Limits to Growth and Permaculture
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There are any number of books and articles about planetary limits to growth and a lot of them are pretty good. This article isn’t about those limits but one’s that are limiting the growth of an socio-ecological/economic transition.
For those who don’t know it here is a quick introduction to how some Permaculture designers tend to approach a project.
In order to be able to develop or improve a project it is essential to understand how it works. Analysing all aspects is crucial, when I say all aspects we are looking at a pretty long list ranging from examining the soils, water resources/uses, energy production/use, geopolitical constraints, the buildings, the businesses, the people (skill sets, experiences, visions etc) and the flows between all the different systems. A part of this analysis is to see what works well and can be preserved, what works less well and needs redesigning and what is polluting, ecologically damaging or has negative health consequences and needs to be eliminated from the system.
Something that is occasionally misunderstood is to what extent a designer will examine EVERY aspect of a system and certainly not just the food growing part.
When we have done a whole load of these analyses we then start, using plans or models, to reorganise the system and to introduce new elements that will be needed. The objective is to rebuild a project (farm, business, village, town etc) in such a way that it is resilient, ecological, equitable, ethical and is connected to the local area and the inhabitants.
This is, simply put, the how, why and when of putting into place the changes put forward in the design phase.
So, back to the limits. I don’t know about elsewhere but here in France there is a pretty massive “back to the land” movement going on. It is, in many ways, very different to the other times when people have dropped everything to head for the country. Most of the people I work with have taken the time to go to an agricultural college, have then acquired some land (rented, inherited, bought) and have the dream of becoming market gardeners. A lot of these people have also studied Permaculture and understand the need to design before leaping headlong into their activity.
So we have a boom in people wanting to locally grow and market vegetables, fruit, mushrooms, honey, beer, you name it. They are producing high quality products that are sold locally. This boom has brought us face to face with a limit to growth, Supermarkets.
We have two circuits going on, the first is mainstream intensive synthetic chemical/diesel dependant production and the second is small scale organic production for local markets. The former produce nothing for their local community but sell into the food industry/supermarket circuit. They are struggling with this, farmers being paid very low prices for produce is the norm but thanks to government support/CAP etc they manage to keep going. The second group have few subsidies and produce predominantly for the local markets.
The first circuit (selling to supermarkets) is stalling the growth of the second circuit (selling locally). The supermarkets dominate the retail food supply, most people go to these mega-stores for most of their food needs. Some of these people will top up their shopping at the local market. A few people avoid the supermarkets and only buy local produce, for the moment this is a minority but growing part of the population. This situation is handicapping people who want to set up and produce and sell locally, some areas of France are reaching saturation, a lot of local producers and not enough local consumers.
It is now more than necessary to shut these supermarkets and their supply chains down, here are some reasons why.
Their presence is hindering the transition that we MUST have so that consumers have access to good quality locally produced food.
The majority of products sold in supermarkets are toxic foods, I have written before about the under reported tragedy of ultra processed foods (UPF). They are damaging and killing us, day by day. They MUST be abolished or at the very very least carry warning labels in the same way as cigarettes do. I was going to put a list of links to scientific studies that have shown how UPF’s are toxic but there are now so many I’m afraid I gave up, a quick duckduck search and you will find loads.
Supermarkets suck local economies dry. At the end of the article there are 2 studies that reveal the positive impacts of local production and local retail.
Of course there is the long known criticism of supermarkets killing off town centres and obliging people to use cars to go shopping (I will be writing about car wars in a forthcoming article). This has meant huge areas being tarmac’d and turned into huge car parks, eyesores and ecologically catastrophic. As far as I could see last Saturday, on my way past a massive supermarket, shopping there also seemed to involve being in a traffic jam to get into the car park, queuing for a free space, queuing to pay in the supermarket and then another traffic jam to get back out of the car park. Maybe there are people who see this as a quality way of passing time but the shouting out of car windows and car horns honking seemed to belie this notion.
The strong link between supermarkets and the food industry has meant that said industry is now dominated by a small number of companies. 40% of the global commercial seed market, as an example, is controlled by just 2 companies. They answer only to their shareholders and not to consumers.
We need to start changing this status quo and as Permaculture design is also about strategy here are some ways we can do this:
Drain them dry
Start a local anti-supermarket movement. Getting people involved will mean exposing different people to the different arguments which range from economic (we get poorer because they suck our local economy dry) to we are dying slow deaths (because of the UPFs and the pesticide traces on supermarket products.)
There are a lot of people very involved in protesting and fighting with governments to get action on climate change/pollution etc. Chat them up and get them to ‘come home’ and help sort their local community. An argument here is that government/industry inertia is built in and only superficial change is happening when we urgently need a deep systemic change. An activist can be much more efficient working at a local level than banging the pavements in front of a government house. Climate change? Well lets shut the supermarkets down cutting the long supply chains and pushing farmers towards local organic production. Which of course helps reduce pollution, from agro-business, from transportation and from peoples cars.
How local activists use direct action strategies is up to them, but the supermarkets need to be shut down.
Turbo-boost local production for local needs.
We’ve been talking about the need for this for decades, in some places it is happening, in other places it’s still insufficient. Here are some strategies
get a few people together, enough to support a food producer. Stand outside the local agricultural college on graduation day and persuade someone to come and produce for your buying group.
get a few people together and find some who have got some spare cash (yes they do exist). Find some nearby farmland and then proceed as above.
form a group and see who would like to change their career, airline pilot to food grower for example. Proceed as above.
when your group is running well use it as a model to encourage other groups to set up.
boost up the local market and make it the most happening place to be, if you miss it you miss a lot!
do an analysis of your local market and note what things are not being sold there and which people want. Fill the gaps, each one is another potential local economic niche that can be filled by someone. This reduces even more the push towards supermarket shopping and boosts the local economy and it’s economic multiplier effect.
Some things may be difficult to produce locally, where I am this would be what are for some people utterly essential things like coffee and chocolate. We’re alright here because there are 3 sailing ships that ply back and forth and supply these ‘essential products’ to the local market. Another frankly quite exciting niche for some people, sailing across the Atlantic, with the wind, ethically trading goods. Great for us too because we can be sure that the chocolate and coffee are ethically produced and that the the producers get paid a good rate. The goods are a bit more expensive but of much better quality. The chocolate for example is actually chocolate and not brown, vaguely cocoa tasting vegetable fat as sold in some countries. Higher prices, or what is better called paying the real cost, are compensated for by the local economic boom which I discuss in this article.
make sure that all of the above are FUN. ‘Saving the planet’ is best done with a smile.
I was so bust writing this article that I almost forgot that today is market day. So I’m off to do some shopping and to have a drink and chat with friends. A new local brewery has started up and I’m looking forward to trying their ale.
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Local economy studies