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Reversing resource debt....

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Nick Radford, Director of Ecoliving Design, talks about what sustainability really means, referring to resource accounting and human hunter gatherer history. Nick Radford has formally studied architecture, horticulture, environmental science, organic farming and permaculture. He practices permaculture, which is a multi disciplinary sustainable design approach including (but not limited to) housing, gardening, bush regeneration and waste water. He has lived in the Bellinger valley for over twenty years, putting theory into practice by building a simple house integrated into a complex garden.

Traditional stone wall dry terrace gardens, Indonesia

The founder of permaculture, Tasmanian Bill Mollison, said that “While the world’s problems become increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” Nick agrees, maintaining that basic passive solar housing, collecting and managing rainwater, growing food, conserving soil and recycling wastes are technically easy. However, if it’s so easy, then why aren’t more of us doing it? 

Nick's garden

To help understand why, he argues that humans were hunter gatherers until relatively recently – some 12,000 years ago in Jordan/ Syria and 3,000 - 4,000 years ago in Britain. In context with humans evolving a few million years ago, then biologically and instinctively we are fundamentally hunter gatherers. Hunter gatherers evolved in times of almost chronic scarcity. They are biologically driven to consume foods high in salts, sugars, fats, protein and calories, and any glut of such foods was short lived. Modern humans have not adjusted to the relatively recent abundance of food, and tend to over consume. 

Nick's house showing packed sawdust (sawmill waste) walls and clay render

Over consumption is not limited to food, the behaviour applies to all resources. The result is a steady, unsustainable depletion of soil, water flow and quality, forest cover, biodiversity, fisheries and increased pollution. Sustainability can be considered an accounting exercise where there is no net loss of resources over the lifetime of a system. North American Indians expressed this with a motto “Act for the seventh generation”, i.e. act in a way that resources do not diminish for future generations. As economic activity doesn’t properly account for environmental cost, then economic activity more or less equals environmental degradation and economic debt roughly equals environmental debt. 

Traditional housing in Indonesia

The logical conclusion is extinction, demonstrated many times by past experience such as on Easter Island. There is no law of nature that says humans must live on earth, but plenty that say we will be evicted if we don’t behave. Nick is not particularly worried about trying to change other people who are not interested in living within the means of the planet. It is historically short lived behaviour, followed by extinction or evolution. If any humans are left, they will be acting for the seventh generation. We have the intelligence and all the technical solutions to take either path.

Nick Radford was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. All images are from Nick Radford. Summary text by Victor Barry June 2017.

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