Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Jackson 4

Permaculture: Beyond Crop Rotation

It has been argued that permaculture represents a solid sustainable approach to agriculture, and while I believe this is a vitally important part of the concept without which it would not be recognisable, but this is far from the limits of its applications. While wwoofing on permaculture farms I was struck by something far removed from the specifics of their farming practices – their approach to life, their attitude, positively and inspirational qualities. It is this view of modern life, of how it can be changed by individual action, which I intend to focus upon, as I believe it can help us to radically change the long-term direction of public policy away from the unsustainable, wasteful, non-humanist, statist model.

Permaculture simply asks people to put as much into life as they demand from it…use its principles in your everyday life. Teach your children, lobby your government…with the wisdom it contains.’ (Dr. David Bellamy – botanist)

Permaculture is not just about finding new ways to farm; it’s about creating sustainable human settlements by following nature’s patterns rather than working against them. Drawing heavily from Bill Mollision, one of the founders of the idea, I will now outline the core conceptions of how a permaculture settlement achieves this in terms of ‘structure’. From this discussion it will begin to become apparent how relevant the idea is to modern society.

Firstly permaculture has a novel way of looking at life, commonly refereed to as ‘maximum contemplation; minimum action’. Rather than measuring success in terms of speed of action and quantities of success it favours instead a strategy of long-term contemplation followed by the best, most effective action that uses the minimum of unnecessary energy. By doing so you find the best possible action and have a holistic approach to your life. Permaculture is about thinking before you act, it is not a set of rules; it is a process of design based around principles found in the natural world, of co-operation and mutually beneficial relationships, and translating these principles into actions. This action can range from choosing what you eat, how you travel, the type of work you do, and where you live, to working with others to create a community food-growing project. It's about making decisions that relate to all your other decisions; so one area of your life is not working against another. For example, if you are planning a journey, consider other tasks that can be completed on the way to your destination (combining a trip to the leisure centre with buying food on the way home, for example). In this sense you begin to think of your life or project, as a whole system, - working out the most effective way to do things that involves the least effort and the least damage to others, and looking for ways to make relationships more beneficial (

I start with this characteristic of permaculture because, for me at least, it is one of the most important elements to this essay and to the movement. I mentioned earlier that permaculturalists I have meet all had a common sense of purpose, which was a very refreshing change to the defeatist – ‘But what can I do?’ – attitude in the UK. At first I thought these people where happier because they had discovered ‘the solution’ the way to change the world, but later realised that in terms of physical actions many where doing little more than I – they were just a lot happier about it! That was when I realised they were happier because they put themselves on the path to a solution, removed conflict from their lives as much as possible and accepted that some conflicts would persist. It only truly matters that you know you consider every aspect of your life, and do everything you can in a co-ordinated and thoughtful way. From such an approach we can gain a step in the right direction for every aspect of our lives now, without excuses, and put society and ourselves on the path to sustainability. This is where I think permaculture has a lot to offer public policy on sustainability issues. All political parties, media and government departments now accept the need for a policy focus on ecology and climate change, but very few people are offering real solutions. Why does the government look, for the solution to limited food production in the third world, to genetic modification? Why are tax credits and low wage jobs Gordon Brown’s solution to everything? Why does the government want to stop climate change with targets and a congestion charge? Why is the first answer to increased energy needs nuclear power as opposed to energy reduction? If the government accepts the argument that we need to live in a more sustainable way, why are their solutions to these issues not more radical? Governments of course are not known for their radical nature, but there is a far more important reason, they lack the co-ordination that a holistic approach would bring. If we want to do something about the way we live, about the problems that have cause climate change, we need to make this the number one issue of government and society and start to challenge the conventional wisdom about the basic of modern economics and conceptions of human development.

