Biomimicry & Permaculture Today

Janine Benysus, in her ground-breaking book Biomimicry, acknowledged Permaculture as a way to create food forests by mimicking the workings of the natural forest. The insights are still relevant. She had predicted Nature would be a powerful educational model. There are now an abundance of designs based on nature. One of these thriving design sciences is evident in the number of good mature permaculture sites worldwide.

And as we develop more observation skills, Nature becomes our patient mentor.

Revisiting Biomimicry’s Principles

Janine Benyus1: “9 Basic Principles of Biomimicry and how they work:

  1. Nature runs on sunlight. This is true of nearly every living creature, but not all.  The very rare exceptions include tubeworms in the depths of the ocean that eat chemicals released from volcanos. There are recent discoveries showing a few rare organisms do not need full sunlight. And sadly, with climate change we are witnessing the struggle of some plants to survive in full sunlight. The permaculture strategy to stack plants in a food forest is valuable here. We can fit a lot of plants into an intensive space and out-compete weeds.
  2. Epping forest, London IPUK delegates from Africa and Hong Kong marvel at the wasted abundance in a major city

    Nature uses only the energy it needs. If a creature harvests more than it needs, the harvest is not wasted. Squirrels often forget where they buried their nuts, these nuts either sprout into new trees or are eaten by other creatures. The trees benefit from this forgetful relationship.
    Most predators will kill only the weak animals in a herd. Most kill only as needed. There are always puzzling exceptions. Foxes will bury their kill and dig it up to eat later, they believe in banking. But it is difficult to see the wisdom of a predator that kills all the flock of hens without leaving some animals to reproduce. Perhaps cunning doesn’t imply planning skills as seen in Ants farming fungus or aphids.

  3. Nature fits form to function.
    When a function is needed, a form evolves: The camel evolved great nostrils to minimise water-loss. The termite uses insulation to prevent the nest from overheating. Bears and skunks burrow for comfortable hibernation. Functional design today learns fr
    om nature.
    Nature Knows How - Soft Technology
  1. Nature recycles everything.
    Energy, chemicals, and matter are used and reused by nature. Where there is desolation, very little matter is moved or transformed but where there is life there is constant change.
  2.  Nature rewards cooperation.
    bumble_bee_yellow_flowerThis is essential in the web-of-life. Many plants rely on close relationship with their pollinators. Flowers reward the bees by providing them with nectar. There are often competitors and cheats in a natural system (eg. robber bees who by-pass the stamens and raid the nectar by drilling holes in the base of the lower) but the bulk of the work is done through happy, productive relationships.
  3. Nature banks on diversity.
    Through diversity, there are many different types of creatures, with a variety of habits and needs. There is an intricate co-habitation in a rich tapestry of living organisms.
  4. we found our niche and we are filling it!Nature demands local expertise. In some species, we find local expertise, size and functional diversity in the one colony. Ants are a good example of diversity and are one of the most successful and diverse species on the planet (15–25% of the terrestrial animal biomass.[8)
  5. Nature curbs excesses from within. When there is a limit of resources, many natural processes will curb population growth. Some species are less fertile without adequate nutrients. Some species of animals can delay the implantation of a fertile embryo, enabling them to delay pregnancy until the season is more favourable.
  6. Nature taps the power of limits.
    This principle was more
    controversial at time of writing and is has mixed metaphores (a limit is not a power source) so it is difficult to qualify.
    Janine wrote:
    “real survivors are the Earth inhabitants that have lived millions of years without consuming their ecological capital, the base from which all abundance flows.” Our ecological capital includes energy, nutrients and genetic material.  Fortunately, for humanity, there a constant and free energy input from the sun, a strong life force and a rich bank of genetic material.  With careful management we can maintain a clean supply of nutrients.

permaculture_farm_Ideas-1024x601Limits create responses. Innovation such as variation and diversity is stimulated by limits.  Because farming exports nutrients, there are real limits. 

Some farming ideas can help reduce nutrient loss ie. with the use of good water management to help minimise erosion. We can build soil organically by supporting micro-fauna and flora.

An integrated system like Permaculture uses less ecological capital.  It recognises our limits helps us focus for resilience.
1Benyus, Janine (1997). Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York, USA: William Morrow & Company. ISBN 978-0-688-16099-9.

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Hard and Soft Technologies

 Can’t Live Without You – Dear Technology

help-meTechnologies can be classified as Soft or Hard. Most technologies sit within the range between these two extremes. Knowing the difference helps us choose a technology to do a task with the least environmental cost.

Basically, Soft technologies are those handled by people. Whereas, Hard technologies don’t need people to watch over them.

“We use hard technologies to make things easier and faster, by reducing the number of choices for users. Hard technologies are brittle and stifle creativity. They prevent us from doing things and that is why we use them.  They are complete. Hard technologies act as filters – they structure our spaces and limit what we can do.” Jenny Mackness

Elaborating on technologies

A fire pit is a soft technology because requires a skilled operator to start it and keep it going.  However, a wood-fired oven is a slightly ‘harder’ technology because some of the physical effort is reduced by the addition of walls and a chimney.  Eventually, the electric heater was developed. It required less effort and provided speed. This is how the technology of heating became ‘Hardened’.

