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Can Permaculture Save the World???

Editor’s Note: Point one – this article is circa 1998, from the now-ceased publication Permaculture International Journal. Point two – it is now more relevant than ever, so please read and ponder. The article goes a long way towards explaining why I mix articles the way I do – some about Permaculture, some about current events, the global situation, and the desperate need for systemic social, political and economic change.

Ted Trainer argues that although the planet cannot be saved without Permaculture, not enough people in the movement realise where Permaculture fits into the solution.

We are fast approaching a period of enormous and probably chaotic change. Western industrial-affluent-consumer society is unsustainable and is rapidly running into serious difficulties.

Permaculture is a crucial component of the solution to the global predicament. However I want to argue that Permaculture is far from sufficient, and indeed that it can be counter-productive if it is not put in the right context. That is unless we are careful, promoting Permaculture can actually help to reinforce our existing unsustainable society. We must do much more than just contribute to the spread of Permaculture. We must locate Permaculture within a wider campaign of radical social change. Before I try to explain this, I need to outline how I see the global predicament we are in. Whether or not you will agree with my conclusions about what needs to be done and where Permaculture fits in will depend greatly on whether you share my view of the situation we are in.

Beyond the Limits to Growth

There is an overwhelmingly strong case that industrial-affluent-consumer society is grossly unsustainable. Australian per capita rates of resource use and environmental impact are far higher than can be kept up for long, or that could be had by all the world’s people. We are in other words well beyond the limits to growth. Following are a few of the points that support this conclusion. For detailed explanation The Conserver Society (Zed, 1995) or Towards a Sustainable Society (Envirobooks, 1995).

  • It takes about 4-5 ha of productive land to provide the lifestyle in people have (our “footprint”). If eleven billion people (the expected population of the world late next century) were to live in that fashion about 50 billion ha of productive land would be needed; but that is eight times all the productive land on the planet.
  • If all the world’s present number of people each used energy at the Australian per capita rate then estimated potentially recoverable resources of coal, oil, gas, shale oil, tar sand oil, and uranium would be exhausted in under forty years.
  • Climate scientists are saying that if we are to prevent the greenhouse problem from getting any worse we must cut annual fossil fuel use by sixty to eighty percent of present volume. If we cut by sixty percent and shared the remaining energy equally between the eleven billion people expected you would have to get by on only 1/18th of the present Australian per capita consumption.
  • The environment problem is basically due to all the resources our affluent-consumer lifestyles are taking from the environment and then dumping into it as waste. It takes twenty tons of new materials to provide for one American every year. One species, humanity, is taking forty percent of the biological productivity of the planet’s entire land area, mostly to provide well for only one billion people. If another ten billion want to live as we in the rich countries do, how much habitat will be left for the other possibly thirty million species? We cannot expect to stop the extinction of species unless we drastically reverse this demand for biological resources and the consequent destruction of habitat. We cannot do that without huge reduction in production and consumption.

World Resource Grab

These sorts of figures leave little doubt that the way of life taken for granted in industrial-affluent-consumer society cannot possibly be kept up for long or extended to all people. We can have it only because the one fifth who live in rich countries like Australia are grabbing four fifths of world resource production to provide per capita use rates that are fifteen to twenty times those averaged by the poorest half of the world’s people.

The outlook becomes far worse when we add the implications of our manic obsession with economic growth. If Australia averaged four percent growth from now to 2050, and by then the expected 11 billion people had risen to the living standards we would then have, the total world economic output would be 220 times what it is today. The present levels of production and consumption are unsustainable, yet we are committed to an economy and a culture which is determined to increase living standards and the GNP, constantly and without limit. It should be obvious that no plausible assumption about what miraculous breakthroughs technology will achieve will enable continuation of the living standards and the systems taken for granted today; the foregoing multiples are far too big for that.

This blind obsession with raising living standards and the GNP is the underlying cause of all our major global problems, including resource depletion, environmental destruction and the depravation of the third world. For example the third world has been developed into a form which enables its land, labour and capital to produce mostly for the benefit of the rich countries and their corporations. Most people in the third world not only get little or nothing from the development, their productive capacity is put into producing for export. Hence an increasingly critical literature argues that development is plunder and that growth results in depravation.

