It Takes a Village … Find Yours!


By Steven Saint Thomas

The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is widely attributed to Africans but it reflects the experience of most humans around the world (and through the centuries) who have lived in villages.

The late permaculturist Toby Hemenway noted that cities, too, have been around for eons and have served people greatly in our needs for community, security and commerce. Hemenway wrote The Permaculture City in 2015 after having lived both in the off-grid countryside of southern Oregon and the city of Portland.

Now David Holmgren, the co-founder of permaculture, has published his blueprint for the sustainable suburb, RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future.

Holmgren writes that suburbs are potentially the best of both worlds, a “sweet spot” between rural and urban living.

I think he’s right. Visiting Holmgren at his 2-1/2 acre homestead in central Victoria changed my life. I caught a vision of what you might call “Permie Paradise” – a family producing most of their own food and sharing the surplus with friends and neighbors doing likewise in the small Australian town of Hepburn Springs.

Now, one big difference between Australia and America is scale – only 24 million Australians have to share their continent and resources.

Hepburn Springs (population around 1,000) is what we Yanks would call a “village.” It is not part of sprawling, back-to-back suburbs with which city-dwelling Americans are familiar.

So I think it is crucial for urban and suburban permaculturists to break our high-density regions into, well, villages. Whether these villages have 400 people or 1,000, the point is they are neighborhoods where people can focus their efforts on localizing their food system and economy.

In the Zone
If you only read one section of The Permaculture City, read Chapter 5, “Strategies for Gardening in Community.” Hemenway applies permaculture’s “zone analysis” to the question of local food systems.

Zones reflect the frequency of use, the amount of time and energy, spent in various parts of a property. Zones are usually depicted as concentric circles moving out like ripples in a pond.

Zone 0 is where you live – usually a house – and Zone 1 are the grounds immediately surrounding it. Zone 5 is farthest away and often left alone as “wilderness” in permaculture design.

Hemenway asks us to map our foodsheds. Zone 1 would be food that we grow in our own gardens. Zone 2 would be community gardens or neighbors within walking/cycling distance where you could obtain food.

Food you can buy from a farmer’s market or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) schemes falls into Zone 3. The next zone represents grocery stores or other retailers that sell locally produced food.

Finally, Zone 5 includes corporate chains and big-box retailers selling food from all over the world. Hemenway advises, “Get as much of your food as possible from zones 1 to 3. The leap into a nation- or planet-sized foodshed occurs at zones 4 and 5, with industrial-processed and out-of-season foods bought at retail stores.”

Most of us find our eyes glazing over! Our food systems are completely upside-down, with very little coming from the inner zones and most of it from global, corporate sources.

Holmgren’s new book doesn’t use the word “foodshed,” but makes the central argument about survival in the near future: “Suburban food production capacity is a key factor in the adaptation of cities to challenging futures.”

Village Shift

In the past 20 years, I have lived in San Diego (3.4 million people), Colorado Springs (500,000) and now Humboldt Bay (88,000). All these areas are dependent on large, centralized systems to provide water, energy, food and transportation infrastructure.

They all can be broken down into villages. We launched our first “Village Shift Project” in Colorado Springs in 2015. The first step was mapping all the elementary schools.

Elementary school attendance areas are roughly the same in population and have already been drawn by a school district – a locally controlled governmental entity that gives intense attention to demographics.

The average city map will have elementary schools identified. A map of the Colorado Springs region (El Paso County, Colorado) revealed about 125 schools – approximately 125 villages. We highlighted them and put the map on a large piece of poster board.

Next, we recruited “Local Food Ambassadors.” We brought the map to farmer’s markets, environmental events and community fairs. People passionate about local food, gardening and building community were invited to plot their locations on the map with colored dots. Soon we had about 100 people plotted.

The dots on the map only had numbers, but we kept track of all the names and email addresses. As the weeks progressed, clusters of dots began to form. Some parts of town had many Local Food Ambassadors (LFAs), others had few or none.

