1983: The parable of the chicken

The Lost Stories are Bill Mollison's articles published in the print magazine originally named Permaculture, then International Permaculture Journal and finally the Permaculture International Journal that was published between 1978 and 2000.

All stories and other content ©Permaculture Australia unless otherwise noted.

Story by Bill Mollison, May 1983. Edition12.

PERMACULTURE IS NOT GARDENING, it is design. It does not espouse a particular technique whether organic, inorganic or biodynamic etc. I personally espouse the organic or natural gardening approach. I talk and write about it, not about pesticides and herbicides.

Permaculture is not confined to gardening or plant growing. It is a design system involving the placement of all the elements of the landscape, of the living system, in the right relationship to each other.

Let me explain. Consider a chicken. We can know some things about the chicken, its particular characteristics. A fancier will note its colour, its qualities of breeding, susceptibility to hawk attack etc. These are its innate characteristics. It has needs like most of us. Food, a night resting place, elevated perch, modest climatic needs. It had yields: feathers, feather dust, eggs, chicken manure, carbon dioxide from breathing, and like most animals about 13 percent of its inputs are turned into methane. If killed, the chicken has other yields too.

There are thus innate characteristics, inputs and outputs. The inputs are supplied from various sources or other outputs, the outputs go to various destinations, or provide other inputs. The relations between all these elements are studied for our design purposes.

Making connections

Permaculture does not work with chickens or glasshouses or houses or gardens. It works on making the connections between these elements. A good design would be a complete natural cycle with energy outputs only.

So permaculture is not gardening, and has nothing to do with technique, in the sense that you know technique such as how you make compost or kill cabbage moths or why your lemon trees turn yellow. It has a lot to do with exactly where your lemon tree is placed and its needs as supplied by something else.

Permaculture is a skill that says where something goes so that it functions in relation to other things. Every time you don't do that, you are in trouble. Every input that is not automatically supplied, you must supply. Every output that is not passed to the thing that needs it must be got rid of.

Therefore, all undesigned outputs are pollutants and all pollution is an undesigned output. All unfulfilled needs are work and all work is the satisfaction of unfulfilled needs.

None of these is necessary if you have correctly placed every element in relation to its needs and outputs.

Lazy-man technology

Permaculture is the ultimate lazy-man technology. If it is successful nothing needs to be done and you simply step in the way of the yields, because you need eggs occasionally and occasionally a chicken.

How much a chicken does will amaze you. It can be used, as a model, to completely heat and fuel your home. You can keep total control over a large variety of pests. You can double production in your fish pond. You can increase production in your glasshouse, reduce servicing needs of glasshouses, etc.

A chicken has a great number of uses. If you neglect these you must do the things yourself. Every time you don't satisfy a need automatically you must do it yourself.

The question is, is the chicken or the human being the smarter animal in all measurable environmental terms? We will examine that question.

In all broadscale agriculture, which, sadly, is the most destructive influence on the whole face of the earth, the chicken becomes a parable, which, as a representative of a class of animals kept by man, consumes 70 percent of the product of the labor of man in agriculture.

Man thus works for the chicken. The chicken then provides for the man less than one percent of the necessary food of man. The chicken is enormously smarter than man, by thousands of times. Man works extremely hard for the chicken. The chicken works very little for man.

Of all these crops, then, of every acre of every field of wheat, 70 percent goes — with the chicken as parable — to the chicken, and 30 percent to the uses of mankind, not just food uses.

So most of agriculture is devoted to the chicken. Therefore, most tractors, most roads, most rural networks are built to service the chicken. In the total society 35 percent of all energy goes towards food, so the chicken is a very large consumer of energy in the total society.

The chicken and energy

As another parable, if we were not servants of the chicken we would not need atomic power. For instance, those of you who use electric clothes driers consume 13.5 percent of the total domestic energy of society. That is exactly supplied by the total output of atomic power in the world. Those of you who use domestic clothes driers are the people responsible for atomic power stations. Those of you who still hang your clothes on the line are very responsible citizens. It is called solar drying.

Those of you who prevent the chicken operating are again responsible for most coal and power station use and the soon-to-come extinction of the northern hemisphere by acid rain because most of the coal and energy poured into society serves the chicken or something very like the chicken.

