PERMACULTURE ON BEAVER ISLAND:
Permaculture on Beaver Island
No one likes hearing this, but it's time to have an adult conversation. Beaver Island will face some never-before-seen challenges in years to come. They revolve around oil: specifically, the phenomenon known as "peak oil," which refers to the point at which global production of oil will not meet worldwide demand. Many experts suggest we already have passed the peak of conventional oil production, which is why energy companies are shifting to other means of energy production such as tar sand extraction, mountain top removal and natural gas "fracking."
So why does this matter to independent minded, nature praising Island homeowners? It matters because fossil fuels touch every aspect of our lives. Energy, food, travel, communication and finance are all dependent on massive amounts of cheap fossil fuels, primarily petroleum. Many astute consumers have already realized that when the cost of oil goes up, the cost of living on earth goes up. Add last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Michigan's own pipeline spill near Kalamazoo, and we have more than enough reasons to get off fossil fuels.
The exact nature and timeline of peak oil are debated extensively throughout industry and academia, and I encourage you to do your own research on the topic. However, when the United States, German, and English militaries all produce independent reports on the distinct possibility of worldwide oil shortages in the next several years (as they did last summer), it's time to pay attention. (See http://cleantechnica.com.)
The good news in this scenario is that peak oil has been on the radar of one group of problem solvers for years. Collectives from all over the world have begun designing and implementing solutions to our dependence on fossil fuels, and their important work is yielding noteworthy results. Much of this new work is being done in sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, alternative fuels, and believe it or not, community building. This emerging field is known as Permaculture, and it's spreading across the world.
That's because Permaculture (short for Permanent-Culture) is becoming the definitive design methodology in the transition to a sustainable planet. Now I realize "sustainable" is a loaded word these days, and has been overused often. But I believe it is still a good descriptor as long as we agree on a common meaning. The definition I propose is this: In order for any system to be truly sustainable, it must produce more than it consumes. It's that simple.
Permaculturists design systems that produce more than they consume, to create human settlements that are self-sufficient and regenerative. Another key to Permaculture design is emphasis on small scale, intensive systems. An individual home is a great place to start, but ideally we would design solutions for a community of homes based on their common needs. Permaculture systems take into account and integrate energy and food production, water use, building materials, transportation fuels and waste disposal. Imagine all of your basic needs being produced and provided for locally, without the use of fossil fuels. These projects also invigorate local economies and create new jobs. Perhaps best of all, Permaculture design not only works to maintain healthy ecosystems, it actually restores damaged environments back to natural balance.
It didn't take long for me to realize that Beaver Island is an ideal place for Permaculture, so I brought some of my staff and students to the Island this past summer. We began installing a perennial food forest, earth oven, and timber processing station on our South End property. We took preliminary data and began designing a hybrid wind and solar system to provide for our home's energy, heat and hot water needs. We began looking at the beach algae accumulation we've been having as a potential source of Ethanol, a fuel that could replace the petroleum we use in our car. This is all well and good, but alone it's not enough, which is why we started talking with our neighbors.
We agreed that it is time to turn this adult conversation into a community dialogue. It's time to come together and start taking responsibility for our collective island needs, rather than continue helpless dependence on foreign, petroleum-based sources of energy and food. There is still much discussion, listening, and learning to be done. Hopefully, we can begin a sincere dialogue on community based energy systems, and what they might look like in practice, and I encourage you to support and join this emerging dialogue with your ideas, thoughts, and goals.
In Permaculture, we build systems that are resilient, meaning we have backups. The more ways you have to heat and cook, the better you'll sleep at night.
Always look for opportunities to collaborate with other Islanders. Get together and buy solar panels at group-reduced bulk cost. Start a community, school or church garden. Begin an inventory of community resources and a neighborhood tool sharing group. Put up inexpensive hoop houses in open space and grow food all year long (even on BI!). Start a Permaculture book club. Buy food from Island growers and gather folks together for a locally grown meal every so often. In years to come, we may find that community is our most important renewable resource.