Thursday, October 21, 2010

OK, Permaculture: Yes, I know what it is

I'm not going to say that I don't know what permaculture is, because I hate clich├ęs. Let me say, however, that I might possibly be wrong about some things I think I know. My intention here is to put forward my take on permaculture, with which others may differ. I welcome any comments, as usual, and any designers, consultants, or permaculturists of any kind may feel welcome to weigh in on anything I say here. Just one rule: if you disagree, have an argument, not an "opinion". We don't do relativism here.

I am a Permaculture Design Consultant myself, and I've been familiarizing myself with this sprawlingly multidisciplinary composition of ethics and design principles since about 1993 or so. So far, the best literature on the subject, for my money, are Permaculture: A Designers' Manual by Bill Mollison and Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren. Mollison and Holmgren co-composed permaculture many years ago.

I intend to go more deeply into the various aspects of permaculture in later posts. The titles of my two favorite permaculture books already say a lot: "design" and "beyond sustainability" are both significant concepts here. Permaculture is primarily an organized design science. Its multidisciplinary quality is due to the fact that what is being designed is our entire mode of existence, not anything in particular...or rather many particular things, but with the generalistic intention of a good life for all beings. The rampant lack of any design in the planning of human life as we know it is a prominent feature of modern life, but little noticed because we mostly see the circumstances of our life as features of the landcsape that "just happen" without our having to think about them. Nothing could be further from the truth, for a lot more than thinking has to be done in order to maintain this way of life: massive, intensive subsidies in energy go to support a way of life where one person leaves a carbon footprint the size of a blue whale or two. We have massive amounts of knowledge in physics, but we don't use it in our houses. We know a lot about ecology, but we don't use it in our gardens and we don't apply it to what we actually do.

If we actually applied all that we know to what we do, the results would seem miraculous.

Permaculture teaches that a person should account for one's home economy before going out and trying to fix political or broad-scale corporate ecological problems. Taking this advice and considering the home first, most modern homes are uninhabitable without electricity, creating a situation of unhealthy dependency on capital-intensive entities over which the customer has no control. Meanwhile, it is an utterly trivial matter to design and build houses so that they take care of themselves. If a house is positioned so that its long axis faces the sun (irrespective of where the road is), then very simple techniques of passive solar design can create a building that cools down as the weather heats up and vice versa. Then the garden may also be fairly simply designed to assist the house, providing for major percentages of a family's food needs. As for what food can't be grown at home, permaculture is equally applicable to agriculture serving whole communities...the point being to sustain communities, not "feed the world" in a way that has never worked for anyone except agribusiness.

Remember, there is no "world" anyway, right? It's all, as Levy Bryant says, a composition (see my last post, & links thereon).

Permaculture is a rational approach to living in a way that works. I have seen examples of permaculture design realized that surpass my own fantasies of the Garden of Eden for beauty, utility and livability. But my task here is not to describe the beauty of the places I have seen, but rather convey the beauty of permaculture itself, for even in scientific terms, permaculture is a truly wondrous composition in which may be applied any science, craft or art and find it interconnected with that which is already there. It is not immutable, and as design science is a changeable, evolving process, aspects of permaculture are non-dogmatic, and falsifiable where appropriate. For example, philosophies such as Object Oriented Ontology are eminently compatible with permaculture, despite its focus on "systems" and its sometimes teleological or nature-as-intent basis, for it is a simple matter to alter such language and still retain permaculture as a viable, pragmatic methodology.

In my own experience, the method is to "not do" at least as much as you do. As long as you do one basic thing right, everything else seems to happen almost by itself. Take good care of your soil and its biota, and abundant yields of good food and flowers just happen, almost as a by-product, like water flowing downhill is a by-product of gravity. And here we find perhaps the greatest challenge to us as designers: being able to let things go and happen as they will, once we have laid the groundwork. I find this personally daunting at times. It is a humbling experience to learn first-hand that although I can bring elements of what I might think is a "system" together, I can't actually connect them; one does not have the power to create, but only to assemble. But it is also a liberating experience to simply put the elements in the right spatial relationship to each other and watch in amazement as they form a composition, often in ways I did not expect.

