The First Step to Sustainable Agriculture

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The unsustainability of modern agriculture stems from a poor understanding of cause and effect.

The Resilient Farm and Homestead(Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) is a comprehensive how-to manual that will help the reader select, design, develop and manage land for self-reliance and sustainable agriculture, and presents a thriving model for productive, durable homesteads and farms in cold climates and beyond. In this excerpt, taken from Chapter 1, author and permaculture expert Ben Falk explains how the resilient homesteader is more concerned with fitting in and adapting to changing conditions.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
—Variously attributed

Before addressing the actual solutions that form the focus of this book, it is helpful to understand the patterns of mind that inform such solutions, the mental framework from which we make effective—or poor—decisions. The unsustainability of modern agriculture and society seems to stem from a poor understanding of cause and effect. Humanity’s various failings on both the individual and collective level can be traced back to this basic phenomenon: misunderstanding how one’s actions affect an outcome, or oftentimes, not recognizing that one’s actions have any effect on an outcome whatsoever. In evolutionary biology this is called a maladaptive response. Acting in this way gets you booted out of the great wheel of life pretty quickly. The resilient homesteader is interested in the opposite: how do we fit in, respond to, adjust and adapt to constantly changing conditions? How do we do so with grace and joy? Indeed, should adaptation not be uniquely mastered by an animal as conscious as Homo sapiens?

Understanding the mechanics of maladaptation is important to clearly navigate the terrain of adaptation. So what creates a disconnect between our understanding of cause and effect? This forms the basis of many lengthy philosophical discussions, but for the purposes of this book, I will keep it very brief. How is one able to do x and ignore the fact that y results (e.g., defecate uphill of your water source, then get sick). Two reasons seem clear enough: The first is not recognizing that an action performed could actually have an effect on something seemingly unrelated (going to the bathroom and staying healthy). Notice the example here is not touch a hot coal and get burned, because humans seem good enough at understanding very simple and immediate cause and effect, but we are particularly poor at grasping this process when there is a time delay or when the system contains complexity, such as when numerous agents are acting upon it. The second possibility is a lack of understanding how action in one sphere can affect a seemingly unrelated area—pooping on the ground and drinking water from a well.

How do we overcome these two tragic misunderstandings? The first seems easy enough: recognize that all actions incur a result, whether we understand the result or not. The world is connected—a web—and we cannot act in any way that does not affect this web. Basic stuff. The second is more challenging and involves a degree of observation, intuition, analysis, and critical thinking. It’s at the core of what it means to be a conscious being, to be human. It can be called critical thinking: reasoning a problem through in its entirety, design thinking, problem solving, or systems thinking. Not that this is a simple undertaking, especially in today’s world of increasingly dulled, technofied minds. Cultivating systems-thinking humans, however, is not the focus of the book but I would encourage the reader to seek the many great resources existing on the subject including works by Fritjof Capra and Peter Senge among many others.

A self-reliant nation is built upon a citizenry living in resource-producing and relatively self-reliant communities. Self-reliant, tenable communities are composed of self-reliant households. And relatively self-reliant households are the basic building block of any culture that is viable over the long term without requiring war (stealing of resources) to sustain itself. No democratic civilization can last long if it is built upon a citizenry that consume more than they produce; that’s debt and debt is inherently unsustainable and ultimately undemocratic. If our goal is a peaceful, just society, self-reliance at the home and community levels must be a central focus of our lives.

How the Wilderness Context Informs a Resilient Lifestyle

When I trace my inclination toward preparedness, I always find a link to my time in backcountry travel and living experiences—living life on expeditions—from a summer on skis crossing an ice field in Alaska to weeks climbing mountains or paddling on lakes. All of these experiences have a commonality: During journeys in the backcountry, one is in constant anticipation of conditions that can change at any point in time. Such change is simply a given—whether it’s a storm that will test the soundness of your tent’s rigging or your retreat plan off the mountain you attempted to climb. In such situations you learn basic and crucial skills in observation and awareness, judgment and decision making, decisive action and determination.

Although true “wilderness” experiences are less a part of my life today, their role as a central theme in my own development has been crucial. Anyone, especially those in college and younger, stands to gain immeasurably by wilderness experiences—and any other expeditionary-like journeys in which humans push their comfort zone, rely upon themselves, test themselves, and ultimately learn what they are made of. Through encounters with elements in the more-than-human world, we can see the reality of life on this planet, which is often hidden from us but remains a basic fact of existence: The world around has always changed, sometimes rapidly, and it will do so again. Life in a tent, out of a backpack, and in the open exposes us to such change—brings it to the fore. When living outdoors we have few buffers separating us from these adverse influences.

Our daily life in the front country, back in “civilization,” is filled with conveniences that, while enjoyable, distance us from the changing nature of the world around us. This affords us a certain degree of comfort, time savings, and other advantages but comes at a severe cost, one of which is losing a certain degree of personal self-reliance and the skills needed to be highly self-reliant. These include acute environmental awareness and response. In civilization much of those and other skills simply aren’t needed. You don’t need to watch the weather because the weather is totally irrelevant to the question of where you’re going to sleep for the night or how you’re going to prepare dinner. Expand that irrelevance to many spheres of your life and you can see how rapidly and profusely life in the comforts of “civilization” dumbs down our capacities simply by removing the need for many of them. What you practice you become good at; what you don’t you gradually lose competency in.

This is not to say that some lifestyles in the front country don’t demand certain and highly developed skills and awareness—some do. But for the most part our homes, cars, computers, and other comforts retard the development of fundamental awareness capacities that are necessary to think about, plan for, and act on a future that is guaranteed to be saturated with change. The take-home message here is that we become proficient at what we practice, and we tend to practice most intensely based upon needs. We can intentionally place ourselves into environments where meeting basic and constantly shifting and challenging basic needs is required of us. This is, in part, what a “wilderness” (read unmediated by human systems) experience offers all of us. The learning and growth opportunities lying within them are deeply practical and endlessly rewarding.

More from The Resilient Farm and Homestead:

Build Healthy Soil Through Regenerative Grazing
Scything to Harvest With Proper Equipment and Technique

Reprinted with permission fromThe Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approachby Ben Falk and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.