Erik Ohlsen: Money, Native Plants & Other Earth Repair Challenges

This is the fourth post in a Q&A series with longtime Bioneers community member Erik Ohlsen. To learn more about Erik’s work and approach to permaculture and activism, check out the links to other posts in the series below.   

David Holmgren said, “The philosophy behind permaculture is one with working with rather than against nature, of looking at systems in all their functions rather than just asking one yield of them, and allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolution.”  What does that mean to you?

It’s really important for humans to step back and allow the patterns of nature to unfold. Nature has a set of processes and systems already in place to do amazing things: provide clean air, clean water, shelter, structure and habitat, and manage climate. These are all major services that natural systems are already providing. Humans benefit incredibly by these natural processes.

Rather than intervening and disrupting those processes for short-term human gain, which is what the last few hundred years of the industrial revolution has been about, we’re taking an opportunity to really understand a particular system. And it’s really important to know that it’s different everywhere.

In Northern California, the way that our forests and meadows function, the way that our watersheds function is going to be very different than in the Southwest or very different than in Alaska or the Amazon. Because we can’t import the processes and functions of one ecosystem into another, it really calls us to step back and take the time to understand.

We’re never going to understand completely because nature is so complex and there are many patterns that won’t emerge for decades in a mature system.

It even relates somewhat to the whole debate around invasive plants versus native plants. That conversation only makes sense when you decide when we are. If we want to work with an ecology that’s moving towards some sort of historical native balance, at what point in time are we looking at? 100 years ago? 1,000 years ago? 10,000 years ago? Because systems are always changing and evolving.

What’s beautiful about looking at and understanding natural processes is that we get to see how some of the most important work on the planet gets done. How does carbon get sequestered in a pastoral system? How does water get filtered and cleaned in a coastal woodlands system? As we’re able to allow for these patterns to play out and for these ecological systems to evolve, that informs us as to how we relate to those systems and harness those powers.

Often we’re recreating systems that nature’s already doing for us for free, yet we’re recreating them through a degenerative process, using a lot of money and fossil fuel energy and exploitative labor practices, and all for a short period of time. Rather than separating the human construct of settlement from nature, Holmgren says we need to remember that we are nature, and that as we align with our regional-based ecosystems and we understand the processes and successions that are taking place there, we can fit ourselves back into the ecology in such a way where we can have abundance and resiliency without all the destruction that most human settlement creates.

This Bill Mollison quote is right in line with your work: “There is one and only one solution and we have almost no time to try it. We must turn all our resources to repairing the natural world and train all our young people to help. They want to. We need to give them the last chance to create forests, soils, clean waters, clean energies, secure communities, stable regions, and to know how to do it from hands-on experience.”

That’s what the Permaculture Skill Center is all about. I think that quote needs to land on our website. That is a great description of what we’re trying to do.

The beautiful thing is that all the technology to do that already exists. We know how to regenerate forests. We know how to regenerate pasture. We know how to create water resiliency and grow food locally and build shelters that are aligned with the energetic needs of the environment. We do have an amazing opportunity in the youth who are coming up who are vastly more advanced in their thinking around these things than even my generation was and many of the older generations.

So we have all of this opportunity, all of this technology, and all of this knowledge to implement that vision that Bill is laying out. And it’s absolutely vital. What’s missing? Why is it so difficult to get this vision implemented and to get these systems in place?

I’ll go back to my friend and mentor Brock Dolman and what he calls the “ego system,” what’s going on between our two ears. We’re not going to get there by just focusing on how to regenerate the forests or how to have water resiliency. We have all that technology and that’s great, but we’re only going to get there at the scale we need if we start applying the principles of permaculture and systems design to our social and economic systems. We need to change the ego system. We need to transform and compost the degenerative aspects of our economy.

That’s easy to say, and you can get very overwhelmed looking at the fossil fuel industry or the pharmaceutical industry, the military-industrial complex, and these large massive destructive forces on the planet. It can be very easy to feel a lot of grief and feel it’s not possible to make this vision come true, but I think that all those things are already in their collapse, and they’re already just hanging on by a thread.

I really believe in youth. The young generations are the ones who will be implementing the regenerative economy and will be inheriting a desolate, climate-changed planet. If we can focus on programs and opportunities to create pathways for them to learn the skills – because we already have the technology – and to engage in our communities, to know how to organize people and talk to decision makers and elected officials and staffers and corporations.

Sometimes our approach in activism — where we point to all the people doing the bad things and we tell them how bad and horrible they are — that can shoot us in the foot. We need to build relationships with people in power who are making decisions that affect so many people and landscapes on the planet. We’re not going to do that by yelling and screaming at them with hate, anger and grief. That’s not to say that these institutions aren’t to be held accountable, but as a movement our approach to implementing this needs to be filled with love and a sense of relationship and understanding.

We’re at the right time in our culture where we can compost the mistakes of the past and plant a new path forward that leads us to a repaired Earth.

Money is one language that will get us there. It’s so hard for me to say that because I spent so many years as an anti-capitalist in the global justice movement. To bring money into the conversation is always a little awkward for me, but there’s a lot of financial efficiency to be gained by repairing the planetary ecological systems. So I think this is how we get decision makers and people in positions in power on board. If we say, “Look, if you implement ecological efficiency models and you work in a reparative and regenerative rather than a degenerative way, you’re actually going to save money on some of your manufacturing and where you source material, and some of your hauling, and it becomes more energy efficient.” That all has a bottom line, so I actually think money is part of it.

Also, we still live in this money system, so it’s great and all to say, Let’s empower the youth to do these things, but they’re not going to get a lot done if they don’t have a warm place to go to bed at night; they’re not going to get a lot done if they can’t get healthy meals and have what they need to stay healthy and safe. So I really think it’s time to look at this from a socioeconomic point of view as the missing piece to a larger design for Earth repair.

How are we going to develop social and economic systems that empower the ecological regeneration that is so needed? It’s a design challenge that I put out there to the world and the community, how we organize ourselves in our economy to align with Earth repair.

Read the Full Series with Permaculturist Erik Ohlsen

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