Permaculture bridges the imaginary firewall between "human" and "nature" through physical practice. Unlike deep ecology, which sees a world separate from the human that should be left in its "pristine" state and untouched, permaculture designers see their job as the assembly of artificial ecosystems. There is no longer any question of the pristine: we have tampered with ecology across the whole face of the earth and cannot turn back the clock. If we simply allow things to continue the way they are, then we make a decision in favor of misery, poverty and destruction. We have ramped up such a massive extinction rate that there is now no choice but to assemble recombinant ecologies: edible landscapes, in which anything that adds to the diverse vitality and fits in a harmonious way should by all means be included. There are no "invasive" or "non-native" species (except ourselves, if we choose), and proscribed diets that eliminate animals from the edible landscape actually create unsustainable conditions. No one is advocating factory farms here (in fact, "farms" in general would look more like meadows, swamps or forests under permaculture), but an ecological community will obtain its food, irrigation water and fuel from where it lives, and vegetarian agriculture is simply not viable in every region under such low-impact circumstances. Enlightened omnivorousness seems, historically and anthropologically, to be the best dietary survival system for human populations.

There are many facets of permaculture design beyond building, energy and food. One may begin at any facet of the crystal and end up at any other. It is rooted in philosophy and ethics, chaos theory, pattern mathematics, climate, forests, issues of place, and even politics and economics. I will get into all of these at some point, and if readers have any specific areas of it they wish to know about, please feel free to ask. For now, suffice it to say that there are few things in life more worthwhile than permaculture.

Till next post, I leave you with some advice from Bill Mollison: "I would say, use all the skills you have in relation to others - and that way we can do anything. But if you lend your skills to other systems that you don't really believe in, then you might as well never have lived. You haven't expressed yourself." 

Or, as I like to say: Follow your hunger. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ecology Without Nature, or Doctor Who vs. the Myth of Subject-Object

I'm a big Doctor Who fan, and have been since the early '80s, long before the special effects and makeup were believable. This has nothing to do with this post. I only mention it because that's how excited I am by what I'm learning from a guy named Timothy Morton, whose blog can be found here.

Ecology Without Nature is the name of his blog, and also the title of his book. He has another, which he calls a prequel to EWN, called The Ecological Thought. And the concept discussed in both books (which I intend to buy as soon as I'm flush enough), that of ecological thought itself, is one that has been blowing my mind ever since I started to figure it out. This journey has been accomplished mainly by listening to the podcasts of his classes at UC Davis, where he is a Professor of English; these are free and available at iTunes (just search "Timothy Morton"), and I can't recommend them highly enough. I don't know that I agree with every aspect of his thinking; I do have some superficial issues with the ideas he has about art and aesthetics in general (yes, human aesthetics are a big part of how we "do" ecology, whether we know it or not). But on the whole (except that according to his philosophy, there is no "whole" to be "on"), I find his Ecological Thought to be rivetingly persuasive, open in its application and liberating in its ability to identify and erase thought-problems that I couldn't get past before.

What's odd to me is that Tim Morton himself doesn't seem to find it as uplifting. He seems to think that a lot of it is rather depressing, actually...and at first, it does seem like that to me as well. But when you apply ET (coincidental acronym? Perhaps not, since we are all pretty alien in this philosophy) to pragmatist design methodologies such as permaculture, you may find that a lot of things that you were refusing to think about--because you couldn't get them to fit--start making sense, and your practice becomes yet more practicable. Practice, if it leads somewhere, is never depressing, as gardeners and martial artists well know. Painful? Yes, sometimes, even to the point of deep grief. Frustrating? Indeed! But not depressing. Tim Morton describes Ecological Thought as "viral"; "getting" it is like getting a cold, and once you've got it, you can't do anything about it except let it run its course.

I have found, to my increasing delight, wonder, and astonishment, that this seems to be true. What I "get", so far, is as follows. I hope Tim will correct me if I misinterpret anything.

The reason we are in so much trouble that we can't seem to get out of, due to our destruction of the natural world, is that it was a disastrous mistake to ever start thinking in terms of "nature" and "worlds" in the first place. To talk about the "end of nature", or the "end of the world" is to invoke a whole range of mythical, imaginary hobgoblins that only serve to scare us into moping apathy. To end "nature" and "the world" as concepts is something we should get done as quickly as possible! For, as it turns out, there never was a "nature", not in any sense: "Nature" as a medium for living beings does not and has never existed, nor do beings have "natures" that you can generalize about. The concept of "Nature" as an "object over there", as Tim says, or as a backdrop to a separate and equally nonexistent object called "humanity" that we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are a part of, is absolutely useless to identifying our places as unique beings in an interconnected ecological mesh.

