Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Big question - where do we start?

Through my teaching and lecture engagements in Europe I meet the most interesting people from all walks of life – educators, politicians, scientists, farmers and just ordinary people. It strikes me that most of them agree that our present way of life is not sustainable and we have to change, but not many have any idea where to start.

Energy is the big topic in many conversations; the environment is further back, although climate change is something that cannot be ignored. Europe had its own environmental disasters in the last 3 months – floods, fires, shortage of water and a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England. This outbreak also shows how dangerous bio-technology can be, things do escape from laboratories. There is also more and more evidence that bird flu in Germany may have started in a bio-tech research station on an island.

But it’s no good to complain about darkness, it’s better to light a candle and start with ourselves and see where we can live a more sustainable way of life. Becoming more aware of our own eco-footprint is a good beginning.


The permaculture education programme that has been available for over 30 years seems to become more popular and effective, at least in Europe. People can see we have stressed life-supporting systems to the limit or are already in “overshoot” mode, gone above carrying capacity where Nature cannot repair the damage human impact has caused.

There are many ways a person can start to reduce their ecological footprint. First one has to become aware how our economic system works – what is sustainability? Understanding life cycles, studying ecological systems, understanding that in Nature waste does not exist, which resources are renewable and which are not.

There is a list of “101 Things you can do to reduce your ecological footprint” at

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Unsustainable Empires

Everywhere in Italy one is reminded of the origin of our civilisation.The Babylonian, Greek and Roman Empires all left some remnants behind, still visible today. What strikes me is they all ended in a similar way - those empires virtually imploded. As they grew and conquered new lands and people, used slave labour to mine their natural resources, overgrazed and deforested, eroded their topsoils and salinated their soils through irrigation, these Empires had little ecological energy left and they collapsed.

All these cultures profited and lived by exhausting the life of the earth. To me it looks like the very web of life is destroyed by civilisation - civilised society is unable to see its own problems and downfall. These empires all ended in the same way and pattern. Only now we have globalised this destruction. CIVIL - in Latin this refers to those who live in villages, towns and cities, hence civilisation. We now have more than half of the world's population in urban areas which is only possible with cheap fossil energy and not sustainable for much longer (oil peak?)

Soil exhaustion is happening in almost all places where civilisation has spread. It is very obvious in the Mediterranean countries; many areas can only maintain what I call ecological poverty crops, the olive, grape and goat. After the goat comes the desert as one can observe in many parts of Africa. It looks like civilisation equals aridity. We try to "fix" the symptoms, but we need to see the true cause of the problem - the destruction of natural resources.

The good news is that so many people I meet here in Italy - communities and farmers who still live on and from the land - are struggling to sustain their lives through innovation, diversification, cooperation and finding new ways and more sustainable systems, like the Slow Food and Slow Town movements and other NGO's. They resist globalisation that destroys their local economies. They understand there is no such thing as unlimited growth of numbers in the natural world.

I do my share by teaching Permaculture to raise an understanding of the carrying capacity of ecological systems.

Read "Final Empire" by W.M. Kotke.

Greetings from Italy, it's hot and dry, the middle of the European summer.
Abbazia Novacella, Italy

Sunday, July 08, 2007



My lecture tour through Austria and Italy, teaching sustainability and sustainable resource use, gives me the opportunity to meet people of all walks in life, especially leaders on sustainable living. The new trend is LOHAS – Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability. It already has an enormous following. Market research shows a third of consumers are part of this trend and it’s growing fast. LOHAS means focusing on sustainable living, social justice, health and living green with a small eco-footprint. It promotes an awareness of the impact on planet earth through our consumption, a change from our throw-away mentality to a more aware society that closes the loops in our open-ended economic system. It means also that shareholders and investors change their direction to more ethical investment.

New Business and Investment Ethics

Another new trend is SRI – Socially Responsible Investment. Over 100 billion Euros in Europe are invested in SRI. People are investing in businesses that have ethics based on sustainability and are creating their own shares. I come across many impressive models, for example 466 people bought “Solar Shares” in a local shoe factory that retrofitted its buildings to solar energy. In return they get discounts on shoes.

