Taken from Bill Mollison's Introduction to Permaculture (1981). Superlative thinking coming from a lofty brain. These are just introductory brainstorms. In fact he has helped brainstorm and teach some brilliant agricultural principles and designs, not touched upon here.
Here is something that should be of interest to each of us. For every head of population - whether you are an American or an East Indian - if you are a grain eater, it now costs about 12 tons of soil per person per year for us to eat grain. All this loss is a result of tillage. As long as you are tilling, you are losing. At the rate at which we are losing soils, we don’t see that we will have agricultural soils within a decade.
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Now the main reason for disappearance of soils is the cutting of forest. And almost always the cutting of the forest is remote from where the soil is lost. That is, you can do nothing if your soil starts to turn salty here, because the reason lies way up the watershed, maybe a thousand miles away. We are now starting to get soil salting in humid climates in Australia. It is becoming a "factor out of place." It is no longer only occurring in deserts. It occurs in quite humid, winter-wet climates. How did this happen?
It is not a simple process, but it is easily understood. The rain, as it falls on hills and penetrates forests, has a net downward transfer. If we remove forests, we now have a net evaporation loss. Forests transmit clean water downward, and they release clean water into the atmosphere. This net downward transfer carries with it the salts which are an inevitable part of that additional four tons of soil per acre which is produced from breakdown of rocks. These salts normally travel on out in deep leads. They are not surface systems. Fresh water runs from the surface and soaks down. Even in humid climates, we have much saltier water at depth than we have on the surface.
This is because the trees act as pumps to keep the leads low. If we cut the trees down, the deep leads rise at a measurable rate, and they are rising measurably across enormous areas in America, Africa and Australia. When they are up to about three feet below the surface, the trees start to die of "phasmids."
And when they are up to about 18 inches below the surface, other crops start to die. When they reach the surface, they evaporate and the soil visibly goes to salt. Then the Australian government starts providing free pumps to farmers and they start pumping out the salt water. Where can they discard the water they pump out? Big problem!
The largest single factor in Britain causing loss of soils is the construction of highways. It is also a major factor in America. In Britain, I think that there is a mile of highway for every square mile of surface. And highways are being rapidly extended on the supposition that you will never need the soil and that highways will enable you to increase energy use. Highways account for the permanent loss of soils, as do cities.
Cities are located on the 11% of very good soils of the Earth. Canada is an interesting example, where cities are liable to obliterate the top quality soils, without any other factor, and in this decade, leaving agriculturalists to move on to less sustainable situations.
Now all of this, including the energy problem, is what we have to tackle at once. It can be done. It is possible. It is possible to make restitution. We might as well be trying to do something about it as not. We will never get anywhere if we don’t do anything. The great temptation, and one in which the academic takes total refuge, is to gather more evidence. I mean, do we need any more evidence? Or is it time to cease taking evidence and to start remedial action on the evidence already in? In 1950, it was time to stop taking evidence and start remedial action. But the temptation is always to gather more evidence. Too many people waste their lives gathering evidence. Moreover, as we get more evidence, we see that things are worse than they had appeared to be.
The probability of the extinction of a species is greatest when the density is very high or very low. There is a density dependence. You can see how high density is a dangerous thing for species because of very rapid transmission of plague resulting from the exhaustion of critical elements upon which the species depends. It is more difficult to see how very low densities are also critical situations. The factor of number is a factor ignored
by most communes or communities. I don’t think we know of any society of man whose continuance depends on their own genetic health that can exist below 300 in population, and not even at that number without very rigorous genetic control. We are breeding for extinction in several areas. High density populations often also start to include an enormous range of genetic disasters or mutations.
It is possible to make small changes in a general system to bring about a higher chance of survival of the elements of the system, or high yield within the system. There is an horrific statement called the over-run thesis which says: "Our ability to change the face of the Earth increases at a faster rate than our ability to foresee the consequences of that change." And there is the life-ethic thesis, which says that living organisms and living systems are not only means but ends. In addition to their value to man, or their instrumental value to human beings, they have an intrinsic worth which we don’t allow them. That a tree is something of value in itself, even if it has no value to us, that notion is a pretty foreign sort of thought to us. That it is alive and functioning is what is important.
Resources are something you can feed into a system and increase its productivity, or its yield, or the number of useful storages. But if you continue beyond that point of productivity, then the system itself collapses. And that comes down to the statement that any integrated system can only accept that amount of energy that it can productively use. So you can over-manure anything, over-heat anything; you can over-plow anything. Whether we are talking about money or manure, you can put too much of it in. What then happens is first you start to get less and less increase in yield and then more and more increase in a lethal factor. You can’t continue to pour in more of the same thing and get a continued increase in yield. A friend of mine went to Hong Kong. He ran a sort of energy budget on the city, paying a lot of attention to agriculture. He told me that the older Chinese agriculture (weeding by hand) produced, under very intensive conditions, using natural manures, about three times as much energy as it consumed.
Then they modernized, utilizing small tractors, artificial fertilizer, and weeded by little hot jet flames. I think he said that they put 800% more energy in and got a 15% increase in yield. And then as they continued to pour in more energy, the yield decreased. By now they are into the same kick that we have. They only get 4% to 6% of that energy out again. So agriculture went from an energy productive to an energy consuming system, just as the sea has gone from being oxygen producing to oxygen consuming, all because we are putting too much nutrient into it. You can do it to a pond very quickly and to a nation or a continent more slowly.
We should not confuse order and tidiness. Tidiness is something that happens when you have frontal brain damage. You get very tidy. Tidiness is symptomatic of brain damage. Creativity, on the other hand, is symptomatic of a fairly whole brain, and is usually a disordered affair. The tolerance for disorder is one of the very few healthy signs in life. If you can tolerate disorder, you are probably healthy. Creativity is seldom tidy. Tidiness is like the painting of that straight up and down American with his fork and his straight rows. garden is a sign of extraordinary tidiness and functional disorder. You can measure it easily, but it doesn’t yield much. What we want is creative disorder. I repeat, it is not the number of elements in a system that is important, but the degree of functional organization of those elements - beneficial functions.
I think, again, in our general education, and particularly in our primary education, that we get an awful lot of static phenomena taught to us, and cross sectional phenomena. But we are not taught interactive processes, and we are not taught much about the resonance of things. The real world that we live in is in constant flux. Things are on their way somewhere all the time. There isn’t such a thing as a quiet picture of a natural phenomenon. Everything is on its way to other phases. Yet we teach things as sort of rigid truths. We are culturally blocked. It is because it is a scientific culture; we try to measure everything.
There are different ways of coming at things. I can’t handle symbols; some people cannot handle numbers; some cannot handle dimension. This is why it is beneficial to associate in small groups, just to try to bring different lights on the same truths, trying to comprehend the different shadows of reality. This dynamic is lacking in education.