Saturday, October 8, 2011


There's a lot of attention these days on the concept of permaculture, but the term is somewhat misleading. It's not like perma press clothing (which never needs ironing) or permafrost (ground so near high latitudes and so far below the surface that it never thaws).

Permaculture has been promoted as an antidote to the dominant culture, which is decidedly impermanent. However, despite what the prefix "perma" suggests, permaculture is not geared toward permanent solutions. Rather it focuses on a steady set of design guidelines, aimed at adapting to changing conditions. While the principles (and questions) remain constant, the answers change with the factors—whether that’s climate, resources, population, or how many dogs are in the neighborhood. Thus, the application of permaculture thinking can lead to surprising array of developments. It’s a rolling reality.

What's intended is achieving a steady-state system, where inputs and outputs are in balance in a way that's permanently sustainable.

Downshift Happens
As we bump up against the limits of natural resources—oil, water, arable land, and many key industrial minerals—something's gotta give. And not just a little bit. Things are going to change a lot. The aim of permaculture is to help people figure out how to have the softest landing possible, where we shift our lives to depend mostly on local and renewable resources, while maintaining the best possible quality of life. This is not going to be simple.

When permaculture first burst on the scene in the 1970s (the principle articulators were Australians Bill Mollison and Dave Holmgren) the main focus was on ecological systems, and how much healthier for all species it was to think in terms of whole systems, such that everything fit together in an interdependent way and minimized outside inputs.

While inspiring, the concept has now been broadened to include social sustainability and economic sustainability. Thus, it's not impressive if you have a spiffy new water catchment system and super insulation on your house, yet nurture a grudge against your neighbor because you're downwind too many days when he's operating his homemade smoker. How sustainable is it if the triple-pane windows you've installed to stop heat loss were only affordable because of the inheritance you got from Great Aunt Betty?

The point here is that permaculture is a three-legged stool and you need all three legs to be strong or you don't have a very useful stool (or a very useful tool, for that matter).

As it turns out, embracing permaculture means embracing change on an unprecedented scale. It means objecting to adversarial dynamics, top-down hierarchies, global markets, materialism, and automatically placing "I" before "we." Figuring all this out is a work in progress. There are hopeful signs (intentional communities are the R&D centers for much of this), yet there is much yet to do. The results are preliminary, and it's clear that good intentions alone are insufficient to ensure success.

Stacking Fictions
One of the core permaculture principles is that it's a good idea to stack functions—figure out how to accomplish multiple goals through a single action.

For example, when we make tempeh at Sandhill, we try to use the oil-rich water that is a byproduct of cooking the soybeans to feed pigs instead of just pouring it down the drain. When we have community meetings, we often do quiet handwork while we discuss issues (labeling jars, peeling garlic, cleaning beans, seed saving, etc—farm work nevers ends and a number of the rote jobs can often be accomplished painlessly while our minds are focused elsewhere). When we thin oaks to improve our forest, we retain the larger chunks for shiitake logs, and use the smaller pieces for firewood. The wood shavings from our planer become just the thing for aerating and carbon balancing the humanure in our composting privy.

Going the other way, when I think about the decaying dominant culture, I believe the principle at work is "stacking fictions." Here are some examples of what I mean:

o Technology will save us
Even allowing for gains in efficiency, and new breakthroughs in nano-technology, there just aren't enough resources for all the world to live at current US standards. And as challenging as it is to figure out how to grow enough food for the Earth's steadily rising human population (nearly one billion more in the last decade), we'll exhausting our natural resources even faster than we're increasing the mouths to feed. I think technology is a good thing, but it's not a panacea.

o Supply side economics
This is the concept that everyone benefits a little if a few at the top benefit a lot, because the rich are the ones who will invest in new businesses more than the poor. There is absolutely no evidence that tax breaks for the rich lead to a better life for the poor. This is simply a myth to deflect attention away from equitable taxation.

o A rising tide floats all boats
Huge fractions of the Earth's population live in abject poverty, and the rich countries are happy to keep it that way. Perhaps not morally happy about it; but economically happy about it. It turns out that not everyone even has a boat, and rising water is not such a good thing if you're treading water. And it may not even be good to be in a boat if the rising tide comes in the form of a tsunami.

o Large farms are more efficient than small ones
It's perhaps true that large farms are better positioned to make the best use of investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation allowances, but they are demonstrably not more efficient in terms of what products can be produced per unit of human input. Large farms are only better at farming the tax code.

o Capitalism is the surest path to ecological solutions
In truth, capitalism is inimical to ecological sustainability. How can it be acceptable that $1 million spent on cleaning up an oil spill and $1 million spent on wind turbines counts the same (because they both contribute equally toward GNP)? It can't be right to reduce everything to dollars pushed through the system. Capitalism is about returning the highest possible returns to shareholders. The higher the interest rates, the more you can discount the future and focus on the short term. We've been steering this country under the influence of this particular strain of myopia for more than two centuries and it's just about time to pay the piper.

o Free trade leads to the most efficient distribution of resources
Free trade allows the markets in rich countries to dictate to poor countries how to use their natural resources, forcing them to devote their precious arable land to luxury crops for the rich markets rather than for feeding their own people—because rich countries can outbid the subsistence farmers for use of the land. How can that lead to a sustainable world? What free markets do is make sure that worldwide economic decisions are made on the basis of what returns the most on investment; not what is most humane or sustainable. Since free trade agreements (such as NAFTA) have been in place, the gap between the haves and have-nots has increased, and it is easier than ever for large corporations to out-source their labor needs, eliminating domestic jobs.

• • •
Let me close with a vignette that's telling on this topic. I was at the annual Fall Festival in Keosauqua IA this weekend, peddling a variety of Sandhill's food products. This event is about 50 miles from our home, and for the past two decades we've been offering a potpourri of high quality, homegrown food to area customers. One of those products is garlic bulbs, harvested from our fields in July. Given that garlic is not difficult to grow, it's somewhat surprising that we can sell very much to the locals. Mostly we grow it for ourselves, and make the excess available at the fairs we attend.

We're currently selling large bulbs for $1 each. A couple came up to our booth today and told me a story of chagrin. Earlier in the summer they'd bought a little net sack containing three bulbs of garlic
at a local grocery store. The bulbs were medium size and cost $2, which is approximately the value that we were offering. After they got home however, they noticed that the garlic had come from China. Yikes! Chinese garlic was successfully penetrating areas of the US market where garlic grows well. How can that be?

Think about how much of the cost of that garlic must be tied up in transportation to ship it half way around the world to a place where it already is locally abundant. This is a small, clear example of free trade run amok, accelerating how quickly we're using up our remaining oil, enabling garlic to be dumped in Iowa. How much money can the Chinese farmer possibly be earning on that sale (given that the shipping company will assuredly not be transporting products at a loss)? This is not market efficiency; this is market madness.

I figure it's about time to permanently change a culture. Or there may not be any left.

1 comment:

Carrie O'Connor said...

Interesting. We now have 3 intentional communities in Milwaukee. An ecovillage, a yoga cooperative and an art IC. I wrote about the latter:

Thanks for an insightful post.