In my amblings through the issues of food and agriculture, I have been presented by a seemingly insurmountable range of problems. From animal welfare, to monocultures, to unfair trade, to environmentally degrading practices and resource depleting inputs. The list goes on, and on, and on.
It is good to know these, but it is also critical to focus on solutions. We need to shine light on the hope and successes.
One ‘solution-based’ approach that I have been researching and practicing in the past year has been permaculture; literally, a vision of a permanent (ergo, sustainable) culture. Rather than protesting the problems, permaculture seeks to define the solutions.
In a world of binaries, where agriculture is apparently either mainstream (i.e energy, resource and transport intensive, which actually includes the majority of the organic movement in its present form, ‘brain’), or peasant farming (labour intensive, ‘brawn’), permaculture offers a third option. This is not input intensive, but at the same time it is not advocating a return to a ‘golden age’ when people were required to toil away in order to produce a sufficient amount of food.
The three basic principles that permaculture adheres to are:
Integral to permaculture is its design approach, in which the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts, and the aim is to make useful connections between these different components within a system to create what has been described as an ‘Edible Ecosystem’. This design approach is concerned with making the landscape productive, self-reliant, and sustainable. It simulates or simply harnesses natural cycles, structures and patterns in order to achieve this, a process known as ‘biomimicry‘, and every component has many functions, thus reducing the amount of work required from humans.Everything must work in the favour of life processes. The idea is, nature is the smartest design. If you think about ecosystems, think about the relationships between each component and how they have evolved to serve very specific needs. Even when disturbed, a system will generally seek to organise itself and return to a balanced state in which processes continue to work in harmony with each other. This is known as syntropy. Unlike entropy, which describes a gradual decline into disorder, in syntropy all interactions work together to promote a positive energy balance in a system, to create order.Natural succession is the Earth’s natural technology, by syncronising our food production with this, we can become part of the planet’s mechanisms, powering food production with the planet’s own engine. There is an excellent youtube video which describes this in more detail here.
When Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the concept, the world had already passed the “limits to grow”. Concepts such as Peak Oil and Climate Change were not yet in their vocabulary, but they (and many others like them, even way earlier than they did) already knew about resource depletion, ecosystems pollution and destruction and social inequality. Permaculture was born as a highly political, social, philosophical and economic statement disguised as “gardening”: but instead of focusing on old and dysfunctional political economic, social and philosophical ideas, they decided to do two things: observe how both Nature and cultures that have managed to survive in a somewhat peaceful and ecological way (i.e. truly resilience and sustainable) worked.
Permaculture, in many ways, is nothing new: if you look at the “techniques” and “strategies”, they have been borrowed and adapted from what peoples all around the world have used for centuries. Most of them are just common sense and utilize local, renewable resources and appropriate technology (technology developed locally, again with local and usually resources to solve local problems). This was the way humankind lived for millennia before the industrial revolution along with the use of fossil fuels and capitalism/free market/globalization changed everything.
What make permaculture magical are neither the strategies nor the techniques; what makes it different are the Ethics and the Principles.
Until now, no technology has been developed by people thinking on its implications for the Earth, People and Others (including ecosystems, other living beings, people in faraway places and future generations). What’s good about Mollison and Holmgren’s three Ethics system is that is simple and respectful while it includes almost anything we can think about and acts as a filter for anything we do. We can ask for every decision, design, relationship, project, etc.: “How does this reflect Earth Care?” “How does this respect People Care?” and “How does this respect Fair Share?”
Permaculture ethics also allow for freedom at the spiritual level: they don’t argue with any religion or the lack of it but they show a respectful, truly sustainable and resilient way to live in this planet.
Principles, on the other hand, come from deep observation of systems: both ecosystems and social systems that work in resilient and sustainable ways. Both Mollison and Holmgren systems of principles provide us with thinking tools we can utilize to “test” a design and see how resilient and truly sustainable is.
There are almost as many permaculture definitions as permaculturists, but all convey more or less the same in practice: the only way to survive as a species in this planet is to live ethically towards ecosystems, people and future generations. The details are local, but the big concept is global.
Permaculture, as it happens, it is much more than organic gardening and design. Unfortunately, a lot of people still view it that way, including many PDC instructors, consultants and practitioners.
Permaculture has evolved beyond its seminal book “Permaculture: A designer’s manual”, and one of the main weaknesses in the original concept was related to what now is called “Social Permaculture” and sometimes also “Inner Permaculture”, concepts that have been developed by two great permaculturist and transitioners: Looby Macnamara and Sophy Banks.
Embracing Permaculture without focusing on all its ethics and principles has created all kind of strange results: I keep hearing complains of people traumatized at PDCs, people fighting each other about strategies and techniques, people trashing permaculture as too narrow or dogmatic and the like. I have seen this happening not only among permaculture circles but also at Transition Town initiatives: their outreach stays limited to a small group of already converters who keep preaching to the choir while the “mainstream” out there continues its oblivious path to ecological and social suicide.