2012, Climate Change and Permaculture

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2012, is it really the end of the world?  Are the tectonic plates going to tilt, like in the movie, and dump us off?  Will the earth crack open and the seas split?

Unlikely.  You can breathe a qualified sigh of relief.  Mayan shamans and scholars tell us that the close of this great cycle of the Mayan calendar is not the cue for apocalypse but rather a new beginning, another turn of the wheel.

And yet…and yet.  We've seen the skyline of New York go dark.  We've had a year of record droughts, heat waves, floods, crowning a streak of disastrous years, quakes, tsunamis, leaking reactors.  Perhaps we are facing a different kind of end, brought about by our own actions as the earth heats up from climate change.  Hurricane Sandy may have cracked through our collective denial, but as new climate talks begin in Doha, no one holds out much hope for their success.  The Kyoto Accords are set to expire.  Scientists are now predicting a disastrous 4 degree temperature rise, which will indeed mean the end of civilization as we know it, if not of human life on earth.  

The world won't end on December 21, but nonetheless this time we live in is a crucial turning point.  What can we do?  

The underlying imagery of the Popol Vuh, the great Mayan creation story, points us in a direction.  For my understanding of this story, I'm indebted to my husband, David Miller. 

We spent our honeymoon twenty years ago at Tikal, and he became fascinated with the Mayans, their mythology and particularly their sacred ball games.  For the last two decades he's been reading, researching and writing, and telling me tales! You can read his account for yourself in his book, The Cosmic Ballgame, What 2012 and Mayan Creation Mean for Us.

To make a complex story simple, the Popol Vuh recounts an earlier deep shift, from a society rooted in the female mysteries of menstrual blood and birth to a warrior society rooted in sacrificial blood and male control.  This plays out in the supplanting of the primal twins, the singing garden boys, by the ballgame warrior twins, Humahpuh and Xbalanque.

"The ‘boys' usurped the magic of Blood Moon, built their sacrificial blood ball game around that magic, and framed the blood rituals around Grandmother's sacred count of days.  All this was done to support kingship…Our competitive ballgame culture is a spiritual child of the Mayan warrior ballgame culture." (David Miller. The Cosmic Ballgame, p. 72)

The ending of this cycle calls us to change.  Or as David puts it, " In ballgame parlance, we need to make several half-time adjustments.  The present strategy, with its roots in a past almost too distant to comprehend, is not working for us. We need to huddle up…Let us dance a ballgame dance where the singing garden boys and the ballgame warrior boys accommodate rather than confront.  Where the song is sung and the war is sidestepped." (Miller, P 79)

What would Grandmother tell us about climate change?  She'd send us out to the garden.  For if we are to find a way out of our dilemma, we'll have to get down and dirty and intimate with the earth.

There are no lack of solutions to climate change, from conservation and renewables to alternative forms of energy.  Some are obvious, like solar and wind power.  Others are dubious and dangerous, like vast geo-engineering schemes that are unproven and might have disastrous consequences.  Yet it's not that we lack the technology or the knowledge we need.  We lack the will. To muster the energy to counter the entrenched interests that want to preserve the status quo, we need a deeper change, a shift in our way of thinking and perceiving the world.

The dominant culture sees the world as a bunch of stuff, separate, isolated objects.  Advertisers tell us that happiness lies in acquiring more and more of this stuff, and a capitalist economics demands constant growth.  We are constantly embroiled in that great, competitive ballgame, and the goal is winning.

The shift we need to make is to see the world not as a bunch of separate things but as a web of relationships.  We are part of an interwoven whole, and our goal is not to win, but to connect, to nurture, to play, to dance.  

Science has been coming to this worldview since the physicists of the twentieth century probed the heart of the atom and stuff dissolved into probabilities, relativity, strings vibrating in cosmic harmonies.  Systems theory, ecology, family constellations therapies and a dozen other disciplines embody this shift.  And indigenous cultures have always taught this wisdom.  We are not alone.  We are parts of whole, interdependent, interconnected.  True abundance, true happiness, is found in relationship.

