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 clichés. 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. 


  1. Hey, thanks for that detailed explanation. It makes me nostalgic for the mid 90s when I knew several permaculture folks.

  2. Nostalgia for the mid 90s is an almost constant thing for me.


I'm very happy to have you weigh in. I make no rules against the use of words or the expression of honest emotions, but let's all please keep it civil. Thank you!