Friends of the Trees Society, Global Earth Repair Foundation
The current trend is for the world to have less paradises and more disasters. Here is a vision of the future where we reverse the trend and build more paradises and greatly reduce human-caused disasters. I can confidently state this is possible because of my training in regenerative agriculture, ecosystem restoration, agroforestry, permaculture, and related topics. We do have the knowledge to create paradises in every part of the currently inhabited world. Paradises in the sense of providing an abundance of food and resources for humans as well as all the other biodiversity of species in healthy ecosystems. A patchwork of human paradises woven into a tapestry of healthy, natural ecosystems. The human-managed agro-ecosystems blend with the natural ecosystems. There are not so many sharp boundaries. In a sense, every yard, every farm becomes part of ecosystem restoration.
So how do we get from 2022 to this paradise world? Time will tell. A lot of intelligent people have written and talked about collapse in recent years. What is different about this essay is that it focuses on what happens with ecosystem restoration in a collapse scenario and a positive future.
For the sake of this essay let’s plan as if there will be a collapse of the globalized civilization. Outside imports, including energy become scarce. This would result in each area being more thrown on its local resources. Localization on steroids. Each area will have to feed its populace. This may be relatively easy in much of Africa where small-scale subsistence farms are the norm and local food production is strong. This will not be so easy where most food is imported.
A fast collapse would likely include severe de-population, in some places more than others. Life would be challenging. Gardening would be the biggest activity. If people have to depend on the health of local ecosystems they have a big incentive to undertake work that can make their area more sustainable and productive. Planting trees of all kinds, especially food-bearing trees and useful trees; increase useful plants in the environment; build soil; stop erosion. In growing back from collapse, localities should assess how they can restore degraded areas in their region. Are their terraces, canals, or agricultural structures to redo? What were the traditional agriculture systems used there? What can we learn from them?
Much of the industrial farmland would go out of production. It is almost totally dependent on petroleum, machinery, parts, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Small-scale agriculture and home gardens would take over. Produce more food on smaller spaces. Permaculture is real good at this as well as other forms of agroforestry, Home Gardens, Grow Bio-intensive, traditional knowledge, etc. People who know how to do these things will be in high demand.
Australian soil scientist, Walter Jehne, says that we should aim at restoring plant cover on 100 million hectares of land over the next 10 years to cool the Earth. It is going to be hard to convince the world to do this. But let’s consider that a large part of the bare earth on the planet is tilled farmland. If 80% of our current tilled farmland stopped being tilled much of it would grow a green plant cover within a few years. In some places forests would start coming in during the first 10 years. If we adopt perennial crops on the remaining 20% of farmland, then bare earth would be reduced there also. Farmland will be one of the places that ecosystem restoration makes the most sense.
Another big cause of bare earth in the world is overgrazing by livestock. Here also, the cessation of grazing would lead to significant greening up and plant cover in grazed landscapes. But livestock raising wouldn’t be as impacted by the loss of industrial inputs as other sectors of agriculture. It is conceivable to still have overgrazing post-collapse. However I suspect that post collapse that some currently grazed areas will be left to their own devices. There is currently a lot of recent and traditional grazing practices which could lead to a world without overgrazing.
This might be fast collapse or a gradual collapse. Indeed, collapse is already ongoing in increasing areas in the world. Whole countries such as Iraq, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Yemen and Afghanistan. I bet that every gardener and farmer in Afghanistan plans on growing as much food as possible in 2022. Indeed many rural communities are collapsing around the world from depopulation and in some places from ecosystem degradation. In some places land is being abandoned to natural processes.
Natural processes, left to themselves, will build ecological paradises everywhere, which is what Nature created in all parts of the world before humans entered onto the scene. And it will do it again if humans depart the scene. But for the sake of this essay I postulate that large numbers of humans are still going to be alive and they will be interfacing with the environment. According to my train of thought they would be living closer to the land and a lot more of the landscape would be wild.
This is called passive restoration. Stop human intervention and let nature take its course. In today’s world some land is being deliberately taken out of production and deliberately set it aside for passive restoration. Chernobyl is one example in the world today of an area left to go wild. Let’s pray we don’t get more nuclear-contaminated zones.
Collapse may give us ecosystem restoration by default on large parts of the earth. Passive restoration. Low budget.
Three key factors in how well areas perform in terms of local food production post-collapse are: Precipitation, population density and degree of gardening knowledge by the local populace.
** Low population density and good rainfall areas. This means it is easy to grow trees and food. Local food self-sufficiency is easy-peasy and doesn’t take much of a footprint of land. Farming would be a viable living. It is possible to create, high-yielding systems that mimic nature and include nature. Ecosystem restoration can be combined with food production, both can benefit each other. Food production would be much centered on perennial crops and much less on annual crops. See Erik Toensmeir’s book “Carbon Farming” for the best overview on the world’s perennial crop species.
** High population densities relative to natural resources in the dry parts of the world. Many of these areas are currently undergoing degradation and erosion from bad land management practices in agriculture, grazing, and tree cutting. A global collapse would put them in even more of a pickle. Limited water means limited food growing. In these areas it would take more of a concerted effort to do earth repair work that would do ecosystem restoration and food/resource production at the same time. There are hundreds and thousands of examples out there of people doing this kind of work now. We point to many examples in our Global Earth Repair Hall of Fame such as the Al Baydha Permaculture Project in Saudi Arabia.
I have recently stopped using the word “desertification” and now usually use the word “degradation” or “ecological degradation”. Certainly the world has plenty of man-made deserts, but it a slur on the character of deserts to paint them all with the same brush as “bad” places. Many natural deserts have a delightfully rich biodiversity. Some great examples are the Mohave and Sonoran Deserts, which in their pristine condition were full of cactuses, mesquites and hardy plants before they were degraded by humans. Perhaps we could say that many deserts have been desertified (degraded) by humans. What we want is restored deserts. Ecological restoration can be slower than in wet climates, but there is a lot of scope for ecological restoration in deserts. Millions of people have called deserts their home since time immemorial. Turning the meager offerings that nature has to offer into an extraordinary wealth of culture.
