Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ecopsychology; the Myth of Natural Balance; "Dark Permaculture"

Ecopsychology is a very interesting field with some very important things to say about ecological and psychological trauma. Unfortunately, it's a pretty young field. Fortunately, that means there's lots of room for it to grow. Unfortunately, we've got a lot of growing to do. Fortunately, ain't nothing to it but to do it. 

This article was brought to my attention via Tim Morton's blog. Like Tim, and lots of other people (actually, the entirety of Western Civ, I suspect), I suffer from depression, much of it connected with ecological trauma and the sociopolitical denial-blowback that resists recognition of the trauma and muddies up the clarity of our decisions about how to deal with it on a political level. 

One of the most depressing realities to face is that the agrilogistical methodology identified by Tim as the source of most of our ecological problems is the very same methodology resorted to by those who wish to counteract it. For more on this, wait with bated breath for Tim's upcoming book, "Dark Ecology", and in the meantime just visit his blog. 

But the article linked above is unfortunately rife with the very same mistakes we have been repeating for the last twelve thousand years and change ("change" as in dollars and cents, the only kind it's ever achieved so far). Being familiar with established permaculture (I was very active in it for years until I saw it was being realized as basically fetish capitalist fantasy-sale), I'm equipped with the tools with which to criticize this; others--including people much smarter than me, like Tim--are likely to continue to be lulled by it. 

Even so, I'm really surprised Tim liked the article, as full as it is of the kind of passive apocalypticism I learned to expect of USA permaculture and peak oil ideologues, something Tim incessantly criticizes. Not to mention the ontotheology of the "Web of Life" that will magically repair itself when the "low-energy future" forces us to leave it alone over there in the exo-human "Zone 5" of untouched wilderness. 

Sorry to be ungentle. If my own failure to heal from trauma is any excuse, them I offer it as such. But the above is an example of how established American permaculture will have to be scrapped in favor of methodologies that are not quite so glibly sure of their own goodness if caring people are ever to be equipped to face the challenges that exist. Some offshoot of established permaculture might work, but only if/when it deals with the following problems:

1. Lovelockian webs of life in which everything happens by itself and for its own (good) reasons. Smart theologians might take a leaf out of the Book of Job at this point (God visits Job at the end and says, "You were right, I DON'T exist!"). I'm advocating the reverse of the sociobiologist perspective here: it's ALL nurture, it's ALL culture, it's ALL artificial, and we are subject to responsibility for ALL of it. Awful as it may seem, we have to learn to deal. 

2. Myths of a happy future prompted by resource scarcity. This is basically passive apocalypticism and a kind of compensatory sadist fantasy reacting to the very same social rejection that is cited in the therapy article. I know this assertion is likely to generate horror and disgust among activists who cite all kinds of data from all kinds of scientistic sources, but resource availability is best seen as an economic issue, and I know enough about economics to be pretty convinced that "peak oil" is essentially a meme-tool for the shaping of consumer purchasing attitudes ("Hey, it's running out, you gotta be careful...") so that prices will stay just high enough to be profitable. Resources (as commodities) DON'T peak, they just get more expensive and then governments have to subsidize production, as with agriculture for the last century or so. Was anyone talking about tar-sands 15 years ago? No, because mining them wasn't cost-effective. And oil is in everything: you could squeeze it out of the keyboard I'm typing this on if you thought it was worth spending the money to do it. "Peak oil" is meaningless. So is the "low-energy future" (Is the present high in energy? No, the cost is just subsidized, and it will continue to be, because of government-corporate collusion, unless this is brought under control through adequate politics). In general, the idea that we will adopt better ecological policies "when we have to", is the sound of a scorched fiddle in the charred ruins of a dead Rome. The article even briefly promotes the kind of disaster capitalism ("catastrophe as opportunity" or some such callous invocation) warned of by Naomi Klein in her excellent book on the subject. ("The Shock Doctrine".)

