Magical Thinking about Energy

Monbiot’s column a couple of days ago- “No Fracking, drilling or digging: it’s the only way to save life on earth”– is about as egregious a piece of misdirection as I have seen coming from him, and that is saying something.

The problem under discussion is the unobtainable nature of the Paris climate agreements, and Monbiot is absolutely correct in asking whether governments know what they have signed. Whether they do know or not, setting arbitrary targets for CO2 reductions without the slightest idea as to how they can be achieved in practice has never been a good strategy. Fossil fuels are not like CFCs, which were basically a set of chemicals which it was possible to develop alternatives for and then simply ban, as was done under the Montreal Protocol; they are, rather, the lifeblood of the modern world. There is currently no known way of doing without them, and a couple of bilion of our brethren have yet to gain access to the wondrous benefits they can bestow, so we can assume use will continue to increase globally.

“a 2C target” Monbiot explains “means that we can use only around 85% of the fossil fuel that’s currently good to go, while a 1.5C target means we can extract little more than a third… So what’s the point of developing new reserves if the Paris agreement precludes the full extraction of those already in production?”

What indeed. He then goes onto point out that the only alternative to meet these climate targets is the widespread adoption of BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage):

As for the belief among some governments that they can overshoot the climate targets, then at a later date suck carbon dioxide out of the air: this depends on scenarios that would be no less realistic if they involved sorcery. The most popular proposal is to combine the capture and storage phantasm with biofuel plantations covering an area between one and three times the size of India, then harvesting the material they grow, burning it in power stations and burying the emissions.

I agree that this is unfeasible, and it is worrying that Paris does indeed seem to be based on these assumptions. Monbiot claims however that there is a simple no-brainer alternative:

All this nonsense is a substitute for a simple proposition: stop digging. There is only one form of carbon capture and storage that is scientifically proven, and which can be deployed immediately: leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

Then there will be a complete phase-out of fossil-fuel extraction including compensation of the mining companies and retraining for the employees. Retraining for what? Monbiot doesn’t specify. What will we use to replace the fossil fuels? He doesn’t say- maybe a magical alternative fuel will just appear?

But later on the real point of his article becomes clear:

In Britain, for example, tax rebates for North Sea oil and gas companies are so generous that over the next five years the government is likely to give them around £5bn more than it receives in revenues. There are similar tax breaks for fracking companies – but not, of course, for renewable energy.

(Apparently, from what I can gather, fracking companies will only receive tax breaks for the exploratory phase, not the extractive phase, for which it will pay 30% tax, more than many industries; fracking will bring net revenue and jobs to the economy, not to mention cheaper fuel bills.)

In Monbiot’s world, we are to replace coal, oil and gas with…wind, mainly (solar in sunnier countries perhaps). The problem is, to replace these reliable and energy-dense fuels, with which we have constructed the entire modern world with all its amenities and benefits, with wind would require every bit as much “sorcery” as BECCS. Monbiot tells us BECCS will take an area 1 1/2 times the size of India, but gives us no details on how much land would be required for wind, or what other land uses it would compete with, or what environmental impact it would have: how many windfarms, where would they go, how much will it cost- and how does he propose to overcome the issue of intermittency, something which biomass at least does not have to contend with?  On these pressing issues, George is silent. It is as if his entire “alternative” energy policy consists of “replace fossil fuels with wind, The End.”

Fortunately, the sums have already been done on this, as I reported here, by Professor David McKay, who concluded that “Britain cannot live on its own renewables”. Monbiot however is relying on a report by Oil Change International, (OCI) which is based on projections created by Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, which are also used by Bil McKibben’s campaign in the US. Robert Bryce explains what the proposed 100% renewables scenario would look like for the US here:

McKibben, the founder of, and his friends are pushing would result in the despoliation of vast swaths of the American landscape. Indeed, it would require that an area the size of Texas and Louisiana combined be covered with hundreds of thousands of wind turbines.

OCI use Jacobson’s projection of 50% renewables by 2035. That is just 20 years away. Currently the world barely produces 5% of its energy from renewables. It is completely unfeasible, and even if attempted, would take many decades- there is no possible scenario even in your wildest dreams where we could build out the tens, hundreds of thousands of wind turbines that would be required by 2035. Grids find it very difficult to accommodate intermittent wind and solar once they go much above 30% supply; most countries are still a very long way from that, and that is just electricity- wind does nothing to replace oil for transport. And did I mention that the wind doesn’t blow all the time? Wind needs baseload for it to work, that currently means gas as the best option.

