Saturday, December 6, 2008

Designing a Permanent Culture

Permaculture was a term coined by Bill Molson and David Holmgren in the 1970s. It was a combination of two words: permanent and agriculture. The choice of words reflected their desire to create a stable, sustainable (able to persist through time) system of agriculture. Permaculture was in large part a reaction to the observation that our current system of agriculture is not sustainable. Given that modern agriculture is based on energy subsidies, i.e., fossil fuels for machinery and fertilizer, it will collapse once fossil fuels run out. This is without going into other problems associated with modern agriculture including: soil erosion, the creation of super bugs through pesticide use, the salinization of soils from improper irrigation, soil compaction, the poisoning of surface and ground waters due to pesticides and fertilizer, and the destruction of habitat to name a few. All of these problems threaten not only our agricultural system, but our society as well. Read Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is to see what happens when soil resources are destroyed and the agricultural base of the society fails. What we are seeing happening today is nothing new. It has happened to other societies and civilizations that existed before ors.
Being optimistic, I will say that these problems can be turned around through proper design. I really like the word “design”. A couple of definitions for "design" that I found on the internet are:

-to plan something for a specific role, purpose, or affect; and
-a plan for the structure and function of a system.

The use of the word “plan” in these definitions implies a conscious directed effort. How is our current agricultural system designed and planned? Besides saying not very well, I would add that it is designed (in the short-term) to make money. The ecology and permanence of the system have been given little thought. As our society is in fact an agricultural society, the permanence of our agricultural system and the food that we derive from it are of utmost importance!

In contrast, the permaculture design process, at a fundamental level, asks, “how can we design a system that will be sustainable through time and provide for our food and material needs?” Observing the processes and functions of natural systems can provide many answers to this question. In an ecosystem system everything is interconnected. This can help us realize that we are not only connected to everything else in nature, but that we are also interlinked with the constructs of our human society. For example, I am connected to the agricultural system that I've been harping about. In many ways I still support it through the products that I buy and the choices that I make. Understanding this I can start to find ways in which I can help shift the agricultural system to something more sustainable. I can buy more organic foods, thus supporting the emerging organic industry. I can buy local produce at the farmers market and support the both the local farmers and the community. Finally, and this is the favorite amongst permaculture practitioners, I can do everything I can to grow my own food and control the manner in which they are grown. With the purchase of our home this year I finally have a property that I can transform using the permaculture or approach of conscious design. One of the primary goals will be to grow as much food as possible in an ecologically sustainable manner. In my next installment I will show some practical permaculture applications that I have implemented on my property.

To get back to the word “permaculture”, the original contraction of permanent agriculture has changed over time to mean that of permanent culture. With culture being, “the set of learned beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization, I think that this change underscores the fact that changing the agricultural system involves much more than simply substituting a few organic techniques, it involves changing our whole relationship to the “environment” (part of this is realizing that the environment is not something that is “out there”, but something that we are fully part of). Permaculture is guided by principles that can help bring about this change in mentality. In addition to the Prime Directive (the only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our existence and that of our children), permaculture is guided by three ethical principles:

Earthcarerecognizing that the Earth is the source of all life (and is possibly itself a living entity- see Gaia theory) and that we recognize and respect that the Earth is our valuable home and we are a part of the Earth, not apart from it.
Peoplecaresupporting and helping each other to change to ways of living that are not harming ourselves or the planet, and to develop healthy societies.
Fairshare (or placing limits on consumption) - ensuring that the Earth's limited resources are utilised in ways that are equitable and wise. (These have been taken from

These ethics provide simple guidelines that can be used not only to help guide permaculture plans, but also to help with the choices that we make every day including what to eat, what to buy, where to shop, how to spend our leisure time, should we drive, should we walk, etc. They are a great starting point for the creation of a Permanent Culture.

Note: Anyone can start to grow some of their own food. The picture in this post is a container on our patio that provided us with beans, lettuce, and tomatos.


DJEB said...

I would add that conventional agriculture also relies on massive financial subsidies in the West. In places where financial subsidies don't exist, such as India, farmers take a different route: buy the line of hype from the promoters of conventional ag, go way into debt, see no way out, drink a glass of insecticide, then die a horribly agonizing death. Mind you, this is not to ignore that farmer suicides in the West are not growing by leaps and bounds - they are. If the goal is to increase the expense of farming, reduce the price of food commodities, reduce the number of farmers who can engage in their profession of choice, reduce the nutritional content of the food, pollute the environment, and destroy the soil, then modern agriculture has been a smashing success.

Pureland Permaculture said...

Good point. I would also add that half of our grain and corn in North America are grown for livestock. Cutting a bit of meat out ouf our diets can result in HUGE energy savings and reduced environmental damage. Not not mention the health benefits.

DJEB said...

Cutting, not cutting out, yes. I'm sure you heard of the Cornell research into the minimum-impact diet for temperate climates. Not surprisingly, it contains meat (sorry vegans). Vegan is doable in the tropics and subtropics, but the further one goes towards the poles, the greater the meat content in the diet. Get to the Arctic Circle and your diet will be nearly 100% carnivore.

Pureland Permaculture said...

I don't think the traditional arctic diet is based on grain-fed livestock. lol