Globalisation is making all these problems worse. We are seeing a rapid restructuring of the world to give transnational corporations and banks even greater freedom and excess to resources, markets and cheaper labour.

This basic limits to growth analysis shows our predicament to be extremely serious. We are far beyond sustainability. The problems cannot be solved without radical change.

The Solution

If the limits analysis is valid then a sustainable society will have to involve much less affluent lifestyles, highly self-sufficient local economies, little trade, little heavy industry, cooperative and participatory systems and a steady-state economy. This means much more than merely getting rid of a capitalist economy. It means developing an economy in which there is no economic growth, the GNP per capita is a small fraction of what it is in Australia today, no interest is earned on savings (because if it is you have a growth economy), most economic activity takes place outside the cash economy and there are many free goods from the local commons. The “unemployment” rate might be eighty percent (because most work and production would not be for money), and in which much “tax” would be paid via contributions of time to local working bees and committees. In addition a sustainable society requires fundamental changes in world view and values. Cooperation must become the dominant concern, not competition. A strong collective orientation must replace today’s rampant individualism. Affluence and consumption must become distasteful; frugality and self-sufficiency must become major sources of life satisfaction. Giving must become a more important source of satisfaction than getting.

If the limits to growth analysis is valid then we have no choice about these changes. Whether we like it or not we must make these sort of changes if we are to develop a sustainable society.

Many of us with some direct experience of alternative lifestyles and the ecovillage movement know how easy it would be to build a sustainable and just and admirable society. Many who have lived simply and in cooperative communities know it is possible to design and run settlements in which people have a very high quality of life at a relaxed pace, in supportive communities, secure from unemployment, poverty and violence, on very low levels of per capita resource consumption. (This is not to assume that our society will make the transition. I’m increasingly pessimistic about this.)

Indications for Permaculture

Permaculture design principles are obviously crucial for sustainability. Viable settlements must be designed to provide most of their needs from the local landscape without external inputs of resources, and in ways that are ecologically sustainable. But given the nature and the magnitude of our limits to growth problem much more than permaculture is required. Fundamental economic, political and cultural change is essential and without these Permaculture will be of no significance even if it flourishes. Unfortunately much Permaculture literature and many courses tend to leave the impression that spreading knowledge about Permaculture techniques is sufficient to achieve a sustainable world and that there is no need to question affluent living standards or the present economy. In general far too little emphasis is put on the fact that a sustainable society cannot be achieved without a radical change in lifestyles, in the economy, in the geography of settlements and in world views and values.

The important point here is that Permaculture can very easily be part of the problem. It is part of the problem if it does not increase the realisation that affluent living standards and this economy are totally incompatible with sustainability and global economic justice. Much Permaculture literature not only fails to increase people’s understanding of these crucial themes, but much of it reinforces the impression that fundamental change is not necessary because all we have to do is adopt things like organic food, composting, recycling and community supported agriculture. Permaculture is part of the problem if it is essentially enabling people to do some ecologically correct things in their gardens such as growing some organic vegies, and then feel that they are making a significant contribution to saving the planet.

Many people do such “light green” things without questioning affluent lifestyles within a growth economy and without seeing these as the basic causes of the global crisis. For too many, Permaculture is little more than another toy to play with on their hobby farms.

Similar criticisms can be made of the ecovillage movement. This is an extremely important development; we can now point to functioning examples of more sustainable settlements. But the movement is not putting anywhere near enough emphasis on the development of self-sufficient economies, living simply and cooperatively and on the need to get rid of an economic system based on market forces, growth and the profit motive. It tends to give the impression that it will be sufficient to build ecovillages that will function within the present economy.