Our team connected the dots – we invited people in clusters to meet for potlucks and form Village Food Councils for their neighborhoods. Soon we had like-minded folks sharing food, conducting gardening classes and trying to integrate backyard produce into the local farmer’s market.

Find Your Village
We are in the Humboldt Bay region now, trying to bring Village Shift to the communities of Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville and Trinidad. This work includes helping edit the 2018 edition of the Local Food Guide, published by a small nonprofit called Locally Delicious.

A catalog of local food assets will help LFAs and other food leaders in assessing and improving the foodshed. No studies have been conducted to determine what percentage of the food on Humboldt tables is locally produced, but the potential is much greater than in Colorado Springs, where the list of farms, farmer’s markets, CSAs and locally made products barely fills two pages.

One great food asset in Humboldt is the North Coast Co-op, which boasts 13,000 members in the bay communities and operates two grocery stores (Eureka and Arcata). Almost every product made in the region can be found on the shelves and the stores even track local sales on the customer’s receipt.

We have proposed a “Co-op Neighbors” project, in which members would be invited to self-organize village groups. Like Village Food Councils, Co-op Neighbors would gather for potlucks, share cooking and gardening, even arrange carpooling to stores.

Our goal is to increase the access of local food in the inner zones. It’s all part of preparing for the impending impacts of climate change, food and energy shortages, and financial collapse.

“It’s incumbent on everyone to begin taking personal and household responsibility for reorganizing their lives to adapt,” writes Holmgren. “My proposals remain valid if you’re looking for better ways to live now, rather than working for a version of the future sold by corporations, media and political parties.”

Beyond Glasgow: The 5-Year Personal Transition Plan

By Steven Saint Thomas

People who volunteered to be arrested stand in front of the White House during a march to the White House to protest against fossil fuels on Oct. 14 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades | Survival Media Agency

Over the past five years, climate change has become a disaster. The planet has been pummeling humanity into submission with tropical storms, volcanos, heat waves, fires and floods – and there’s no end in sight for extreme weather events.

From Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, representatives of more than 200 nations will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, to collectively address climate change. This will be the 26th climate summit – COP26 – since 1992, when the global Conference of Parties signed the first UN climate change treaty.

Some 400 protesters (pictured above) sang songs, gave speeches and held up signs outside the White House in mid-October, hoping President Biden will do something “real” at Glasgow.

I, for one, have little faith that nation-states will dismantle the large-scale, centralized economic systems that have driven climate change my entire adult life. In fact, a recent scientific report indicates that we have about five more years before the climate disaster overtakes us.

But I will be the first to take hope in this. That means we have five years to build personal and community-level systems that might sustain us through the eschaton beyond Glasgow. I call it the Personal Transition Plan.

The Next Five Years

In September, the UN started front-loading expectations for COP26. It published a stunning World Meteorological Organization report on the heels of the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sobering Sixth Assessment Report.

The message is clear: the world is not stepping up to climate change ­– in fact, things are getting worse.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement adopted the goal of averting catastrophic climate change by halting global warming at 2.7°F (1.5°C) above pre-industrial averages. Scientists are now saying there is a 40 percent chance that the world may breach that threshold within the next five years.

“This report is clear. Time is running out,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5°C will be impossible, with catastrophic consequences for people and the planet on which we depend.”

Temperatures will continue to rise no matter how ambitious the nations get. Unified, drastic global action over the next five years might pull the greenhouse effect back to the 1.5°C target in the second half of the century.

The cost of nations failing to take drastic action at – and after – COP26 is “astronomical,” according to Shelley Inglis, executive director of the University of Dayton’s Human Rights Center.

“Studies have shown that the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius can mean the submersion of small island states, the death of coral reefs, extreme heat waves, flooding and wildfires, and pervasive crop failure,” Inglis writes.

Inertia of the State

Almost 30 years ago, 172 nations convened to create the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at a global “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro. While President George H.W. Bush signed the Rio Declaration, the United States never ratified the Kyoto Protocols that grew out of the declarations.

