Permaculture…one to bind them all

About a decade ago I graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in Philosophy, and ever since I have kept up my reading as a hobby. As I left school I was experiencing a growing respect for the Existentialist’s, especially Sartre and Nietzsche, but eventually found them to be lacking in applicability to my post modern world. The best philosophy reading I have done of late was Karl Jaspers (pictured), who combined the down to earth nature of the Existentialists (well compared to the Epistemologists anyhow) with the ability to write from the heart. Read his Future of Mankind, and you are confronted with a brilliant mind striving in earnest to save the race of Man from continuing on a collision course with nuclear annihilation using the tools at his disposal: lecturing, writing, and reason. I have found no equal in the Contemporary Philosophy I have read-it is all far to specific and dogmatic. My soul yearns for a voice of reason that will cut thru the current malaise and offer a workable philosophic solution to again save our race from doing itself irreparable harm. Given my readings of the last week I think I have found that person.

David Holmgren was one of the Co-Founders of Permaculture almost 30 years ago as the research assistant to the more popular Bill Mollison, but Holmgrem’s new book : Permaculture: Pathways Beyond Sustainability has upped the ante in my mind. If you read much in Sustainability, or even kept up with this blog, you will be familiar with Permaculutre as a means of edible landscaping or sustainable gardening. Gaia’s Garden is perhaps the most accessible publication to this aspect of Permaculture, and I highly recommend it. Where Holmgren makes his brilliant departure is in his more recent focus on Permaculture as a way of thinking, as well as doing. Reading Gaia’s Garden (I have not yet read the more detailed Permaculture a Designers Manual-$120 is a lot for a book!) opened my eyes to a broader world, and its focus on building plant communities to limit gardener inputs makes good sense-no one has to put fertilizer or weed a Forest right? But this common view of permaculture as gardening misses much of the point-and Holmgren’s book fills a huge conceptual void in the permaculture movement.

Actually when I purchased Permaculture at the Organic Valley Fair last week, I was looking for more nuts and bolts tips on how to make my property more sustainable. If that is what you want, look elsewhere-this is a theory book. Holmgren is presenting Permaculture theory as a set of 12 principles, that once implemented, will allow the Permaculturist to adapt to and thrive in a future of declining energy (post Peak Oil). Basically laying out a framework of thought to guide our actions in the coming years. So actually, the book is exactly what I need for my property, I am just not getting it on a platter-I need to go out and use Principle 1 (observe and interact) to learn more ways to do Principle 6 (produce no waste)-after all no book can tell me exactly what I need. Only I know that.

But back to my obscure Tolkien reference. When you look at the Sustainability Movement today there is much to give hope: the rise in organic gardening and agriculture, bio and solar fuels, eco-villages, Slow Food, Natural Capitalism, and Green Building come quickly to mind as awesome movements driven by passionate individuals Being the Change every day. But as I go to those sites and read their literature, I am struck by the amount of energy that is being wasted-either in working at cross purposes, or working congruently but inefficiently due to lack of collaboration or vision. When you add in the shared goals between Sustainability and the Environmental and Endangered Animal NGO’s it seems amazing that we aren’t working together more. Holmgren potentially finds the solution to this in the theory behind Permaculture-turning wastes into resources, thereby reducing inputs, while valuing diversity to obtain a sustainable yield. A typical permaculture gardening technique is ‘guilding’-designing plant communities in such a way that each member augments the yield of the others. Ex. in the simpleThree Sisters Guild one plants corn, pole beans, and melons together in a mound. The corn grows tall and acts as a trellis for the beans. The beans and their little bacteria buddies fix nitrogen to fertilize the melons and corn, and the melons sprawl around smothering weeds and shading the soil to conserve moisture for all. Studies have shown increases of 10-30% over growing the crops separately. There is Permaculture to be found in Natural Capitalism with the focus of situating industries so that one the waste heat from one factory can power the factory next door, etc. But we can also see shared visions in linking groups. One byproduct of organic agriculture is a marked increase in the biodiversity of the land reclaimed-surely we can link going organic with endangered species preservation.

Slow Food, organic gardening, even Green Building are reactions to the realization that we are living unsustainably, but in most cases we are changing the means of operating without breaking the paradigm. Buying local food is a Good Thing-a very Good Thing. It connects people with the origins or their food, which is a Big Step, but we can also focus in on the larger issue of the potential tool to rebuild and strengthen communities. Organic Gardening is allowing a generation to remember that you really can grow huge tomatoes without the need of a Miracle, but much of popular organic philosophy has not addressed the monoculture agriculture. CSA’s are a huge step in the right direction growing amazing variety, maximizing yields per acre to fill those boxes each week, and tying in the human element by connecting suburbia with the farmer. This hits all 3 tenants of Permaculture: Caring for the Earth, Caring for People, and (hopefully) achieving a sustainable yield. Green building’s focus on energy conservation, and in some cases energy production, is demonstrating to more and more the huge advantages environmentally and economically for going green. The next step will be in addressing the issue of building sustainable homes in unsustainable communities.

All of these disciplines have developed a change in methodology to reduce our ecological footprint, but none are overtly trying to change our worldview. Permaculture allows us to step back and find ways to connect the dots-and as we do so the resulting picture is far more intricate and beautiful than we ever imagined. It envisions a world where we are all energetic learners experimenting with our lives and communities to find better ways to meet the needs in a changing society. Of course we will make mistakes, but we can take the power back from centralized systems and corporations and put it back into our communities and families.

Holmgren takes over 250 pages to give this argument a proper discussion, and he says it better than I can anyhow. My hope is that Permaculture the Theory can be the vision that binds the desperate causes together so that Western Society can approach Energy Decline with civility, repentance and grace. Imagine economists, carpenters, animal rights activists, ecologists, farmers, gourmet chefs, and average Joe’s like you and me all working together… there is nothing we couldn’t accomplish!

To quote a perhaps overly quoted line:

“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” —–Magaret Meade.

We can do this… Be the Change.


2 Responses

  1. Oh, yes! I had a similar reaction to A Designer’s Manual when I first read it in the 1980’s, but Holmgren is really a clear thinker, and with his structure and learning from all the new movements like you mention (plus others like voluntary simplicity, etc.) I am once again optimistic. Thanks for the great post, this word needs to be spread as widely as possible.


  2. […]  Thanks to Holmgren’s work, Permaculture has evolved out of the garden and into a true philosophy that can shed massively important insights on everything from civic planning, to energy […]

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