Planting for Pascal’s Wager

For those who don’t know, Pascal’s Wager is a philosophical thought experiment about preparing for the worst case scenario even if you don’t think it will turn out to be true. The original argument was made about religion and the existence of the Christian God (and has some fairly serious flaws), but the general idea is more widely applicable. It’s a good shorthand way of talking about risks, and about worst case scenario preparation as a rational response to a low probability but high consequence event or situation.

For example, the current global socio-political and ecological situation.

I mean, I don’t really think that civilisation is going to fall over and collapse. I don’t. But there are a lot of factors that might mean that basically, we’re in for a bad time over the next few decades. Climate change is the big one, of course, but there’s also massive, ongoing ecological damage and the Anthropocene extinction event, which are linked to the still-rising human population. We also have the potential for global conflicts over increasingly scarce essential resources; we start wars over oil and gold and iron, but what happens when we realise (as we’re starting to now) that we’re running low on available clean water, arable land, and minerals essential for agriculture (phosphorus is crucial to all agriculture, and it’s starting to run low). We’re almost certain to see disease and starvation as the climate shifts and we start getting more and more extreme weather events (commonly named “ruin storms” in science fiction which has been predicting this shit for years), and climate refugees as well as refugees from various localised (and not-so-localised) conflicts.

Not everything is doom and gloom; humans are very good at pulling last-ditch fixes out of our collective ass. We didn’t even realise we were tearing a hole in the ozone layer until it was almost too late, but we caught on and made some changes, and thirty years on it’s actually starting to heal. Because of changes we implemented (yes, to fix problems we caused, but still). The drive for resources will probably (finally!) get us into space in a useful way, to mine the moon & the asteroids. And population growth is decreasing, especially with an increase in living standards and in education for women around the world.

So I am, broadly, confident that we aren’t going to destroy the planet or crash civilisation in any irrecoverable way. But I’m also aware that if I’m wrong and we do topple civilisation (even temporarily, as in the case of a third World War), the consequences could be catastrophic. Which is why I’m using the idea of Pascal’s Wager in my planting plan for the farm – hope for the best, but prepare for the worst case scenario.

Our precursor trees are mostly edible-seeded wattles, because the seeds can be used as a staple food for humans as well as being commercially desireable as a spice or condiment, and making very good poultry forage. We also have honey locust trees, which have edible pods like carobs – and we’re planting a swathe of carobs, too. This winter I’m going to put in several Moringa oleifera trees (which provide human-edible greens that don’t need to be babied the way most green vegetables do in this climate) and start some more mulberries and hibiscus from cuttings (the young leaves of mulberries and of hibiscus are also edible to humans, by the way, although not amazingly tasty). We have lilly pilly seedlings in the gorund to provide shade and forage for the poultry, and we’ll put more in this winter – but the fruit is still useful to humans as well, and apparently high in calcium. And of course we’re going to put in a variety of nut trees (pecan, almond, pistachio, walnut, chestnut, hazel) as soon as I can get watering systems in place to keep them alive while they get established.

I’m also going to put in semi-wild type forage trees – holm oaks and cork oaks for edible acorns, stone pine for pine nuts,  and more mulberries and lilly pillies and carobs. And loads of bee forage plants like tagasaste, rosemary, cape wedding bells (Dombeya tiliacea) and so forth. I’ll plant a few jelly palms if I can get them, or get them established from seed, too.And of course there are the grand plans for the main orchard, with citrus and plums and apples and pomegranates, and the date palms (which haven’t grown much, and are going to be moved into a better, more sunny location as a result).

Anyway. I could go on at great length about the plans for the orchard. But my point is, my choices of tree and shrub are based not only on what I like to grow and what I like to eat, but also on what I think will be most useful if I ever need to rely on my garden to feed me (and my family, chosen and genetic). It’s a planning strategy that anyone can use, for any garden (large or small): think about what would be most useful to you day to day – and what would be most useful if the supermarkets closed down for the week, or the month, for whatever reason.