This interconnection is total. There is nothing "you" can identify that is "not you", or "other". A political party that wants to romantically identify itself as "Green" and its members as "greens" ignores a significant romantic irony in their own story: The reason we have the color green is because of an event billions of years ago that was, for the beings involved at the time, an ecological disaster of total proportion. Chlorophyllic (or "green") bacteria destroyed their own ability to breathe the planet's atmosphere by producing too much oxygen...which we now breathe as we poison ourselves. These bacteria now survive only by hiding in the cells of plants, like the human batteries in the movie The Matrix. Hardly a meaningful existence, you might think...except (and this is where it starts to get really Goth and creepy) that you could say the same thing about the plants themselves. For the Matrix was as much a machine for preserving humans as for imprisoning them, and viewed in this way, plants themselves are not "natural" in the way we used to think. They are machines for the survival of the chloroplasts, and really a kind of artificial life.

The mitochondria in our cells are similar. We die without them, but perhaps the more important point is that they die without us, and that's why we're here. It turns out that animals aren't "natural" either, and that even the categories of "animal", "vegetable" and "mineral" are themselves hobgoblins. Likewise "life", insofar as we differentiate between it and "non-life" of various kinds. For if the Turing test proves that there is a point at which you can't tell a computer program from a real person, the inverse also holds true, and we are all a form of artificial life.

I find that this has some very startling political implications. Take the issue of corporate personhood, for example. This is a very hot issue currently, about which my readers (if I have any) may have some strong opinions. The question of whether we should treat corporations as people or not is interesting, and capable of generating endless and potentially fruitless debate, but it's rather beside the point when you consider that we don't treat people like people! How does our legal system define a "person", anyway? Read the Constitution, read the Bill of Rights. This concept of "personhood" is so limited as to be demeaning, reducing people to objects that only differ from corporations in that they have something called "malice". Our legal system is not the sole culprit here; as individuals, we objectify people all the time. "Other" people are, to differing degrees, "good" or "evil" (to say nothing of our habit of manipulating them when we can and it suits us). Neither of these are things you would say about someone you truly regarded as a Person. Indeed, in objectifying "evil", we become evil ourselves, simply by identifying ourselves as "good". Good? You? Me? Us? What a laugh that is. I like this British sarcasm: "Good in here, innit?"

It would seem like the prudent thing would be to destroy the entire legal system we operate under and replace it with one that actually treats People (meaning you, me, the dog, the tree, the centipede, the cow, the lettuce, the computer program, the book, the humic soil molecule, the mountain, the idea, and the corporation) as People...but not as a "We the People". Because as it turns out, there is no "we" and there is no object called "The People" that can be manipulated by law. Each Person is wholly, universally unique. And each unique being is totally interconnected in an inescapable mesh called Ecology.

Anarchosyndicalism, anyone?

"Other" things are not other, for our genotypes do not stop at our skin. As our mitochondria and the mercury in our tissues from the burning of fossil fuels make clear, these "other" things are not only under our skin, they are our skin! Each being is universal, and its skin is all other beings. Our universality is made horrifyingly clear when we realize that we can't have conversations about the weather without thinking about global warming anymore.

This leads to something called OOO, or Object Oriented Ontology. Levi Bryant gives a great layman-accessible explanation of this way of thinking about existence here. I disagree with him about refrigerators, but that doesn't really matter. OOO is related to a relatively new branch of philosophy called "speculative realism". As I "get" it (which maybe is not very well), what OOO does is to remove the firewall between subject and object. "I" am as much an object as anything else I can point to, and all objects (including inanimate ones) have a perspective and a point of view just as I do. There is no subject.

I find this very refreshing when I consider all those annoying ends to otherwise interesting conversations that go: "Well, that's just your opinion, and others are entitled to their own!" Or in other cases, the conversation ends before it begins, with the insipid "Well, this is only my opinion, but..." This is the brutal triumph of relativism over constructive argument. Or, if you're being accused of being an unoriginal, pointy-headed intellectual, you might hear, "Well, you just got that out of a book!"

It turns out that no one is entitled to an "opinion" at all. Reality is not some object that one is entitled to have different opinions about as it suits one. It has intrinsic being, and deserves one's sincere attempt at understanding. True compassion requires no less than that we develop and test our arguments. And what on earth is this demeaning talk of "books", as if books were somehow un-people that we can enslave, disenfranchise and say rude things about, as we've done with so many other un-people? We do treat them that way, though: we display them on our bookshelves as if to say, "Look! See? I'm not a racist! Some of my best friends are books!"