Perhaps even more curious, neither OCI nor Monbiot make any mention of nuclear power, the only conceivable low-carbon source that could replace fossil fuels- but even if there was an all-out program for nuclear new builds, it would also take decades to achieve. Despite having spoken up for the importance of nuclear in the past, Monbiot’s purpose in this piece seems to be nothing more than put forward an anti-fracking screed.

The article he links to which exposes the BECCS plan behind Paris relies on two other fairy-tale assumptions: energy efficiency, and the hubris of assuming that the poor who currently produce little of no emmissions- because they are poor- are content to stay that way:

But move away from the cosy tenets of contemporary economics and a suite of alternative opportunities for delivering the deep and early reductions in emissions necessary to stay within 2°C budgets come into focus. Demand-side technologies, behaviours and habits all are amenable to significant and rapid change – and guided by stringent policies could drive emissions down in the near-term. Combine this with an understanding that just 10% of the global population are responsible for around 50% of total emissions and the rate and scope of what is possible if we genuinely thought climate change was an important issue becomes evident.

Again, there is absolutely no evidence that “demand-side technologies” can achieve more than a cosmetic fraction of the kinds of emissions cuts the author is talking about. This can only mean one thing in reality: draconian energy rationing, and the complete and permanent denial of energy access to the bottom couple of billion who don’t currently have it. In practice, the developed world will ofcourse never accept energy rationing, so the world’s poor will have to carry the brunt of our climate policies.

Just as egregious is Monbiot’s tarring of all fossil fuels with the same brush, which only misleads and results in bad policy. Oil is used mainly for transport, treating it as if it is interchangeable with coal and gas- used mainly for electricity and heating – makes no sense. Gas has half the emissions of coal, and because it is so readily dispatchable, energy dense and available, can bring down CO2 emissions much faster than renewables by displacing coal. But Monbiot’s aim does not appear to be to actually reduce emissions, but merely to join McKibben’s bandwagon against fossil fuels in general and fracking in particular.

So, absolutely correct, the Paris targets will not be met under any plausible scenario. Should we still strive to reduce emissions as fast as possible? Sure- but not at any cost, and only if an equal goal is to ultimately provide energy access for all. The only realistic path to these twin goals is rapid displacement of coal, and also transport oil – with cleaner gas, and a long-term transition to nuclear power. Anything else truly is magical thinking.

R.I.P. Bill Mollison, Father of Permaculture

Bruce Charles ‘Bill’ Mollison b. May 4th 1928, Stanley, Tasmania, Australia;  d. September 24th  2016 in Sisters Beach, Tasmania.

Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison died last Saturday age 88. This blog has been frequently critical of the permaculture movement he founded, and it seems appropriate to share a few thoughts on the man and consider his legacy.

In a brief tribute, David Holmgren comments:

Bill’s brilliance was in gathering together the ecological insights, principles, strategies and techniques that could be applied to create the world we do want rather than fighting against the world we reject.

I think it was this practical can-do attitude, and a disaffection with a protest movement that just seemed to say “down with everything” without any alternative plan to offer,  which attracted me and many others to permaculture in the first place. I first heard about it in about 1984 while still at college, and completed my first design course a few years later while living in Shropshire. It was my first introduction to many things that have held my interest since then, including gardening and horticulture, tree planting and forestry, building and use of natural resources, community and energy… the eclectic nature of permaculture and the sense that it offered a one-stop solution to everything was also I think part of its appeal and seduction- but perhaps also one of its failings.

Of the two permaculture founders, Mollison was by far the more charismatic than his rather dour counterpart, David Holmgren; but in contrast to common perceptions, Mollison was the more rational of the two, taking an irreverent anti-woo stance unfortunately largely ignored by most of the movement that sprouted from his ideas. In his 1996 autobiography Travels in Dreams he makes the memorable comment:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-18-36-01As I have often been accused of lacking that set of credulity, mystification, modern myth and hogwash that passes today for New Age Spirituality, I cheerfully plead guilty. Unqualified belief, of any breed, dis-empowers any individuals by restricting their information.
Thus, permaculture is not biodynamics, nor does it deal in fairies, devas, elves, after-life, apparitions or phenomena not verifiable by every person from their own experience, or making their own experiments. we permaculture teachers seek to empower any person by practical model-making and applied work, or data based on verifiable investigations. This scepticism of mine extends to religious and political party ideologies.