We are about to lose all the forests of Germany. We have effectively lost all the forests of Canada and Scandinavia. We don't know about Russia but we expect that we are about to lose all of those. This is because we burn so much coal and drive so many cars that the air has filled with nitric and sulphuric particles. These fall to earth and, at first, become a fertiliser and for some years everything grows much better under sulphur and nitrogen. But later there is too much fertiliser, and too much of a good thing can be painful. As this acid accumulates in the soil it dissolves into something which all soils have, aluminum. Aluminium dissolved in sulphuric acid is a deadly plant poison, also a deadly person poison.

Therefore, as the coal and motor vehicle exhausts fall to earth they start to turn, after a little while, into solutes of selenium, lead, cadmium and aluminium, all of which are fatal to man and fatal to plants.

The plants then stop rejoicing in the fall of acid rain and start to suffer. Then they are attacked by gipsy moth, tent moth, pinetip dieback and so on. All these animals sense the death of forests. They are the undertakers of the forest. If you hit a tree once with an axe and wait, by night, above it there will be a swarm of parasitic wasps. Tapping around your axe cuts will come the longhorn beetles. They know that the tree has been injured, they come to ensure that it is decently buried. And they are there within hours. Experiment by all means. You will never hit a tree again. unknowingly.

So they wait on the death of the forest and they come, the decomposers, to conduct the burial service, to return the dying tree to the soil for life regeneration. We then say the gipsy moth is killing the beeches, we say the dutch elm disease is killing the dutch elms, we say fire blight is killing our forests, we say pine rust is killing our pines, we say poplar rust is killing our poplars. We don't say we are doing all of it by driving cars and using energy, and we are blaming the gipsy moth, we are blaming the tent caterpillar, we are blaming the phasmid.

We are in a joint conspiracy not to identify the real criminal. We look at him every morning in the mirror. And we'll all agree to blame the gipsy moth. Now we're free to attack the gipsy moth. We've found the culprit. Now we can go to the forest and spray it with DDT and we can add insult to insult to the forest and the gipsy moth and ensure that the gipsy moth did indeed kill the forest. And we help it enormously and very quickly to its death. We've just done that to the whole of the northern hemisphere.

So rain filled with acid now enters the streams, with selenium, mercury, lead, cadmium and aluminium. And its pH? Clean pure snow in Vermont USA has a pH of 1.9 — acid. Very close to concentrated sulphuric acid. The pH of rain over Berlin averages 2.3, also highly acid. More sour than vinegar. There are now available to you pH maps of North America. Large areas, including deep well water, are more acid than pH4.

What plants grow happily at pH4? No plants can tolerate pH4 and heavy metals. No fish can survive. We then have blanket extinction of all life in the lakes of Nova Scotia and Quebec, Montreal, all inland fish of Newfoundland, all the fish in Adirondacks lakes, some of which have never seen man. There are no fish on the eastern slopes of Norway, in Sweden no crayfish have survived. The Crayfish festival requires that crayfish now be brought in from southern Turkey, where the pollution is slightly lower. In fish the acid causes gill mucous and they smother, and their eggs will not hatch at pH less than 5.5.

6000 Swedish lakes have no fish. 14,000 lakes dip below pH4 at times, 8000 lakes have a sharper dip. If people drink water of less than pH4.5 with metals in it, cadmium builds up in the kidneys, aluminium combines with protein more strongly in cooking, the aluminium  causing general body deterioration. Lead and cadmium affects lungs and the central nervous system.

So it seems that we should quickly join the chicken up to everything and stop wasting all the fossii fuel into the atmosphere. We have no choice. Cars are almost unviable, also coal burning, also nuclear power. A little longer and we have universal death.

Wars and atomic bombs will not kill us, we are killing ourselves. Australia is worse in fallout than any part of Europe. In Brazil pH2 rain falls constantly on the Sierra Dei Mar. They industrialised. So did we. We signed our own death warrant when we started to dig up the things in the ground. The Pitjitjindjara at Ernabella said that sickness would follow digging up of the green stones by white men. I think this may follow from some past event. We are sick on energy.

The whole of our design efforts must be directed towards a reduction of our use of fossil energy. Permaculture can't cure anything. It can tell you the way to cure it. To cure it really lies with yourselves.

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