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Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services [Permaculture
Posted on May 8, 2015 @ 08:16:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The 5th of David Holmgren's Permaculture design principles is a mouthful "Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services" (discussion of previous principles can be found here).

What is a "renewable resource"?

Sun, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy are renewable resources that easily come to mind, however, there are many more. All forms of life are capable of reproduction and thus are capable of renewal. A fish stock can be harvested indefinitely if it is harvested in an appropriate manner. Part of valuing a resource is recognizing the limits of that resource and harvesting it in a sustainable manner. This principle should cause us to regularly ask "am I harvesting this resource in a manner that is sustainable so that it can continue to be a renewable resource". Another renewable resource is soil. We can continue to perform karate on our soils through plowing and chemical fertizing and cultivation but what happens to the soil when we do so? Can the soil continue to provide ecosystem services as a result of this treatment (e.g., carbon sequestration, pollinator habitat, etc...).

Anyone who uses a clothes line to dry their clothes (i.e., solar clothes dryer) is using and valuing a renewable resource. Anyone who gardens is using and valuing a renewable resource. Anyone in a temperate climate who designs their house to have south-facing windows is using and valuing a renewable resource. Anyone who raises a chicken is using and valuing a renewable resource.

Before we became dependent on fossil fuels to power and build our society we were much more attuned to this principle because our energy, fuel, transport, and food all came from renewable resources. We relied upon "renewables" to a much greater extent in our past and in a more sustainable future it is likely that we will need to use and value them more. The principle points towards the future and the need, in our designs, to use and value renewable resources and services. To do so results in better designs.

Valuing a renewable resource properly is a complex matter. Getting a pig to till a garden replaces motor power, adds manure, and might not cost as much in time or non-renewable resources as an engine-powered approach would. Getting the pig to do the work reflects a fairly sophisticated appreciation of how to value a renewable resource. The rooting behavior of pigs can be put to productive use instead of being a problem.

David is not a cheerleader for renewable energies at all costs and encourages us to properly evaluate each renewable energy source with respect to energy return on investment: how much energy goes into fabricating, installing, and maintaining and how much of that energy debt is paid off during its expected lifetime. We have replaced much of our renewable infrastructure with high technology powered by non-renewable energies like oil & gas. The solution isn't necessarily to keep the high technology but swap out the oil and gas component for renewable sources of energy. It may be to ditch the high technology part as well and revert to using animals and nature to do the work as they have in more sustainable traditional societies. The Permaculture symbol for this principle is the horse which played a central role in our pioneer economy.

The horse can still do farm work, provide fertility, mow grass, and provide companionship if it is not completely replaced with high technology in our farming operations. This is not an issue of returning to the good old days, it is an issue of which renewable resources you want to value and how you want to value them. Whether you want to use them and what uses you want from them.

This principle is about thinking more deeply upon the issue of what is renewable and what isn't, a central issue to figure out if you want to live sustainably. It isn't simply about hammering down on the oil and gas industry because it is not renewable as David reminds us:

We can aspire to redeveloping this respectful valuing of nature's gifts. As long as we live from the oil well and the coalfield, we would do well to pay homage to them rather than take them for granted like spoiled children who have everything but value nothing.

Elsewhere, David suggests that we could better value our reserves of oil & gas by putting them to "less banal" uses and "more productive" uses in establishing a society that is better able to sustain itself in the long run off renewable resources and their services. That may mean putting up windmills, urban train systems, and so on but it also includes major earthworks using fossil fuels to get our settlements in order for a more sustainable future. We can also put less strain on our non-renewable resources by using appropriate technologies and lower-energy methods of farming so we can do it more sustainably. Here is a nice rant by David on the over-dependence of farming on non-renewables:

Today, modern agriculture is the most pervasive and important example of increases in productivity from renewable resources by the use of additional non-renewable energies, materials and technology to assist in the management, harvesting and processing of natural resources. Although these processes have increased total yields, they have transformed agriculture from our prime means of harvesting renewable resources to one of our largest consumers of non-renewable resources.

The days may be coming to an end where industrial agriculture can keep ignoring some of these objections regarding its dependence on non-renewable resources. Urban agriculture has been a fringe movement but it has the potential to be the thin wedge of a movement that might disrupt our entire food system (back to a time when urban farming was common). The techniques and technologies for intensive urban farming are getting better each year. Is urban farming a way to better use and value our renewable resources and services than industrial farming? I don't know but it is an excuse to listen to this week's podcast on urban farming by Curtis Stone where he discusses irrigation and poly low tunnels and other issues in urban farming (example of appropriate tech & low energy?). I'll be out in the back yard garden this weekend hopefully using and valuing nature's gifts, the renewable resources and services that surround us all.

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