When Chris was out for our event with Robb Wolf in northern California last month, we paid a visit to Singing Frogs Farm along with a group of Peak Prosperity members. Adding to the outing's embarrassment of riches, permaculture expert Toby Hemenway joined in.
We saw much that day that inspired us about the regenerative and productive impact humans can have on their farmland when using wise soil management techniques and leveraging natural systems.
Now, of course, not everyone has an 8-acre farm in the country to apply these practices to. Does that mean that permaculture is only relevant to rural farmers?
Not all all, says Hemenway. He has just released a new book, The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience which explains how individuals, as well as society as a whole, can apply the same principles underlying permaculture to improve most if not all of the systems our way of life depends on:
There have been advances on several fronts, and one is that we are starting to get good data now. There were a lot of claims made in permaculture that were based on more theory in the early days, 20, 25 years ago. We thought this should work it is a great idea and people would sometimes talk as if it had worked when we really didn’t have good data. Now we know a lot more about what does work. We have toned down some of the rhetoric and are trying to be more fact based.
But another one of the huge developments is the big understanding that what we have learned in the garden: When you design ecologically sound systems for food you learn the same principals and the same guidelines for designing pretty much anything else using 'all systems' thinking. We have learned that we can design energy systems, water systems and even social systems and communities and even perhaps economic systems using permaculture design based on how whole systems work. It is based on natural systems design. So that has been one of the biggest changes and bits of growth in permaculture: moving out of the garden and into the rest of the human world where lie all of the things that we need to be working on.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Toby Hemenway (41m:28s)
Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. You know what? It’s easy to become overwhelmed, frustrated disappointed with the direction the world is heading, but where are the glimmers of hope? What is there to cheer for in this story? In our work at Peak Prosperity we are always on the lookout for solutions and rays of hope where they exist. One place we increasingly find a lot of hope are when we see the incredible things people are doing to farm regeneratively and profitably, as is the case for Farmland LP on the large size and Singing Frogs Farm on the small side of things. But what about people who live in urban or suburban areas? Is there anything an urban person can do besides grow a few herbs in a pot on an upper balcony?
Well, it turns out there is and that a lot of our future hope for living more equitably and regeneratively is going to require that we put our cityscapes towards new and improved uses. How do I know there is a lot we can do? Because I just read Toby Hemenway’s new book The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban and Town Resilience. Here to talk about his new book and to share his learnings and ideas with us is Toby Hemingway the author also of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture, which happens to be the best selling book on permaculture in the world. Toby welcome to the show.
Toby Hemenway: Hey, Chris. It’s great to be here.
Chris Martenson: Oh, it’s so good to talk to you again. I just saw you a few weeks ago out there in Sebastopol, California and we did take a tour of Singing Frogs Farm. That was a pretty amazing demonstration to me of what is possible biologically, ecologically, permaculturally and economically.
Toby Hemenway: It sure was. I was so inspired by what Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser are doing out there. You listed all the different kinds of boxes that it checks. That is really what that work does; it sequesters carbonate, it pays enough money to pay their workers well, it cleans up the water and it generates incredibly healthy food. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Chris Martenson: Now this brings us you know—I really just want to dive right into your book because everybody would love to do that but not everybody can live on an eight acre spread in Sebastopol, so let’s start there – why did you write this book?
Toby Hemenway: Right. Well, I had been living in Seattle for a number of years working in biotech and got kind of discouraged with the direction biotech was going. My wife was discouraged with her work as well and we decided to do the back to the land thing. We moved down to Southern Oregon and bought 10 acres and really did the back to the land thing. One of the things I really noticed was suddenly I was driving everywhere. I was burning probably 5 times, 10 times more gas in the country than I was in the city. We were just using far more resources. Our driveway was a quarter mile long and required graveling pretty much every year because of the rains. When a neighbor got cable TV it was a quarter mile of wire just to hook up that one house. Our well was on the end of a half mile of pipe.
After 10 years there we did have a wonderful time, but we decided to go back to the city and suddenly I noticed my resource use shrank again drastically. My electric bill went down, the car—I hardly needed to drive. I started thinking maybe city living is actually something that can be relatively sustainable. We could actually have fairly small ecological footprints in the city as compared to at least the way country life is these days in the United States. Country life can have a small footprint, but not as its presently constituted in the US. So it really got me interested in the possibilities for living more sustainably in urban areas and that was really the genesis of the book was discovering all these cool projects and just the possibilities of the richness and abundance in urban and suburban and also small-town life.
