Exploring ideas for affordable, sustainable, enjoyable living.

Permaculture Principles and Home Economics, Part II

In order to see how permaculture principles can help in the home, you first have to imagine your home as an ecosystem.  The yard and the building with its furniture is the terrain.  The people, pets, and garden plants are the native species.  The local climate (including heating and air conditioning) is, well, the local climate.  How will you use your resources to sustainably meet your needs and thrive?

I will be looking at each of the 12 permaculture design principles to see how they can help us make the most of our little ecosystems.  Remember, too, that these principles can be applied both literally and metaphorically.  I find that thinking metaphorically about them allows me to make more creative leaps and come up with literal ways to apply them.  For each of the following principles, think of the specific needs of your home ecosystem, and be creative about how you can apply these ideas.  It’s fun!

1. Observe and interact.  Figure out what your specific needs and resources are. Your system needs to be designed to suit these needs, no one else’s.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and inevitably some trial and error will be necessary to find the way that works best for you.

Recently I went on Pinterest to try to find some good money saving tips and tricks.  And generally I find Pinterest to be like a Willy Wonka chocolate factory of clever ideas waiting to be plucked and tasted, but when it comes to saving money on groceries…eh, not so much.  What I found was that most of it was either not applicable to me or I had already figured it out because it was just common sense.  The reason I had figured many of the techniques out is that I have already been observing and experimenting for the last nine months.  For me, the best way to observe has been rigorous household accounting.

Oh and incidentally, reading and doing research on the internet does count as observation!

2. Catch and store energy.  The availability of resources (money, free time, good gardening weather, pasture-raised chicken eggs at the grocery store…)  is always fluctuating.  When resources are abundant, save some for the lean times.

One of the Pinterest tips that I will be implementing is making things like brownie and cake mixes.  These are things I never buy because they are full of ingredients that scare me and are grossly overpriced, so when I want brownies I have to make ’em from scratch.  Which is fine, enjoyable even, but time is a limited resource.  When time is abundant, I can pre-assemble the dry ingredients and store them for later; then when I’m short on time, I can make delicious dessert quickly and easily.  Another way to apply this principle is of course to buy in bulk, which will usually save you money in the short term as well, but how much you can do this depends on how much storage space you have available.  Making your own jam is ridiculously easy and can save you money if you do it when fruit is in season and on sale, plus you can make your own custom flavors.

And of course–if you own your own home and have the capital to invest in solar panels, rain barrels, and so on–what are you waiting for?  Store that stuff!

3. Obtain a yield.  This might seem so obvious that it doesn’t need saying, but in order for the system to work, you need a quick and continuous return on your efforts so that the system can self-perpetuate.  After all, a big payoff down the road is great, but you have to live to see that day.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.  As I said with Principle 1, you have to do what works for you, but one thing I’m pretty sure is universal in the home economy is the need to (a) budget and (b) keep rigorous accounts.  In order to evaluate whether your methods are working, you have to be able to observe the changes so you can immediately stop what isn’t working and maximize whatever is.  You must stick with this, because sometimes the results aren’t immediately apparent.  It has taken me 9 months to really catch the patterns in my spending behavior and to figure out what records I need to keep.

And another thing–Mother Nature has no mercy, and neither should you.  If there aren’t enough resources to support an organism, it will die, and you have to be equally ruthless toward any activity or spending that is not working.  Sometimes, alas, this means going without.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services.  This principle seems so easy, but I find it’s one of the most difficult ones to apply.  When you live in an urban environment, you are just swamped with non-renewable and non-degradable materials and energies, and not many of us have the capital to renovate and old house or build a new passive solar one.  So I am of the opinion that every little bit helps.

In some states, you can opt to have all or part of your electricity sourced from wind.  In my area, every year each household receives a voucher for a free tree from a local nursery, the idea being to create more shade and reduce A/C usage.

6. Produce no waste.  Waste is a sign that resources are not being used efficiently, so the more waste you’ve got, the less efficient you are.  Quite simply, the number one way to reduce waste is to reduce consumption.

One thing that helps a lot here is meal planning.  If you plan your meals week by week, and make grocery lists from those plans, you can dramatically reduce the amount of food that will go to waste.

And there are other practices which will at least diminish your waste.  If you are reducing, reusing, and recycling, you will already have reduced the amount of garbage you produce significantly. You can also start composting.  When I first started looking into composting I was discouraged, because I lived in an apartment and didn’t have my own yard where I could make a compost pile.  Solution:  worm composting in a bin under the sink.  I was amazed how much of my kitchen trash those worms gobbled up (everything except oils/fats, meat and dairy, and citrus and onions, though they happily eat onion skins), and they gave me lovely fertile worm castings in return.  They also reproduce very fast, and then gobble exponentially more.  And no, it doesn’t stink at all.  Now, your kitchen waste will eventually biodegrade in a landfill, but this way you get to directly benefit from that biodegradation, saving money on fertilizer and even groceries, if you’re growing some of your own food, and saving space in the landfill.

My big bugaboo is the amount of unnecessary packaging material we’re surrounded by (and forced to dispose of)–most of it made from plastic, which comes from petroleum, which is of course a non-renewable resource.  Every time I use a ziploc bag I die a little inside.  Happily, reusing packaging materials is a topic on which the internet is overflowing with wonderful ideas.  There will of course come a day when all your sodas and household cleaners and pencils are neatly organized and stored and you can’t think of any further use for leftover tin cans, shoeboxes, or those little plastic bread clip thingies.  But I bet that day is a lot further down the line than you think.  Almost any glass container is worth saving and reusing.  At the very least, you’ll feel pretty awesome knowing how smart and creative you’ve been.

You will not be able to completely eliminate waste until you completely eliminate consumption, and at that point you’ll be totally self-sufficient–which is an excellent goal but admittedly difficult for the urban Homo sapiens.  But we can all do our best.    I’ll come back to the issue of waste in Principle #8.

Next time:  Principles #7-12!


Permaculture Principles and Home Economics, Part I

For a long time now I’ve been obsessed with permaculture (from permanent + agriculture).  In a nutshell, permaculture is a way to radically change humans’ relationship to the environment so that we can survive and thrive without destroying our fellow earthlings or the planet.  In other words, it’s about sustainability.  It demands simple yet profound changes in the ways we produce our food.

A brief survey of history and archaeology makes it glaringly obvious that agriculture has not been an unmitigated blessing to humanity–in recent times we have been confronted with dilemmas (in some cases catastrophes) directly resultant from our food production systems, including but not limited to:  contaminated meat, massive bee die-off, pesticide toxicity, herbicide-resistant super-weeds, greenhouse gases, boys growing breasts, the demise of the family farm, and soil erosion.  And there are moral quandaries, such as the marginalization of hunter-gatherers, unequal access to food and the means to make it, and shockingly inhumane treatment of animals.  We (should) have also learned that humans don’t always make the best decisions when it comes to the way we consume food–even where it is abundant we end up malnourished and obese at the same time.

Permaculture offers solutions to these problems.  Its methods are guided by a three-fold ethical foundation–earth care, people care, fair share–and 12 design principles.

You don’t have to be a farmer or go back to a Stone Age lifestyle to benefit from the principles of permaculture.  They are guidelines for sutainability in most, if not all, aspects of our lives.  So call me a dirty hippy, but I have this crazy dream of putting them to use in my home and saving money too.

I admit I still haven’t figured out exactly how this is going to work.  But stick with me for Parts II and III, where I will look at each principle in detail and see how we can work with it in the home environment.

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