The concept of creating a closed loop system is central to any serious permaculturalist's thinking when designing a habitat. Yet whilst some loops are more complete than others, not one of the many permaculture projects I have experienced over the years have managed to fully apply this most fundamental of principles. At even the most cutting edge of these, a range of bought-in metal blades were employed in various parts of the system, imported complex technologies were utilised to at least a minimal - yet integral - degree, and pollutants of one form or another were embodied throughout.
This is in no way intended to be a criticism of these very inspiring enterprises, but as an observation that is both striking and telling in terms of the challenges our communities face, our loss of ancestral knowledge and skills, and our level of commitment to building truly resilient systems. The realisation also provided me with a challenge: how do you close the loop, 100%?
Enter people such as Will Lord, founder of Beyond2000BC. I first met Will whilst writing The Moneyless Manifesto, during research on truly localised forms of cutting implements which would provide either tools or weapons fundamental to even the most harmonious forms of crop cultivation and food acquisition.
The main reason most people don't usually consider such fine detail is because knives, secateurs and the like are unsustainably cheap in financial terms. We have to ask ourselves this, however: If our entire designs involve components – shears, trowels, pruning saws, airguns, cogs, ball bearings, fibreglass fishing rods, a dab of superglue, sewing needles and thread – that are dependent on mass-produced processes that are inherently linear, destructive and polluting, is it a resilient position to adopt, considering the certain fact that The Machine Economy that gives birth to them will eventually fall like every other Empire before it?
A £7.99 pair of secateurs or a 99p spool of cotton thread may form an essential part of a short-term creative energy descent plan, but it is far from a serious long-term option. Not only that, their purchase certainly doesn't in itself connect us to place, to the land under our feet.
One of the many skills that Will both practices and teaches is the ancient art of flint-knapping. In contrast to a frugal pair of secateurs, flint-knapping requires zero reliance on the military-industrial complex, and reconnects us to our landscape. To knap successfully, you cannot just learn a set of skills that you then apply mechanically. You have to sit with the stone, speak with it, understand its personality, observe what it wants to do – in short, you have to develop a relationship with it.
I recently stayed with Will to learn flint-knapping, along with a host of primitive – read truly sustainable – skills: I made my own longbow and arrows through a process that I can describe as nothing short of art, we embarked on the two day process of making glue from deer toes, we made cordage and thread from sinews, bone and antler needles and tools, and we were catapulted forward into an 'advanced' era through a couple of bronze casting evenings, for those who would prefer to stay in the Age of Shiny Things.
To watch Will at play – or was it work, I couldn't quite tell – was a pleasure in itself. As a group we made tools that would have been crucial to our ancestors, to whom permaculture wasn't a radical concept, but their unspoken, unconceptualised common sense approach to life.
Asking uncomfortable questions.
As someone who has dangerously labelled themselves either vegetarian or vegan for eleven years, the use of animal parts raised challenging questions for me, but questions that needed to be asked. Lets get honest here: importing food or tools from all over the world, using processes that destroy huge swaths of habitat and which are making the planet uninhabitable for tens of thousands of species a year, is not vegan. Mass produced soya from the US is not vegan. Industrial scale knives are not vegan. Cars, lorries and planes, and their fuels and lubricants, are not vegan. Even local veggies produced with fossil fuels embedded into them are not vegan. As absurd as it sounds, I now believe that cordage made from the tendons of a wild animal, whose life you took using weapons you fashioned from the land under your feet (or ideally, from the sad abundance of roadkill that line our roads), is 'more vegan' than polyester cord produced through the mechanisms of a global industrialised economy that unashamedly destroys habitat and life as a matter of course.
I should emphasise that by saying this I am not personally encouraging everyone to go out and buy organic meat from your local butcher. The domestication of animals, regardless of whether it has the Soil Association stamp on it or not, is no less sad to me than the domestication of ourselves, as is the end they come to at slaughterhouses, to which both organic and non-organic animals are brutally subjected to.
What I am encouraging you to do is to fully close the loop, and I mean fully, however you choose to do that. If we don't, there won't be much of any form of life left by the time The Machine Economy flatpacks the entire Earth.
During his courses Will does use some basic machinery, otherwise a two day course would have to be a potentially unaffordable two week course, as without every machine a new skill would have to be learned, skills which he is also willing to teach if you then want to dig another layer deeper. With each new skill learned, you become one degree closer to the land your life is interdependent upon and one degree closer to completing the loop.
Keeping ancient skills alive.
This is an approach to learning shared by other proponents of the primitive arts, such as bushcraft teacher Paul Kirtley of Frontier Bushcraft, who on their expeditions advise you to take whatever good quality equipment you need to survive, but to remember that the entire point of learning bushcraft is not to acquire more expensive kit, but to get to a level of skill and competency where ideally you can survive solely from the materials the woods provide.
Whereas Lord shows you how to close the loop in terms of tools and weapons, Kirtley helps you replace cigarette lighters with bow drills, Sat Navs with the stars, along with many other vital skills for a post-industrial society. Others, such as wild food expert Fergus Drennan, who has embarked on a fascinating experiment where he aims to live on 100% wild food for a year, can teach us the ancient art of foraging, so that we can minimise the amount of cultivation tools we depend on in the first place.
The solutions to many of the challenges we face are already being pioneered. Permaculture is certainly one of them. The only tried and trusted form of household management – the Gift economy – is another. But unless we keep alive the archaic skills that constitute the fine detail at the margins of all of these grand ideas, then we will never close the loop, and we will remain dependent on an industrial-scale infrastrucuture until it is, in all likelihood, much too late. The acid test of permaculture design should be this: how long can our systems serve us if the economic models we pay lip-service to opposing collapse? The more you close the loop, the longer that will be.
Mark Boyle lived without money for almost three years. His new book, The Moneyless Manifesto, is out now, published by Permanent Publications under a Creative Commons licence. Naturally, a free online version of the book is also available from: www.moneylessmanifesto.org
The Moneyless Manifesto (e-book edition also available) is available from www.green-shopping.co.uk
Read more about Fergus Drennan's experiment to live on 100% foraged food for an entire year