fully recommend searching the web for his videos and writings. He developed his system in South America where he was a farm advisor working with people trying to make a living from highly degraded land. This was land that had been rainforest, had been logged, and then cash cropped for a few years until there was no soil left. Finally it was abandoned and then occupied by some of the poorest people in the region.

Ernst realised that attempting to grow high value crops without bringing the land back to health first was pointless. He also realised that the land was already in a process of rehabilitating itself. Those prickly thorns and nasty weeds that kept coming up where people were trying to farm were actually playing an important ecological function. They were beginning the process of rebuilding the soil. Left to itself the whole area would simply return to rainforest. Instead of trying to arrest the natural succession that was already taking place, with poison and back breaking work, he realised he could accelerate and shape it.

Instead of trying to eradicate weeds, Ernst identified the most useful ones and sowed them. He interplanted with whatever crops might survive – obtaining at least some kind of yield for the growers – and used heavy slashing to mulch and keep the ground covered. Over time this strategy built enough soil to move to the next stage of succession, where perennials and semi-perennials could be introduced with higher value crops. Ultimately it moves to a system of forest farming that is probably not very different from traditional indigenous practices.

Succession itself is complex and multi-layered and this brief inadequate explanation does not do it justice. It takes seeing it working in action, at places like Permadynamics. Seeing the deep soils that have been grown on very steep clay banks with no topsoil when they began, and hearing the narrative as we walked through this incredible sub-tropical forest full of food.

I see the same thing taking place on my land. There is an area of slip, where the ground is bare, with no soil and deep, rapid scouring. The only plants able to hold on there are gorse and pampas grass. I have been learning not to panic about these invasive plants because in other places I can see where kānuka is already coming through them, and starting to shade them out. Same for the blackberry. If I was to do nothing but watch I know that over time the whole area will go into kānuka, which will give way to other natives and exotics and will eventually turn into forest.

I don’t work on forest timeframes though and human life is short. I am impatient and don’t want to wait that long. I also want the forest to provide for my family’s needs as much as possible, so I want to influence what grows, to accelerate and shape that succession. With that in mind I will plant a local variety of kōwhai, to fix nitrogen, build soil, to look beautiful and to feed local tui. I will collect kānuka seeds and sow them, to speed up the kānuka cover. I will plant some acacias, also to fix nitrogen, to feed bees and birds, to provide coppice wood for fires and handles and poles. Given how degraded the area is, I won’t ask more of it than that for now. It is not capable, for example, of growing fruit trees and anyway I want those closer to the house. So I will just let the birds take it from there and watch and learn as nature transforms it. As Gotsch says, ‘we think we are intelligent, but we are just part of an intelligent system”.
I was pondering Klaus’ approach to weeds while clearing out my spring. When a weed turns up in his food forest, he does not say “arrgh a weed, we must get rid of it”. He welcomes it as a friend, and seeks to understand what it’s function is. He doesn’t just leave it to do it’s thing, rather he prunes it heavily to use as drop mulch and build soil. He doesn’t allow it to flower and seed (and talks about other benefits to the overall system in keeping it at a juvenile stage), but he doesn’t try to eradicate it. It is a valuable source of biomass.

Occasionally there is something that is genuinely looking to take over but that is rarely the case. Usually a weed is there to help move succession along. Once it has played its role, the conditions that it came for will no longer be there, so it will leave. Most weeds are only a problem if you are trying to artificially maintain your land at a lower level of succession, for example by trying to prevent grassland from becoming forest.

Similarly David Holmgren, when explaining the principle of ‘observe and interact’ says that ‘there is no right and wrong in nature’. If we apply that thinking to society, to some of the spontaneous manifestations of human culture that cause such general consternation, we can maybe start to find better ways to approach them.

Gangs are a very good example. Gangs are something that politicians have generally treated as weeds to eradicate. Like gorse in a paddock, they have done everything they can to get rid of them. They have tried to ban them, threaten them, and police them out of existence. Only rarely have they tried to understand the social function that gangs play, why they arose in the first place. Rather than try to arrest natural succession, like poisoning gorse on a degraded slope, perhaps if we try to accelerate it we might have better outcomes.

New Zealand gangs started as a very human response to alienation. Alienation comes with poverty and lack of status. For many Māori, alienation came with the killing of their rangatira, the theft of their land and economic base, and the subsequent urban drift. It left people cut off from their kin and the most important expressions of their culture.