Another example, an organic farm installed a solar energy system (bio-gas, photo-voltaic and solar hot water heating) by issuing shares, similar to CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) so shareholders get vouchers for produce in season on the farm. Basically it means people are investing in their own community, relocalising their economy.

So what does all this mean for New Zealand? Well, we can learn from these examples and start applying them at home in our communities. Also become aware of how well we are placed with our “clean, green image” and our “solar economy” (solar energy-photosynthesis-grass production system). It should be New Zealand showing the rest of the world how to live sustainably and I do agree with our Prime Minister we have to become a zero waste, carbon neutral and sustainable nation. More info:,

University for Soil and Agriculture, Vienna, June 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

Food - Life Eats Life

Every morsel of food we eat was once alive, eating and getting eaten is the cycle of life. So where does the food come from for us humans? Let’s look closer at the way we eat now and how food is grown in the industrial food culture.

The dictionary says to be sustainable is to use a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged. For 99% of our existence as humans on planet earth we were hunter-gatherers and for only 1% of the time have we practised agriculture. For just less than a century we have industrial agriculture and industrial food. In the process of converting fossil fuels into food, we virtually eat out of an oil well. The solar-powered food chain processes food by transforming sunlight into protein, carbohydrates and sugars through photosynthesis in an ongoing sustainable way. Now we have dramatically changed this by using synthetic fertiliser and pesticides that have their origins in the two world wars. The German Justus von Liebig, the inventor of chemical fertiliser (the N-P-K solution), wouldn’t have thought that we would one day munch away on the leftovers of the wars.

So from eating sustainably, low on the food chain, we have moved into high-energy use in industrial food production – about 10 calories for every calorie we consume. On top of this we destroy our land base, the soil, water and other life-supporting systems and deplete minerals and trace elements.

The industrial food chain has made energy-dense foods the cheapest in the market and the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest. We now have a global eating disorder, allergies and obesity especially in our youth.

To change this, we have to make the food chain visible, open up farms, food processing plants and abattoirs and educate the consumer to eat more healthily. Give people choices - the food industry is the most regulated – freedom of food like we have freedom of speech. Read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, or learn more about sustainable food. Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals, healthy people. Growing your own food is a powerful political statement.

Oil Peak - Is the Party Over?

Wishful thinking, false hopes and denial, nothing will help, the fact is that most of the world’s easy to get oil has now been consumed. Oil has been the cheapest and most convenient energy resource ever discovered by humans and we are totally hooked on it. Will we be able to change from an energy-addicted society to a more sustainable way of life? We are in an ecological dilemma, which consists of three factors and all three are inter-related.

The first is POPULATION PRESSURE, the second RESOURCE DEPLETION and the third HABITAT DESTRUCTION. There are simply too many of us using too many of our planet’s resources too quickly. Climate change is here, human-induced or not. The real problem is that we are trapped in a perpetual growth machine that runs on unrenewable fossil energy - we are virtually eating out of an oil well.

With the end of cheap hydrocarbon energy we need an ENERGY DESCENT ACTION PLAN and a roadmap to sustainability.

Let’s start to examine our own consumption patterns and use of energy in transport, food (low food miles), in our buildings and recreational activities.

New Zealand has to catch up fast with the rest of the OECD countries; our wasteful and inefficient use of energy is one of the worst. If the government is too slow, we can always support the NGOs and other organisations that do brilliant work on energy conservation, e.g. Greenpeace. And of course push politicians in all parties. An energy descent culture as we call it in permaculture is a culture of place and living from renewable local resources mainly. Efficiency and renewable energy technology must be focused on and implemented wherever we can.

