Environmental Ethics Blog

Along with Chaos Theory, I am also enrolled in Environmental Ethics this semester. For our class, we need create a blog on a topic of our choice with weekly updates. How convenient that I’ve already begun something similar! So, for my Ethics blog, I’m going to focus on ecological design, specifically highlighting the ethical design system known as ‘permaculture’.

Throughout this semester, I’ll be reporting on permaculture: what it means, what it encompasses, the theory behind it, how it’s done, who’s doing it where, and highlight local projects being worked on.

We have about 15 weeks during the semester, so here’s some tentative topics I’ll be covering:

  • Context
  • Ecological Design
  • Permaculture Ethics
  • Permaculture Principles
  • History and Prominent Figures
  • Applications
  • Patterns
  • Case Studies: Global Permaculture
  • Case Studies: Permaculture in the U.S.
  • Case Studies: Permaculture in Minnesota
  • Resources

For my first entry, I hope to provide a context for this concept to emerge from.

Most of what I know about all this comes from my classes, so to establish an environmental context, I will summarize, paraphrase, cite, and quote a text book required by Winona State University’s School of Science and Technology Biology Program. The book is entitled “Living in the Environment: Concepts, Connections, Solutions” by Miller and Spoolman and was published in 2009. Spoolman is a relatively local intellect; He received his Masters in Science Journalism at the University of Minnesota and lives in Wisconsin.

All of the information given in this post appears in the text. The book is a solid 700 pages all about the science of sustainability, complete with beautiful photos, illustrations, data visualization, mathematical formulas, references to peer reviewed case studies published in scientific journals, time lines, and compelling questions. It’s really quite the read. It is interesting to note, that the book is written so as to have a moral connotation. Section headings like “How should we manage forests?” or “How should we deal with hazardous waste?” [emphasis added] imply that there are right and wrong answers to these questions, and their location in a University science text book suggests that academia does indeed hold wisdom regarding issues with moral relevance. Section headings like “People have different views about environmental problems and solutions” also acknowledge the reality that differing opinions exist, and that the views expressed in the book are not dogma, but rather one part of an evolving dialogue.

To establish that ecological design is a necessary tool, I will pull out some of what I feel are the most troubling facts about just one micro-chasm of the world, the one most commonly associated with permaculture, the one that’s in our backyard: agriculture. I’ll just try to paint a picture with a broad sweep, but know if you start to look into these issues, they are much more complex and dynamic than what I’ll touch on in this post. And also, I am only pulling from one source (unless otherwise linked).


Corn Field in Wabasha County, MN

Ah, the Great Plains, the Bread Basket of the U.S., the Midwest, whatever you want to call it, this geographical location has undergone significant modifications caused by humans. The prairie ecosystem has provided Americans with rich soil, some of the best on the planet, which has allowed us to produce extensive amounts of food crops. But, despite its advantages, the text states that agriculture has major harmful environmental effects on biodiversity loss, soil, water, air pollution, and human health.

Now for a few statistics:

According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service, 90% of America’s soil is eroding 17 times faster then it is being formed.

One third of the country’s original topsoil is gone, and in Iowa, over half of it is gone after just a century of farming.

In 2009 in Minnesota, we were estimated to loose 4-8 tons of topsoil per acre.

At current rates, Lake Pepin, adjacent to Lake City, MN, will fill in with sediment and recede into the Mississippi river bed within this century.

Apple nutritional density is 90% less than it was in 1930.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has identified the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone has doubled in size since 1992.

The Dead Zone off the Gulf of Mexico

This increase is caused by the estimated 6.5 million cubic tons of fertilizer used on the agricultural fields throughout the Midwest that drain into the Mississippi.

There are numerous other dead zones world wide.

Food production peaked in the 1980s, and since then population has increased, resulting in more people suffering from starvation, malnutrition, and hunger.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported an estimated 1 billion people in the world are chronically malnourished, hungry or starving.

72 acres of rainforest are being burned per day to make way for agriculture. At this rate, all of the forests will be gone in my childrens’ lifetimes.

Agrobiodiversity is dangerously low. Too simple of a system, like a country full of potatoes (or corn and soybeans), is fertile breeding ground for a Malthusian disaster.

I think you get the idea.

Now you can see that there is generous room for improvement. Next week, I’ll introduce ecological design.