Chris Martenson: Great. Before we get into the specifics of those things I’m interested: How has permaculture developed over the past decade? I know we are seeing lots and lots of improvements in technology, but I assume systems thinking has gone through iterations. People have tried things, failed at them, discovered what works, what doesn’t work. What has really been advancing that you have been seeing?
Toby Hemenway: There have been advances on several fronts and one is that we are starting to get good data now. There were a lot of claims made in permaculture that were based on more theory in the early days, 20-25 years ago. We "thought this should work; it is a great idea," and people would sometimes talk as if it had worked when we really didn’t have good data. Now we know a lot more about what does work. We have kind of toned down some of the rhetoric where we are really trying to be more fact based.
Another one of the huge developments is the big understanding that what we have learned in the garden, what we have learned in growing food—when you design ecologically sound systems for food, you learn the same principals and the same guidelines for designing pretty much anything else using whole systems thinking. We have learned that we can design energy systems, water systems and even social systems and communities and even perhaps economic systems using permaculture design because it is based on how whole systems work. It is based on natural systems design. So that has been one of the biggest changes and bits of growth in permaculture is kind of moving out of the garden and into the rest of the human world and all of the things that we need to be working on.
Chris Martenson: Well, sure. Most of the human world lives in cities or something close to a city at this point in time. Let’s just start right at the outside of that. Why do we need permaculture in cities and, second, is that even possible?
Toby Hemenway: Right. Well, yea, over 50% of the world’s population right now lives in cities. If you include the suburbs just the whole metropolitan area it is close to 70%. So obviously if we are going to try to become a more sustainable society, that population and the behaviors that are going on there are the ones that really need to change and really need to be improved. It is a leverage point. It is really the place that you need to be working.
So there are of course specific challenges to working in urban areas. I do think that there is so much that can be done, particularly now that we know that permaculture and ecological design in general is not just about going out and buying a piece of land somewhere and growing a lot of your own food. It has got a lot to do with the kind of food system that you support, whether you are growing it yourself or not, but what kind of food system do you want to be spending your money on? What kind of food system do you want to encourage? What kind of political process? What kind of social processes? So those are the things that are most exciting about urban permaculture these days is really getting people behind it in large numbers. So cities are the leverage point for that.
Chris Martenson: Great. Give us an example; where is this happening and what does it actually look like?
Toby Hemenway: Right. Well as I was doing research for the book it was kind of funny because whenever I would google something or talk to someone about what are some really good examples of, say, raising small scale livestock in urban areas or even things like who is doing innovative work in developing good social justice systems? And there was a series of cities that just kept coming up all the time – it was Portland, Oregon; Oakland, California; Detroit; Pittsburgh and Jamaica Plain in the Boston area were the ones that came up the most often. Of course, there were a number of others, but it just seemed like so many of the examples were in places like that. I kind of came up with a theory that there are places like Oakland that are very, very dense and have really their share of big city urban problems—all the things that you would associate with very highly populated, ethnically diverse, a lot of poverty, these sorts of things. So there are cities—and then Detroit and Pittsburgh are places that have kind of almost collapsed in the last few decades. So there are cities that need solutions like that that are desperate. They have got to work out problems so they are open to innovations and new ideas that perhaps a lot of other cities wouldn’t be open to. And then places like Portland are places that have always been kind of experimental and open to new ideas and they are full of young people who are bringing a lot of vigor and interest and curiosity. Those were the types of places where lots is going on, although I don’t mean to exclude other cities. There is lots of cool stuff happening almost everywhere – Miami, New York City, you name it. Brooklyn was one of the other ones that kept coming up as well.
Chris Martenson: But it helps to be young or desperate.
Toby Hemenway: Right. Those seem to be the two kind of populations that people really were looking for new ideas and really embracing a permacultural and other whole systems design methods.
Chris Martenson: Let’s talk about then what some of these things might be. What are the sorts of things that people who have an urban home garden might do? Let’s say somebody has got a tine plot of land, what is possible?
Toby Hemenway: Right. Well a lot of it is getting the best use out of that small space. So one of the things that permaculture really specializes in is multifunctional plants. In other words, if you are going to plant a tree, you don’t just plant a shade tree that is only going to give you shade. You think about the fact that it can give you shade, it can provide habitat, you can probably get some kind of food off of it. And also the leaves can become leaf litter to break down into soil and all kinds of—it will be a windbreak for you. So we design really strategically by thinking of all the possible functions that any one plant can have and then try to locate it in a place where you can take advantage of all those functions.