Very Hard technologies don’t need humans to keep them in operation. A solar passive house is the ultimate Hard technology – it functions without an operator.

Soft and Pliable Technologies

396861_10150473893378180_777400348_n-300x200
Ferrocement – a creative soft technology

Soft technologies are flexible and empower creativity. The user has to plan and orchestrate processes. This requires skill and creativity. Soft technologies may appear to be simple but they require time, skills and observation to function.

Co-Evolution

bikeMixed technologies can be an intelligent conversion or enhancement of technologies. The bicycle is the perfect mixed technology. It is the most efficient form of transport known to man. A bicycle requires human energy, skill and observation to operate it. And so we Segway to the Motor car. The common car is a mixed technology.  The self-powered, self-driving car will be a hard type of technology.

Hard Technology Improves Peasantry lifestyle

An example of a soft technology is a house that constantly needs cleaning. Consequently, hard technology deals with inevitable issues such as waste management. One example is the The flush toilet. This is a hard technology, requiring little handling to do a vital job. A simple pit-style of toilet (the old hole in the ground) is a hard technology whereas a good composting toilet is an evolved mixed technology.

chicken-weeds-worms-towerIn a simple chicken house, the poop builds up. The chicken in the wild would not tolerate this, it would move house and allow nature to recycle the waste. The domesticated-chicken-owner is constantly cleaning up after them.

Imagine a chicken house design that is self-cleaning. The Chicken-Worm-Tower is a mix of simple animal housing technology with good flow-management strategies (the waste from the upper level becomes food for the lower levels).

Softening Up The Hard Technologies

Traditionally, a building is a hard technology however, skills can be developed to soften any negative effects of a building.  With observation and adaptations the building becomes a mixed technology.  Adaptations develop and the user learns to drive the structure. These adaptations include simple tools like opening critical windows to allow breezes through. More adaptations include the use of heavy curtains to prevent air circulation and heat loss. In more extreme cases the user reduces heat-loss by applying insulating materials and plugging drafts.

Does a Technology have to cost the Earth?

Choosing a technology deserves a little bit of environmental analysis beyond the immediate financial cost.

  1. technology-save-us?What is the embedded energy in the product?
  2. How long will it last?
  3. is it able to adapt with my needs?
  4. How is it repaired?
  5. What waste is generated?
  6. Is it easy to dis-assemble and recycle?

Hard and Soft Technology of the Permaculture Site

A young Permaculture site is a soft technology. It requires vision, care, skill and training. The user needs to be flexible and creative. As the site matures we see the space become a Harder technology.  The mature forest is robust and requires less maintenance.

The hardened environmental system rewards us with food and improved habitat. Within the mature food-forest we will enjoy being creative and we have more resources to play with.

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Affluenza’s Ground-Breaking Cure

Affluenza can be cured

fish laugh at the sleeping fisherman who is struck with AfluenzaEveryone is affected by Affluenza. “Globally affluenza is a back up of the flow of money, resulting in a polarization of classes, and loss of economic and emotional balance.” The debilitating side-effects of Affluenza include addiction, depression, and other social disorders.  An Affluenza pandemic can even trigger war.

The biggest causes of Affluenza are:

  • faith that money buys happiness
  • reliance on self-esteem linked to economic ‘value’
  • dependence on social status
  • insatiable greed

Money doesn’t always motivate

Beatrix Potter was an excellent example of someone who was curious, engaged and motivated. She studied animals and fungi with the sole purpose of building knowledge. Her study was not financially motivated, nor was she supported by the then chauvinistic scientific community. She was motivated by her passion. Later she was motivated to achieve financial independence from her parents and she turned to writing and illustrating. When she had achieved the goal, she used her surplus money to fund conservation projects.

Step safely outside the Affluenza zoneCure for Afluenza - enjoy a bushwalk and reconnect with nature

Albert Einstein produced most of his theories without funding. Funding often traps us into doing what the funding body wants. If we want to be truly free to follow our passions, we need to set up a small income stream of our own. Aim for a smooth transition by keeping a safe income stream flowing until the new income stream is viable. List your genuine needs. Respect these needs in your effort to live more simply.

Small Steps To Create Lasting Change

Creating change by implementing small and successful steps is a fundamental Permaculture principle. When change is sudden it can have unforeseen effects. How many times do we hear about broken promises and forgotten New Year’s resolutions? We don’t hear about small successes because, on a daily basis, we all make small changes. This is not news.  Permaculture is healthy lifestyle planning with a view to working with natural energies and lowering our impact on others and the planet. Once we have the plan we simply make small changes to fit.

