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Permaculture in Hawaii

Earth Day Article

For many people, doing something for the environment means either fighting big companies who are harming the environment (like the oil companies or the fishing industry) or fighting with the government to make environment-friendly laws. While both of those things are important, they certainly are not fun, and they probably are not as important as simply making your own lifestyle earth-friendly. In the last decade, alot of people have started recycling. This is a good first step but recycling alone isn't going to work. If each of us could figure out how to live more efficiently, then we wouldn't make as much garbage and we wouldn't destroy as much of the environment and we wouldn't have to work as much. What do we call the science of figuring out to live so that we make life easier on ourselves and the planet? Permaculture.

Permaculture is about designing your own life or your garden or your farm or your community or even the global economy in a way that makes sense. What does it mean to design something that makes sense? You might think that what makes sense is a matter of opinion--that what makes sense for one person doesn't for another. But actually, its much more objective than that. If you spent $10,000 to buy some land and you worked every day cutting down the trees by hand, and then you planted a single pumpkin and ate it, that wouldn't make alot of sense. Its pretty stupid, actually! Why is it stupid? Because you worked really hard to make $10,000 and you worked really hard to cut down the trees, and you didn't get much back for it. Whenever you do something and you end up spending more energy than you are getting, you are doing something that doesn't make alot of sense. Think how much energy you would have to spend if you kept your phone book in your garage rather than by your phone--everytime you needed a number you'd have to walk so much further. Or what if you kept your toothbrush in your bathroom and your toothpaste at your neighbor's house, and your neighbor made you pay him $1 everytime you wanted to get it? Not alot of sense. Wouldn't it make more sense to keep your toothpaste in your own bathroom?

So what do phone books and toothpaste have to do with permaculture? Well, think about where your food comes from. Do you buy it at the store? If you buy it at the store, then you have to walk or drive to the store, and you probably have to sit in traffic or wait in line somewhere, not to mention that you have to go to the bank machine to get money out of it to pay for it. If you buy something at the store, it probably came from outside Hawai'i, which means that when you buy it, you have to pay more because someone else did the work for you to grow it, package it, and ship it over here. That's kinda like paying your neighbor to get your toothpaste. Wouldn't it be a whole lot easier to just grow some of that food yourself? Then you could walk out the door and get it--no traffic, no lines, no money, no paying some guy on the mainland...

There are many many aspects to permaculture. First of all, its organic, but its not only organic. Thousands of acres of organic soybeans or papayas is not permaculture. Why? There are lots of reasons, but the biggest reason is that planting only one thing (monoculture) lacks biodiversity; an ecosystem with biodiversity is a stable one while no diversity is unstable, kinda like putting all your eggs in one basket. A second major reason planting only one thing isn't smart (isn't permaculture) is that its simply not the most efficient use of space and energy. You could plant a half dozen things all in the same place and they will all do just fine, particularly if a sun-loving plant is providing shade for a shade-loving one. We call this stacking. And if you are smart about it, you will be able to harvest each of these plants at different times--one in a few months and another in a few years. Another important aspect to permaculture is that it looks at what is going on in systems that work by themselves (like forests) and it applies those principles in a concentrated way. Like the example before of putting a half dozen plants in the same place--this is what happens in a forest naturally, and it obviously works so we copy it and plant that way intentionally. In nature, everything is interrelated and flows together, so when we build a farm or a home or a community, we try to copy this idea. For example, lets say you wanted to have a garden, chickens, and fish ponds. You could have each of these separate, and you could go to the store to buy fertilizer for your garden and food for your chickens and fish. Or you could save time, energy, and money and make them work together: first, you would put the chickens around the fish pond and let the chickens roost over the pond. The nutrient-rich excrement from the chickens will fall into the water and the fish will eat it. The fish in turn will also have nutrient-rich excrement, leaving you with very fertile water. This water can be fed to your garden, saving you the trouble of watering and fertilizing the garden separately. Now after you get food from the garden, the food scraps you don't use can be thrown back to the chickens, completing the cycle. This is just one of hundreds of examples of how permaculture works.

But its important to remember that you don't have to be a farmer to practice permaculture. It can be as simple as living near where you work so you don't have to drive as far (or at all) or it can be very detailed, figuring out how to grow fruits and vegetables in a way so you get the most food out of the least amount of time, space, and energy. For many, permaculture is about being responsible with the ecosystem, but on another level, its really about being lazy--its about figuring out how to live so that you and everyone else can have the most amount of time and energy as possible to do whatever makes you the most happy, whatever that may be.


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