If you are living in a particularly cold, windy climate, then designing for creating a warmer micro climate through your plantings. Or just the opposite; if you are in a place like Phoenix you are going to want to design to cool things off and shape things and create lovely places to be outside. So part of it is just getting the most use out of plants, and permaculture has enormous plant lists of plants that serve so many different functions. So one plant will build soil, attract beneficial insects and provide you with a food crop and maybe even provide you with some sort of textile fiber as well or something like that. So that is one really important piece of making the absolute most of a small space is getting those multi functional plants in.
Chris Martenson: You have a lot of ideas and examples in your book and what I’m wondering though for the person listening, are they going to find in this book a list of things they might try or is it really a set of ideas that then they have to bring to their specific situation?
Toby Hemenway: What I tried to do in this book was—it is a little bit more of an ideas book than Gaia’s Garden was. It is really how to think about these things because what I want to do is give people a set of problem solving tools and then—because so often many of these solutions are specific to a particular place. Someone who is living in Atlanta is going to come up with very different solutions than someone living in Minneapolis. That sort of thing. So although there are very specific examples and a lot of techniques given in the book, those are really there to stimulate people’s thinking and to give examples of solutions people have come up with. Not to try to sell my other book, but what I tried to do was not have very much overlap so that people can go back to Gaia’s Garden for the specific methods, the more detailed "How To," the big long plant lists and all of that sort of thing and they can learn how to think about these things by reading The Permaculture City.
Chris Martenson: Sure. And what I am seeing here in this book is not—permaculture, when I hear the word, sometimes I think oh this is about a really lush, maybe a little bit wild, untamed garden and things like that. But you are talking about whole systems things. You include things like water in here and how to deal with that, right?
Toby Hemenway: Right and water is such a huge issue these days. Of course, certainly in the western US, but also even in the East where they are having enormous rain storms and crazy weather conditions like that. So looking at how cities get their water, looking at how your individual actions can do things like save water, but also how can we reduce the stress on our city’s water infrastructure—the whole water and sewer system—so that we are not spending lots of money on taxes to repair all of these things and have giant budgets going on all the time. Part of the water chapter in the book really is how can we be wiser both in the way we use water and the way we dispose of it so we just don’t have to do these big infrastructure projects quite as much as we have had to in the past.
Chris Martenson: Yea, sure. I think it takes a shift in the narrative a bit too. When I was growing up water was free, you know, it was everywhere. It was practically free, really low cost. Of course now people are starting to adjust their onions of that, not least of which is people will spend more for a bottle of water than an equivalent amount of gasoline in the store. I think our views of water have changed. You are talking about really starting to rethink water, which some places have. Using gray water is an idea I guess. Some places still don't allow that. Go into like—I thought you had some really fascinating ideas in there around gray water in particular.
Toby Hemenway: The largest single use of water for most people is out in that landscape, is irrigation. Even in places that get adequate rainfall you are still going to be irrigating a fair amount. So part of what you need to be thinking about is how do you, again, get the most use out of your water and gray water, which is water from the laundry or the shower is. It is not potable, but it is not sewage either. It only has a little bit of dirt in it, a little bit of soap, so it is not unsanitary at all as long as you get it on the ground within about 48 hours. To me this is free irrigation water. You are already using the water, you are doing a load of laundry, you are taking a shower so why not, instead of just piping that water away—it is barely dirty. It is clean enough to water plants. Plants actually love gray water because it does have a few things in it. The dirt and soap in gray water is easily converted by soil organisms into nutrients for plants so you are not only watering your plants, but you are giving them a little bit of fertility. For me that is absolutely guilt free irrigation water because you are using it already. That way you not only save on your water bill by not having to buy more water, but you are also reducing the stress on the city’s infrastructure by not just dumping it all down the sewer where it has to be dealt with and purified again.
Chris Martenson: So practically, if somebody already has all of their gray and black water mixed together and it is going out into a sewage system, what is involved to separate those?