Unfortunately, it was this very open-endedness and accessibility that diluted the permaculture effect almost to irrelevance. Permaculture was funky but it was never possible to define what it actually was: typically, advocates like to answer “a system of design based on nature” but this turns out to mean virtually anything- although definitely NOT GMOs or fracking. Like the many communes spawned by notions of using natural systems as a model for human systems, permaculture failed to be discerning when it came to adopting new members or new ideas, letting in anything from the biodynamics beloved by David Holmgren to homeopathy and alternative medicine.

Far from being a “system of design” based on Mollison’s famous “key planning tools”, permaculture has really always been a social and political movement, a version of agararian socialism, marching hand-in-hand with Organics, self-sufficiency, and other versions of the back-to-the- land movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Mollison himself is frequently quoted as saying “Permaculture is revolution disguised as Organic gardening”.

Even the original idea of forests being so much more productive (in terms of biodiversity and  biomass) than arable farming, giving rise to the multi-storied perennial forest garden system, is only partly valid as a guiding principle: Mollison himself knew perfectly well growing vegetables under trees was never going to work in temperate regions, which have always been characterized by annual crops and over-wintering storage followed by a “hungry gap” in the early summer.

Today, even the most ardent permaculture enthusiasts produce most of their food in conventional straight rows in raised beds. Much of what has become known as classic permaculture techniques, including swales, pig-tractors and mulching had already been widely promoted by self-sufficiency guru John Seymour.

I met the man once, at the 2005 International Permaculture Convention in Croatia, and enjoyed chatting with him over breakfast there. He was however by then sadly in decline, his petulant behaviour of kicking over chairs on stage while giving and address, to make some point about going against convention, was met with dismay and tuts of approbation. Always the maverick, he was booed at the end of the conference during a discussion on the ethics of using air transport to travel to the next one, when he argued that flying was good for the environment since “everyone knows the real problem is global cooling.”


Bill Mollison in 2005 at the International Permaculture Convergence, Croatia

It is understandable that experiencing the early, rapid impact of broadscale industrial farming provoked a back-lash. Close up, the transformation of large areas of forest into agricultural fields must have been shocking, to the point of wondering where it would ever stop. Reading through this early interview from 1980 provides some interesting insights into how permaculture arose as an attempt to find a less invasive approach, and also where it went wrong:

-his claims that there is no design of any kind involved in modern agriculture seems wide of the mark. Everything from tractors and herbicides to seed selection and breeding choices necessarily involves design. Mollison gives instead a caricature of the process, research and enormous complexity and international cooperation involved.

The Chinese, for instance, have recently “modernized” their farming methods — that is, they went from hand tilling and fertilizing with natural manures to machine and flame weeding and fertilizing with artificials — and they increased their energy input by 800% in the process. Now they’ve gone beyond that and are heading toward an increase of 1,000%! And all that extra expenditure of energy produced an initial yield growth of only 15% … a figure that’s now declining rapidly. In fact, it now looks as though productivity might even fall below its original level!

History has proved this wrong: despite serious issues with aquifer depletion, China increased its grain production by 2/3rds since then. This may not continue, but projections generally fail to allow for technological innovations- such as genetic engineering and precision agriculture- which can overcome difficulties. Certainly, inputs by way of fossil fuels have increased dramatically. Is this not a good thing, to turn mineral resources into food? They may not be inexhaustible, but ultimately alternatives can be found. Fertilizer use accounts for only a small percentage of global natural gas usage, and world supplies are currently higher than ever.

Predicting doom for US agriculture also, Mollison goes onto make the bold claim that

The problem with today’s agricultural techniques is that—by ignoring the possibility of any design input — they fail to deal with interrelated functions.

