The Problem is the Solution
By Jason Powers
Irresponsible traditions of waste, conquest, and over-consumption have dominated much of human history, leading to the collapse of many past societies. History has shown us that a civilization that undermines its land and resource base through wasteful and exploitative habits eventually will collapse. Today, the destruction hinges upon our wasteful and exploitative economy, based on perpetual growth, and the fossil fuel-dependent industrial agriculture that strips our soils and poisons our waters. Agribusiness corporations are consolidating ownership of the world’s seed stock, while the genetically altered organisms they produce silently embed themselves into the wild gene pool, with yet unknown consequences for global food security and biodiversity. Oil and natural gas production, the cheap energy that our agriculture, industry, and transportation systems depend on, has most likely peaked and begun to regress. Extinction of species is drastically increasing due to pollution, ecological devastation, and weather change. Extinction of cultures due to conquest– euphemistically termed, “development” – and resource extraction is likewise increasing.
In may ways shielded from the effects of the global economy by our relative wealth, most in the “developed” world live unaware of the effects of our lifestyle, not knowing or caring where our food, water, energy, and consumer products come from, nor what is done to bring us these things. Even as we imagine progress and technological salvation, our systems and the culture they’ve created perpetuate denial.
Clearly, whether we choose to change or not, we will have to eventually. It’s just a matter of when we’re able to leave denial behind and look honestly at how we live. From this we will hopefully (re)develop skills and traditions that teach us to value and care for what sustains us: the land, our communities, and our relationships.
Permaculture arose from the realization that prevailing agricultural systems were fundamentally unsustainable and creating worldwide catastrophe.Based on observations of the sustainable systems of nature, as well as many of the traditions of indigenous cultures, permaculture was developed and applied in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison, a forestry worker and scientist, and David Holmgren, then a 20-year-old student. As initially conceived, “Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way, ”2 according to Mollison’s Designers’ Manual, the “bible” of permaculture.
Originally an attempt to return to systems of small-scale intensive gardens, permaculture now incorporates numerous techniques for ecologically sustainable living: grey water, recycling, solar energy, rainwater catchment, natural building, and local food networks. “You could say it’s a rational man’s approach to not shitting in his bed… a framework that never ceases to move, but that will accept information from anywhere,” explained co-founder Mollison in an interview with In Context. Coined in 1976 as a conjunction of “permanent agriculture,” the word permaculture has evolved to signify a “permanent culture,” one that has since spread into a de-centralized global movement, adapted and implemented by peoples in nearly every ecosystem, and socioeconomic level, by rural and urban, rich and poor.
Toby Hemenway, a permaculture teacher, designer and author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture likens permaculture to “A toolbox that helps organize [techniques] and helps you decide when to use them.” Aiding this are four simple ethical tenets: caring for the earth, caring for people, limiting growth and consumption, and sharing surplus (goods, energy, time, etc.). Design principles derived from these tenets incorporate no-till and perennial gardening, use of natural patterns, energy efficiency, and intelligent use of space and resources. As in nature, stability is created through diversity and the relationships between the elements in the system. “The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions,” Mollison writes. Practitioners try to integrate the different elements into harmonious relationships where cooperation and mutual support are encouraged, multiple functions are filled by one element, and multiple elements fill one function. This is seen in the “guild,” a permaculture-specific technique which uses vertical space to stack and layer mutually beneficial plants.
To be sustainable, a system must create as much or more energy than it consumes, so closing energy and resource loops becomes very important. Problems are reframed as solutions and waste is redirected as inputs for other processes. “I have become increasingly aware of how the output/waste of my activities can be reused as inputs useful in other activities,” admits Leopoldo Rodriguez, an economics professor at Portland State University with three years of permaculture experience. “I think a lot more about the placement of different elements in the process of putting a garden together, planting a tree in the yard or building a chicken coop.” Beyond understanding one’s own systemic impact, permaculture bolsters people’s self-sufficiency. “Grow food or learn how to forage wild food yourself. The empowerment of this one act will have a great effect on you,” says courthouse clerk Carla Bankston, an eight-year permaculture devotee.
In addition to this focus on sustainability and DIY practicality, successful application of permaculture depends on continuous feedback, adjustment and involvement with the design. “One key aspect is to reassess at every step and make sure that you’re still in line with what your original goals were,” Hemenway says. “You stay with the project for long after it’s up and running because it’s always going to change. It creates a long term relationship which will in the long run wind up being cheaper.” He contrasts that with how things are typically done. “Our culture does a cost benefit analysis where we say ‘Okay, this is the cheapest way to do it so let’s do it like that.’ It makes it very difficult to [do] anything resembling what sustainable cultures do.”
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