Our Ecological Footprint

The Earth’s eco-system cannot sustain current levels of economic activity and material consumption. Current resource harvesting and waste generation deplete nature faster than it can regenerate. This is called the “ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT” (EF) and can be measured - this analysis can show how much we have to reduce our consumption, improve our technology, or change our behaviour to achieve sustainability. Confusion about the meaning of sustainability and why it matters has slowed progress to achieving it. Sustainable development requires first developing sustainability, that may actually require a reduction in resource through-put.

The bad news is that the economic mainstream shows little sign of recognising bio-physical constraints of any kind. Natural capital is a pre-requisite for human-made goods, while the opposite is not the case. No amount of manufactured goods will compensate for the loss of natural capital. Shrinking carrying capacity may soon become the single most important issue confronting humanity. At the moment we have 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres) of ecologically productive land for every person on earth. But only 0.25 hectares (0.62 acres) of this is arable where food can be grown, and this is diminished fast through erosion. High-input production agriculture typically depletes cropland soils 10 to 20 times faster than they can regenerate. The EF of average citizens in rich countries exceeds their “fair earth share” by a factor of 2 to 3. If you are interested in how many planet earths you need for your lifestyle, look up the website of the Ministry for the Environment and go to “Ecological Footprint”. There is simply not enough bio-physical capital to sustain prevailing development myths. Consumption by the affluent 1.1 billion people alone claims more than the entire carrying capacity of the earth.

In permaculture we have the ethics of “Care for the Earth, Care for the People, Share Resources and Consume Sustainably” so we must learn to live within the means of nature and reduce our ecological footprint. Live simply so others can simply live.

Slow Town - Slow Food - Slow Down

More and more people ask me about “Slow Town” - what is it? The Slow Town (Citta Slow) is part of the Slow Food movement that started in the 1990s in Tuscany, Italy. It has spread to other countries in Europe and also Australia. Matakana may be the first Slow Town (village) in New Zealand.

The criteria for becoming a Slow Town is actually coming out of AGENDA 21, based on becoming a sustainable community. Focusing on quality of life and sustainable use of natural resources, the local environment is valued and enhanced, local traditions are cherished, people friendly infrastructure is put in place and air and noise pollution is reduced. It includes eco-friendly architecture, aesthetic signage, low light pollution, promoting local healthy food, supporting local farmers and growers, Farmers Markets and creating awareness of healthy living. It also encourages citizen involvement in decision making and participating in local cultural events.

The Matakana Sustainable Development Plan is already a good beginning in this process. A sustainable community development plan needs to be a total water-catchment approach – water and food security is vital. In the case of Matakana we could have good drinking water coming from the Mt. Tamahunga catchment, delivered by gravity to the village. This would ensure the Matakana community has water in electricity outages. Some of the soils around the village are suitable for growing food – vegetables, fruit and berries. Matakana had the first exotic plant nursery in New Zealand. It was also a pear growing area in the early 1900s until 1927 when fire blight hit the area.

A sustainable community in a Slow Town also takes responsibility for its waste; used water should be recycled in the catchment, ideally applied on land to grow bio-mass for energy or soil creation.

Eat Your Garden

If you have a piece of land or a garden you have the possibility of growing food. You can create your own “edible landscape” as we call it in permaculture. Even in suburbia or towns there are opportunities to grow a lot of food in a small space: in containers, on balconies, decks, even on concreted areas, in community gardens or other vacant land. Cities in the developing world are good examples of this, although it is done mainly out of necessity by poor people. Home grown food is always fresh, has no packaging and no transport is needed; there is no waste or pollution and no food miles that cause global warming and climate change.

The United Nations made a statement at the turn of the millennium, quote: “In the 21st Century the big challenge will be to grow the food where the people are”. More and more people migrate from the land to towns – in New Zealand 86% of our population now live in towns and in suburbia.

Urban permaculture could make a big difference to the health of people and the environment. Let’s turn energy-consuming lawns and ornamentals into edible gardens and fruit trees. “Food stacking” is a permaculture design concept that enables lots of different types of food to be grown in a small area. With careful solar design we can grow food underground, on the ground and above the ground in five horizontal layers of shrubs and trees of different heights. The seventh layer is the vertical one, where edible climbers can be grown on trees and man-made structures like walls and fences. There is a variety of climbing edible plants that suit many climates and places like beans, peas, chokos, grapes, passionfruit etc. They can create shade in summer over pergolas and protect us from skin cancer-causing UV rays.

