Peak Oil, Climate Change and Permaculture 

Park Slope Methodist Church
Andrew Leslie Phillips • April 30, 2006

It’s a real honor to be here today to think about our Earth – there’s a lot to think about!

Park Slope Methodist Church is not new to me.  I’m an old friend of Finlay and Nancy Shaeff – your garden is named after them – I remember when Nicaragua’s Sandinista President came to New York more than twenty years ago and stood where I stand today to share the good news of people’s revolution. And in some way I bring you the same message today.

Except this revolution will not be won with Uzis and Kalashnikovs, but with water harvesting swales, compost heaps, pitch forks and shovels. In a real sense the revolution we need today is in the garden.

The world can no longer sustain the damage caused by modern agriculture – we have lost two-thirds of our topsoil – blown and washed away – between 200-400 tons of top soil per acre per year,  are lost because of modern agricultural practices which includes mechanized farming and monoculture of the five remaining major world crops –wheat, rice, corn/maize, soy and potatoes. We should also note that the number of major crops is getting smaller – in the 1960’s there were twelve major crops.

As we enter the new millennium we find global food production now in decline.

We destroy more forests to uncover more land but such destruction accelerates soil loss and climate change.

Human settlement without attention to nature and local natural patterns and resources, detracts rather than adds to our environment. And water is a critical diminishing resource. A bottle of water purchased at a gas station is already more expensive than gasoline.

Destructive post-war industrial agricultural methods have poisoned our land and water and reduced biodiversity. Modern agriculture has removed billions of tones of soil from previously fertile landscapes. A design approach called permaculture has evolved from this disaster and was first made public with the publication of Permaculture One in 1978 in Australia.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the idea of Permaculture grew out of the oldest and driest continent where per capita, humans have inflicted enormous damage to Australia’s fragile, strangely beautiful landscape.

What is Permaculture?

Care of Earth. Care of people. Return of surplus to both. These are the stated ethics of culture. And on the official permaculture certificate awarded after completion of the  world famous Pdc course is written “Ingenio patet campus” – the field lies open to the intellect.

Permaculture is a holistic approach to land use design, based on ecological principles and patterns. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with people. The ecological processes of plants, animals, water, weather and nutrient cycles are integrated with human needs and technologies for food, energy, shelter and infrastructure.

Elements in a system are viewed in relationship with other elements, and the outputs of one element become the inputs of another.

Within a Permaculture system, work is minimized, “wastes” become resources, productivity and yields increase, and the environment is restored.

Permaculture principles can be applied to any environment, at any scale - from dense urban settlements to individual homes, from farms to entire regions, even continents.

Permaculture seeks to design sustainable human settlements whilst preserving and extending natural systems. It seeks to develop and maintain a cultivated ecology in all climate zones and includes principles of design, understanding natural patterns in nature, climate factors, aquaculture, social, legal and economic aspects of human settlement.

Permaculture has been adopted by  corporations, governments, the UN and there are literally thousands of projects and many times more students all over the world. In fact you can travel the world


2005 was warmest year since recording began in the 1860’s.

Humans are responsible. Science has eliminated 99% of all other possibilities. Greenhouse gases and aerosols have changed climate.

The polar ice sheets reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere and into space but greenhouse gases bounce heat back to the planet which further warms the ice sheets to increase melting in a vicious feedback mechanism.

Fresh water, locked in the ice since before Christ was born, flows into the ocean affecting salinity, temperature, currents, fish movement -  there is as much melt each day as flows down the Amazon River (each day) and the Amazon contains as much water as all the world’s great rivers combined.

More than 70% of the world's population lives on coastal plains, and 11 of the world's 15 largest cities are on the coast or estuaries and sea level is rising. It is impossible to know when Wall Street will be drowned but it may be sooner than we think. It seems all the climate models turn out to be conservative. Things are happening more quickly than they thought.

Since 1994 we’ve known about deep ocean warming (2-4 miles) in all oceans.

