Permaculture thinking isn’t just a tool for the home landscape or farm. Ecological modeling can be applied to town and city planning, as well.
I was recently asked by a neighbor for my input on a City policy around “Sustainability” and the following is slightly adapted version of the letter I responded with.
More specifically, the request began with the question:
What are the key physical attributes of “sustainability” for Kzoo?
From a Permaculture perspective, the key physical attribute of a sustainable Kalamazoo would be systems that:
Care for the earth
Care for people
Respect natural limits
Being more precise and measurable, and very literal, Kalamazoo CANNOT be sustainable without:
1. A food system that creates more soil than it costs, with a “positive energy audit,” meaning it produces more calories than are required for input (in all forms including transport.) Right now, we lose soil each year and spend around 400 calories of energy for each calorie we eat.
2. Production of more net energy resources (in all forms) than are imported. Right now, Kalamazoo produces virtually 0 energy resources.
3. More wealth is imported to and created in Kalamazoo than is exported from Kalamazoo.
4. Repair and regeneration of habitat, wild nature, and with it ecosystem function, which has already been damaged too severely for a “protect what’s left” approach to be sustainable.
5. More water is infilltrated into deep aquifers than is withdrawn.
6. More is produced by city residents than consumed.
7. Renewable resources are valued, produced in the city, utilized whenever possible.
8. A just, and equitable society with meaningful work for everyone, without which, the system doesn’t deserve to be “sustained.”
However, I’d like to provoke you (the City Planning staff) to go much, much further. Many in the circles of Permaculture, environmentalism and cutting-edge applied ecology consider “sustainability” an out-dated concept and a poor goal. They say it’s one that we should abandon if not actively oppose and organize against.
Firstly, “sustainability” is seen as an oxymoron in that it’s something actually intended to prevent the development of sustainable systems. “Sustainable” is flat-lining, at best, but usually it’s far worse, a “goal” of continuous decline and decent, but at a rate slow enough that we can bare it. Taking current systems, which are fundamentally unsustainable, and taking steps towards “sustainability” (the “sustainability” approach) means you never reach a system that is sustainable.
Sustainability is “Xeno’s Paradox” in another form, where the tortoise who gets “half way” to the finish line each day will never reach the finish line.
This “sustainability” approach as it is almost universally defined literally means protecting and enshrining the status quo unsustainable ways of meeting our needs.
It is also by others as being “counter-revolutionary.” From this perspective, it’s only from a position of insulated privilege, where our current abusive systems and institutions are actually still somewhat serving us, that anyone would even want to entertain the idea of “sustaining” the status quo that requires child labor in Asia and war in the Middle East.
Finally, it fails to inspire action. A “Sustainable Kalamazoo” can trudge on forever into the future, like a dead-end job or a bad marriage, no matter how kindly it relates with its residents, or not.
“How’s your marriage doing, Bob?”
“Well my wife said she thought we were “flat-lining” so I think she means it’s becoming more “sustainable.” Yep, I think we can both survive it indefinitely.”
Inspired yet? Is that a vision of a marriage you want to work for?
Instead, let’s envision a “regenerative” Kalamazoo that heals us, revives us, and makes us stronger, wealthier and healthier each year. With systems that make our soil more fertile, our water more pure and our environment more life-enhancing each day. Where each resident can expect a “regenerative” life of growth, health and fulfillment in a healthy, beautiful ecology.
Dump the “Sustainability Plan.” Let’s not make “flat-lining” our goal. If you’re going to have a goal, aim for the stars, right? Maybe we need a “Revolutionary Plan” for a truly different and better approach to meeting our needs.
A few policies I’d like to see:
A “De-Growth” plan. “Serve fewer better.” No growth is smart growth.
-Right now much of Kalamazoo’s political leadership is proposing various ways of “growth” as the way to solve budget shortfalls and create a better economy.
-A great deal of evidence suggests S.W. Michigan MAY be in for net population loss in the near future, implying “smart growth” is a zero-sum game where we exploitively compete against other communities to capture population. In addition to being unethical, what if we lose? A prudent plan would AT VERY LEAST acknowledge reality with a contingency for negative growth.
-Don’t plan for growth as the basis for a functioning economy and a solvent municipal government. Guess what? That’s what every other municipality is doing. Some are going to lose! Why put all our eggs in the growth basket?
-There is a great deal of evidence that Kalamazoo has too large a population, especially of “imported” professionals. Every unemployed person, and virtually every employed one gives me testimony to that fact each time we talk.
Embodied Energy and Maintainability as part of our “Sustainability” Definition.“Sustainable Buildings” are almost never as sustainable as those that they replace, especially when accounting considers “embodied energy” of materials. Also, many modern “Maintenance Free” materials cannot be maintained, meaning they are designed for the dump. Let’s stop calling them “sustainable.”
An “Ergonomic” or “Energy Zones” approach to integrated use and zoning, especially regarding food, work and consumption. This is especially vital around food, as the basic energy unit of a local economy. This would produce the “freshest” foods, which require the greatest number of shipping trips, closest to the places where people live, saving us time, energy and money. Meanwhile, it would put foods that require only minimal intervention and infrequent harvest further out from town. The same thinking can be applied to other resources, not just food. This would have huge environmental and economic benefits.
A plan to “Activate” the Kzoo electorate. So few people here vote that I personally deny that the municipality has a mandate to so much as pay its own bills, let alone exercise extreme authority like eminent domaine, planning and policing. It should be seen as a disgrace to our “elected” officials to get approval of 8% or less of eligible voters. This ain’t difficult to fix. It’s Polly Sci 101 stuff. But it’s clearly convenient not to.
Urban Community Coppice agroforestry Lots to sequester carbon and provide low-cost carbon-negative heating fuel (in pelletized form) for FREE to low-income residents, as well as food, improved air quality, healthier ecologies, meaningful work, etc. That’s right, we can actually heat our homes in a way that is literally “sustainable” for very low cost, producing this energy right here in Kalamazoo, while SEQUESTERING more carbon that we release into the atmosphere. Why would we NOT work on this?
No More “Community Visioning.” Return of power to the “kitchen table” level. Virtually everyone outside the system considers Kalamazoo’s “Neighborhood Association” system to be utterly broken, over-powered and over-politicized. Too often, Kzoo residents get policy and land use imposed on them by politicians (with virtually no electoral mandate) who have never even stood on their block. Then we ask why people don’t vote? The role of the city should be to support that kitchen-table level and empower people to envision and create their own unique environments. This is in keeping with Christopher Alexander’s pattern of community tapestries. Let this “Tapestry of Communities” be our shared Community Vision, instead.