In fact, President Clinton’s support for Kyoto was completely countered by the U.S. Senate, which voted unanimously (both political parties, including then-Senator Joe Biden) to reject the protocol on grounds it would hurt the economy.

U.S. President George H. Bush is watched by his wife Barbara as he signs the Earth Pledge at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, June 12, 1992. The Earth Pledge says that each signer pledges to work to all of his or her ability to protect the earth.
AP Photo/M. Frustino

Kyoto was essentially replaced by the Paris climate agreement in 2015. Although the U.S. initially signed on, President Trump withdrew the country for four years until President Biden pushed us back.

In or out, Democratic or Republican, the U.S. has had a dismal record for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But so has basically everybody else, according to a recent study by the Europe-based Climate Action Tracker.

“Action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions continues to lag behind what is needed – in practically all countries and sectors,” the report says.

Gambia alone has a plan the analysts deemed “compatible” with the Paris agreement and the United Kingdom is the only G20 country to win an “almost sufficient” stamp for its proposals. The report rates U.S. progress as “insufficient” (Germany, Japan and the EU as well) and says Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, New Zealand and Russia – among others – have submitted the same or less ambitious goals for their 2030 targets than they originally proposed in 2015.

If time is running out, the governments of the world have barely laced their shoes.

Ten Personal Protocols

While world leaders debate the real definition of “net zero” in Glasgow, the people of the world can step up – not to fight climate change, but to adapt to its reality. In essence, we have five years to build sustainable communities.

Here are 10 things you can do – now!

1. Capture your own water. Winter is upon us in the Northern Hemisphere and that means precipitation. Whether you use buckets and trashcans or 2,500-gallon tanks, capture as much water as you can.

2. Build your own soil. Let falling leaves lie. Ask your neighbors for their bags of yard debris. Find wood chip piles or buy mulch. Building layers of soil instead of tilling helps sequester carbon dioxide in the soil.

3. Make your own fertilizer. Topsoil needs organic material for better plant growth. Compost kitchen scraps, garden clippings, leaves, manure and other organic castaways in barrels, buckets or piles. Gardens are always hungry for fertility.

4. Grow your own food. Kill your grass and weeds with sheet mulch (cardboard covered with wood chips) and plant food gardens. Plant food you actually eat, so you can eventually phase out buying it at the grocery store. Fruit and nut trees are great perennials for long-term eating. Stop eating corporate factory-farmed methane-producing meat immediately – find local protein sources.

5. Own your home. If you have access to land, build an energy-efficient home or tiny house. If you have a mortgage, pay it off in the next five years (this may take borrowing from friends and family, but it’s better to pay them back than the banks). Pay down the mortgage by liquidating any Wall Street investments, including IRAs. If you rent, make sure your landlord is a friend or in small-scale business and will let you lease long term. If you’re in a tenant mill, sustainable housing might require a move or purchase.

6. Use your own energy. Minimize your use of electricity, which is most likely generated by burning fossil fuels (yes, that includes natural gas). Invest in a small-scale solar system to run lights, phones and computers, and to charge batteries. Phase out large refrigerators and freezers. Shift from air conditioning to fans.

7. Transport yourself. Get to a place where you can meet most of your travel needs by walking or riding a bicycle. You might need a different job if you can’t telecommute. If you have a vehicle, find ways to use it less and less. Share rides and carpool whenever possible.

8. Keep your money in your neighborhood. Move out-of-town bank accounts to local credit unions. Buy locally made products whenever possible instead of importing stuff via Amazon. Discontinue business with corporate chains.

9. Join neighborhood trading/barter networks. Phase out your daily need for cash by trading with neighbors, bartering or joining a local alternative-currency network or mutual-aid group. Use social networking to give unneeded stuff to neighbors.

10. Migrate by design. If you don’t live in a sustainable place (i.e. your region needs to import water, food and energy from somehwere else), consider moving. You have five years to find a better place. This is how we did it.

You have about five years for your Personal Transition Plan, to get your boat ready for the flood. There are at least 10 things you can be working on – and probably are already. I think I’ll skip flying to Glasgow for a conference and build a greenhouse instead.