The permaculture chapter: principle 2 – catch and store energy

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

  1. Catch and store energy

Mollison (1988: 13) states that energies “enter a system, and either remain or escape. Our work as permaculture designers is to prevent energy leaving before the basic needs of the whole system are satisfied, so that growth, reproduction, and maintenance continue in our living components.” Already touched upon when discussing the first principle were the examples of processing human wastes (also known as humanure[1]) and grey water into the home garden; of using a solar cooker to cook food and boil water, and a coil of pipe on the roof to heat water for showers and clothing- and dish-washing; of mulching soils with local organic matter to prevent water loss from the ground. There are other relevant examples in the discussion of principle one, but a general outline of what it means to catch and store energy is already clear. Using the example of catching and storing water, Mollison (1988: 13) explains how the catchment and storage of energy is an important aspect of permaculture design:

The question for the designer becomes, ‘How can I best use energy before it passes from my site, or system? Our strategy is to set up an intersection net from ‘source to sink’. This net is a compound web of life and technologies, and is designed to catch and store as much energy as possible on its way to increasing entropy. Therefore, we design to catch and store as much water as possible from the hills before it ends up at its ‘sink’ in the quiet valley lake. If we made no attempt to store or use it as it passes through our system, we would suffer drought[2], have to import it from outside our system, or use energy to pump it back uphill.

According to this Orphic way of thinking, the flush-toilet system common in ACID, as well as the orthodox method of connecting basins to sewerage systems that lead to the oceans, are hopelessly inefficient as they do not allow for energy to be caught or stored. Homes in the typical Promethean context are not built facing the sun for passive warmth in winters nor are they designed to be passively cooled in summers. Furthermore, a common Promethean tendency is for gardens to consist of neatly manicured lawns and ornamental flower beds, and for all organic material to be discarded away from the home and garden. Finally, many homes are built to have no garden at all, with instead considerable outdoor areas that are paved or cemented for ‘ease’ of upkeep, resulting in water simply running into sewers when it rains because there is no soil to absorb the water. Mollison (1988:12) comments on several of the points just raised: “Perverse planning is everywhere obvious: houses face not the sun, but rather the road, lawns replace gardens, and trees are planted to be pruned and tended. Make-work is the rule…”.

The principle of catching and storing energy is further elaborated on by Mollison (1988: 7):

Recycling of nutrients and energy in nature is a function of many species. In our gardens, it is our own responsibility to return wastes (via compost or mulch) to the soil and plants. We actively create soil in our gardens, whereas in nature many other species carry out that function. Around our homes we can catch water for garden use, but we rely on natural forested landscapes to provide the condenser leaves and clouds to keep rivers running with clean water, to maintain the global atmosphere, and to lock up our gaseous pollutants. Thus, even anthropocentric people would be well-advised to pay close attention to, and to assist in, the conservation of existing forests and the rehabilitation of degraded lands. Our own survival demands that we preserve all existing species, and allow them a place to live.

The returning of wastes to the soils has already been commented on in this section; to a lesser degree, so has the catchment of water into storage tanks, a solution that is so obviously important in the context of global fresh-water shortages that nothing will be added here. The importance of forests was elaborated on early in this section, but Mollison has drawn further attention to forests and the need for more of them in the broader ecological context of climate change. Planting forested areas is therefore an Orphic method of dealing with issues of climate change and deforestation, as implied by Mollison above. The Permaculture Association[3] adds the following information, relevant considering both the specific focus on trees (and by association, plants), and on the general principle of catching and storing energy:

The vast majority of energy is supplied by the sun which is then captured by plants who have learnt the clever trick of how to turn photons into complex carbohydrates. This basic trick drives the whole planet’s ecosystem. We need to rebuild ‘natural capital’ in order to create the basis for a long-term sustainable society.

This is a reminder that plants are food for human beings, and for all animals, and that food provides energy for people and other animals. When one has designed and grown a food garden and/or a forest garden, one has literally caught the energy of the sun and stored it in the form of plants. This Orphic energy system cannot be compared to the fossil-fuel energy systems that power ACID; the former increase biodiversity, preserve resources, clarify the air, etc., while the latter has been shown to do exactly the opposite (see Chapters 1 and 2).

