In a recent interview, permaculture teacher Albert Bates discusses Rudolph Steiner and Biodynamics:
Albert defends Steiner on the basis that Anthroposophy has created a “tribe” which he sees as a good thing. In reality, Anthroposophy is more like a cult, which obscures its intentions, and is doing untold harm in persuading people that just making stuff up is somehow just as good as scientific experimentation. Albert gives an uncritical appraisal of Steiner’s contributions to education, social care and organic farming, claiming that it provides a “holistic world view” lacking in reductionist, mechanistic approaches.
I have blogged on zone5 about biodynamics before, describing what it is, reviewing some of the scientific evidence, and explaining why it can have no place in permaculture.
BD is a system of superstition, based on astrology, sympathetic magic and animal sacrifice, believed to be true entirely on the say so of Rudolph Steiner, who never gardened or farmed himself, and claimed his knowledge came from clairvoyance, not scientific experimentation.
It is surely obvious that the reason people think it “works” is because they are doing all the things right that you need to do anyway to be a successful gardener or farmer. The superstition has nothing to do with it, although it can be argued that BD growers do well because they are more committed and spend more time in the field, and pay more attention to detail.
Anecdotes such as “I smelled the soil on a BD farm, it was wonderful!” are not science. Anecdotally I can tell you that people regularly come to my own garden, smell the soil and say “how do you get such rich black soil, it smells wonderful!”
Now, if I told them it was because I work with cycles of the moon and hang deer bladders from trees which I then add to the compost to bring down etheric energies, maybe that would be enough to convert them to BD.
Permaculture however is based on a scientific understanding of ecology, also physics, chemistry etc; so something as wacky as BD that lies far outside anything verifiable by science can play no role here.
Call a spade a spade: BD- and the occult philosophy of Anthroposophy it is a part of- is a religion. As such it can have no more part in permaculture than any religion- eg. how would permaculture students respond i wonder if I told them in a class that praying to Mecca five times a day will help the plants grow?
At this point folk will probably ask “what’s the harm?” but this is unfortunately easily answered.
BD is not just any old superstitious woo, but part of what has been called the most successful form of ‘alternative’ religion in the [twentieth] century, with hundreds of organisations worldwide including banks (Triodos), schools and colleges, and the social care Camphill Communities.
This is all very impressive- would that permaculture had achieved as much!- and therein lies the real danger, because underneath the superficial similarities with the aims of permaculturalists of alternative education, community care, organic gardening etc. lies a seriously dysfunctional ideology of anti-science and mystic racism.
Anthroposophy had historic connections with the rise of Nazism and propagates notions of Aryan supremacy, as has been extensively researched by Peter Staudenmeier.
The education system of Steiner-Waldorf schools is based on Steiner’s racist beliefs about karmic incarnation:
On the one hand there is the black race, which is the most earthly. When this race goes toward the West, it dies out. Then there is the yellow race, in the middle between the earth and the cosmos. When this race goes toward the East, it turns brown, it attaches itself too much to the cosmos and dies out. The white race is the race of the future, the spiritually creative race.
For many years now there has been a growing movement by parents disaffected with the covert aims of Steiner-Waldorf education, which is not to educate but to somehow guide the child’s “soul-journey”. Pity is, neither parents nor children are told exactly what is going on, while the schools themselves continue to pose as a more child-focused, alternative educational choice in order to seek state funding. In fact, they are part of a growing organisation based on a shadowy occult religion, where poor academic standards, cultish beliefs about racial purity, bullying (“it’s his/her karma”) and hard-core astrological mumbo-jumbo all-too-often prevail.
The Camphill Communities, run on Anthroposophical lines, might look like a benevolent form of social care but in fact often are based on the religious belief of Karma, ie that the physically or mentally impaired are so for karmic reasons, such as wrong-doing in a previous life.
What exactly the aims of this religion are is difficult to say, but like all religions Anthroposophy is trying hard to propagate itself, and the environmental movement, organics and now permaculture as well are all easy targets which have become vehicles for distributing a frankly vile set of beliefs.
Compost Teas- evidence that Biodynamics works?
In Albert’s interview, he points to the work of the controversial Elaine Ingham with aerated compost teas (ACTs) as evidence that Steiner was really onto something.
There seems little if any scientific research that actually supports the claims made by Ingham and her company Soil Foodweb, which sells costly tea brewers and other bits of kit.
Most scientists and reputable organizations are dubious at best. See for example this paper by Linda Chalker-Scott
Here is another useful discussion:
The upshot seems to be:
-there is little evidence ACTs work or do what they claim;
-there is a real danger of contamination with E.coli because those organisms may also be increased by the aeration process;
-the claims made seem to be more marketing hype than science, and involve the purchase of expensive equipment and the use of electricity to make the teas;
-even if they do have some benefit, you can achieve the same with simpler, cheaper and well-tried and tested methods, like just using compost itself, good mulches, no-till methods etc..
Moreover, I don’t think it is true to say that the use of ACTs a la Ingham actually replicate anything Steiner was really saying; in fact BD is often credited with being on a par with another pseudoscience, homeopathy, as described on the Village Community Farm page:
The farm is not only organic (no artificial fertilisers or pesticides) but is also Bio-dynamic -a method which aims to improve the health and fertility of the land through preparations similar to homeopathy.
Now, homeopathy is essentially no treatment at all- it is just water. So a homeopathic addition of soil nutrients or micro-organisms would be no use at all unless you believe in Steiner’s woo. Indeed, my own experiences of working alongside BD-trained gardeners in Co. Monaghan some years ago were that they clearly believed they were sprinkling magic water “homeopathically” (I dont think they actually used the word) over the land to “bring down the etheric forces” to protect and energize the plants.
The BD method of making the “preparations” involved hand-stirring a bucket of the tea for an hour or so at a certain phase of the moon- a far cry from what is demanded to make ACT, 24hrs of constant mechanical bubbling in a special tea-maker.
In Permaculture there are the Ethical Principles of “Care of the Earth, Care of the People, and Fair Shares”. Care of the People must include in my view giving the best information we can based on science, and protecting the more vulnerable from pseudoscience, snake-oil salesmen and other hocus-pocus. Permaculturalists everywhere should inform themselves about Anthroposophy and how it operates in the world and reject it as having anything useful to offer.