The worst of the gangs arose out of the extreme alienation from society that resulted from institutionalised rape, abuse and torture in state care. At the start of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care, I remember listening to an interview on the radio. It was one of the guys that had been kidnapped from his family as a young boy by the NZ Government and put into a home. It is no coincidence that most of those boys were Māori. In ‘care’ he was sexually and violently abused. Repeatedly. He was shoved from one abusive place to another until he turned 18 when he was turned out onto the street with nothing. No one cared about what happened to him, not a soul, except for the other kids who had been through the same. They joined together, like a family of sorts. If the world didn’t care about them then they didn’t give a fuck about the world. But they did care for each other, whatever that meant for people whose only ‘care’ had been abuse. Is it a surprise that many of those boys became our most violent criminals?

Now a man, he spoke about a judge sentencing him for some crime or another, talking to him with disgust and contempt about how he needed to come out of the gang life. He said to the interviewer “you locked every door to me. I am not welcome anywhere in your world. The only door that was opened to me was the gang. Why would I give that up?”

People need social connection almost as much as they need food. The gangs became a way of bonding, of forming connections both social and economic. Alienation was the ground that they sprung up from. To try to stamp them out with force is simply adding to that alienation, degrading the already degraded conditions that give rise to them in the first place. Like trying to burn gorse, whose seeds germinate in fire. Or worse, clearing the ground they have covered to make way for something even more rampant.

Gangs thrive in areas where people, especially young people, have few options for participating in legal society. Given growing inequality in New Zealand and the diminishing of opportunities for many young people, it is no wonder than gang membership is growing. Worryingly we are starting to see more of an influx of more violent criminal gangs from overseas. If we want to see gangs on the decline we need to improve the soil in which they arise, to make it richer, healthier, more structured, more full of life. And we need to recognise how the gangs themselves might help do that.
I work in a community and ecological restoration project in Whakatāne called Awatapu Otamakaokao Kaitiaki Trust. One of the driving forces behind that is a bunch of guys who have been or still are actively involved with Black Power. That is where they come from. That is their friends and family. Leaving that entirely is impossible for many of them, and why would they?

But they don’t want their children to go through what they went through, to live the lives that they have lived. They are the ones now organising the local Christmas in the Park, learning mau rākau, planting baumea and carex in lagoon mud.72538974_10156654823321717_8735450149867749376_n

Permaculture works with nature – and that must mean human nature as much as tree nature. Civilisations rise and fall but people’s nature remains invariably the same – socially cooperative and primed to seek connection and belonging. Humans by-and-large care about other people and care what other people think of us. But our natures can get distorted by our life experience. We can become so bound up in our peer group that we lose our sense of our place in the wider ecosystem. Yet the drive to provide a better life for our children is a common human trait. Left to our own devices I think even the most distorted social conditions will revert to equilibrium over enough generations. But as with our landscapes, we do not want to wait. We want to accelerate the natural succession, to speed up the journey towards system health.

This doesn’t mean being naive to what gangs can be. The opposite, in fact. If you are using gorse for a nurse crop and for mulch you need to pay special attention to the thorns. But it does mean recognising what is coming through underneath. It does mean feeding the soil and enriching it, pruning and mulching. An example might be to put seized proceeds of crime into the communities that give rise to gangs rather than into the consolidated fund. Or to put a much stronger focus on feeding those communities with education, work opportunity and community building initiatives rather than just more policing. It does also mean supporting, in practical terms, efforts within the gang communities themselves to change

Politicians will do more harm than good if they continue to try to eradicate gangs without understanding what gives rise to them and the social function they play. Most importantly, we have to be better at paying attention to and supporting the direction of the natural succession already taking place, that Government policies are so often antagonistic to.

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Writings from the past

I was just looking for a resource I wrote many years ago and came across this. It is the preface I wrote to a book by a British ecosocialist friend of mine, Derek Wall, called “Babylon and Beyond”. I thought I’d post it here in the off-chance someone found it interesting


Human beings face the greatest challenge in the history of our species. We face the destruction of the life support systems on which our very existence depends, and we face it because of our own activity.

There are some who deny or diminish that threat. They mostly either retreat into fairy tale thinking – that technology, or the “free” market, or UFO’s will save us – or hope that by closing their eyes they can it go away.

Yet the evidence is mounting almost daily that the threats are very real and are gathering momentum. A new report from the UK is saying that if we don’t turn carbon emissions around in the next decade, we will not be able to stop runaway climate change whatever we do.

