Category Archives: Sustainability

The Nature of Permaculture

Nigel Crawley – Tring in Transition

Permaculture seeks to avoid the problems of unsustainable systems by working with, instead of against, Nature.  For example, current industrial agriculture is an incredibly inefficient system.  It takes ten calories of energy input (mainly from fossil fuels) to produce one calorie of food output.  This is only one example of our current high-input systems that are only possible while we have access to cheap fossil-fuel energy.

The word Permaculture is a portmanteau word originally derived from ‘Permanent Agriculture’.  Nevertheless, due to the universality of Permaculture principles and their application in the design of other human activities, it has since been expanded to ‘Permanent Culture’.

Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centred around simulating or directly utilising the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.  For example, sheet mulching is an agricultural no-dig gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural processes occurring within forests.

The design principles, which are the conceptual foundation of Permaculture, have been derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use.  Permaculture practitioners are also guided by an ethical framework of ‘Care of the Earth’, ‘Care of People’ and ‘Return of Surplus to Earth and People’.

The first use of the term ‘Permanent Agriculture’ was probably by J. Russell Smith in his book ‘Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture’.  Originally published in 1929, ‘Tree Crops’ was J. Russell Smith’s reaction to witnessing the environmental destruction caused by an industrial agriculture based on growing grains – or, as he summarised, “Forest-field-plow-desert”.  In ‘Tree Crops’ Smith advocates development of a permanent agriculture based on perennial tree crops both for livestock feed and human food.  It’s fair to say that the ideas in ‘Tree Crops’ inspired Permaculture’s early pioneers and are still extremely relevant.

However, the Permaculture movement as we know it today started with an Australian called Bill Mollison.  In 1959, while studying marsupials in their natural environment of the Tasmanian forest, Bill wrote a seminal note in his journal: “I believe that we could build systems that would function as well as this one does.”  He continued to work on his idea for the next twelve years by observing natural ecosystems and the practices of indigenous cultures.  In 1972 David Holmgren, a student of Bill Mollison’s, wrote an undergraduate thesis based on Bill’s ideas that later became the basis for the first Permaculture manual: “Permaculture One”.  Subsequently, Permaculture has spread globally due to Bill’s clever strategy of teaching the teachers via a 72-hour Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course.  The PDC is a life-changing two-week immersion in Permaculture’s whole systems view of the world.

Permaculture seeks to minimise waste, human labour, and energy input by building systems.  Forest gardening, for example, is a labour-saving three-dimensional food-growing ecosystem designed to mimic natural forests.

The focus of Permaculture design is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements when they are placed together so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  Within a Permaculture system the resources generated by all the elements are engineered to supply their respective needs, mimicking the complex relationships found in natural ecosystems.  When a certain threshold of this complexity is reached, new beneficial properties start to emerge from the system, such as self-regulation, feedback loops, self-organisation, and resilience. By working in this way we can create a low-input food garden where  nature takes over most of the maintenance work for us.

There are a number of unique techniques employed by Permaculture designers when assembling complex systems including: input-output analysis, zone analysis and sector analysis.  Input-output analysis looks at the outputs of elements within a design and attempts to match them to the inputs of other elements.  For example, one of the outputs from chickens is heat and a greenhouse requires heating on frosty nights.  So why not build the greenhouse around the chicken shed?.  Zones are areas around the main centre of human activity.  Elements in a design that require regular attention are placed in the zone nearest the centre and elements that require minimal attention in the zone furthest away.  A Permaculture sector is any influence arriving from off the design site that you have no direct influence over (e.g. sunlight, wind, water, etc.).  Sectors can either be caught and used, deflected/blocked or left to pass by unaffected.

Above everything, Permaculture is about protracted and thoughtful observation instead of prolonged and thoughtless action.  By slowing down and observing natural ecosystems we can learn valuable lessons that will improve our lifestyles.  After all, Nature, having done 3,500,000,000 years of Research & Development, is our best teacher.


Two films about climate change which couldn’t be more different!

John Ingleby – Chair, Transition in Kings

My wife and I went to see the film “Tomorrow” by Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, and then four days later we saw “The Age of Consequences” by Jared P Scott.  Both films are about climate change, but they couldn’t be more different.

The Age of Consequences” is one of several films about climate change, including Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and others, such as “Years of Living Dangerously” by James Cameron.  These films are all well made and lavishly presented, with the theme best described as “Stark Warnings to Humanity”.  They graphically illustrate how, if we don’t change our ways, our planet Earth is becoming more dangerous and less habitable.

My problem with “The Age of Consequences” and similar doom-laden films is that they don’t give any clues about what we could possibly do to avert disaster.  After watching pictures of devastation from droughts, storms, melting ice, warming oceans, mass migrations and so-on, the cynic in me begins to notice how parts of the film are actually computer special effects.  Small wonder that so many are persuaded this whole issue is a carefully choreographed “hoax”.

So I want to explain why “Tomorrow” is so different from many other films dealing with climate change.  To begin with, “Tomorrow” was crowd-funded from the inspiration of Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent when their first child was born.  Where could they find real-life examples of people and communities today, who are creating practical solutions for a more sustainable, equitable and just way of life?