Again, while all agriculture has challenges, there is no sign that yields generally will fall or that solutions to problems will not be found. Permaculture failed to account for innovations such as the dramatic spread of no-till methods across the grain-belt, going a long way to solving the problems will soil loss Mollison was so concerned about, but without losing productivity.

On the other hand, extravagant claims are made for the productivity of Fukuoka’s “natural farming” without any evidence being provided- nor did Fukuoka provide any evidence to support claims for high yields, as far as I can find:

Look at Fukuoka: That man, at 74, controls 12 acres at a higher productivity than any other farmer on earth … and he does it all on foot, with no machines whatsoever! And even his design could be improved upon. The point is that, by applying any sort of temporal and spatial pattern, one can literally achieve wonders in the product yields of a system.

There are many problems with Mollison’s design principles:

too much edge can also have downsides, as you provide more access to pests, and can be very hard to manage beyond a certain scale;

adding in multiple functions always involves trade-offs: asking plants to be both food crops and shelter can give you the worst of both worlds;

using biological solutions in a world of high populations can lead to very serious depletions, since they are not “renewable” if extracted beyond the rate of replacement: most of temperate forests, not to mention many whale species, were already over-exploited long before the industrial era.

Like Organics, Permaculture has chosen the path of land sharing, with the aim of combining everything on the same piece of land: maximum food production, maximum biodiversity, maximum eco-system services. While land-sharing certainly has a place, the  continued success of agricultural intensification, and the likely acceleration of marginal land abandonment suggests that land sparing, allowing large areas to be returned to nature and forests as agriculture becomes more productive elsewhere, is proving to be far more significant.

At the end of the day, we can say that nature is not there to provide food and sustenance for humans, and is unlikely therefore to be a good model for our farm systems. Nature should not be mimicked so much as improved on.

The permaculture movement will continue long after the death of this well-loved and popular founding figure, but there are no indications it contains many useful solutions to the challenge of increasing food production for 10 billion humans the planet will need to support in a few short decades.

Permaculture has provided a useful and inspiring introduction to landscaping and gardening to large numbers of people, and has added to the self-sufficiency movement by having a broader remit to encourage people to think much more widely about trees and forestry, water, soil, biodiversity. However, Mollison’s success which lead to the broad appeal of his movement was more that of an accomplished magician, and permaculture a system of smoke-and-mirrors with the design principles concealing the lack of emperor’s attire.


Anti-GMO but Pro-science?

Many observers will be surprised to read today’s Observer editorial on GMO crops.

Citing the recent NAS report on GMO crops– which found no concern for health risks, no concern for loss of diversity on farms (and even some beneficial effects) and counseled against any mandatory labeling, with only resistance being flagged as a major issue- the Observer noted:

Europe is already becoming a backwater for new breeding technologies and needs to move swiftly to prevent this situation worsening, UK scientists warned last week.

The restrictive regulations that are blocking the growing of GM crops need to be stripped away as soon as possible.

and slated the anti-science stance of the Big Green lobby on this issue:

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other NGOs are happy to accept scientific consensus when it suits their purposes. They triumphantly quote academic research that backs their claim that climate change, brought about by increasing use of fossil fuels, now threatens major changes to sea levels, coral reefs, shorelines and global temperatures. Yet they are equally willing to say that scientists – who they are pleased to endorse as a profession elsewhere – are utterly wrong about GM crops. This is a dishonest act of cherry picking that makes a nonsense of the green movement’s claim to hold a superior moral position about the health of the planet..

Not everyone was pleased – Guardian writer and campaigner Alice Bell tweeted:

The second tweet is absolutely correct ofcourse- but the science on GMOs is far clearer than that on climate change- not the question of whether climate change is happening per se, or on whether CO2 is a warming gas, but on what policy this should imply. Policy is after all what Big Green are most concerned about, and on GMOs they are winning comfortably in Europe, where there are very tight restrictions and hardly any actually being grown. This is not what the science would suggest- proceed with caution, by all means, with proper regulations, absolutely, but Greenpeace et al are completely opposed to use of GMOs under any circumstances:

GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health.

That right there is your anti-science statement- because as the NAS report clearly shows- and this is just the latest in a long line of similar authoritative studies- the science really is in on the safety and efficacy of GMOs. Crop varieties should be regulated case-by-case on each trait, no differently from other varieties, and not on the breeding method.

