Permaculture Author Toby Hemenway On Flowing Toward Abundance
Can a real-life allegory of a neighbor, stock-piling cords of wood, be applied to our agriculture-based mindset? Toby Hemenway, the best-selling Permaculture author thinks so. He's made note that the preparedness—or “prepper”— mindset is in the middle of a shift from a stock-piling attitude—in preparation for an apocalypse that may never come—to an understanding in the concept of "flow." Flowing, dynamic, diverse ecosystems act as a current, and is what gives a system resilience. Although there is a place for a buffer, whether it be food, ammo, etc., it is within living systems where true security and abundance will be found—so thinks Toby Hemenway.
The wood comes from another neighbor’s multi-acre eucalyptus grove. Some of the trees are huge—three or more feet in diameter, a hundred feet tall. The landowner, Lyn, can pull out seven or eight properly chosen big trees each year and still replace all that biomass in the next year’s growth. It strikes me as a sustainable yield. Several neighbors rely on her for their winter wood; the lot pumps out a good fifteen cords a year, and in our mild climate, you can heat a 2000-square-foot house using only wood by burning about a cord and a half.
The point of my little tale is this: My neighbor with the giant woodpile is thinking that the most secure source of wood is the store of it in his yard. But—to put it in systems language—that’s focusing on stocks over flows. We tend to do that in this culture. However, the real wood storage is the woodlot in Lyn’s yard: the standing, growing trees, getting bigger each year, healthy and enlarging rather than rotting and getting punky on the ground.
Sure, it’s a good idea to keep two years of firewood on hard, which would be about three or four cords. But twenty cords? That’s a ten or fifteen year supply here. It’s a mammoth task to split and stack it all (only a fifth or so has been split in the last year, and who can blame them?); it should be covered or it will start to rot, and that’s a huge area to cover; and even with the best of care, by year five it will be breaking down and thus won’t heat as well.
Meanwhile, Lyn’s woodlot is cranking out fifteen cords of beautiful firewood every year. But we don’t tend to see flows as sources of abundance as easily as we see it in stocks—in piles of inert, stored, easily measured stuff. One reason for this is our culture’s focus on things rather than on processes, relationships, and dynamics. Another is that it’s easy to trust that by squirreling away a fat store of something in a safe place, we will be able to use it. But trusting that, say, some seeds freshly planted will truly feed you in a few months time, or that those trees will produce just as much wood next year as this—that takes a leap of faith. Especially in our culture, inculcated with scarcity and fear, we have more faith what we can see in front of us right now than in some gradual process that could, in our doubt-ridden imaginations, go awry at any moment. Those of you who have seen my pieces on humanity’s transition from foraging to agriculture know that I believe that hunter-gatherers were secure in the knowledge that the wild world would always provide sustenance of some kind—that nature could be trusted—while agricultural people have lost that, and are taught that only our own hard work and piling up a storable surplus can guarantee survival.
Fortunately, with the emergence in the last few decades of whole-systems studies and related fields such as permaculture and holistic management, we’re seeing that flows are the real key to abundance. It’s flow, dynamic and well-channeled, that keeps any system running. Yes, stocks and storages are an important part of any system, but any dynamic system, whether a garden, an ecosystem, a business, or a community, is kept healthy—is kept in existence at all—by the flows cycling within it, into it, and out of it. Lyn’s living woodlot—its increasing kilocalories of stored sunlight on the hoof—is the real source of abundance, not my neighbor’s slowly deteriorating pile.
I’ve seen what happens when people make the transition from a fear-based need to hoard to an abundance model of flow. Through the lens I so often look through, of horticulture versus agriculture (a culture of gardeners tending the wild’s diversity rather than farmers sweating in domesticated monocultures), early humanity’s two million years of trusting nature is a more powerful legacy than a mere ten-thousand years of control-freaks breaking nature to the plow, and I’m hoping we are returning to that.
An encouraging example of this is the evolution of the prepper movement, a subset of the survivalists who have made full readiness for socio-economic collapse a major part of their lives. The term “prepper” arose in the 1990s and the steady drumbeat of accumulating acute and chronic crises of 9/11; climate change; energy descent; Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and other natural disasters; the financial collapse of 2008, and the feeble official responses to most of these, have driven prepper numbers to new highs.
But many preppers are moving away from the “build a bunker and fill it with freeze-dried food and ammo” mentality. I’ve had some rollicking conversations about this with the lively Jack Spirko, moderator of The Survival Podcast, probably the most popular prepper website. Jack began his journey in classic survivalist mode—bunker, ammo, and all. Then he was introduced to permaculture, and a series of lightbulbs turned on. The constant flow from an exuberant garden, he realized, was better long-term insurance than barrels in a basement, and less likely to attract or be understood by those potential “apocalypse zombie” raiders. A community of like-minded men and women working together on food- and resource-yielding projects could produce much more than one man’s garden, and a large, cohesive group of tool-using (and, yes, given Jack’s world, some of them gun-toting) people would be a far less tempting target than a lone guy in a bunker full of food. And lots more fun. The preppers are moving from a mindset of stocks to one of flows.
We need both stocks and flows. But our culture has focused largely on stocks, and when we do focus on flows we often go too far the other way, creating non-resilient systems that have been stripped of their buffers in the interest of economics, such as just-in-time production and so-called “lean businesses.” Stocks do have their role, especially as buffers, but it’s the flows that keep a system running.
So, sure, build up appropriate stocks where needed. But be aware that it’s flows that generate those stocks, and where flows are healthy, your piles of squirreled-away stuff can be a lot smaller. Nourish those flows. That way, we can move away from fear-based hoarding to a flow-based abundance model—the one that nature uses.