84% of last centuries warming was in deep oceans. The deep ocean has warmed more than twenty times faster than atmospheric temperature rise over the same time. (Tim Barnett, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA.).

Slow sea level rise is one thing but increasing severe weather events and storm surge is another.  Waves are bigger now, winds more ferocious and damage will be worse.

As the ocean warms they gives more moisture to the atmosphere already heated by solar energy reflected and refracted by stuff we put in the atmosphere. This warm moisture is fuel for hurricanes. And hurricanes are growing more powerful, more erratic and there are more of them in both hemispheres – Brazil got hit for the first time last year.

The insurance industry understands these trends. People will not want to settle in these vulnerable locations (once recognized as prime real estate) and insurance premiums already high will be out of sight!  In the 1960’s-1990’s there was $4 billion in climate related damage. In 2004 the figure was $140 billon. In 2005 Katrina pushed the number to $240 billion. We have been subsidizing bad planning.

Paleontology, the study of fossils, shows that climate changes can happen very quickly and we don’t understand mechanisms of change.

But even if the climate was normal and their was no immediate oil and water crisis, another approach to agriculture would be necessary – another way of organizing cities and communities – the kind of work people like you have always done. This church is in the vanguard – this church understands the importance of stewardship of Earth.

Even as we speak today  a small permaculture community is growing at the Methodist Camp and Retreat Center in High Falls, New York. There’ll be a gathering there

The Hudson Valley Permaculture Spring Gathering happens May 6-7) and people will descend from all over the Northeast to teach + learn + talk + party Permaculture. You can register by emailing Ethan Rowland - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  It’s a potluck.


[1] Dr. Paul Epstein,  Center for Health and the Global Environment/Goddard Institute for Space Studies (he works with Jim Hensen who blew the whistle recently on the politicization of climate change “debate”) and Adam Aston, Business Week



[1] Permaculture Design Solutions was established by Andrew Leslie Phillips, a journalist and garden designer specializing in natural stone, and a certified permaculture practitioner. He is director of the Hancock Permaculture Center.

A native of Australia, Andrew spent seven years in Papua New Guinea as a government patrol officer, radio journalist and filmmaker before coming to New York in 1976. He produced award-winning investigative radio documentaries on a wide range of environmental and political issues for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, National Public Radio and later for WBAI Community Radio in New York City where he was program director (1989-93). He taught journalism, radio and “sound image” as an adjunct professor at New York University for 10 years.

In 1997 he launched  Stone and Garden, a garden design and permaculture consulting service installing more than 100 gardens in Brooklyn. His quest for natural stone for patios led him to Hancock, “the Bluestone Capital of the World.” In 2004 he relocated to the area and established the Hancock Permaculture Center.

Andrew has two PDC courses under his belt; with Geoff Lawton and Andrew Jones in New Orleans, 2004 and with Bill Mollison and Geoff in Melbourne, 2005. He has convened a two-week PDC course with Green Phoenix Permaculture in High Falls, NY graduating 22 students; a three-day workshop at Ithaca Ecovillage with the Fingerlakes Permaculture Institute.  Hancock Permaculture will be running permaculture courses 2006/07.

[2] Edges are important in permaculture because there is more life on the edge; at the sea shore were the land meets the water. Mangrove systems contain the world’s richest bio-mass. On the edge of the forest where it meets the field is abundant life. It is nature’s gathering place for species from field and forest to intermingle, manure and mix and edges hold more water. In permaculture we call this “edge thinking”.

[3] Although commercial truffles are more plentiful in Europe than in America, fewer are found there now than in the past. A harvest of 2,200 tons was reported in l890. Three hundred tons were harvested in l914, but lately only 25 to 150 tons per year have been found.