I have been following this debate since then and  I have still not seen a serious case against GMOs being made that clearly distances itself from the fear-mongering, and is not essentially anti-science, usually laced with conspiracy theories and assumptions that all biotech scientists are shills for Monsanto. The “economic and political” debates always ride on the back of a caustic undermining of the scientific process and the deliberate spreading of FUD: Fear, Misunderstanding and Doubt.

Warren Pearce argues that there are valid concerns about the regulatory process:

This is rather ironic considering the Oberserver piece itself clearly points out that

The green movement also complains that GM crop technology is the prerogative of big industry and should therefore be treated with suspicion. But it is the very actions of NGOs – who have demanded strict regulations to block GM crop cultivation – that have achieved this state of affairs. Only major corporations, with large legal departments, can afford to get their products into the field while small outfits – often those with novel technologies that could help starving countries – are thwarted by cumbersome regulations.

While this may be true- there may be concerns about how these inquiries are handled- it is not clear that this is substantially different from how public consultation takes place on any other topic; nor is it clear that there would be anything like this level of interest were it not for the well-funded, constant fear-mongering and anti-science propaganda from the likes of Greenpeace and many Organic outlets and marketing organizations. Why the fuss about genetic engineering, and not other breeding techniques? Why such concern about consultation over moths and mosquitoes, but none over the well-established use of biotech in medicine?

I am all in favor of greater public engagement in both science and regulatory processes, but the two cannot be separated on the subject such as GMOs, where public debate, probably more than any other scientific topic, takes place in a toxic atmosphere where public science is assumed to be in the pay of Big Business.

In the meantime, the Observer editorial is a welcome change of tone for a paper which regularly takes a strongly opposing stance on this issue. We can imagine there may have been a few feathers ruffled:


Professor David MacKay and the Renewables Delusion

“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.

The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay  three weeks ago, on April 14th.

Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:

Power per unit land or water area

Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.

By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or nuclear power are extremely energy dense, perhaps delivering up to 1000W/m2- or 1-2 orders of magnitude greater.

Additionally, wind and solar are intermittent in that they only supply energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, and so would need a baseload back-up- typically natural gas- or a whole additional infrastructure of energy storage would be required, which is very expensive and the technology does not yet exist to do this at scale.

A third factor, which is a result of the first two, is the speed at which renewables can be deployed.

If decarbonisation is the goal, France decarbonised most of its electricity supply using nuclear power 6 times faster in the 1980s than the famous German Energiewende is achieving today:


In MacKay’s last interview given to Mark Lynas shortly before his death (below), he is very outspoken about the lack of energy literacy applied to energy policy, leading to dangerous delusions:

there’s so much delusion, it’s so dangerous for humanity that people allow themselves to have such delusions, that they are willing to not think carefully about the numbers, and the reality of the laws of physics and the reality of engineering….humanity does need to pay attention to arithmetic ad the laws of physics.

He goes on to lament the emergence of a new delusion- that the  drop in price of solar and wind in recent years signifies a greater capacity for them to replace fossil fuels- but calculates that price would have to come down by a factor of 100 to make much difference (for battery storage also)- and even if they were free, they would still be just as costly in terms of land-use. Dream on…

Solar and wind can still play a role perhaps, in sunnier parts of the world, but is likely to remain relatively small. Although fossil fuels have dropped slightly in terms of their total share of supply to the UK, they still supply 85% of our power.

Meanwhile, in Germany they are also busy closing the largest supplier of low-carbon energy they have, and one would be forgiven in thinking that the decarbonisation agenda is really just a smoke-screen to facilitate the  traditional Green anti-nuclear agenda.

To replace fossil fuels, the only option is to move forward to a more energy dense fuel, not one that is 100 times more diffuse and intermittent to boot. Based on arithmetic, rather than ideology, in the foreseeable future that can only mean nuclear power.