Zero Waste

Waste is a human invention, no ecological system knows waste, and everything that is higher up in the food chain is eaten by something lower down with the decomposers in the soil doing the ultimate recycling job. To understand waste better it helps to do a simple cradle to grave or production line analysis. Where does the product come from? Is it a renewable or non-renewable resource? What is the typical lifetime or use time? Is sweatshop labour involved? And so on. That’s where ethical and smart shopping comes in.

Here are the important R’s concerning waste:

REFUSE to be part of the throwaway culture.

REDUCE waste wherever you can.

RE-USE products for other uses.

REPAIR things so they last longer.

And finally, RECYCLE. Recycling means closing the cycle or loop, putting resources back where they came from. This does not happen under the recycling programme we have. Many man-made components are unknown to nature, are very toxic and cannot be recycled back into the natural systems. Of course everything is biodegradable and breaks down, even plutonium, it just takes thousands of years.

Nearly half of our waste stream here in Rodney is organic matter that can be recycled back to the land through composting and worm farming (vermiculture). It should never go into landfills and create methane gas, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change.

Rodney District Council shows leadership and has a Zero Waste policy. It runs workshops to educate the ratepayers in composting and worm farming under the slogan “Reduce waste, if not you, then who?”

Landfills are monuments to our ignorance and non-caring attitude and the future archaeologists are going to have a ball sorting through them, or maybe we will start mining before then for all those precious non-renewable resources and metals.

Sustainable Living

The United Nations declared the years 2005 – 2014 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Here in New Zealand the Decade was launched at the Eco-show in Waitakere City last year. The NZ coordinating committee’s priority is to better communicate about sustainability and get more people engaged in taking action for sustainability.

Here on Rainbow Valley Farm my wife Trish and I have provided education on sustainable living and permaculture to many people from many countries over the last 20 years or so. In this column I can share some of my knowledge with you for the next months to come. So watch this space.

The topics will be Zero Waste, how to minimise your ecological footprint, growing food organically by creating edible landscapes, becoming more energy efficient by retrofitting your home, renewable energy, passive solar design, smart shopping, avoiding food miles, appropriate technology, and lots more that make it possible to live a more self-reliant and sustainable life - although the word sustainability is over-used. Most consumption and activities in our present lifestyle are ecologically not sustainable long term.

The end of cheap oil (oil peak) is another reason to redesign our way of consuming the resources we have. Once we have a good understanding of the TRUE COST (EMERGY – the embodied energy in a product or activity) it makes sense to take responsibility and not pass on the costs to future generations.

The quadruple bottom line (environmental, social, economic and cultural costs) is a start to not externalising the true costs. We have to learn to live off the interest of nature, not from unrenewable capital. A high degree of ecological literacy and ecological competence throughout the population, especially our decision makers, will make it possible to future-proof human existence on this planet. We need to adapt to the limits of the earth, for that we have to know the carrying capacity of our life-supporting ecological systems. Environmental deterioration represents a political failure in the way we make decisions, the distribution of power and wealth and in leadership at all levels. Issues of environmental sustainability are complex and long-term, while politics addresses mainly immediate issues. Short term gain, long term pain. We will need to reinvent politics at the eco-system level. Democracy must begin at home and home is the community and bioregion one lives in and isn’t our region a beautiful one?

The concept of sustainability implies a radical change in the institutions and patterns that we have to accept as normal - we need to go from mechanical to organic, from industrial to biological - maybe democracy will be replaced by biocracy one day.

Building Biology

People today are becoming increasingly aware of environmental problems and the need for a holistic approach in dealing with them.

