Look at the diversity of life, the wealth and fertility of natural ecosystems, the beauty, the energy, vitality that nature has accumulated, generated and sustained over the ages, through cliamte changes, massive earthquakes and volcanoes, fridged ice ages, meteor collisions…
For me, the generative power of nature is utterly awe-inspiring, so it was a major relelvation to think that we could harness that power and put it to work creating the kind of life we want to live, by modelling our livelihood on its wise patterns.
Live in-tune with nature: Transform your life.
And we can use models like this to transform life-sucking, decaying, “degenerative” human systems like this:
Into systems that are “regenerative” like natural systems, growing wealthier and healthier over time, like this:
Two keys to making this transformation are 1) Identifying steams of energy we can catch, and 2) Identifying good places to store those streams of energy so that we can accumulate them.
So lets list a few potential streams of energy for a household economy. And lets be mindful that these same strategies can be used by individuals, families, communities or organizations.
Conventional Income: These are mainly “financial,” meaning they give you energy in the form of money, which is particularly useful in our society. These include jobs, home businesses, inheritance, investment dividends (those these are very rare today) etc.
Saving: Meaning “not spending.” A penny saved is a penny earned. But better, because you don’t pay taxes on it. The only problem is that the potential growth of this energy stream is relatively limited and subject to the “law of diminishing returns.” This is because in our society, for most people basic costs are somewhat fixed. I know few people who can thrive and create a regenerative, resilient life in North America on much less than $10,000/year.
That means if you start your Permaculture journey with expenses around $50k/year, your potential Return on Investment (ROI) from savings is around $40k.
Now, if you can put 20 or even 40 hours/week for 1 year into creating hacks, systems or solutions that earn you $40k/year tax-free indefinitely that’s a pretty fantastic ROI in anybody’s book!
But once you get down to $10k of expenses/year it gets harder to find fat to cut. You could put the same 20 hours/week in and your maximum yearly ROI is probably a few thousand dollars at best. So the ROI of energy and time put into “saving” diminishes as you get better at saving (and as your income goes down.)
So, the “financial experts” are just being a bunch of clueless, privleged a-holes when they tell a family of 3 making $30k/year that they just need to “save more.” People with already low expenses or incomes should put less time and energy into saving and more energy into harvesting more diverse energy streams with a higher ROI.
And this is why some of the standard advice that many Permaculturists and homesteading experts is misleading, too.
The practical take-home is that if you’re on the top side of that equation with a high potential return, then look for high ROI opportunities to save money, such as low-maintenance edible landscaping, sharing housing expenses, and home energy improvemments. If you’re already frugal, maybe it’s time to start spending money on things that will generate more energy streams.
Setting Limits: This is Permaculture’s original third ethic (it’s contantly being changed by everybody) but it’s also an important source of energy that we can literally capture and put to work for us. This is probably the second most important energy source to understand, and is ENTIRELY differenent than the perspective of “saving,” not spending, or cutting expenses. It has a virtually unlimited potential ROI.
If you’re basing your happines on achieving the goal of making $10,000,000/year, and you decide you’d be equally happy with $50,000, you just saved yourself $9,950,000 a year! Ha! More importantly, you freed up a lot of time, income, willpower and energy that you can reinvest into more regeneartive activities.
But far more important than that, setting limits IS building measurable wealth in a tangible way.
Social scientists have found that when people in most human communities are asked to spontaneously rank people in their communities by their “wealth,” they always put the financially RICHEST members of their community at the very bottom, along with the chronically diseased and homeless. Our art and literature are filled with such archetypes of the “miser,” the rich-but-miserable, clinging to meaningless hoards for their own sake. Setting limits allows us to cultivate REAL wealth while avoiding investing our money in misery.
In the broader societal context, how much of wealth could be “freed up” by setting reasonable limits, that is currently wasted on such meaningless misery as making misers more miserable?
The take-home is to set limits for ourselves. We need to decide what would really make us happy and stop: “spending money we don’t have on things we don’t want to impress people we don’t like,” to quote Chuck Palaniuk.
Social Dividends: Yeah, your neighbors liking you is an energy stream you can capture to get work done, for example, keeping their dog Buddy’s doo doo out of your salad garden. In the Permaculture literature, we typically call this social capital.
The good news is that humans are inately good at building friendships and forming communities, so we don’t have to spend too much time thinking about it.
The bad news is it comes with three big problems.
Firstly, thinking about it too much makes you an A-hole. Some Permaculture sources describe giving neighbors cookies and zucchini to “pay” for their help on your new fish pond. Anybody with such a transactional view of their social interactions is basically an A-hole. And they will likely be seen as such by their neighbors, which kind of works counter to the whole point.
Secondly: Nobody wants your extra zucchini.
Thirdly, the biggest problem with this transactional idea of social capital it is that it’s largely BS. Social capital is non-transactional. Social research just hasn’t upheld this very rational view of social capital where you do stuff for people and therefore they like you. People are just way more complicated than that.