Strategies will vary depending on rural or urban, Global South or Global North.
There are still 500 million small-scale farmers in the world, mainly in Asia and Africa and mostly subsistence. Many of them would be motivated to increase production using the resources they have. There are another 70 million or so conventional, industrial farmers in the world. They will be greatly hampered by supply chain breakdowns. This does not include the issue of land-less farm-workers. Land should be made available to any of them who wish to produce food.
We should expect some land reform and land redistribution in a localized world.
Urban areas would be hit much harder and quicker than rural areas. So we can expect to see an exodus of people back to their native rural areas where they still have farm relatives. There are some good examples of this in India. Villages with degraded lands lose population to urban migration and when the land and waters are restored there is a return migration. The land can support more people. This is what is needed everywhere.
There will be a scavenging of local resources and a growth of repair services. A re-purposing of things, buildings and properties. A lot of ingenuity will be needed to keep cobbling things together.
Home-scale food production and seed production would need to be greatly scaled up. Bring a lot more un-used land into gardens. Use the edges. Urban areas especially. Urban agriculture and food growing is already on the increase in many urban areas in the South. Community gardens should be ubiquitous.
Garden companies should evolve which focus on growing productive vines on buildings and vertical surfaces in the city. Rooftop and rainwater harvesting for gardens should be the norm.
Hard to imagine a collapse scenario without thievery, violence and death. There will be a lot of PTSD. Places with more intact community structures and solidarity will fare better compared to dog-eat-dog societies.
Will it be a quick collapse or a slow slide? Everywhere at once? Or gradually more and more places? There are quite a few places in the world already which are failed states or war zones such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Libya, and others. What % of the world is currently in this situation? Some parts of the world are taking hits to their infrastructure from weather events. Hurricanes, droughts, floods, tornadoes, blizzards etc continue to eat away at human infrastructure. Repairing these damages is a big effort. A breakdown of the supply chain would mean less repairs and reduced infrastructure.
Sheikh Imran Hosein’s advice for many years to his Muslim listeners is to leave the city and move to rural areas. Grow food, raise animals and live peacefully with all the neighbors, no matter their religion.
In cold temperate regions with snowy winters, winter food storage is a big issue.
In a sense, the Y2K scare which led to many disaster preparedness groups, was a test run. Same with the preppers. We should be listening to some of the prepper’s advice. They have thought a lot of things out. Many of them have some things to learn about food production from us ecosystem restoration farmer types.
Disaster preparedness plans should all have an ecosystem restoration component for the long haul. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture which can produce food with little or no outside inputs is the order of the day. More animal and human power in growing food. Cuba is a good example of a country cut off from its supply chain and industrial inputs. They went heavily to oxen. Wheelbarrows became prized possessions. Permaculture was adopted on a large scale and Cuba managed to get though without starvation.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 is another good example to draw on. Conventional agricultural production collapsed by 80%. It was the heroic efforts of Russian gardeners who rose to the challenge of feeding the populace. Even in the early 2000s Russian people still grew 85% of their fruits and berries 75% of the vegetables, 50% of the meat and 45% of the dairy, all at the home scale. No other Western country can match that.
I know how to grow food on a small footprint of land with hand tools and local inputs. I know how to live with a wood stove and a handsaw. I have lived without electricity, phone and running water. These will be useful skills if the globalized system collapses. The higher the % of a nation’s population that has practical skills the better it will fare in a collapse.
Wild foods may be helpful in an interim survival period. Every traditional culture and people knew the wild edibles where they lived. Knowing the uses of the most common weeds is useful information. Every people had their famine survival foods. I remember as a child reading Pearl Buck’s China novels and she would write that during famines the peasants ate grass, bark and wild plants to keep themselves alive till the next harvest. Little did I know I would become an expert in the famine foods of my region.
Bartering as part of the new economic system. When Argentina’s peso collapsed in 2000, banks closed and money became a rare commodity. As a result bartering became rampant. 3,000 barter fairs were started in Argentina within one year of the collapse. They gradually closed down as a regular economy revived. But people will remember them if need be. Everywhere should be prepared to start barter fairs shortly after any collapse. Build your local economy.
Permaculture design for refugee camps is currently being worked on. We need a lot of that in the world of today and might need it more in the coming years. Please send me examples of where permaculture design and other forms of food design have been applied to refugee camps. One that I am starting to work with is the Nakivale Camp Regenerative Agriculture Program in Uganda.
Human waste management will be a big concern where centralized sewage systems break down. SOIL from Haiti has a lot of share in this regard. The many types of human waste management is a topic I have lectured on many times.
Paradise out of Disaster. An idea whose time has come? Out of the ashes can rise the phoenix. Collapse-induced localization might give us our best chance of a sustainable, humane future. Where we are headed in today’s world doesn’t look good to me on either account.
No matter what happens, earth repair and ecosystem restoration needs to be pursued with all the vigor humanity can muster. It is, as John D. Liu calls it, the Great Work of our Time.
Here is an article I wrote back in 2007.
Part I discusses some of the food crises facing the general public and food at-risk populations in the US.
Part II lists some of the popular movements arising out of the public to address the food crisis. Resources and examples tend to be from the Pacific Northwest.
Part III briefly introduces permaculture and lists some practical, on-the-ground techniques to increase local food production. Where and how do we grow local food.
I would like to reference Steve Solomon’s book here: Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times. He does a great job describing how people can grow food without irrigation in temperate regions.
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