Truffles appear to have predictable life cycles. To ensure future production, appropriate tree seedlings are inoculated with truffle spores, and when the sapling tree is established, it is transplanted to the proper environment, usually a barren, rock-strewn calcific soil. It takes about seven years before the first truffle begins to grow. A bearing tree will produce for about fifteen to thirty years. For the European market to survive it is necessary to regularly replenish the population of truffle-bearing trees. Inoculated trees have been brought to North America, but it is too early to predict how successful these experiments will be.

Truffles are also found in North Africa, in the Middle East, and in North America. On the desert after rainfall, knowledgeable Middle Eastern people collect the "black kame," Terfezia bouderi, and the "brown kame," Terfezia claveryi. They prefer the darker ones. In Texas, Tuber texensis is collected, and in Oregon, the white Tuber gibbosum.

Gaining in popularity and comparing favorably with the Italian truffle, the Oregon truffle is harvested in sufficient quantity to support commercial sales. Although the Oregon truffle industry is in its infancy, it commands as much as $150 per pound for its truffles. James Beard claimed that the mature Oregon white truffle could be substituted for European varieties.

From the Desk of  Jac Smit – “Urban Agriculture”

Jac Smit is the President of The Urban Agriculture Network an information and consulting organization founded in 1992. It has visited over 30 countries in its advocacy. Their urban agriculture written  for the United Nations is the 2nd best selling book ever published by the UNDP.

Here he is writing on truffles -

Truffles create: 

 1. Jobs,

 2. A Healthy Environment for Living, and

 3. Economic Stability

What could be further from the common perception of urban agriculture being related to low-income residential areas and farmers' markets than Truffles?

a) The US$ 800 per pound wholesale price of truffles can return $220,000 per acre per year.

b) Truffles lose their all-important pungent scent during the second day after harvest.

c) It takes three days or more for European of New Zeeland truffles to hit the wholesale market in North America, too late!

d) Truffles are produced on the roots of trees that enhance the environment.

e) In the late 19th century France produced +/- 675 tons of truffles a year. In 2000 it was 35 tons, and demand is growing.

Given this information, the reader can write his or her own script. Charles Lefevre the CEO of 'New World Truffieres' says this "Think of it like having $ 20.00 dollar bills scattered thick all over the ground of your orchard."

There is a clear opportunity and large benefit for small-scale urban fringe truffle production that can deliver to restaurants and retail outlets on the day of harvest [morning to evening].

[4] Since 1973 green guerillas™, has helped thousands of people realize their dreams of turning vacant rubble-strewn lots into vibrant community gardens. Each year they work with hundreds of grassroots groups throughout New York City to strengthen underserved neighborhoods through community gardening helping more than forty projects.

Just Food  seeks new marketing and food-growing opportunities addressing the needs of regional, rural family farms, NYC community gardeners, and NYC communities. They build partnerships among diverse groups to advance dialogue and action on farming, hunger and nutrition.

[5] 1. Mushrooms. Gourmet-quality mushrooms can be grown in little space and low-light conditions are not only possible but necessary. Yields are high, and there should be a ready demand close to you.

2. Vermiculture. If you have a place for it (even, on a small scale, indoors), it is quite possible to produce incredibly rich soil from various forms of waste. Worm castings should be a very easy product to sell to the nurseries and florists and garden centers and to many of the container gardeners in your area.

3. Container gardening. A surprising amount of your own fresh vegetables and herbs can be grown that way--especially if you are producing the sort of compost that vermiculture creates.

Producing your own rich compost is an inexpensive way to make a income with limited space. Urban dwellers are just as fond of fresh herbs as anyone anywhere.

Analysis of the market yields rewards in deciding what to grow using the space, time, effort, and money you have available. With so many restaurants it should be fairly easy to establish a market for the more exotic and delicate fresh produce.

You can develop a ready market for the started containers--and offer classes in "urban agriculture" where you demonstrate what you do. A few bins of the right earthworms creating compost serve as "breeding stock" for others who want to do it, too.

 All contents herein Copyright 2006 Andrew L. Phillips