In other words Permaculture can easily be seen as another technical fix that can save industrial-affluent-consumer society. I think most people see things like solar energy, community supported agriculture, LETS, earth building, reed bed sewage and Permaculture as new ecologically friendly techniques that will enable us to solve resource and environment problems and therefore to go on living with high living standards, growth and free market economies, jet-away holidays and so on. They see technical advance as capable of eliminating any need for fundamental change in lifestyles or in the economy. I think that we are giving the impression that Permaculture is another of the technologies that will help to save industrial-affluent-consumer society, when the most important message to be given now is that we have to largely scrap that society. There is a seriously mistaken theory of change underlying much of the Permaculture movement. Many seem to assume that the more people we get to take an interest in Permaculture and to practice it the closer we move to the establishment of a just and sustainable society. This is not so. If all we do is work at increasing the numbers who understand and like and practice Permaculture this will probably have no more revolutionary significance than if we increased the number of people who are interested in the RSPCA or golf. This will just reach the point where all those potentially interested in Permaculture will have become interested, and will be out there reading the books and growing things, while still living in and benefitting from (and not challenging) affluent-consumer society and the growth economy.

Building Sustainable Society

Again, replacing that society is the crucial task, not getting more people to like and practice Permaculture. Merely teaching Permaculture techniques will not get them to see that affluent-industrial-consumer society is a terrible mistake, that capitalism must be scrapped, that a growth economy must be scrapped, that we must build small and highly self-sufficient economies based on cooperation and participation, and that very different lifestyles and values must be embraced. People can become very knowledgeable and keen about Permaculture without understanding any of this.

Why do you want people to take up Permaculture? Just to enjoy the idea and the practice? Or to help us build a sustainable society? If your answer is the latter, then we will not get this outcome just by increasing people’s understanding of Permaculture techniques. We make sure that wherever possible we connect Permaculture with the global scene and the need for radical social change, so that people understand that Permaculture is necessary but only as part of the bigger picture. We can’t claim to be centrally concerned with achieving sustainability is all we talk about is Permaculture. It is in fact only one element in the list of conditions and factors required for a sustainable world order. But there can be no doubt that it is a crucially important element.


  1. I think Ted underestimates just how much of a challenge TRULY living to a Permaculture lifestyle is to the establishment. The key word being truly.

    Permaculture as I see it is a design system that appeals because it makes so much sense. It takes the best of human abilities which are; keen observation, wonderful and (lets face it) awesome ability to manipulate the 3rd dimension and the idea of the ‘future’, and puts these under the guidance of the supreme teacher, Mother Nature. What happens when a society is operating harmoniously under this system is what makes Permaculture so much more than a system, another idea to be thrown into the ugly -isms or systems of history. The systems, the principles, the rules just fall away because they are replaced with something greater. I’m not going to deliberately mystify what is essentially humans getting along with each other, intelligently living with the land and just enjoying life, but considering these things are supposedly Utopian, and Utopia is in reach, what could be more mystical? What could be more threatening to the status quo, one’s idea of their self and the fat controllers ‘out there’? If this constitures “All we do”, then Ted has high expectations indeed!

    Yet you don’t have to wander into these realms of the future potentials of Permaculture to see why it is so challenging. If you live in a modern, rich country like Australia and have tried to retrofit your house or even build a new house upon permaculture principles you will soon come up against the stupidity of those we have placed in power and the laws which they wield so readily. Laws which we support by living under without question. You will know the mental and physical work, at least initially, required to really take on a responsible and intelligent ‘Permie’ life. And you will have felt the guilt that comes with knowing you could and should do more, guilt perpetuated by articles like Ted’s.

    We know we can and must do more. We know the wonderful potentials of the smaller, cyclical and harmonious life. What I do not personally share with Ted is the fear that those coming into contact with this wondeful thing, which is really a reconstruction of the common sense and dreams of humanity throughout all time, are not changed by it. It is true that many will feel that they can have this cake and eat it too, on the couch in front of the T.v. probably, but the idea that you can and should change what is going on in your neighbour’s head, aggressively even, is more dangerous than you realise. If Permaculture is going to truly break with the past, forge a new way of life for humanity, it will lead by example, by just working, in a world of systems that are so clearly haemoragging and failing all around us. Do not underestimate the danger of doing harm with the best intentions, nor the power to do so much good by educating and applying yourself to what you believe to be the best way forward. When humanity comes to agreement over the best way to live, when we look to Mother Nature and find ourselves walking the same path because it ‘felt’ right, not because we were ordered or persuaded to, then we will find a way of life truly worthy of the title ‘Perma-culture.’