When we seek to apply this understanding, one set of guidelines can be found in the system of ecological design called ‘permaculture'.  Designer and writer Patrick Whitefield defines permaculture as "The art of designing beneficial relationships."  Permaculture is not a single solution nor even a set of techniques, but rather an approach that shows us how the solutions work together to create a synergy that is more than its parts.  It's rooted in ethics, principles and patterns derived from observation of how nature works.

Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term and developed the curriculum back in the ‘70s;  Permaculture is now a global movement, with thousands of teachers, practitioners and designers and more on-the-ground projects than the UN.  Permaculturalists helped Cuba transition to organic food production when the Soviet Union collapsed and it lost the bulk of its fuel supplies.  They have greened the desert in Jordan and reforested thousands of acres of the Sahel, restored the desiccated loess plateau in China and pioneered rooftop gardens in the Bronx.  Permaculture offers us the key to regeneration.

I came to permaculture after many years of practicing, teaching and writing about the ancient, pre-Christian Goddess religions of Europe and the Middle East, for whom nature is sacred.  I first heard about permaculture from a friend back in the ‘80s, and it seemed to me to be the practical application of earth reverence.

In the mid-90s, I met Penny Livingston-Stark, a skilled permacultture designer and teacher from Pt. Reyes, California.  I took a course with her, and we became good friends.

In 1999, both of us participated in the Seattle blockade against the World Trade Organization.  Suddenly I was immersed in a community of mostly young activists who were on fire with the desire to change the world-but often, a bit unclear on what they wanted to change it into.  I also knew dozens of amazing permaculturalists, natural builders, organic gardeners and inventors with fantastic, creative, beautiful solutions to our environmental problems.  But the current systems of power were barriers to putting those solutions in place.

Penny and I got together and talked about how we could bring the activists and the permies together.  We created Earth Activist Trainings, to teach permaculture design with a focus on organizing and a grounding in spirit.  We taught our first course in 2001, and eleven years later we have now graduated close to a thousand students who've done amazing projects, from planting fruit trees in inner city schools to transforming intersections into gathering places to training women farmers in the West Bank.  (And our next course is coming right up in northern California January 6-20.  http://www.earthactivisttraining.org/).

Permaculture's approach to climate change let's us avoid short-sighted errors and find true solutions, because it is rooted in three core ethics: care for the earth, care for the people, and care for the future. The three ethics work together.  We cannot truly care for the earth unless we take into account the people and the long term impact of our interventions.  Ecological solutions that ignore issues of justice are doomed to fail.  And we cannot care for the people if we don't take into account the life-support systems of the earth that sustain us all.  Social and economic justice movements that ignore the environmental constraints and ecological realities cannot truly improve peoples' lives. To care for the future, we must share the surplus we create and limit our consumption.

When we bring people care and earth care together with an eye to future generations, we create a synergy that has immense power for healing and regeneration.

Climate change can be seen as a symptom of myriad dysfunctional relationships.  Our technology, our energy systems, economic systems and food growing systems, our whole way of life are in warped relationship to the greater realities around us.  

To avoid ultimate climate catastrophe, we must heal some core relationships, with place, with food and soil, with community.  When we do, we can wean ourselves off stuff as a filler for the emptiness within, step out of the competitive ballpark and into the singing garden.

The 21st century world is an uprooted one, in which we are encouraged to jet around and keep in motion.  And our stuff moves around, too — our clothing is made in Pakistan, our electronics in China, our other goods wherever corporations can find the cheapest labor and the most lax safety and environmental restrictions.  All this motion takes energy.  It also undermines workers, unions, fair wage laws and environmental responsibility.

To heal, we need to sink roots, go local, learn our flora and fauna and history.  We can bring our businesses and our enterprises home and demand that they become accountable again to real communities.  Our food systems also need roots.  Today, the average piece of food travels 1500 miles before it gets to your mouth, using fossil fuel energy to transport it.  To heal our bodies, we need healthy food grown in living soil, eaten fresh with all its vitality intact.  To heal our world, we need healthy, living food systems, local food security, local markets and local farmers and ranchers committed to regenerative practices.      

We can all play a part in creating these systems.  Maybe few of us will take up farming, but we all make choices about what food to buy, how to support our local farms, what policies to advocate for and what legislation to demand.  