Tomorrow” was produced in France, and first shown to wide acclaim at the Paris Conference in December 2015.  It took just over a year to add English sub-titles, and the Transition Network (based in Totnes) is arranging UK screenings for a minimal charge of £100 per event.  Most of these are being organised by local Transition groups, and shown to small audiences in town and village halls.

The story of Cyril and Mélanie’s journey is different because climate change is rarely mentioned.  Instead, their story illustrates the human activities which produce climate change alongside alternative approaches, to show how destruction caused by those activities can be avoided, and even reversed.

Did you know, for example, that while small-scale farming obviously involves much human effort, each acre produces on average five times more food compared with today’s large industrialised farms?  Moreover, small-scale farming is better at preserving soil structures and absorbing rain and nutrients.  How did we come to accept industrialised agriculture as the natural and inevitable way to produce food, with its demands for ever-growing inputs of water, fertilisers and energy?

The term “permaculture”, meaning permanent (i.e. sustainable) agriculture, describes modern approaches derived from the study of age-old methods of food production.  Cyril and Mélanie’s journey shows how permaculture methods are being used to grow food in today’s urban environments.

Tomorrow” is a positive, affirming and inspirational film, exploring creative solutions in the fields of food, energy, transport, economics and education.  In their travels to many different parts of the world, the couple visit permaculture farms, urban agriculture projects, community-owned renewable-energy schemes, local currencies, creative schools, and an ambitious recycling project.

If you search YouTube for “#Tomorrowfilm“, you will see how this film leaves people with a more optimistic and positive outlook for their future.  It is opening eyes to new possibilities for our own communities.

Future screenings of “Tomorrow” can be found by Googling “Tomorrow Transition” followed by the town name below.  So far, I only know about these dates and places:

Tulse Hill – May 2nd;   Wembley – May 5th;   Letchworth – June 20th;   Brighton – June 21st

Energy Efficiency in your home or business

Jim Attenborough

The best starting point for trying to reduce the amount of energy you use is to be aware of past use so you can compare your use post any actions you have taken.  The best way to do this is via meter readings rather than estimated bills; this can be done by taking direct meter readings or, if available, using the online data many suppliers supply via their websites.  You can then inform those taking part that their actions are having an effect by producing results – people tend to lose interest unless they can see their actions are having a positive effect.

Then you will want to communicate your plans to your family / employees so you can get everyone on board and think about setting an initial achievable target (say 10% reduction) together with some sort of incentive for participants.  You may even decide to have a small fine for those caught leaving items on, like a swear jar!

The easiest and cheapest way to reduce use is to cut out waste first, ensuring that lights and appliances are turned off when not in use, doors and windows are closed in cold weather, taps are turned off and leaks are fixed.  (Even if you are not on a water meter yet, it still takes energy to produce our water and meters are being rolled out in our area.)  And don’t forget to include fuel for vehicles – adapting your driving style alone can reduce fuel consumption by up to 40%.  Using your car less, lift sharing and planning journeys better will help you save even more.

If you have a smart meter or plug-in energy meter, you will be able to find out which are the most energy-hungry appliances in your home by switching one on at a time and seeing how much energy each uses and then you can make some big savings quickly – remember every saving, no matter how big or small, adds up.  It is estimated that the UK could cut energy use by 20-25% just by cutting out waste!

You may qualify for a grant or free energy-saving devices.  Speak to your gas, electricity, water supplier and local council.  Some will at the very least be able to advise you on cutting use and you may get loft insulation, water-saving devices or low-energy bulbs for free!

Once you have been trying for a couple of months and have an idea how much money you have saved and will save, you can reinvest those savings into items that are more energy-efficient than those you already own.  If you are planning an extension or home improvements, factor energy saving in to help you future-proof your home.

Staff at Hemel Hempstead Fire Station have cut electricity use by 54% and gas use by 65% in a period of 5 years by following the simple steps outlined here, helped by the County Council reinvesting some of the savings in new boilers, LED lights on sensors, double glazing and insulation.  This has saved the taxpayer almost £37,000 and reduced CO2 emissions.  It’s a great example of what can be achieved.

Getting together with other neighbours / businesses to share best practice and ideas is also worthwhile.  Transition in Kings (TiK) ran a trial of “Transition Streets” with 34 homeowners in Kings Langley that on average saves over £500 a year for each household, saving money and helping to protect the environment, as well as social benefits such as helping people get to know their neighbours better.  Each group of up to ten neighbours had an initial meeting with a facilitator, then met every month or so to work through a handbook supplied by TiK which is crammed full of good information to help householders cut use and get grants.  Some of those groups met after completing the workbook and in the feedback said that they felt much better informed about energy saving, environmental matters and felt a greater sense of community after taking part.

A new round of Transition Streets will be starting in the autumn so, if you think you would enjoy taking part, keep an eye out in this magazine and Parish noticeboards or pop along to TiK’s open meeting at the Parish Council offices in Charter Court, Vicarage Lane on the second Saturday of every month 10-12 am.