However most people’s concern for the environment is focussed on external problems: climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, pollution of air and water. What about the environment in our homes? We spend 80-90% of our lives in buildings. Indoor pollution is residential and commercial buildings through the use of toxic and unhealthy building materials can have a serious effect on our health. Our homes are our third skin (the second being our clothes). The NZ Building Act says clearly we should build energy-efficient and healthy homes. But what about the Building Code? Because of our recent “leaky home scandal” we now have more unhealthy and toxic building material in use such as treated timber, glue, expansion foams and composite boards. These materials give off vapour – formaldehyde is a common one – or absorption can occur through the skin and lungs or through the food chain.

Healthy buildings have passive solar design, good insulation, good ventilation and enough thermal mass to keep temperatures stable, warm in winter, cool in summer. Natural building materials are wood, stone and earth. By using these local materials one can lower the ecological footprint of buildings substantially. The embodied energy (EMERGY) in a building can be very high – as an example there are about 15 litres of oil in a bag of cement. An assessment of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is an eye-opener. Cement and some materials are transported long distances. Cement kilns also produce additional carbon dioxide beyond that of the fossil fuels they burn, as a result of converting calcium carbonate to calcium oxide, doubling their global warming impact.

The basic human rights of building your own dwelling and growing your own food are being compromised by red tape and the building industry influencing the building code to fit the available building materials. Long live the kiwi tradition of owner building.
More INFO on healthy buildings from: EBANZ (Earth Building Association of NZ) BRANZ (Building Research Assn NZ), Building Biology Institute NZ

Without Water - No Life

Water is not just only an amazing chemical (H2O) it is the lifeblood of our planet earth. Population growth and development have polluted and depleted the world’s water supply – experts say the wars of the 21st Century will be fought over oil and water. Every eight seconds a child dies from drinking contaminated water. World demand for water is doubling every 21 years. With deforestation, draining wetlands and sealing more and more of the earth’s surface, we have halved the hydrological cycle of water. There is less groundwater recharge through rapid run-off and also less infiltration of rainwater due to warmer earth surfaces (global warming).

Excessively fast re-evaporation through more and more irrigation in agriculture leads to salination, causing salt build-up on huge tracts of land like in Australia and other dry parts of the globe. Water use in agriculture is very high in some foods, especially in meat production. Each calorie of meat takes far more water than a calorie of grain: approx. 1,000 litres H2O for a kg of wheat, 2,000 litres for white rice, but 50,000 litres for 1 kg of beefsteak, 500 litres for a litre of milk, over 200 litres in a litre of wine. Cotton is worse, 5,000 litres for a kg. (source: Forbes Magazine).

So how are we doing in New Zealand? Luckily in some parts of our land we have plenty of water, but parts of the East Coast of the North Island, Otago, Canterbury and Marlborough have a serious shortage of water, especially in El Nino years.

We have to change our water use to more sustainable levels. Agriculture and tourism are the biggest users of water. Industrial and domestic use is also very high in the developed world The flush toilet uses the most and in future it will be unsustainable to use drinking water to transport faeces and urine, so composting or dry toilets will be used more often where suitable.

Grey water should be re-used. In Singapore, for example, sewerage is turned into drinking water with high tech cleaning systems.

But fresh, clean water is a non-negotiable human right: it is the liquid currency of survival

Bio-fuels - Renewable but not Sustainable

With the oil peak upon us, governments around the world are spinning for the next solution, bio-fuels. Ethanol from corn, sugarcane and wood biomass. Bio-diesel from soya beans, sunflower, rapeseed and other oil seeds, or palm oil. Looking closer and using simple assessment tools like EMERGY (embodied energy) and EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) it just doesn’t stack up. First of all, there is not enough land to grow energy crops as well as food crops. Water shortages in agriculture, salination, erosion and soil collapse are on the increase. With erratic weather patterns and climate change, growing grains is becoming more and more difficult as we can see in Australia. World grain reserves are down to a few weeks. Virgin rainforest is razed to grow oil palms for bio-diesel. In Malaysia alone 87% of deforestation happened to create palm oil plantations. A further 6 million hectares are scheduled for clearance in Malaysia and 16.5 million hectares in Indonesia.