The Permaculture Association refers explicitly to the approach that permaculture designers can take in order to begin catching and storing energy: ‘we’ help

 to arrange our landscapes to maximise this energy capture. This is mainly by planting and nurturing new areas of ‘biomass’ – living things – mainly plants, usually as trees, woodlands, forest gardens, meadows, ponds, etc. Wherever possible we are also seeking to ensure that plant systems contribute to the development of deep healthy soils. Deep soils allow good crops, retain more rainfall, and also have the hugely important role of being the world’s largest and most important living stores of carbon.

The researcher has made several references in this chapter already to the catchment and storage of energy in his own permaculture practice. Another good example in this regard is the piling up of organic matter around the homestead, specifically tree branches, tree stumps, leaves, trimmed-back garden matter, and cut grass. This process began in the researcher’s own permaculture endeavours when there was a need to keep neighbouring dogs out of the homestead; rather than spending limited time and money on making a fence, the researcher and some of his peers managed to intercept tree-fellers en route to dumping their cut-down trees at municipal/council refuse sites, and convinced the tree-fellers to discard of the organic matter in selected areas around what became the homestead area. These walls of organic matter gradually decompose and diminish in height, so twice annually one can add another layer of material as it gets removed from the gardens or as it is brought into the system from tree-fellers who have become friends. These walls of organic matter also act as long-term fertility ‘sponges’, seeping nutrients out around them for neighbouring trees and plants that additionally get shaded and sheltered by the ‘walls’; and these ‘sponges’ maintain moisture in the system. They also act as sanctuaries for small wildlife, mostly insects, attracting other animals like birds to the area due to the increase in insect ‘food supply’ for the birds, thereby massively boosting biodiversity.

These ‘wall-sponges’ constituted by organic matter are assets in the researcher’s homestead, and it is interesting that they can be used to illustrate a clash between the Orphic and Promethean viewpoints, as well as to illustrate something of a negotiation between them. When the organic matter initially began to be collected and piled up, concerns were raised by peers that it ‘looked messy’ – prior to the researcher’s arrival, the homestead area was part of a very large lawn that was cut frequently. Lawns are an obvious Promethean symbol – they require the frequent use of machines that run on fossil-fuels to create a mono-crop in a given area, i.e. grass, something that is not good for biodiversity, or moisture retention, wind protection, soil health, etc. Most notably, this kind of Promethean approach produces no food, and no useful outputs. In other words, the Promethean concern was purely one focused only on aesthetics and the obvious ecological benefit of the organic walls was disregarded or was unable to be considered.

The interesting negotiation between the Orphic and the Promethean arose when those with the latter viewpoint began to realise that the shelter and moisture retention improvements that accompanied the ‘walls’ resulted in trees growing much more effectively – trees had been planted sporadically around the lawn area in an attempt to improve aesthetics, but they had inevitably died due to the high winds, high temperatures, and bad soils (i.e. soils lacking in fertility). What was good from an Orphic perspective gradually became good for those with a dominant Promethean worldview. And it needs to be pointed out that the fossil-fuel powered machines used to mow lawns do have a place in a permaculture system – the researcher, for example, uses a weed-eater (also known as a strimmer or brushcutter) to maintain garden paths. The difference is that a lawn serves only one Promethean purpose – it ‘looks nice and neat’ – while the paths in a garden are necessary in order for permaculturalists to serve numerous other purposes, like growing food, making compost, planting trees, maintaining the permaculture system, and spreading fertility around the system in general. By all means, there is space for small lawn areas in permaculture systems – for example, for children to play or for open areas where people can stand or recline and socialise; but certainly such lawn areas must remain small in relation to other aspects of the permaculture system, from where it is necessary to ‘obtain a yield’, which is the focus of the following principle.

Eisenstein’s ‘sacred economy’ and the Zeitgeist movement, discussed in Chapter 5 for their relevant Orphic qualities, both exhibited characteristics that resonate with the principle of catching and storing energy. In a sacred economy, the elements that partly constitute ‘the commons’ must include (for examples) clean water and sustainable energy – both of which can only be components of a sustainable system if they are continuously ‘caught and stored’. The Zeitgeist movement focuses heavily on the sustainable creation of food and energy, which again must involve the recycling (‘catching’) of nutrients from organic human wastes and catching and storing other systemic energies (again, water and energy) from the local environment.

[1] …which must be put through the appropriate composting processes

[2] As a side note here, devastating droughts are hitting South Africa at the time of writing this section, i.e. January 2016. Mollison’s statements may explain partly what has been lacking in terms of human system design.

[3] accessed 31 January 2016

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