This is a season (Dec.2006)
for talking truth about the world. Americans do elections
and feasting in the same month and for good reason: All politics
hinges on the question, "Who eats?"
When we shifted our economy from
the wild harvesting of nature's surpluses to the cultivation
of cereal crops at the end of the last ice age, we started
on a course of collective self-discovery: Will the clever
monkeys solve the puzzle in time? Can they figure out how
to grow enough food to keep up with their sex drive?
So far, the answer is no. The Agricultural
Revolution, sparked in the semi-arid regions of the Near East
about 10,000 years ago, has been a failure. The production
of surplus grains has always led to increases in population
that outstrip the productive capacity of their regions, leading
to war, empire, destruction of forests, and migrations. On
a shrinking planet, there's nowhere else to go.
To get to the root of politics we
have to talk and act on food. Freedom isn't just "nothin'
lose," rather it's an abundant supply of locally grown
food for every household. Our current food system, and with
it the entire economy of the now hyperlinked world is balanced
precariously on a dwindling supply of fossil oil and gas,
controlled by a tiny elite of mostly foreign powers.This is
not a temporary problem to be solved by technology or better
management. It is a structural problem of geological limits
and burgeoning population that will never go away until we
break our addiction to oil.
Thirty years ago, two Australians,
David Holmgren and Bill Mollison discovered in their conversation
about energy and equity that they had something to say about
this problem. They described their response to global limits
and the failure of central authority with the made-up word,
"Permaculture," or "permanent agriculture."
In the generation since "Permaculture
I" was published, a hundred thousand others have joined
this conversation around the world and Permaculture has come
to mean "permanent culture," because, of course,
no system of farming can exist without a just and stable society
to support it.
Besides being a paradox ("permanent"
means long-lasting while "culture" is about continuous
change and adaptation"), Permaculture is a way of seeing
the world that emphasizes context and processes. It requires
a shift of focus from objects and actors—which is the
cultural bias of western civilization and of our English language
in particular—to relationships. Whether seen as feminine
or right-brained or Eastern because these qualities have been
suppressed in our culture, the capacity for holistic thinking
is really about balance —drawing on both sides of the
brain and emphasizing the connections between them.
is also a design system, based on ecology and taught by grassroots
networks, for creating human habitats—homes, neighborhoods,
towns, and the countryside—that capture energy, grow
food, and recycle wastes, as they grow ever more diverse and
abundant. The principles are simple but not trivial:
• Humans must be engaged interactively with the natural
world around us;
• Our chief task is to capture and cycle solar energy,
using it to meet our needs;
• We have to feed ourselves and regulate our behaviors
to fit in with nature;
• Biological systems work best;
• Waste equals food;
• The patterns of natural systems show us how to create
• Combine top-down thinking with bottom-up action;
• Always integrate elements and systems for mutual
• Choose small and slow means;
• Cultivate diversity and look to the margins for
• Be prepared for change.
have endless ramifications.
And out of these networks of "each
one, teach one," has grown a social movement for people-centered
development and grassroots scientific research that has successfully
demonstrated pathways for a low-energy future in 100 countries.
The abundance of cheap fossil fuel and the material excesses
of USA culture have retarded Americans' awareness of Permaculture,
but the rise of energy prices and the continued contraction
of the global economy are helping awaken more people to the
need for which Permaculture was created.
Permaculture has a great analysis of the
world—Energy comes from the sun, therefore it's time
to reorganize our economy and technology to recognize that
(Think biology.); The Earth has limits, of which energy, water,
tree cover, and soil minerals are especially critical to life;
People, once educated, are best able solve their own problems
and meet their own needs locally, so teach them to teach others.
The household, not the factory, is the source of prosperity,
so create edible landscapes everywhere people live. But the
Permaculture story would be empty theory if it didn't lead
to positive action for change.
If you want to turn the world on its head,
it takes a really good idea and a lot of practice. And that's
where the design system comes in. You apply these principles
to your own life, your own household, your own economy to
make permaculture happen where you live. And every one is
different. Starting at the back door, permaculture designers
and activists have created city farms, food forests, solar
homes, living roofs, edible parks and schoolgrounds, backyard
fish ponds, community health centers, water gardens, local
currencies and credit unions, farmers markets, ecovillages,
and a worldwide university.
What will be your part of this story?
The true test of permanent agriculture
is whether it builds and maintains carbon (organic matter)
levels in soil. This takes trees, animals, careful observation,
persistence, and a new worldview. No mechanized agriculture
can do it, only people who understand their kinship with all
of life can. The land needs people. At the same time, there
can never be enough "stuff" in the marketplace to
satisfy our profound need for love and meaning. These can
only come from relationship—people need the land and
each other. In a world of diminishing resources, the only
inexhaustible resource is our creativity and our undying connection
with the Earth. These come together in the garden, and while
Permaculture is much more than can be imagined by one person
or captured in an essay, it is most often and truly associated
with the garden, our deepest image of connectedness with the
original source and of a world filled with pleasure and delight.
Politics has captured the attention of
Americans again after a generation of lethargy because the
world's problems are growing more complex with each passing
day. We face endless war over oil, rampant consumerism, a
hollow economy and a crumbling dollar, an epidemic of obesity,
toxicity and illness, and a medical system out of control.
Hunger and plague stalk the global South. At the risk of being
thought romantic or utopian, I assert that the solutions to
these and most of the world's dramatic crises rests in a rather
simple shift of our awareness and our behavior. We must care
for the Earth and for people, and share that which is surplus
to our needs so that others may meet their own. We must also
consciously limit our consumption and population. These ethics
are central to permaculture: they belong to no nation or creed
but to all of humanity. It's time to garden the planet.
Bane is the publisher of Permaculture Activist.
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