Well, I don't have any funky soundbite ending to this one, folks. Check out Tim's books, blog and podcasts, and grock to your heart's content. See you tomorrow or so.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I'm hungry

I am a tall, slim, neurologically sensitive, introverted and yet physically active person. I am therefore hungry most of the time, and I love to cook.

It is lunch time and I have been sitting and designing this blog all morning, drinking tea and coffee. There are vegetables from a local CSA (community-supported agriculture) in my fridge, waiting for me to make a dressing to dip them in and eat them. Cut vegetables lose 50% of their nutritional value in the first hour after harvest, and though mine are still a lot fresher than any you can get from any store, they need to be eaten soon. For my two dogs (children of my dear wife Deb's previous marriage, and very dear to me themselves), it is also lunch time. It would be better if I took care of these things right now.

But I want to talk a bit about what hunger means.

Western civilization (particularly in the USA, which I know best by far) is characterized by a universal state of chronic dissatisfaction. We are generally very hungry people, despite the fact that we consume at least six times as much of everything as we could possibly need. It is no wonder: the circumstances of our existence in the early years of the 21st Century make satisfaction impossible most of the time. We hunger for sustenance, health, meaningful livelihood, objects, togetherness, solitude. In general, I think we hunger for change.

It is right that we should want change. Our present mode of being really sucks, when you look at it. And my criticism of our present economic, political and social arrangements is not that they make some people very fortunate and most people very unfortunate...nothing so populistically Marxist. Rather, my criticism of these things is that they make life fundamentally impossible for everyone, regardless of empty and meaningless definitions of fortune or misfortune. Life under the circumstances we have been choosing to set is simply unlivable.

To distract the hungry, "change" of a kind has been built into these circumstances. This is the equivalent of changing the font or background color of one's blog (but not the fact that blogs depend on technology powered by ecologically and socially destructive mining), changing from one laundry detergent to another (but not the fact that one does not know how to make soap and stop littering the planet with plastic bottles), changing from Republicans to Democrats (but not the fact that we have no democracy and no longer live in a republic), or changing from Coke to Pepsi (both essentially the same, both nearly as destructive in their manufacture as petroleum, both crap). The fact that "change" was the magic word used by the Obama campaign illustrates that our hunger has grown to such a magnitude that Power can no longer distract us from examining these circumstances: they are no longer untested "features of the landscape", to be accepted as inevitable. When Power is forced to use explicit language to describe what they have previously been feeding you implicitly, you are well on the way to truly real Change: a dismantling of the circumstances of your life which you once thought inevitable, and a total reconfiguration of the infrastructure of life itself.

The only trouble is that if you just let it happen instead of taking an active and intentional part, you will most likely not find the new circumstances comfortable. Indeed, they may not be able to support your survival. This may be the case even if you do take an active role. But the active have a chance of determining the circumstances, and therefore a chance at life; not merely survival, but living. But the passive? I'm sorry, no.

I have always been a particularly hungry person. Hungry and inquisitive regarding my hunger, I have never accepted circumstances with which I was dissatisfied; I have rarely even accepted the parameters of my "likes" and "dislikes" without question. At age 11, I experimented with foods of different textures and flavors in a fashion I can only describe as Tantric, putting my least favorite foods first on the "to eat" list at the dinner table and watching how that list changed, destroying my own concepts of liking or not liking different things that are all good anyway. At age 10 I was foraging for wild edible plants in the Berkshire Hills, deconstructing the boundaries between "food" and "weeds", and also the link between "needs" and "markets". At age 12 I was hunting small game with a bow and arrow, and learning (from my sometimes angry father) that what you shoot, you have to kill; what you kill, you have to clean, cook and eat. Otherwise, no supper! At age 15, I was already refusing to accept the social parameters I was given by high school teachers and guidance councillors, that "you'll have to deal with this horrible shit for the rest of your life, so you'd better just accept it, or you will be a failure". I have rarely failed to refuse bad food. I have rarely failed to accept good food, regardless of whether I thought I "liked" it. And because of this, I have found to my sometimes great satisfaction that I have rarely failed in general.

Follow your own hunger, rather than hungers you are given to want. Cook (and if possible, grow) your own food. Learn to identify the edible and poisonous circumstances of your life, choose the edible, and spread their seeds; there is no need to weed out the poisonous, for well-nurtured edibles will out-compete them (I never "quit" smoking; I have simply not smoked in two years). Accept the bitter along with the sweet, for it quickens the blood and gets you ready for a new spring after a long winter.

Me? I'm a-go make some tzaziki and some sweet brown rice. Bon appetit!