San Francisco, as an example, recently revised its ordinances to make urban farming easier and to open up the possibility of selling and marketing city-grown food.  We can demand a farm bill that ends subsidies for destructive practices and helps support farmers to make the transition to organic, low-till, soil-building practices.

To grow healthy food, we must repair our relationship to soil.  Industrial agriculture sees soil as a dead medium through which chemicals can circulate to produce food — but that food is often devoid of vitality and low in nutrients.  Organic gardeners and farmers know that soil is alive, an ecosystem full of complex relationships between bacteria, fungi, protists, nematodes, worms, beetles, and thousand of other critters.  When we compost, a liability becomes an asset.  One of the key permaculture principles is to close loops — to look for places where a waste stream can become a resource.

And, here's what you need to know when they start talking carbon sequestration and geo-engineering:  There is one safe, proven, tried and true way to sequester carbon, with no potential down side.  That's by building rich, healthy soil, for healthy soil is full of humus, and humus is a big, fat molecule high in carbon that helps hold minerals, water and nutrients in soil and makes them available to plants.  The more we compost, or employ other soil-building techniques — mulching, rotational grazing, keyline plowing, reforestation, and many more–the more we take carbon out of the atmosphere and deposit it in the soil, where it can remain stable for decades.

Fungi are also powerful soil-builders, and the work of mycologist Paul Stamets has shown us that fungi can break down toxins, remediate damaged ground, and store immense amounts of carbon while aiding plant growth.  Trees, especially, depend on their fungal relationships to acquire water and nutrients.  Trees in a forest are linked by networks of fungal mycelium, and can feed their own young or share nutrients with trees growing in the shade.

If we can employ soil-building and reforestation strategies on a mass scale, we can potentially pull some of the excess carbon out of the atmosphere.  Indeed, the world's soils have a huge carbon debt, as centuries of plow agriculture have exposed millions of acres to erosion and oxidation.  Dr. Rattan Lol of the University of Ohio's Soil Carbon Institute maintains that there is as much excess carbon in the atmosphere from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as from every automobile ever invented.

If we pay that debt, we can help restore the balance.  And by building healthy soil, we also repair many other relationships.  We establish a more effective water cycle, reducing droughts and floods.  We reverse desertification and provide more nutrition for humans and animals.  

Healthy soil can be the basis of healthy community.  The key relationships we must repair our often our most personal ones.  We cannot see other people, or groups of people, as expendable.  We must come to understand that we are interdependent, and that to be human is to take responsibility not just for ourselves, but for one another.

Community can be challenging!  It is far easier to love humanity in the abstract than to get along with the contrary, irritating folks who happen to be your friends, neighbors and family.  But the more skilled we become at our interpersonal relationships, the more effective we'll be at all our other work.  My own deep interest is in the newly developing area we've come to call ‘social permaculture'.  What are the principles and the patterns we can apply to our organizations and relationships that can help us thrive?  The Empowerment Manual, A Guide for Collaborative Groups, my most recent book, explores the principles and patterns that can help our groups and relationships thrive.

Repairing our relationships to place, to food, to soil and to community will give us solid ground to stand upon as we address the technological and larger political changes we so desperately need to make.  We are gifted with enormous creativity, and the earth contains great reserves of resilience.  If we make the commitment to healing and regeneration, 2012 may mark, not the end of the world, but the moment when we step out of a loser's ballgame into the garden of a new era of balance, abundance and vibrant life.

Some resources

Starhawk's website: http://www.starhawk.org/
Earth Activist Training:  http://www.earthactivisttraining.org/
David Miller's website for The Cosmic Ballgame: http://www.thecosmicballgame.com
Starhawk and Donna Cooper's documentary, Permaculture:
The Growing Edge: http://www.belili.org/permaculture/Permaculture_GrowingEdge.html
Here are some short videos online about EAT teachers and projects:
Permaculture Principles at Work, featuring Erik Ohlsen
Inner City Permaculture:

Permaculture Resources

Penny Livingston-Stark  Regenerative Design Institute
Erik Ohlsen
Living Mandala
Permaculture Research Institute

Image by somaya, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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