To Live With Nature

Painting by Eyvind Earl. Thanks Ben at D.O.P!

In the 70’s my grand dad worked at the front line of environmental activism, travelling, interviewing and self-publishing a magazine. He left a powerful imprint on me and died in 2001 leaving a message – ‘Live With Nature’. It felt like he left me with a key distilled question that overshadows every other question in the 21st Century for its significance and urgency. “How do we live with nature?

We are now living in an epoch of Anthropocene where geologists looking at a strata in the far future will be able to clearly identify and distinguish human induced changes on a geological scale, using markers such as radioactive fallout, micro plastics, atmospheric changes to the 6th mass extinction. But that strata maybe a very thin one indeed.

In the UK, we have degraded our topsoil through intensive agriculture to the point where we have only 40 years of harvests left. Globally a meager 60 years. What happens when we are unable to grow food? Precisely when some equatorial countries become too hot for any form of life and aquifers already extracted bone dry, culminating in water wars estimated to send 200 million refugees North?

Many speculate a technological marvel just around the corner that will magically cure the global ailments. Perhaps an AI super intelligence running on next gen quantum computers might give us a clear path for us to follow. But I suspect, with its inherently non-human centered perspective, that it will see humanity as advanced malignant cancer cells on Gaia – with an uncontrollable satiation for growth leading to the eventual demise of its host and of itself.

How then, could we continue to survive on this beautiful tiny spec of dust floating in an infinite ocean of dark space? What can we DO, NOW that will ensure our survival as species beyond 2100, and perhaps tens of thousands of years beyond? Are we bound by our evolutionary biases and destined to die off after we hit the on switch of AI super intelligence? Was the purpose of our 3.5 billion years of biological evolution merely to act as sex organs for inorganic life? It’s a tangent that is still quite speculative but if you want to know more, check out Nick Bostrom – an Oxford professor who specialises in existential risks.

Me and a good friend of mine agree that one of the biggest cause of our current problems is that we’ve removed ourselves from nature and regarded our finite resources as infinitely extractable. It maybe linked to our monumental shift from the oldest and widely spread paganism and animism that regarded all things as spiritual, thus treated with reverence and respect, to a monotheistic perspective that disconnected and transcended ourselves above the very things that we rely on and co-exist with. And perhaps the resulting scientific and industrial revolution fed and super charged capitalism which prioritised profits over all other concern…

Three things are very clear to me though.

  1. We are self-aware and intelligent enough to understand our environment, our actions and foresee future consequences of our actions.
  2. As biological creatures, we directly and indirectly rely completely on nature to survive.
  3. Life has been around for 3.5 billion years. Nature knows how to do shit sustainably.

When you observe our healthy eco-systems, it is almost always cyclical and self-balancing. In its simplest form, a tree grows capturing the energy of the sun, dies, becomes food for fungi and the nutrients are recycled for the benefit of new saplings and other micro-organisms. Nothing is wasted or extracted beyond the capacity of its environment and capable of sustaining itself indefinitely.

If we are able to tap into HOW they do it, and apply it to our lives, we might have a fighting chance. This is the basic principle of permaculture and the reason why I’ve been passionately learning about it for a while now.

I’m almost certain (bar some minor chances of a miracle tech) that a model of true sustainability – that which will last 10,000 years and more – must be a cyclical closed loop system and operate within the means of mother nature. Part of that must surely begin by viewing ourselves as an integral part of nature, totally reliant and at mercy of its fragile yet mighty eco-systems, but equally as beings capable of guardianship and stewardship of its regeneration and growth.

What Would It Take?

It will require a gigantic shift in public consciousness that will likely take many forms over multiple decades but here are some examples that I’ve been pondering for a while. A fun exercise of imagining what it would take to reach that state of equilibrium.

