Produce no waste, another, you guessed it, permaculture principle, and a key part of any design.
It’s so easy in the UK to ‘deal with’ waste – some blokes come and take it away and put it into a hole in the ground that people rarely see or feel compelled to think about. I’m guessing this might change at some point, as land becomes scarcer and money becomes an issue, but for now its easy to not care.
There are loads of ways I want to bring this principle into our home; buying less, taking less things to the dump, making do and mending, up cycling and recycling and preserving and fermenting. Often it is hard, with small children wanting the latest Skylander or Moshi Monster – and I don’t want them to grow up feeling resentful about my decisions or lifestyle choices. As a dad, I believe my first responsibility is to make sure my kids grow up understanding these issues without being scarred by ‘their weird dad’ – this is a war of attrition, they will be subverted, they just wont know about it.
If, when we design our systems, we take this principle into account, often our design pattern becomes cyclical. Loads of the systems we rely upon are linear; stuff gets dug up from the ground, fuel is burned transporting and manufacturing it into something to be consumed, and it ends up back in the ground in wholly unusable form, often damaging the environment and the soil we rely on. Worst still, our very economies are measured on this model of consumerism. Short sighted and dangerous, I say, but very difficult to change.
So I do what I can.
Having cycles within design systems curtails the weaknesses that linear and short term thinking present us with, and when we look at systems within the natural world it is suddenly obvious that nature is the ultimate designer (evolution over millions of years is probably something we should pay attention to) and to attempt to emulate, or even improve upon these designs is the cleverest thing we can do.
Composting is awesome – here is why:
When something dies in a natural system, there are a ton of ways in which that animal or plant matter will be broken down into something useful for another organism. The process is initiated by detritivores or scavengers that specialize in carrion. Stuff is then broken down into smaller and smaller pieces by woodlice, worms, etc…, and we end up with bacteria, mychorrhizal fungi and nematodes creating a soil so complex, life sustaining and important that I’m not even going to pretend that I understand it.
So here’s a nice picture!
Soil science is vast – but, in a nutshell, it supports life as we know it, sequesters carbon and is far more complex than we ever thought.
So, when you start to think about it, it is really important, like life sustaining important, and deserves more respect than it generally gets. Its called dirt, right? Worms are not for nice little girls, but horrible boys, yeah? Beetles and bugs are squashed underfoot by the unenlightened and poo, don’t get me started! But all of these things are vital, and I would venture, as close to fundamental as we can get.
We are also (sighs) losing topsoil at an alarming rate.
Conventional agriculture encourages the depletion of topsoil. The United States alone loses almost 3 tons of topsoil per acre per year and one inch of topsoil can take 500 years to form naturally. On current trends, the world has about 60 years of topsoil left. Modern agriculture ploughs the earth into submission and then adds fertilizer derived from oil extracting activity to give it some oomph.
After this, our crops are often heavily treated with pesticides and fungicides, in order to deal with the problems that arise largely due to the fact that we tend to grow monocultures on such an industrial level. So we try to alleviate at least our pressure on the system by growing our own and using compost in a no dig system.
Composting mimics natural processes in an accelerated fashion, if done correctly. To take the waste from the kitchen and the garden and create a life rich soil with it is nothing short of godly. When you realize that the soil is a living, breathing organism, rich with life on a scale as mind boggling as the stars above you, it is no wonder gardening has the ability to rehabilitate and heal. The first building block to the gardener, it is the very foundation which supports life, both on our little plot, and in our wider world. Adding compost to the earth protects and nourishes the soil. It allows the soil to take what it needs, just as would happen in a forest environment as leaf litter falls to the floor. Even better, it is just about the easiest thing you can do – it happens on its own, stuff breaks down with or without you, and while understanding carbon to nitrogen ratios is helpful, it is not essential.
One of my first lessons in growing was how to double dig. It is useful, to break up compacted soils at the beginning of a growing process on a new plot of land, but as a permaculturalist, we learn that digging should be used sparingly, bisecting earth worms and destroying mycorrhizal strands, as well as exposing beneficial micro organisms to the surface harm the complex communities that we are only beginning to discover. It is clear, however, that there is a web of life within the soil, and the soil that produces the most life is the soil most full of life. Mulching with organic matter is, in my mind, a wholly good thing. The blanket of a mulch is the end of a process that is in equal measure both amazingly simple and amazingly complex. It is the end of the line for what goes in, and the beginning for what comes out. A perfect cycle.