If you are interested in honouring the legacy of David MacKay and would like to include arithmetic and basic engineering to promote a realistic energy policy, you can do worse than to start with reading his book, or if you prefer, watching his talk from 2010:






The Belly has no Ears: Shakespeare in a time of Famine

An article from a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death  highlights the problems with advocating local food as being more sustainable, and shows again how life in pre-industrial times- before the advent of Big Ag, Supermarkets and global trade- was not always what it was cracked up to be:

during Shakespeare’s time, the English people were plenty hungry. The country saw at least 40 food riots between 1586 and 1631, as historian Buchanan Sharp records in his classic work In Contempt of All Authority. Shakespeare was new on the London scene just as the city was rocked by the food riots of the 1590s. And the bard well knew the hunger-fuelled 1608 “Midland Rising” that affected his home turf in Warwickshire.. Scholars suggest Shakespeare drew on both in writing Coriolanus.

The plot of King Lear  also apparently revolves around food insecurity:

When Lear divides up his kingdom, his daughter Cordelia is granted “the grain-growing areas,” but her sisters, Goneril and Regan, are stuck with Scotland and Wales, which don’t produce bread. “Of course the two sisters are going to invade,” says Turley – otherwise, “they can’t feed their people.”

This is very telling- not all kinds of food grow in every region. Bread wheat for example- an important staple food for most people today-  is not grown in Ireland at all, because the climate is not favorable; obviously we do not grow much citrus fruit in Britain, and the further north you go the less options you have for many crops, and the shorter the growing season.

“Ah- but the sisters [in King Lear] did not have to invade, but could have simply made mutually beneficial arrangements to trade so no-one need go hungry!”

This reminds me of the Facebook meme that suggests the genius idea of everyone growing a different crop and trading -“then we could all eat for free!”, brilliantly demolished in this post.

Well, isn’t that exactly what has happened, progressively over time, and isn’t the success of global trade exactly what has lead to the relative food secure systems we have in place today, in the developed world at least? Today, not only do we have the trading routes and agreements in place, but also the technology to produce much higher wheat yields ensuring that if there is a crop failure in Scotland or Wales, grain can be reliably imported from the more productive lowlands.

Yet people still tell me they feel food insecure, even when they themselves are not farmers and do not depend on the vaguaries of the weather to put food on the table. In effect, the kind of trade that has gone so far to rid the world of the kind of famine situations faced in Shakespeare’s day is being opposed by the so-called Local Food Movement. While some people seem to suggest they are opposed to what they see as “unfair-trade”- and they may well have a point, depending on what is being referred to- the local food movement is essentially against all trade (except local).

This can only result in a return to famine- and wars, for surely, as was a popular saying  in those days, “the belly has no ears.”

Feedback on the Forest Garden

New on theculturalwilderness:

My last post dealt with the permaculture edible forest garden, and it received some commentary on a couple of Facebook groups and permaculture forums. A lot of the responses were, predictably, from permaculture advocates who took umbrage at my having deigned to critique their philosophy at all, but there was one very valid criticism concerning yields: while I had compared weights of different crops per acre, a more useful approach would be to compare calorific yield.

Continue reading

Permaculture and the Edible Forest Garden- a Critical Analysis

I’ve been interested in the edible forest garden idea for over twenty years and have planted and designed several myself in Ireland in that time, and visited several others. But they have never lived up to my expectations and were largely unproductive, despite sourcing as many perennial vegetables and other interesting edible plants as I could. Here I review the claims made for them and what evidence there is to support the idea- and conclude that, as Permaculture founder Bill Mollison said in the first place, in temperate regions you are far better growing your fruit trees and vegetables separately.

Temperate permaculture– is this a passing fad, an idealist’s hobby or is there a case for wider promotion of the practice?

  • Introduction- Design By Nature: Permaculture and the Forest Garden Concept

 “Permaculture” – derived from permanent agriculture – is a concept of sustainable land use and design coined and developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1974. Mollison defined the concept as:

The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems

 (Mollison 1988).

 Since then, permaculture has grown into a worldwide movement of activists and designers applying permaculture principles to the whole of society (Holmgren 2002). Permaculture is more an approach or philosophy than any specific technology, but where it has come under academic scrutiny, many of the kinds of practices frequently advocated have been found lacking in supporting evidence (Chalker-Scott 2010).