Toby Hemenway: An easy way to do that is just hook right up to your washing machine. Most people do have a washing machine. It has a pump built right into it. That pump is actually certified to be able to pump 10 feet vertically. That is what they insist on so that the pump doesn’t burn out if you happen to be doing your laundry in a basement or something. What that will do is it will blow the water way out into your yard. You can hook up a pipe. There are very easy instructions. It is called "laundry to landscape gray water" on how to just hook up very, very simple plumbing from the outlet to your washing machine and then you don’t have to worry about gravity. You can’t pump up hill terribly far, but you can pump way out to the back of your yard. You can pump even a couple of hundred feet from where your washing machine is if the stuff you want to water is a distance away. That is a really simple way where you don’t even have to cut into your plumbing or anything like that. The washing machine is kind of the quickest and easiest leverage point to start with. And because there is a pump it will deliver the water right to where you need it.
Chris Martenson: That does sound easy. In fact, I could do that in my house.
Toby Hemenway: You could. Many people do, that is for sure. There have been thousands and thousands of gray water conversions just in my county alone.
Chris Martenson: Really? Well, yea that certainly makes sense given what is going on out west this year. Well, then similarly, but switching, talking about energy. We talk about energy a lot at Peak Prosperity. We are of a view that some day fossil fuels will run out and that will either be because economically we have gone after the dregs to the point of exhaustion or we decide it is a bad idea to keep burning these. One way or the other we are going to be done with those and that is an area that I happen to feel our country is particularly ill suited for. As Jim Kunstler says, we are still largely a happy motoring nation. We are still largely set up—and this mirrors your experience of moving from the country back towards the city and discovering you didn’t need your car as much. We are still heavily, heavily dependent on our vehicles, and also our homes, using an incredible amount of energy. How does your book begin to tackle those ideas?
Toby Hemenway: Again, I try and give people some thinking tools. Just how do we think about energy; how can we kind of change our thinking? You’re right we still don’t think very wisely as a nation from the federal level all the way down to individuals. We are not really thinking very wisely about fossil fuels and energy use. I start out by giving people several different tools for thinking about energy, thinking about what the most efficient use of an energy source is. There are some things that gasoline is absolutely fantastic for. It is a liquid. It is easily transportable. It is incredibly energy dense. To me it is one of the most valuable substances on earth. Just setting it on fire the way we do so much seems like a crazy things to do. But there are a number of tasks that gasoline is beautifully suited to do and then others that electricity is more appropriate for and other types of fuels or energy sources are more appropriate for. What I am trying to do is give people a set of tools so that they can make wiser choices about what kinds of energy they should be using and when they should be using it.
Chris Martenson: Okay. Do you have an example for us?
Toby Hemenway: Yes. There is a really wonderful example that actually was thought up by Amory Lovins; he calls it cutting butter with a chainsaw. You are using a type of fuel that, say, generates an incredibly high temperature process when all you want is a low temperature kind of heat. For example, the furnace in most people’s houses generates a flame inside that is 1200 or 1400 degrees or so and all you are wanting to do is warm your house from say 62 degrees up to 68 degrees. It is a little bit crazy to be running a giant burner at 1500 degrees when all you want is a few degrees of temperature change. This is where something like passive solar heating makes way more sense; just use the already existing warmth from the sun. Or the in-ground geothermal systems that they are starting to develop where you run some pipes into the ground a few feet deep to take advantage of the fact the ground is pretty much always at a steady temperature and you can actually pull the heat out of the ground and transfer it into your house. Just ways of not doing crazy things with energy where you are generating an enormous amount of energy to do a very low energy or low quality task like just warming something up.
Chris Martenson: That brings us to an interesting point. One of the things I'm fond of saying is that we have a lot of technology and ideas about how to do things that are just sitting there. We are not really using them yet. Part of the frustration I have because I'm a big believer in rational thought and all that. If something works better, we should do that, right? It's amazing.
A child of mine went into the ER the other day with a pretty decent cut, and they said, "Here, we are going to scrub that out with Betadyne." I'm like, "Whoa whoa, ten years ago they learned that Betadyne is bad on wounds. It really inhibits wound healing. No." People haven't been doing that for a decade, and it still hasn't penetrated my local hospital. Their best in practice is like woefully behind a two minute Google search.
I run into that a lot. I am wondering, as you are out researching this book, grabbing all this wonderful data, how much are you running into this idea that there is just some really low hanging fruit out there that we can tackle right away, maybe even save money, have a higher quality of life. Just how much low hanging fruit is there? Or are we already at the point we are going to have to get down to some really big, hairy predicament solving?
