The Environmental System That Could Help Save Us All

By now you would know two things: Leo finally won an Oscar, and when he did, he spread the message of climate change and how it is “the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.” One way to do this, he says, is to “support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters and the big corporations.” But on a personal, daily basis there is another way to start working with nature – permaculture.

Permaculturist at Milkwood Permaculture, Nick Ritar, once asked a room full of people if they had pooed in their drinking water that morning. While that might seem ridiculous – even disgusting – to suggest, the reality is that if you use a flushing toilet, that’s you, me (and most people we know).

What Nick’s referring to is the world’s broken system of waste management. Many people in the world don’t have access to clean water and the lucky ones who do take that water and poop in it. At the same time much of the world’s landscape is being dug up to source phosphate and nitrogen – the nutrients used in fertilizers for growing food in conventional agriculture. The same nutrients – which are naturally available in human waste – get flushed down the porcelain throne and out into the oceans, everyday: a literal waste of waste.

The idea that there are other ways to go about nonsensical practices like this is the fundamental basis for permaculture.

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is the design response: a framework for systems to be self-sufficient, sustainable, resilient and regenerative. Systems that don’t disrupt, detract or deteriorate the environments around them which are possible in any sized space, including an average backyard.

Core to the permaculture ethos is the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants and animals – the working relationships and connections between all things. This is not hippy nonsense: permaculture is a toolbox of self-regulated systems that are based on rational thinking, science and ethics.

A better understanding of nature = a better human habitat

“I often talk about the folly of that idea that you want to try and get back to nature,” says Ritar. “We are nature. We are complicated ecosystems ourselves and the world that we inhabit is deeply interconnected with us.”

The patterns in nature provide clues to smart design. Work with the planet, not against it.

Take the problem of food waste. According to the City of Sydney, the average Aussie bin is made up 40 per cent food, all of which invariably winds up as landfill. Without oxygen the waste breaks down in an anaerobic process, eventually releasing methane into the atmosphere and leachate into the soil. Composting, on the other hand, and compost worms can break down food waste into luscious soil conditioner – improving the soil’s ability to produce great food in the future.

Another triumph of permaculture was the idea of designing homes to complement their climate, something the English settlers were woefully late at coming to realise here in Australia. Hot climates need high roofs and ample shade to allow breeze to cool the space, while cold climates call for sealed windows from drafts and a strategically placed thermal mass to capture the warmth of the sun, which is an entirely free input. In comparison, just think of all that expensive air conditioning in CBD buildings.

These are pretty basic examples – and modern permaculture has become increasingly brilliant and sophisticated – but they demonstrate the benefits of working with nature, not against it.

Skills to face some of the world’s biggest problems

“We have absolutely no scientific or engineering challenges when it comes to sustainability. We don’t need any new engineering solutions or great scientific breakthroughs in order to solve human problems. All we need to do is change our habits,” says Nick.

A 2013 United Nations report found that integrated organic farming – the approach advocated in permaculture – is the best response to the world’s food security issues, allowing poorer, rapidly growing populations to grow their own food, cultivate their own land and reduce reliance on fossil fuels, which is crucially needed to meet the international targets to stabilise global warming.

Increasing the biodiversity of soil, integration between crop and livestock production, closed nutrient cycles, and the reduction of waste are among the items listed as necessary by the UN to transform the world’s agricultural system into one that serves all people, equally. And it just so happens that yhe permaculture system addresses each of these goals, incorporating waste, food production and energy management through clever design.

This is living

The  idea of living by permaculture principles might conjure up ideas of running off into the forest to live a solitary existence, eking out on only stuff  you can make yourself and sucking lichen and moss off dry riverbeds – but this isn’t the case.

“A lot of people come to permaculture with preconceived ideas about how alternative and how, perhaps, impractical it might be, just because the first people to take it up were hippies and people interested in alternative lifestyle,” Nick explains.

A photo posted by Nick Ritar (@milkwood_nick) on

But in reality common sense and practical ideas rule the permaculture principles: Observe the system before acting, use and value diversity in the design, catch and store energy, use renewables, integrate rather than segregate, and the exchange of skills and resources in the local community; these principles can be applied to any habitat, from an office building in Sydney to a farm in regional Australia.

“This is not a poor way of living by the way; we’re talking about a very rich way of living,” says Nick. “You can’t buy a tomato as good as the one that you can grow yourself. Those habits of getting into cultivating your own food are ones that have massive rewards for your own health and your own family.”

You can find a course near you, here.

This article is inspired from a podcast interview with Nick Ritar. Johanna Scott is from Make Do Co., an organisation reconnecting business to people and purpose. She regularly interviews people about their work, and what makes it meaningful. You can learn more at Make Do Co. and listen to the full People of Purpose podcast with Nick.

Image: Ceres.org.au blog