5 Easy Cures for Affluenza:

  1. Keeping compost worms easier than a pet mermaid
    Keeping compost worms easier than a pet mermaid

    Get a sense of Purpose by adopting a responsibility. eg. Start a garden that will flourish with your attention, care for a productive animal like a chicken or learn how to start a worm-farm or beehive

  2. Re-connect with nature. Build your survival skills and self-confidence by learning to work with nature, not against her.
  3. Be productive outside the usual day. Repair something. Make something.
  4. Immerse yourself in of gratitude. Praise others.  Say thanks when someone does something special for you. Be proud. Celebrate the invisible successes (social) as well as the visible ones. Be an active member of your family and community.  Globally, we can be proud of important successes such as the education of women and children. Share your tangible successes such as your compost heap, home-grown fruits, hand-made shopping bag.
  5. Share and Let Go. Be generous with your compassion and respect. Give away surplus. Being sensible about giving away surplus may involve repairing something so that it can be properly used and valued by someone else. (For example: why not fix that button before you pass that shirt on?)
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‘To Compost Or Not To Compost’

Compost Girl

‘Deck the Bin with Loads of Compost’

savouring-jackfruitIt’s that time of year when a lot of our best food is thrown in the bin. [A staggering 20% of food is thrown out annually.]  Thousands of dollars in nutrient wealth is lost by humanity and the environment.

The best use of left-over food is to eat it next day (hence the term ‘giving someone the cold shoulder’). The second best use is to make it into something different (meat-loaf, curries, lasagne etc). Third best use is to preserve it (freeze it, pickle it etc).  The next best use is to feed happy domestic natural recyclers chickens, worms or soldier-fly farms]. But if the food is off, the question of finding the best composting technique arises.

Healthy Compost – Good For Everyone

earth_repair_kitWho cares about the state of our soils? Most soils in urban areas are compacted, depleted, polluted and lifeless dust. Recreation areas, streets and water ways can be rich in heavy metals and pollutants. Healthy soil means healthier living for everyone.

There’s no doubt that compost is the best tool for healthy soil. It holds moisture, gives nutrients, and brings dead materials to life, it can break down many types of pollutants and correct acidity.

One cup of compost can eventually renew a whole garden.  It demonstrates the paradox of life – it can replicate itself. But very slowing, especially if you tread on it, take food or ‘weeds’ or grass clippings away or limit it’s food source (leaf litter, food scraps etc). Compost is one of those rare resource that we can’t have too much of.

Compost is also a fabulous way to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.  When food scraps are sent to landfill, they are covered up and this causes anaerobic decomposition. “Eventually this releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide”. A similar process can occur in neglected compost bins in the home.

Why the hot debate? Let’s dump the tragic stinky compost image and brush up on this life-enriching practice.

Better Compost Techniques

umbrella-fungi-North-America-badgerset-farmIn the forest, the composting system works slow and steady. On the farm, nutrients are being shipped off to market and need to be replaced quickly. In urban gardens and garbage bins, the compost is often sweating, choked by layers of random debris including deadly plastic.

In the forest, the fruits are eaten by birds, bats or other wildlife. Their manure feeds the forest plants and fungi.  A permaculture food forest that is supplying healthy food for a community needs to be managed so there is enough food for people as well as the forest and the wildlife.

In a Permaculture food forest, we aim to:

  1. cockatoo dropping a macadamia nut
    cockatoo dropping a macadamia nut

    grow fruit that is less likely to attract pests and disease. We can invest in hardy varieties by not giving the weak varieties special treatment. Mark Shephard uses this breed-them-tough attitude at New Forest Farm.  This doesn’t mean we have to abandon rare varieties, quite the opposite. We can try rare fruits and may stumble across one that suits our bio-region well and tastes great. We need to allow for losses due to experimentation in the permaculture plans.

  2. avoid composting methods that feed pests, rodents and disease. In Australia there is an indigenous pest that is spreading rapidly with climate change. The Aussie fruit maggots destroys fruit as it ripens. It has now spread south into the traditional agricultural fruit-belt of the nation. There are hundreds of food plants that do not get fruit fly – invest in these. Try something different for lunch.

Good Thermal Composting

Thermal composting kills weed seeds, has bacteria that break down many oils and synthetic chemicals including anti-worming medicines that may be found in horse manure. Hot compost hosts natural bacteria to break down the material into accessible nutrients. We need to monitor the compost temperature well to check that it is ready. If we use it when it is still too hot it will not only cook your plants it will rob them of nutrients. The plants can go yellow and look sickly. [You can perk them up with some liquid manure or worm-farm waste]. Essentially, try to keep your compost in piles while they are hot. Let the pile get burning hot and wait until it cools down before putting applying it around fruit trees.

Double The Value Of Your Compost!

Recycled Tarpauline Gardening
Healthy Gardening without chemicals

Let’s apply the Permaculture principle of multiple uses for each element in the design.  We know the compost pile can get really hot so, we can use this heat to kill a weedy patch. Hot compost can even provide some hot water. If you don’t want any of the rich nutrients to escape you can put your hot compost pile onto a recycled tarpaulin, then when it has cooled off, remove the tarp and plant into the rich soil below.

The easiest ways to compost without worry are to use a worm-farm, soldier-fly farm or sealed drum that you can rotate.

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