Toby Hemenway: I think there is a tremendous amount of low hanging fruit because we have had this wonderful opportunity of incredibly cheap fuel. We have been able to be really, really lazy about energy, about water, about all these resources where they have been so abundant and so cheap that we haven’t had to give anything a second thought. And yet there are things like passive solar heating for example. The sun provides warmth very easily and you can just paint something dark and warm it up a lot better. There are so many things like that, particularly water heating systems would be a perfect way to use the warmth of the sun to heat up water instead of propane or in even worse cases using electricity to generate heat. You take this incredibly delicate, beautiful, highly refined source of energy that electricity is, that takes hugely technological processes to generate and then you just convert it into heat, which really is the lowest form of energy just in its terms of ability to work.
Using electricity to generate heat is a crazy thing to do, and yet it is one of our major heat sources. While the sun is out there ready to heat your water up really easily, even in cold climates, we have very simple technology for doing solar hot water collection. There are all kinds of places like that where just in your Betadyne example, we just haven’t changed our thinking. We haven’t paid attention to what the new developments are and we are stuck in an old paradigm when the paradigm is very rapidly shifting in front of us.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, and it really appears that there is some resistance to doing things the right way. Sometimes it is a little odd, a little bizarre. People write in all the time and the go, "My town won’t even let me have chickens. It is not even a rooster versus hen thing, just chickens." Or they are forbidden from putting anything but grass in, whatever. We have a lot of people clinging to sort of this idea of what can and can’t be done on your “private property” and all of that. Those seem to be shifting now particularly with the younger people and the pain points. I guess Detroit is ready to try anything—chickens are good, right?
Toby Hemenway: Right. Right. I think that is a part of – I don’t know if that is human nature or culture. I would like to think that we are smart enough to be able to look into the future and say "You know, this is coming our way. This is inevitable. It may be 5 or 20 years off, but we should start preparing for it now." Things like climate change or energy descent are all these pretty big deals, but it just seems like we are not wired to adjust to those sorts of things.
It unfortunately seems like it does take some sort of a crisis or big wake up call or disaster or something like that to get us to change. Part of my efforts and many other people’s, yours as well, is to try to not only send that wake up call but offer a set of tools to begin doing something about it. And to point out to people that it is actually going to be fun to do this. I think part of the hesitancy is that people are worried about, "well, solar collectors, that’s a lessening of my lifestyle," when it’s really not. To me it is an improvement in your life style. I think part of it is just getting the message across. This is not going to be putting on a sweater and living in a cold room or tightening your belt. It is actually going to be more fun, sexier, more interesting, and we can paint a picture of it as such and get people to adopt these things before the crisis comes. At least that is certainly my hope.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely. Let’s talk about one audience that usually feels most boxed in by this. This is somebody that is usually living in an apartment of some kind. Has no land of their own. Maybe doesn’t even have a balcony that faces south or other useful direction. What is there for them to do in this story?
Toby Hemenway: Right, and that is something that I try to address in the book is for people who don’t have any land at all and they want to be either getting access to much healthier food or even growing some of it themselves, or even that they want to be making a difference socially and ecologically. Some of the tools there are just looking at how do we get access to land if we don’t own land. It actually turns out that when people set up websites to try to connect people who want land to garden with people who have land to garden there is almost always more people offering land to garden than there are people looking for land. So people like the elderly who perhaps love to garden, but perhaps they are just beyond the age where they can do the physical work of gardening are really a prime candidate for places to be able to help out and grow food. And then you build some really nice social relationships as well. So that is one place.
There is actually a really wonderful example from Barcelona that I just heard of where a group of permaculturists have taken over a couple of old factory buildings that didn’t really have any land around them so they went over to a couple of senior centers right across the street and the seniors were really happy to have these young people gardening for them. Then when the police came to evict these squatters these seniors formed a big ring around the building and said "no way, these people are providing our food." The police realized well, we don't exactly want to beat somebody’s old grandmother so we are just going to go away. Those are the kind of social bonds you can build through these kind of community garden programs as well.
Chris Martenson: That is a very interesting story, and I know that this is one of the great divides that surfaced when Adam and I were out in Sebastopol with Robb Wolf and yourself giving a talk. It was clear, they were right in the audience. They were young people who I defined as under 30 putting their hands up going, "look we don’t have capital what do we do?" The older people are going "we do, but we don’t know how to put this all together."