3. Utilitarianism. This is something permaculture has always been confused about. Though it adopts some vestige of an object-oriented view, this view remains essentially holistic-communal (chickens are "for" scratching, poplars are "for" windbreaks, sheep are "for" eating grass, deer are "for" herbivorous grazing, humans are "for" design and management and eating sheep and deer, etc.). Though some concession is made to the "intrinsic value" of objects in the basic principles, this is almost totally forgotten in the design implementation modeling phase. Which leads into:

4. Zoning. There is nothing wrong with the permaculture zones at all, provided that we remember that every object is the center of its own "Zone 0" (objects are not fitted into human-conceived zones; they exude their own zones, and it is as important that we "fit in" with their influence as the reverse, if not more so), and also that even "Zone 5" (what we call "unotouched" wilderness) is actually very touched and exists over here, with us, on THIS side, within the sphere of human responsibility, as was well understood by Native Americans and other indigenous folk. 

Will this changed idea of permaculture (we could call it "Dark Permaculture") ever be realized? I find it unlikely, given my own very disappointing history with American permaculture. The "movement" (as it calls itself meaninglessly) appears to be far too socially homogeneous and class-centered. But I don't believe it's impossible. Something like permaculture may have a significant part to play in the creative acceptance of human ecological responsibility. The answer is in our collective hands. 


  1. Prelude: I am reading and appreciating your blog! I hope you're open to some healthy questions. I wrote a lot because this is what occupies my mind a good amount of the time, and no longer live in a community where people engage in these thoughts. Almost all of my thought are earnest questions relating to your theoretical strings.

    Response to your critique of the current Permaculture community:
    1) I don't understand this point.
    -How does the "web of life" theory intersect with notions of what is "natural?"
    -Do you think "It's all nurture" outside of the anthropromorphic standpoint?
    2) Myth? Happy future? I myself am a believer in the resource scarcity forecast. However, I'm no sadist (heavy word to use for a community of people with restorative intensions).There might be some satisfaction in wagging our fingers at greenwashed drones. But what about the masses of people in urban areas who will be starving? How will they get education on self-sustenance? What about prison systems and places for the mentally ill? Orphans? It's going to be really fucking sad.
    It's not only about resources running out. It's really about fundamental societal structures getting completely de-railed. It's about that collapse happening alongside fundamental resource scarcity (food and, if we don't get desalination safe and widespread in the next 10 years, water). When overpopulation is beginning tear into "first world/developed countries" and those countries will be dependent on hyper-industrial agriculture, I doubt the majority of people will be thinking of how to squeeze oil out of a laptop. Also, considering that more than 50% of energy comes from coal, it's not just about oil. The majority of the populace is vaguely aware and anxious of what's coming, but they're still living in a dream of being able to maintain the current paradigm. They think it's simply a matter of replacing oil with electric, coal with solar-- all our norms will be maintained. But that hunger will trigger a mass awakening. That awakening will happen alongside an industrial system that simply won't be able to sustain itself. Do think there will be low voting rates then? Some new type of energy system and system of sustenance will have to happen. Do you think that this will be another dirty energy system? With what funding? Do you think the level of current complacency will exist in that time?
    I don't know that anyone is realistically expecting for all of society to embrace permaculture. The expectations I've heard and agree with are that there will be zones, and some of those zones will try to create somewhat self-sustaining systems in urban centers.
    I do believe our only choices will be self-sustaining systems or cannibalism.
    3) Similar to your first point: what does utilitarianism in the theory of permaculture have to do with people not actualizing the theory correctly?
    4) I agree. I think most people who are so into permaculture that they're thinking about zoning adhere to non-anthropomorphic philosophies. If you're trying to actually influence the way these systems are built, I would keep your critiques to an essential minimum. I'd hold off on this if you're planning to bring up these ideas with a permaculturist in the future. I'm not exactly a permaculturist, but I am allied with the community, and naturally got defensive while reading your list of improvements. Probably similar to how you're most likely somewhat defensive while reading my critique of your critique.

  2. Hi Lee. My reply is too big to fit as another comment, so I'll repost...


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