In this essay we shall focus on one of the best-known expressions of permaculture design, the edible forest garden or food forest for temperate regions, which are designed with the intention of mimicking the structure and functions of natural woodlands. Successful integration of trees with agriculture for multiple environmental and crop protection functions, nitrogen fixation and fodder is well established in traditional systems in many parts of Europe (Rigueiro-Rodriguez et al 2009), and is gaining renewed interest today as an essential part of agricultural sustainability. It is worth examining why, then, while forest gardens continue to be popular amongst the permaculture fraternity and the sustainable food movement, they have attracted little academic research, and very little uptake by farmers, orchardists or market gardeners. As we shall see, evidence to support the claims that forest gardens achieve both low inputs and high yields is lacking, and there are good theoretical reasons why the concept is unlikely to succeed in temperate zones.

Continue reading on theculturalwilderness

Into the New Wild

Introducing my new blog The Cultural Wilderness. This will cover topics more directly related to conservation, forestry, and other environmental science topics. This is my inaugural post, a review of Fred Pearce’s book on invasive species The New Wild. Enjoy!

Book review: The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature’s salvation by Fred Pearce

Icon Books 2015 new-wild

In 1910 New Zealand’s great botanist Leonard Cochayne described the dramatic change in plant communities which had occurred since the first visit of Captain Cook to the country in 1769 (1). Some 560 new species from Europe, Africa and elsewhere had by become established by then, with half of them common throughout the country from the coasts to the highest mountains:

At first thought, the idea of 560 different sorts of plants- some of them the most aggressive weeds in Europe- having not only been loosed to do their will, but also having established a secure footing, would lead to the conclusion that, if not the flora of New Zealand, at any rate the primitive vegetation was doomed. No conclusion could be more incorrect. Were it not that man has changed, and is changing, the face of nature by means of his farming operations, his grazing animals, his fires, his drains, and his intensive exploitation of rain forest and flax swamp, the host of foreign plant invaders would be powerless- the indigenous plants, attuned to the special life conditions f their native land, would laugh these aliens to scorn. Why, even now, when the introduced plants have man as their potent ally, 66 percent of the species are rare or local, 40 percent being so rare as to be negligible, while merely 34 percent can be classed as extremely common, common, or fairly common, these being taken together. But these percentages do not emphasise the real state of affairs, for many of the commoner plants are confined to sides of toads, neglected building sites, and rubbish heaps- in short, to “waste ground” as it is called- and there are many other species restricted to cultivated land. In fact, probably only about 100 species are established on land where the vegetation would be exposed to modification only by grazing, fire, and other causes due to the indirect action of man.

The warfare, indeed, between the plant inhabitants of primitive New Zealand and the alien invaders is waged almost entirely under conditions where man takes a powerful hand, for, except for certain rock, stony debris, and water-plant formations, no primitive plant community has been desecrated by a single foreign invader. This is a very different version of the story from that even yet current in biological literature, where it is affirmed ad nauseum that the New Zealand vegetation is powerless when it comes into competition with the European plants, which by natural selection have become the very elite of the weed world.

Cochayne’s observations made over a hundred years ago are almost identical to those made forcefully in Fred Pearce’s provocative new book which takes to task invasion biology– the view that non-native species are generally “invasive”, constituting one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and ecosystem health, and need to be controlled and where possible eradicated completely- almost at any cost.

Continue reading on my new blog The Cultural Wilderness.


Timberati has a nice post on changing ones mind, with a great quote from Lomborg:

I think the main point of [The Skeptical Environmentalist] was to challenge our notion that everything is going down the drain, and I don’t see any reason to revise that…I’m trying to recapture much of what the left stood for–when we believed in progress, when we believed that scientific understanding could lead us ahead and not just rely on tradition. … Unfortunately, I find that a fair amount of the left has turned towards a romanticized view of the world. –Bjørn Lomborg

I posted a comment:

That is a great quote from Lomborg.
Ive written about this myself having shifted my position radically from “downwinger” to “upwinger” some years ago- and like yourself, Lomborg and then Ridley were two of my main inspirations and influences (and still are).
I think a number of things have to converge for a radical shift like that. These are some of the factors that played a role for me:
firstly, in terms of data, the peak oil doom I was predicting didnt happen. After a few years of no collapse and things basically carrying on pretty much as normal I just had to reassess my position. Cognitive dissonance would set in otherwise and reality just seemed to trump the ideology all too clearly- even the 2008 crash didnt seem to be anything like the Mad Max scenario we had been expecting.
Secondly, I was moving away from my tribe for other reasons- the crazy conspiracy theories, the superstitions, the hypocrisy of many of their stances (they were more than happy to take the benefits of the modern world when it suited) all became too much and I started openly challenging them more and more.
Thirdly, and most importantly I think, I found another tribe to move to- in books and literature, and online mainly. Over time I came across more people in the real world who were going through similar transitions.
I think that is really important because no-one can really stand alone for long. We need community on some level, like-minded people to gravitate towards and validate our new perspective, otherwise it is too hard.
Our nomadic ancestors would die if they were ostracized from the tribe and I think that is why tribalism has such a grip on people today and why changing minds is so hard. Building welcoming communities that are able to entice people over from the Dark Side is one of the most important things we can do.

*[yes this was also an opportunity to make a small tribute to the late great David Bowie. I thought this was a nice piece about him:
David Bowie’s ‘Lazarus’ Video isn’t just A Goodbye, it’s a Harrowing Warning]

Green Romantics

Following from my last blog post, a comment from Steven Blackthorne:

One sentence stood out among many good ones in this post: “Permies don’t do numbers.” Right. Because quantification is quite outside of their way of thinking. Quantification means thinking like an engineer, making calculations to find practical solutions.

They are most decidedly NOT engineers. They are ideologues and romantic dreamers, misguided ones, at that. This is one thing that I love so much about Stewart Brand. He thinks big, he dreams big, but in the end, he wants pragmatic solutions. He wants numbers that add up. It’s the fundamental difference between the romantic dreamer and the engineer.

Brand was right on the money when he wrote about how romantics love tragedy. They don’t truly want solutions. “The romantics distrust engineers, sometimes correctly, for their hubris, and are uncomfortable with the prospect of fixing things, because the essence of tragedy is that it can’t be fixed. Romantics love problems…”

Brand’s quote comes from his seminal 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline and Steven is right that this explains a lot about the permaculture movement.

Romantics love problems… says a great deal. There is a narcissistic seductive lure of believing that we cannot solve our problems rationally, which absolves them from actually getting up off thier butt and doing something about it. Wishing for Utopia all the time allows one to shirk responsibilities- “the world is going down the tubes, at least I won’t have to pay my bills/go to work/actually solve anything”- and “I’m not going to let anyone else come up with solutions either!”

I was thinking of this as I read through a series of tweets from Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute in response to Dark Mountain’s critique of The Eco-modernist Manifesto.

The critique relies on just two points:
Firstly, that eco-modernists believe in a teleological process of continual human improvement. This is a straw-man: there is no “destiny” that humanity is following, and things could go wrong. We could indeed wipe ourselves out or leave the biosphere so badly degraded that advanced civilisation may no longer be sustainable. If this were to happen however, it would not necessarily be the fault of the eco-modernist agenda:

Secondly, that modernism and technology have not yet brought a perfect world so they should be reversed/stopped and banned, which is nonsensical:

I prefer the term “eco-pragmatist” to “eco-modernist”- it is more descriptive. Unlike the Dark Greens, a pragmatic approach understands that there is no perfect world to be had, there will always be problems, but advocates quite simply a pragmatic way forward, accepting the trade-offs necessary in the real world.

The Green Romantics have no alternative other than the politics of opposition and the seductive power of negativity and a sort of “woe-is-us” misanthropy. “Technology has gone wrong in the past, so it is All Bad”; “Golden Rice does not create a perfect world and fails to address underlying political issues, so should be banned”; or often just “we don’t like your proposals, so they should be banned.”

Meanwhile, the proposals preferred by the eco-romantics will actually have the opposite effect and make things worse- they are the antipathy of pragmatism:

It is not rocket science😉 -if we can grow food more intensively, producing more from the same amount of land, then we need to use less land for farming which could release more of it for wild nature- hence sparing nature;
if we can get more energy dense fuels such a nuclear power then we need less physical space for mining coal or installing windmills.

This will never satisfy the Green Romantics who want not just an unattainable Perfect Solution, but also their solution, often driven as much by aesthetic idealism than by anything that could actually work- but in doing so they drive a reactionary agenda which actually obstructs real progress from being made- to the detriment of both planet and people.