Capitalist theory teaches us that the cheapest way is the best way, that the easiest route to increased growth is the correct one. In reality, of course, government and society put limits on this idea it is not seen as acceptable for a business venture, however profitable, to result in people’s death for example. This does however happen all the time, people die every day in the name of profit, the question is, if that is logically considered unacceptable, why does it happen? It happened in large part because conventional academic, governmental and media logic puts the economy before society and environment, rather than considering it just a means to and end. If we consider the economy to be more important than ourselves and the planet we live on, then it is little wonder that the political economic system has resulted in ecological disaster. Permaculture’s second main element is an understanding of and solution to, this problem.

"If we want to move on and create sustainability and a more fulfilling quality of life, the best way to do this is to understand the nature of the world and to live harmoniously and creatively with it - to understand that we are a part of the web of life, not separate from it."


Permaculture embodies a system of ethics and principles that it aims to put into practice, and by doing so to return some form of clarity to their lives. These focus around sustainability and fairness, and are generally divided into three main categories:

Earth Care - Permaculture as a design system is based on natural systems. It is about working with nature, not against it - not using natural resources unnecessarily or at a rate at which they cannot be replaced. It also means using outputs from one system as inputs for another (vegetable peelings as compost, for example), and so minimising wastage.

People Care - People care is about looking after us as people, not just the world we live in. It works on both an individual and a community level. Self-reliance, co-operation and support of each other should be encouraged. It is, however, important to look after us on an individual level too. Our skills are of no use to anyone if we are too tired to do anything useful! People care is also about our legacy to future generations.

Fair Shares - The fair shares part of the permaculture ethic brings earth care and people care together. We only have one earth, and we have to share it - with each other, with other living things, and with future generations. This means limiting our consumption, especially of natural resources, and working for everyone to have access to the fundamental needs of life - clean water, clean air, food, shelter, meaningful employment, and social contact.

Permaculture does not provide prescriptive solutions to the problems facing the world - nobody is going to demand that you put an herb spiral in the bottom left corner of your garden, or wear only hand knitted recycled non-bleached organic fair trade clothes. It is about allowing you the freedom to observe your surroundings, and make decisions that will work for you, in your situation, using the resources you have.

Self-Reliance and Community Sufficiency

"We try to empower people to take control of their own lives. If you can see something needs doing, then give yourself permission to do it"

Permaculture seeks to foster the skills, confidence and imagination to enable people to become self-reliant, and to seek creative solutions to problems on a global or local scale. While the individual has a part to play, in most places it is not realistic for an individual household to provide for all of their own needs in terms of food, clothing, work etc, and the emphasis is more on self-reliance and increased sufficiency within the community, rather than individual self-sufficiency. In practice, this does not mean each person growing enough food to feed themselves in their back garden; it means that as many as possible of the inputs for a community (food, skills etc) come from within that community - perhaps in the form of community food growing schemes, Local Exchange and Trading Systems to exchange skills and produce etc. Permaculture means different things to different people. One person may interpret it in a practical sense in terms of growing food, perhaps, while another will focus on a more spiritual side. This diversity is important; it helps to keep a sense of balance, and encourages people to share their resources and knowledge with others. Working together is the key - it takes a lot of strain off the individual. It also is important to be well informed and if you can help others, spread your knowledge in return.

Concluding Comments

Permaculture then offers a flexible, dynamic and highly individual set of moral, ethical and practical guidelines for living with rather than against nature. It offers a way of living your life that views the planet and its inhabitants as co-dependent delicate systems that we all need to work with not against if we are to survive. It is my opinion that the present capitalist system will eventually, without doubt, lead to great pain and suffering for the mass population and to the earth itself, indeed it not only already does, but also has for over 5,000 years. The present ecological crisis will never be solved, by David Cameron riding his bike to work, or even by Hilary Clinton singing the Kyoto mark II protocols, because the problem is not the amount of carbon dioxide, it’s the way we live. If we accept this we need to have a new framework for an alternative to capitalism that puts society and ecology before economy and does so in a holistic way. I for one believe permaculture ethics, attitudes and principles are the answer.

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