Tuesday, October 06, 2009

My Permie Homestead Unified Beliefs, Part 2: The Crises we May Face

This is Part 2 in a series I call "My Permie Homestead Unified Beliefs."  If you are new to my site, check out the introduction and Part 1 in the series as well.

It seems to me like we are constantly bombarded with news of one potential crisis or another.  The economic crisis and the climate crisis are two big ones.  It doesn't seem to be framed as a crisis as often, but the treatment the health-care system receives in the news, it could certainly be considered a crisis.  Peak-oil and the energy crisis are talked about but not as popular.  And a couple that we don't hear about as much but are just as important, if not more so, are the water crisis and a possible food shortage crisis.

These seem to be very different crises that wouldn't have much to do with each other.  But in truth, I think they all boil down to over-population, and subsequently, over-consumption.  Let's take the climate crisis as a starting point.  The fact that the United States over-consumes can hardly be argued with.  This country accounts for a little under 4.5% of the world's population, but uses almost 25% of consumed resources annually.  Over population in the United States is a harder argument to make, but world over-population is not a hard case to make.  There is a concept in biology called overshoot, which is when a population grows larger than there are resources able to sustain it.  Any population in any area is governed by the amount of biomass available to it per year.  The annual stipulation is due to the seasonal aspect of the (near) bottom of the food chain, plants.  This available amount of biomass per area per year is known as carrying capacity, and any environment has it, from a small island all the way up to the entire planet.  Humans, however, have figured out a way to "borrow" the stored up biomass from millions of years, in the form of oil, natural gas, and other non-renewable natural resources.  This borrowing of biomass gives the planet an artificially higher carrying capacity.  This ability, coupled with increases in medical technology (also related to our use of petroleum based products) has caused the world population to skyrocket in the 20th and 21st centuries, from 1.65 billion in 1900, to nearly 7 billion in 2009.  Estimates put world population in the year 2050 anywhere between 9 and 10 billion. (source)  With world population never coming anywhere near 1 billion until 1850, over the course of over 2 million years of human evolution, there can be no question that we are taxing the earth and its resources more heavily than it has ever been taxed in its history.  This means we are in overshoot.  When we eventually run out of stored up biomass to borrow from, we must find a way to reduce our consumption, increase our production of biomass, or reduce our population, which reduces our need for biomass.

Now that I've given a layman's explanation of the biological term overshoot, and how it basically defines overpopulation, I hope it makes it easier to see why all of the crises I mentioned above are just branches on the crisis tree of overpopulation.  Quite simply, more people means more consumption, more people who need more stuff, like more food, more water, and more health-care.  It also means more waste, like more effluent, more garbage, more petroleum used, more land being developed, more non-potable water, etc.  And unless we either reduce our population, or find a way for technology to drastically 1) increase the carrying capacity of the planet using a smaller amount of resources, or 2) increase the number of resources available to us without impacting the environment any more than we already have; then as long as the population of the earth keeps growing, these problems will get worse.

I don't pretend to have an answer as to how to solve the problem with technology, or an easy plan for reducing world population without the tragic death of billions of people.  But, I do think that permaculture is a terrific way of starting to find an answer.  The third ethic of permaculture, Fair Share, is very related to population.  To me, fair share doesn't just mean only using what you need and sharing the surplus with other people, but it also means sharing your surplus with animals, plants, and the earth itself by not cultivating or developing more land than is needed.  I myself would love to find 40 acres of land to use for my homestead.  But I certainly don't plan to cultivate all 40 acres.  I would like to keep most of it wild if possible.  Let's assume that I cultivate 10 acres and leave the other 30 wild.  Once I am established, I would like to invite as many permanent residents or interns as my 10 cultivated acres could support, no more, no less.  And instead of expanding my cultivation later on, I will preserve the acres I leave wild as space for animals and native plants to thrive, and instead encourage and teach other people to start to pursue their own permaculture lifestyles, whether they be rural, urban, or something else.

If more people designed with the end in mind, and planned to set aside space for the planet to heal itself and recover from the overshoot we are in now, I believe that kind of paradigm shift would also trend towards solving our over-populations problem, and all of the other problems it creates.  Someone who is planning to live sustainably with their environment will not try to raise more children than they can support, and will raise their children to be ecologically conscious as well.  I believe that permaculture can lead people down a path towards having that paradigm shift.

Please come back and read my next post in this series, when I will discuss money, the economy, and my thoughts on localization.

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