    The common sense of Permaculture is not the sense of modern industrial society. The dreams of Permaculture are not the dreams of this society either. Or rather modern industrial society has no place for the dreams of the majority of the people on this planet. It would rather create it’s own inflated, shallow, heady and addictive dreams from the glamorous echelons down, to distract the masses while ‘getting on with business’. It has not the ability to imagine animals may dream, that the earth may dream or that there are so many other ways to seeing, doing, growing, making, loving, living. It just doesnt want to know. For those of us born and (to the extent that we are awake) caught in ‘it’, we ARE it. This is of course the basis of Ted’s fear and logic in this article. The simple truth that we ARE IT, both the problem and the solution.

    I would like to finish by saying I understand totally, where Ted’s coming from. Action is needed. People who truly know and believe in the potentials of Permaculture, who dare to imagine a Perma-culture need to step forward and speak. They will need skill, strength, courage, knowledge, humour and support. In short, heroes. The problem is not that there is a shortage of heroes, but you just aren’t going to hear about them in the normal channels. You have to look. They are quietly getting on with it. They wisely know the pitfalls of modern mass media and as hard as it might be for us to accept, those who are going to be touched by Permaculture are perhaps meant to be. The implications for those who aren’t are horrible. Tragic even.

    So let’s spread it! People will do what they will with it. The beauty of it, the strength of it lies that unlike all other ‘movements’ it does not come from on high (euphemism for out of men’s heads) but from down low. Its foundation is the most solid of all, the earth, and that for me is a great source of comfort and hope.

  2. I have long appreciated Ted Trainer’s didactic approach – his obsession with the the planetary crisis demonstrates an almost athletic psychological stamina. He works really damn hard to craft accessible books loaded with shocking data and analysis that cuts through the conventional academic mindset. I applaud his efforts and owe him heaps of big hugs I guess for being pretty darn driven.

    I worry though, that he may be over-looking the limits of human psychological capital in western countries, where psycho-cultural poverty is driving the collective neuroses of affluence (the ‘affluenza’ victims/perpetrator complex). Most people are unfortunately too preoccupied with their own personal lives to invest time in broader social and planetary conciousness. Stressing them with overwhelming fear will certainly not bring out their best. And usually denial and other coping mechanisms kick in, even if as expected the entire global political economy does’nt even flinch (can I buy your carbon permits? etc).

    Furthermore, misanthropic zeal (which I have at times felt) to save Nature from wretched human nature fails to deal with the true crisis. Human decency and resposibility requires a humane approach, that empowers and informs people to make their own lives better, in their own way, in their own time. If respect matters, then people need to see other people living a great life by example, and if they choose, it can be theirs. Soft Power will make more change in better ways in the long run. It is pointless driving ourselves over the cliffs in herds of panic stricken hysteria. May the revolution continue in its gentle and inevitable transformation of human ways of life.

    Dreaming Dan, gosh you have a great understanding of things. I love humanity. And am proud to gush about it!! Hundreds of heroes, helping millions of heroes transforming billions of peoples lives – thats my vision of permaculture.

  3. I’ve done an embedded PowerPoint Presentation on “Financial Tsunami vs. Financial Permaculture” that delibarated on the causes / effects / possible solutions to the current financial / economic crisis. More detail on blog

    By the way, I think the word “Permaculture” and “Permablitz” should be used both as “nounce” and “verb”, if the world is to receive the full benefits of all the good efforts we are now contributing to the issues.

  4. How much pleasure and inspiration I felt whilst reading the above article, and especially the comments!!! Beautifully lucid minds!!! Thank you.

  5. I have only now read this article, and I am happy to have the Occupy Movement alive and growing to work on the social and economic changes needed. Permaculture, Occupy, and Time Banking. This is the trio I am focusing all my efforts on.

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