Authoritative voices are warning us that we are very close to the point where world demand for oil will outstrip the capacity of the oilfields to supply. Our total dependence on fossil fuels, the use of which has provided the energy for an enormous expansion of human activity and population, is like a chemical addiction. And as the USA has recently confirmed in Iraq, strip a junkie of their supply and the temptation to turn to crime can be irresistable.

“The American way of life” says George Bush the First “is not negotiable”.

A time of crisis, however, is also the time of greatest opportunity. More and more people are waking up to the need to change, to change at a fundamental level, and to change right now. People are waking up to the fact that the institutions of society that so many have put their trust in are failing us. Government won’t do it. Big business can’t do it.

Because the challenge we are facing is about more than changing a few policies or practises. It requires a fundamental rethink of what it means to be a human being. Government and business can become allies, but the power to make real change lies in the hearts and the lives of ordinary people.

It is already happening. The international people’s movement against genetically engineered (GE) plants and animals has demonstrated how the reckless agenda of multinational corporations, aided and abetted by our own governments, can be stopped in its tracks and rolled back. One conglomerate has been outed bribing government regulatory officials in Indonesia, GE companies are pulling out of the EU and Australia, and GE agriculture firms are facing massive stock market losses. The promised gold rush is proving to be a fantasy, largely because of global consumer resistence.

While the campaign has significant support in the scientific community, for many ordinary people it began as a sense that something just didn’t feel right. That feeling is often quickly backed up by investigation, but the sense of something being fundamentally arrogant and wrong about GE is the key – it is our humanness talking to us.

What is it to be human? Western society, at least, defines us as individuals whose value can be judged by what job we have, what colour credit card, what kind of car we drive and the label on our clothes.

Yet beneath these displays of status, real people are emotional, social and spiritual beings – intrinsic characteristics that cannot be considered in isolation from each other. We seem to have forgotten that our relationships – with one another and all the other beings with whom we share this beautiful planet – are fundamental to who we are.

There is a passage in the Bible that says “where there is no vision, the people perish”.

The inability to step back and clearly see and understand the “big picture” is the central problem that we face in the world today. The main motivations for Western industrial society for the past few hundred years – belief in unlimited growth and technology as the solution to all problems – are the very things that are killing us.

We cannot grow forever on a finite planet. If we continue to assume that endless growth and consumption is possible, and disregard the biosphere’s capacity to meet our greed, and if we continue to neglect social justice and fair and sustainable wealth distribution, we will reap a bitter harvest.

Neither will technology on its own fix the problem. Yes, we need better technology, more efficient technology that uses non-polluting cyclical processes and that does not depend on fossil fuels. But just more technology will not do, because the problem is in us and the way we see ourselves in the world.

We humans think that we can own the planet, as if fleas could own a dog. Our concepts of property ownership are vastly different from traditional practises of recognising use rights over various resources. A right to grow or gather food or other resources in a particular place is about meeting needs. Property ownership is about the ability to live on one side of the world and speculate on resources on the other, possibly without ever seeing it, without regard to need or consequence.

The ability to “own” property is fundamental to capitalism. Since the first limited liability companies – the Dutch and British East India Companies – were formed, we have seen the kidnapping and enslavement of 20 – 60 million African people and the rape, murder and exploitation of indigenous people around the world. Colonisation was primarily about mercantile empires, not political ones. It was all about forcing indigenous, communitarian people to accept private individual ownership of resources, which could then be alienated, either by being bought or stolen. The subsequent political colonisation was just about how to enforce that ownership.

Today property rights are being extended through GATT and TRIPS agreements and through institutions such as the WTO and the World Bank. Private property rights are being imposed over public assets such as water, intellectual property and, through genetic engineering and biopiracy, on DNA sequences. Even traditional healing plants are under threat. In Aotearoa – New Zealand we have had multinationals attempting to patent piko piko and other native plants. This is all part of the “free” trade corporate globalisation agenda – to create tradeable rights over our common wealth, accumulate ownership and then sell back to us what is already ours.

This is only possible because we have lost our place in the scheme of things. We think of the environment as something “over there”, as something separate from human activity, something to either be exploited or protected. The reality is that we are as much part of the environment and the planet as the trees, insects and birds.

It is time to relearn what it means to be human.

Babylon and Beyond, the economics of anti-capatalist, anti-globalist and radical green movements by Derek Wall. Printed by Pluto Press

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