How do these—besides a website that gets them coming together, there is a lot to think about in how you begin to share capital, particularly in a society that has been hyper individualistic, has really formed a culture around "mine" versus "yours," all of that stuff, and that we value financial capital very differently than we do other forms of capital. What does permaculture begin to offer us about ways to maybe begin redesigning ourselves?
Toby Hemenway: We really need structures in place that help us make these kind of decisions. You are right we are very individualist and the whole idea of sharing—it seems like a really nice idea that an older person who owns a place that is probably quite expensive now with real estate being what it is and getting together with a younger person who has got more energy and maybe can do all the heavy work around the place—that sounds like a great idea but wait, how do you structure it? This is again one of the places that I think permaculture has a real advantage.
Permaculture really at its heart is a set of decision making tools that we have spent a long time working out a set of methods that help us arrive at the right solutions. We have all of these methods available to us. All these techniques for, say, making decisions in groups or organizing entities like non profits and businesses. We have got so many ways of doing this and what permaculture does is it helps us work our way through the thicket of all of these possibilities and arrive at—rather than impose—actually arrive at solutions that make sense for the circumstances involved. So that is another thing that I work on quite a bit in the book what kind of decision making process are going to be most appropriate for various solutions? How can we learn to work together better? I think if the problems of the world were primarily technological, we would have them all solved. But the problems of the world are political and social. Those are vastly more intractable and very challenging for us.
Chris Martenson: Indeed they are but, again, I can feel that sense of urgency is building more and more as the larger narrative begins to shred, however people get that news—whether they need to see a falling stock market or they read about the 10th dead whale floating up on California’s shores. It is just clear that the systems that have been sold to us as being progress, as being the right way forward—it is increasingly becoming clear that each technological solution is really just a band aid for the problems created by the last technological solution and so we just keep going down that path. And more and more people become disillusioned by it and we get to the punch line, which is: Oh, by the way, it turns out we don’t actually enjoy our lives all that much, in many cases, when we buy into the dominant narrative. So Permaculture to me feels a little anarchistic. There is a little social deviation from it which means we are going to do things differently and think about things differently than we have for the past 100 years in this culture in the United States. I put most of western culture in this. Probably China too. So we have to think about things fundamentally differently.
How do you deal with that idea that, really, this isn’t so much necessarily—for a lot of people—a case of learning superior system design techniques as much as it is dismantling old belief systems that are no longer enabling us?
Toby Hemenway: Right. And that is really the truth that it is the idea of dismantling these older ideas. One of the things that I think that we have a lot to benefit from is the fact there is a lot of social experimentation that was done in the 1960s and 1970s. In those days, a lot of the young people working just kind of threw out everything and said all of the old ways of doing things are bad and we are going to start from scratch, and in many cases it didn’t go very well. The communes are not around anymore for the most part and these sorts of things. In the ensuing 30 years or so a lot of people stuck with it. There were a lot of experimental communities. There was a lot of work done in how we can create alternative currencies, alternative economic models, alternative social models. So there actually is a very sophisticated body of knowledge now that we have gained over the last 40 or 50 years in terms of decision making in groups, in terms of group process, in terms of how to structure even things like businesses and non profits. We actually do have a very large tool kit to take advantage of.
I again try to point people towards some of those in the book. There are actually really viable alternatives; they are just not out there in the mainstream yet. With a little bit of digging you can find that there are ways to structure communities, help structure neighborhoods. If you want to work out some sorts of agreements with your neighbors there are very good tools for doing that that have already been worked out, that we already know what the negatives and positives are. They are kind of tried and true at this point.
Chris Martenson: I tell you we have to do something. Every time I talk with somebody who is my age – I am 53 now – if they spend any time at all outdoors we all have these litanies or horrors of things that have happened in the natural world in our lifetimes. And it is so amazingly quick. But somebody who is young today, I will say under the age of 20, won’t know what I am talking about when I say that when we used to drive—we drove about 300 miles for our summer vacation. We would have to stop for gas twice in a big old station wagon and we would always have to clean off the windshield because it was splattered with bugs, right? I remember that. That was part of summer. Now I can drive a thousand miles and not have a single thing to clean off my windshield. That’s true all over the country now. The idea that we have lost insects is something that once upon a time I don’t think anybody would have cared, but now I have that little pit in my stomach that says "oh, this is not good." There is such a richness that—the insects are so important in the overall food chain and all of the services that they provide. We only think about them as having negative services, but it’s not true.