  1. Every conceivable product on the market must be biodegradable (close the loop), regeneratively farmed and heavily carbon taxed by its footprint. (Housing, clothing, food, furniture etc. etc.)
    • Fungal mycelia can now be used to replace some plastics.
    • It will reflect and normalise the true cost of items. An apple shipped from China should not be cheaper than your local farmer’s apple.
    • The production processes, as well as the disposal and decomposition of the products, will increase the topsoil and biodiversity.
  2. Every product on the market that cannot be made by biodegradable materials must be taxed to account for the total embodied environmental impact. (Metals, concrete, glass, plastics etc)
    • Fossil fuels should be reserved and prioritised for emergency response, for medical and scientific advancement and for yet discovered uses in the future.
    • Higher cost of metals would incentivise a more careful use by the industry and promote a higher recycling ratio.
    • Land fill should only be the very last resort and nations measured on how small their annual land fill amount is, like an inverse GDP or Gross Domestic Waste.
  3. These increased taxes, along with the robot and corporation taxes should be given back to the people as Universal Basic Income so that their basic needs can be met with sustainable, locally produced items which should now be the cheapest on the market.
    • The market competition will be local, have a guaranteed ethical and environmental standards and will be affordable by all.
    • The more well off will have the freedom to spend their money on heavily taxed imported goods which will further fund the UBI.
    • Part of the tax revenue should be invested in nationwide safe cycling infrastructures and other projects that facilitates lower carbon foot print.
  4. Education and teacher education must include extended permaculture curriculum that will enable the next generation to connect to our environment and develop skills that are essential in thriving within the boundaries of nature.
    • Curriculum includes, but are not limited to, creating, sustaining and multiplying;
      • decentralised off grid systems and hyper efficient biodegradable homes for resilience. (Energy/home)
      • productive orchards, forest gardens and organic veg beds with substantial focus on cooking and processing skills. (Food)
      • strong communities capable of bridging differences and overcome adversities. (Community)
      • healthy diverse eco-systems – with older kids introduced to myco-remediation and other methods of regenerative skills. (Environment)
    • Can you think of more important skills to teach as we enter this complex and perilous conjuncture in the history of humanity? Comment below and let me know.

Could We Get There In Time?

I have serious doubts if we have the collective momentum to pull something like this off on a national scale. How desperately on the brink of collapse do we need to get before such legislations are put into law? Will we have the necessary resources left to make the transition? Will the aristocrats and tycoons be willing to redistribute land ownership to support affordable land based living by the masses? Will the geopolitics be stable enough to educate the next generation in time? We really don’t know.

But I think it is possible to start implementing some of these principles on a household to a regional level. And I’m convinced that ‘think global, act local’ is the best way to maintain optimism and hope when everything feels overwhelmingly, desperately hopeless. Because the awareness of the overarching narrative gives us a clear sense of direction and purpose, but focusing our actions on things that we have the power to change empowers us.

Act Now

So what can we actually do that are within our power to change? There are some immediate simple steps that pop into my mind and are often very effective ways to reduce expenditure too. Buy only what you need from charity shops. Learn to fix things. Compost everything. Plant things. Eat less meat. Aim for zero waste. Ride a bike. Talk to your neighbours. Share your tools. Take the kids to the woods, lakes, oceans. Observe nature. Do a permaculture design course. Invest in cooking time. Use seasonal local produce, preferably grown by you!

I was recently introduced to a fascinating model of co-operatively owned organic farm where 120 local stake holders are organised into multiple teams, each group maintains a plot and grows a variety of veg together with at least one expert grower in the group. Community members are expected to put in 10 hours a month and in return the vegetables are sold back to them once a week at a third of the retail price. Wouldn’t it be amazing if every community had this set up?

Could we extrapolate and imagine a co-operatively built housing scheme where affordable, ecologically sound, hyper efficient houses are offered at third of the retail price in exchange for helping to build a few more? I don’t see why not… particularly with low tech straw bale houses that allows volunteers and participants with no previous experience to participate fully.

There are people who are rediscovering, experimenting and advancing our knowledge of how to live within the means of nature, in ways that are permanently sustainable and full of abundance. I hope to be on the road again next year to learn from these experts and will continue to share my learning with you. Subscribe or pop back for updates.

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