As it turns out, the research shows that more often the exact opposite is true. When you do stuff for people, they’re likely to de-value your contributions to them and they tend to respect you less. Meanwhile, when you can manipulate people to do stuff for you, they actually like you better.
Because humans are basically insane and irrational.
Think of all those movies where the Jocks pressure the nerds into giving them their lunch money, cleaning their rooms and doing their homework for them. Do the jocks like and respect the nerds more? Noooooo. Instead, the jock gives the nerd a playful noogie and says “you’re alright, looser” and it’s the best day the nerd’s had all month.
So back to problem one: thinking about social capital too much makes you an a-hole. Also, it’s a total bummer.
And yet, there are some smart, practical and ethical ways we can interact with the idea of social capital that are actually backed-up by social science research, and I plan on writing about those more in the future.
But some basic advice is make diverse friends. Value people and generously INVEST IN EXPERIENCES with them. Don’t try to buy friendship with transactions of good deeds or stuff.
Loans: A lot of Permaculture people are really down on financing with loans. Me, not necessarily so. Especially when you cam use someone elses money at a very low interest rate. I’ll write about this more later, but the big distinction throughout history has been that the prosperous borrow to invest in the means of production, paupers borrow to meet their needs. Often, the latter leads to forms of slavery. The former leads to wealth.
So, when we borrow, we try to be mindful of using the borrowed money to invest in durable assets with a positive energy return. For example, we borrowed to buy our house, which is also a nursery and farm business which grows a large portion of our food and also a form of “regenerative” rental property. When we purchased our car, we prioritized a vehicle that could be used as a productive asset to haul materials for our business and save us the money we were spending each month in rental fees.
Chance: This is one of the most important streams of energy we can harvest, and possibly the most important to understand, yet it is seldom addressed, even in the Permaculture literature.
While the downside of preparing for bad luck, resilience, is often treated in Permaculture, the scientific literature shows we can also learn to relate to chance in a better way and actually improve our luck. Which is good, because statisticians are finding that “luck” may be the #1 factor in determining the success or failure of most businesses and endeavors. Positioning ourselves to improve our luck can be one of the highest ROI activities we can invest in. Luckily, we’ll be going into this in great detail soon.
Culture: This is the stream of inherited knowledge that societies use to accomplish work. We position ourselves to “catch” cultural energy when we get edumacated, for example. Or when we write or recite poetry, or sing songs. We can take those streams of energy, sythesize them, improve them and then store them into useful (or not) forms. Like what you’re reading now. (or not.)
Gifts: Sure, getting them provides you with an energy stream, duh. But also giving them, if you’re clever. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Give him a food forest garden and you’ll feed him a diverse, healthy diet, make your community a happier, healthier place to live. We can structure our “giving” so that we can give freely and generously without an expectation of reciprocity, yet still obtain a yield from it.
Living Assets: Speaking of Food Forests, they’re the perfect example of a living asset that can catch energy from the sun, the wind, the rain, the soil, and transform it into goodies that can meet your needs, such as by feeding you. But living assets are usually also “generative,” meaning they can be used to produce something to meet your needs, such as fruit. And they’re also usually “procreative,” meaning they reproduce more of themselves. In this case, a single diverse food forest should reproduce itself, in the form of plant material, almost yearly by the time its 3 – 5 years old. Such living assets are the key to harvesting sun energy and turning it into exponential abundance.
There are a large variety of living assets one can invest in to set up powerful positive energy yields in their lives depending on their goals. The important thing is to match them to our goals and resources. Not everyone needs an agriforest, livestock, a fuel wood lot, or a fish pond. Everyone can and should have a forest garden, in my opinion.
Natural and Ecosystem Services: You know, phsyics and biology and stuff. Gravity, for example, can do great things for you, especially if you want to go down a hill. For example, it can move water for free or help you transport mulch and firewood. Wind, sun, rain. Ecosystems can clean your water and air, heat and light your home. They can safely take and process your poo and wee. In Europe people have to pay to use a toilet. Just remember that.
Anyone can begin to harvest energy from natural processes in a huge variety of ways: foraging, wild-crafting, making gifts and decorations from natural materials, making natural medicines, harvesting rain water….
Natural Succession: One of the most important sources of natural energy we can harvest. The best “living assets” are those which work with natural succession instead of against it. For example, a lawn is technically a living asset which is both “generative” (grass clippings for fertilizer) and “procreative” (produces seeds and plants to start new lawns.) However, to maintain it as a lawn, we have to contantly fight against the power of natural succession, which wants it to grow weedy and eventually become a forest, by spraying and mowing and cussing at kids blowing dandelions. Meanwhile, if our idea is to have a forest, all we have to do is stop mowing and we can harvest the power of natural succession, which will kindly transform our lawn into a rich, fertile forest for free.
Trade and exchange: Great forms of energy we can put to work for us. Pretty self explanitory.
Am I missing something important? Help me out in the comments section.
Next, we’ll start talking about types of assets (“De-Generative, Durable, Generative, and Procreative”) and forms of captial we can invest these energy streams into.