So there is really a large reorientation of our relationship to each other and to the natural world. Just from a thinking standpoint—let’s start here—we need insects. That would be a pretty big idea to insert in some people’s brains.
Toby Hemenway: Right. There are things like that. I remember being in a hardware store a few years ago and someone came in and said "what can I use to kill all the bugs in my garden?" Just getting that paradigm that bugs are bad. It turns out that only about 5% of all insects are actually harmful to our crops or ourselves and the other 95% are either beneficial or neutral. And you are right they are a critical element pretty low down on the food chain. They are a really important food source for birds and reptiles and a lot of mammals. You are right. I just took a long drive and I noticed "wow, I have only got like two bugs on my windshield after driving 500 miles, even around twilight which is when the bugs usually come out."
Again, just thinking in terms of biodiversity is what can we be doing to provide habitat for all these creatures since we have removed so much of it so drastically. I mean this is where again this idea of multi functional plantings come in that when we do plant things, think about the insects, think about the birds. I love designing a garden and coming back and finding it is just humming with insects because I know there are going to be birds there feeding on those insects, there are going to be all kinds of other wildlife that is being supported by the low end of the food chain like that.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely. That was one of the instructive lessons again from Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser at Singing Frogs where they had these hedge rows with very diverse things in them. It wasn’t like a hedge row of boxwood. They had at least 12 species that I could see in any one hedge row. The hedge rows were there to break the winds and do the usual things, but to provide habitat for the predator class and other classes of insects that are longer living because as predators they breed more slowly and all of that. They created a habitat for the kind of insects they wanted and as a result they had very, very low insect pressure in their main garden. I couldn’t believe they didn’t spray or anything. I am a long time gardener, I am looking at their brassicas, I'm like,
"Where are all the holes in the leaves? Where are all the cabbage loopers like daintily flying around everything?" I didn't see it. It is testament that it really can work.
So to flip over to the positive side of this, that is what I love about what we are starting to see are these examples and stories of how all of this not only theoretically could work but actually does. Again, it ticks off all of those categories. It works ecologically, it works environmentally, socially, financially. It really makes a lot of sense. I just think it is great that you are collecting all of these ideas and ways of thinking into these books and sharing them because they are really fantastic to have thought through and you are a wonderful writer. It is all very well done.
Toby Hemenway: Thanks very much. I was certainly inspired by going to Paul’s place and it brought out to me the importance of good design. As I began studying permaculture years ago, one of the things that I started thinking—and I didn’t even really want to have this thought—was, "wow, through good design, we might even be able to do better than nature." And I was struck by that because boy there is a lot of hubris involved in statement like that. But when Paul Kaiser at Singing Frogs pointed out that his bird diversity was double what a nearby area of native plants of the same size was—he has got twice as many species of birds on his farm land than a native plant area nearby—I had that phrase, thinking, "wow, he has done better than nature here." So we really can. Design is at the heart of all this. How do we design better systems, more resilient systems, how do we design social systems, economic systems? We can do it. We have the design tools for doing all of these things.
Chris Martenson: And that is my hope in this story is that—one narrative that we are holding that I hold that I think is flat out wrong but I believed it for a long time is that humans wreck things, right? It is a belief system. I thought, well, if humans move into a pristine area it will be wrecked. The soils will be gone, the rivers will be foul, the fish will go extinct, the amphibians are done. That is just a story I have. But what you are saying, and what I saw with my own eyes, is that we can use that same clever intelligence but in a different way. And if we do that, we can actually be accelerants and enhancers of the natural process. Not destroyers of, but enhancers of. That is a huge narrative flip for me. That is taking an old story and completely turning it on its head in a way that I think is true and it makes me feel good. So that is what is possible in this story. That is what I see.
Toby Hemenway: Right, exactly. And I felt the same way: Humans are a cancer on the landscape. And just understanding that we actually don’t have to be; we can be the opposite. There is lots of research showing that around indigenous settlements there is often far more bird and insect and wildlife diversity than there is out in the woods, out in a more "natural" area. We can do the same and we can do it through design and we can do it in ways that are compatible with most of our current ways of living. I find those things very, very exciting.
Chris Martenson: Excellent. Well, keep up the good work and thank you so much for your time today. I can’t wait to gather some of the stories of people who have read it and tried some of the things. So again, Toby, so great to be talking with you again and I hope to do it again soon.
Toby Hemenway: Me too, Chris, this was very enjoyable. Thanks a lot.