The First Step to Sustainable Agriculture

Practicing sustainable agriculture is a good first step toward achieving self-reliance.

| September 2014

  • The unsustainability of modern agriculture stems from a poor understanding of cause and effect.
    Photo by Fotolia/olandsfokus
  • “The Resilient Farm and Homestead” by Ben Falk details leading-edge strategies for regenerating soil, water systems and human health through the design and operations of the homestead and farm.
    Cover courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing

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.

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