Visions of Sugarplums.

We hear a lot about buying local food and how good it is for lowering our carbon footprint, helping the local economy, putting healthier food on our table, and making agriculture more sustainable. But consider where we get our food – from areas of the world where there is excellent soil from glacier or river bottom deposits, good growing climates, and/or cheap labor – and try to imagine substituting local food for that “million mile diet”. For example, imagine farmers trying to grow all of our dietary fruit, vegetables, grain, and animal products in the Pacific Northwest..

Commercial agriculture requires 1/2 an acre to 1 acre of land to produce all the food eaten by one person in the United States. Traditional Chinese practices required 1/10 to 1/5 of an acre. John Jeavons’ writes that Biointensive Gardening methods can grow a person’s food needs on 1/15 of an acre.

Presumably, this does not mean that a person living on that 1/15 of an acre of food would have the same quality and type of food as the person living on the 1 acre of commercial agriculture. Grains are an extremely inefficient food crop, and animals fed on grains are even more inefficient for producing food. This high amount of land usage also requires high energy and fertilizer inputs, as well as requiring energy consumption for transportation.

So what does this have to do with visions of the future?
Our current per capita energy use can only continue at these levels if we are able to find alternative energy sources to substitute for fossil fuels. It is unlikely that any alternative energy source other than nuclear can meet the energy needs required to replace our fossil fuel energy usage. Nuclear energy has its challenges of nuclear waste and weapons-grade materials being mis-used by small countries or terrorists. Even if our energy needs were solved, we’d still have the challenges of soil erosion and depletion, water shortage and agriculture land being taken over for residential uses.

David Holmgren, a co-founder of Permaculture, describes four energy scenarios for the future, and suggests why he favors the likelihood of the “energy-descent” future. In this scenario, energy per capita decreases over time, assisted by changes in the way we live and consume.

Let’s envision what an “Energy-Descent Future” might look like in the suburbs. It would encompass many of the skills and principles taught by Permaculture, but might better be considered as an “Earth Stewardship” scenario.

We begin by going to a typical suburban neighborhood that used to have fences between the houses, three-car garages filled with cars, manicured lawns and ornamental plants. Now we see that the road down the cul-de-sac has been removed, and been replaced with a cart-path. There is a small parking lot at the head of the the street, where a few cars are parked. The cars are shared by 10 families, and include a large-capacity truck, a mini-bus, and a couple of electric cars. Handcarts are used between the parking lot and people’s houses.

There are few lawns to be seen, except for in the back of a few of the houses, where there are small grassy areas that children play and share with foraging chickens when they are let out for a “cluck” on occasion. Fruit trees, berries, and fruiting vines are seen throughout the neighborhood, and some are strategically located so as to create privacy for occupants of the houses in lieu of fences. There are no deer because of hunting pressure, which keeps them far away from humans, in the extensive forest corridors that wind throughout the pocket villages that comprise the suburb community.

The forests are seen to contain a rich diversity of trees and native vegetation, and include numerous varieties that are harvested for local cottage industry furniture and woodworking businesses. There are many diverse mushrooms that have been inoculated in fallen trees, in addition to wild ones. Agro-forestry is practiced by the local people, who want to maximize the productivity of their wild forests, as well as for their cultivated areas.

Community gardens take up considerable land throughout the neighborhood. They are managed by members of all the households who are physically able, and they are watered by a system of ponds that are fed by small creeks and water catchment from the rain gutters. The ponds are also home to a variety of aquaculture species – fish, water chestnuts, bullfrogs, crawdads and water cress. Ducks, chickens and geese are housed throughout the neighborhood, and utilize some of the ponds and orchards for foraging. The orchards and gardens are worked using efficient practices of Permaculture, and require minimal maintenance, although they take more space than “Biointensive” methods. Berries that fix nitrogen in their roots are inter-planted to provide nutritional requirements of the fruit trees. The fruit trees are surrounded by comfrey plants that pull up nutrients with their deep roots and provide a deep mulch with their large leaves. In an absence of outside sources of manure and fertilizers, these “companion” plantings provide all of the nutrients needed by the healthy fruit trees, berries and vines. Flowers are also planted near the trees, which attract bees and beneficial insects, while strong-smelling herbs repel pest insects.

Most of the houses have photo voltaic rooftop solar panels, but all the houses share in a common electrical output system. The garages of all the houses have either been turned into accessory dwelling units for in-laws or grown children, or are being used for mechanic repair garages, workshops or studios for local business ventures. On the corner is a small market stand that has a self-serve counter next to the boxes of recently harvested surplus food from the orchards and gardens. A closer look at the stand reveals an accounting ledger which is used to keep track of credits for produce bought or sold. There is a local accounting system which is kept current by people who call in the ledger, and a regional currency system for trading that occurs between this community and the neighboring one.

The children are taught to read in one of the houses in the neighborhood by several of the parents who take turns leading the learning process. The learning is augmented by a series of projects which children of different ages work on as teams, and often involve the adults in the neighborhood who provide guidance on projects that are related to their own businesses.

There is a main village which is a mile walk from this neighborhood, that has several shops that offer a variety of different goods. Many of the items carried are made locally in the larger community, although there are some items that are made in neighboring communities and traded by the village store owners using regional currency accounts.

This future vision is one depiction of how humans might live in an “Energy Descent” future. It wouldn’t be “business as usual” for our current way of living. I tried to include some of the ideas which might be expressed in “Financial Permaculture” (see Katherine Austin Fitts Blog on Solari’s Financial Permaculture Conference).

It is an alternative to our leaders saying “the American Lifestyle is non-negotiable”. Having such a vision in mind provides optimism that the current economic challenges may become a catalyst for moving us toward a future that is truly “sustainable”.

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