Corn, sugarcane or rapeseed grown with artificial fertilisers and pesticides, which are oil-based products with high emergy, are not net producers of energy. Ethanol conversion is even worse, it also generates mutagens and carcinogens and increases ozone levels in the atmosphere.

Anaerobic digestion to harvest biogas especially from green algae for carbon capture and sustainable bio-diesel looks promising. Biogas is a renewable and carbon-mitigating fuel. It is more than carbon neutral. Methane-driven vehicles are already used, thousands of them in Sweden. Anaerobic digestion also creates excellent organic fertiliser, high in nitrogen and phosphorous for soil productivity and prevents pollution of ground water, soil and air with nitrates, methane, nitrous oxides and other contaminants.

The huge amount of tallow in New Zealand is also a resource for bio-diesel and urgently needs more research.

But in the end we have to look at a drastic reduction in transportation of our goods and ourselves. Local production, local consumption and we might have to stay more at home.

Put Another Log on the Fire

Wood is our oldest form of energy, used for thousands of years to cook and to keep our dwellings warm. There is nothing quite like the dancing flames of a wood fire - it’s only recently with increased awareness of carbon emissions to the atmosphere and global warming that firewood as a fuel has fallen from favour.

Carbon neutral

If one looks more closely at the carbon cycle though, burning wood is actually not adding to the carbon problem. It can be totally carbon neutral if we keep on replanting the trees or maintain a coppice lot. The trees while they grow will absorb the carbon and act as a carbon sink.

The emissions of one household fire for cooking, space heating and heating water need only four leafy evergreen trees to absorb the carbon emitted over a year. The leafy area of a large tree can be several hectares, each leaf taking in CO2 and giving off oxygen.

A coppice woodlot maintained well and cut in rotation can provide fuelwood for generations sustainably. The firewood trees can be interplanted with nitrogen-fixing species to get free atmospheric nitrogen into the root areas and the grass between the trees can be grazed with animals to get extra fertility through urine and manure.

To keep our pollution low however it is important to have a properly functioning double combustion heating or cooking stove. Other important factors are proper maintenance and correct seasoning and storage of firewood. The most efficient heating system is useless unless the house is well insulated, double glazed and with sufficient thermal mass to store the heat. With oil, gas and electricity going up in price renewable firewood will be in favour again. So keep on planting trees.

Closing the Nutrient Cycle

The flush toilet is not just an appliance; it is an icon in our “waste culture”. At the same time it’s an environmental disaster. In Nature there is no waste, one organism’s excrement is another’s food. Humans create waste because we ignore natural laws and systems that we are dependent upon.

Human waste – black gold

Treated properly, human excreta can be a natural and beneficial fertiliser – Asian agricultures flourished by recycling human waste into cropland. Nations and cultures endure only as long as their topsoil. Now we mix human excreta with clean water, send it through pipes to a sewage plant, and then spend millions to separate the two. Then the “cleaned” effluent is dumped into waterways or the oceans and creates algae bloom and “death zones”. The nutrient load is not the only problem; industry adds heavy metals, toxic chemicals and pesticides. Pharmaceuticals are a serious problem, especially antibiotics and oestrogen. Antibiotic resistance can be transferred to other bacteria – wastewater treatment plants can become breeding grounds for resistant bacteria.

On-site resource recycling technologies like composting toilets and small-scale treatment plants that dispose of everything back onto land are the answer. Nearly half of our water use is through the flush toilet. Water shortages globally will make it difficult to carry on with this unsustainable pollution of our environment. By some estimates it takes one to two thousand tons of water to flush one ton of human waste (The Humanure Handbook, by J. Jenkins).

In the Rodney district we have numerous examples of unsustainable sewage disposal and the proposal to pump Matakana’s human waste to Omaha, from one water catchment into another, is just one of them.

Taking responsibility for our eco-footprint starts in the toilet, but then the world’s population has tripped in my lifetime – that means a lot more poo to put back into our soils.