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Things That Can’t Go On Forever, and Things That Can: A Few Thoughts

Properly defining and orienting permaculture is of prime importance in its being appropriately applied. I’ve found it to be a very useful personal exercise. Doing so prevents me from straying too far from its practical origins and helps to keep it from being transformed into some kind of Utopian, escapist ideal.

First referencing Bill Mollison’s definition (taken from The Designers’ Manual):

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the practical conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.

Permaculture, as a design system, attempts to integrate fabricated, natural, spatial, temporal, social, and ethical parts (components) to achieve a functional whole. To do so, it concentrates not on the components themselves, but on the relationships between them, and on how they function to assist each other.

It is in the arrangement of parts that design has its being and function, and it is the adoption of a purpose which decides the direction of design.

Permaculture is concerned with the institutional and functional design of the dynamic infrastructure provided by the natural world in the form of ecosystem services. We are given a concrete means of intelligently managing natural capital in a way that strengthens it while supplying our needs in an ethical, conscious manner.

Our practical goal is to create designs that self-regulate/self-manage – just like ecosystems do. Without pollutants. Without unnecessary extra work.

The purpose of a functional & self-regulating design is to place elements or components in such a way that each serves the needs, and accepts the products, of other elements.

An Important Factor to Consider:

The context in which permaculture is applied is critical. And, I’m not simply referring to the physical, geographical, topographical, climatic contexts.

It’s going to mean different things to different people depending on who you are, where you are and where you would like to go.

It’s very personal. The reasons for being drawn to permaculture are driven by a variety of factors. For some, it’s concern for the environment, for others it’s economic, or political, or social – or, more likely, a combination of all of these factors.

All of them are closely related. None of them exist in a vacuum or in isolation.

The Prussian military thinker Karl Von Clausewitz was quoted as saying:

War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.

A couple of useful corollary statements easily follow (attributed to the American dissident thinker Michael Ruppert):

Politics is a continuation of Economics by different means.

Economics is a continuation of Energy by different means.

Money represents the ability to do work. Fossil fuels furnish the ability to do work – quite a lot of it, and, for the moment, relatively cheaply when one accounts for the finite nature of its supply in relation to what it facilitates.

Before the advent of fossil fuels (and modern finance), the ability to do work was represented by the possession of human chattel – or slaves. History – in its politics, economics, and social development – can be condensed into the progressive unfolding of how we have determined the most effective ways for our human needs to be provided for and subsequently how wealth is generated. Permaculture has far-reaching implications in altering our understanding what is available and what is possible in every conceivable area of human endeavor.

From that perspective, permaculture stands as a wholly revolutionary concept in form and function given what it can potentially provide us with. We collectively cannot allow it to be made into another alternative lifestyle affectation. Or some sort of Utopian, escapist fantasy which marginalizes itself by remaining at the fringes, alienating those who need it most.

The modern era – the Industrial Age – is synonymous with the the Oil Age. One doesn’t exist without the other. Viewing our present world through that lens, it becomes quite easy to understand the state of things.

Given the finite nature of the lifeblood of the modern world, one can do nothing but concede that the economics and politics driving it cannot continue.

As Herbert Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under American Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, once said:

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

Economists are very good at saying that something cannot go on forever, but not so good at saying when it will stop.

We are all in some way, shape or form, implicated in these statements. We’re all affected by this reality.

Ultimately, we all have to answer a couple of questions given the aforementioned: How do we best supply our needs? And who determines how that question is answered? These are longstanding historical dilemmas requiring practical solutions.

Our collective sociopolitical/socioeconomic situation is dictated by how those questions are answered.

This lies at the heart of what drove the formation and development of permaculture in its ethics and practice.

The "Hi Lo-Tech" integrated design methodology embodied by permaculture will become an essential tool in formulating the vision of a post-industrial, post-oil world and what it needs to look like in order for it to be viable.

Rhamis Kent

Rhamis Kent is a consultant with formal training in mechanical engineering (University of Delaware, B.S.M.E. '95) and permaculture-based regenerative whole systems design. He has previously worked for the renowned American inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen at DEKA Research & Development, with subsequent engineering work ranging from medical device research and development to aerospace oriented mechanical design. After taking an interest in the design science of Permaculture, he sought extended training with permaculture expert and educator Geoff Lawton at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. This led to his involvement with design work connected to the development of Masdar City in UAE after Mr. Lawton and his consulting company (Permaculture Sustainable Consultancy Pty. Ltd.) were contracted by AECOM/EDAW to identify solutions which fit the challenging zero emissions/carbon neutral design constraint of the project.


  1. After I learned about Permaculture one year ago I stopped believing in any kind of ideology, ideology has too often shown to become dangerous. Now I believe in intelligent design systems to resolve the problems of our civilisation. Only design and design systems from which both nature and people can benefit, is what really matters. In interaction with nature I see Permaculture is the clue, but for solving tensions in our houses and neigbhourhoods the revolutionary permaculture design systems must cooperate with the revolutionary interaction design systems created by Christopher Alexander, “The Pattern Language:

  2. When we are as ordinary as that, with nothing left in any of our actions, except what is required – then we can make town and buildings which are as infinitely various, and peaceful, and as wild and living, as the fields of windblown grass.

    Almost everybody feels at peace with nature: listening to the ocean waves against the shore, by a still lake, in a field of grass, on a windblown heath. One day, when we have learned the timeless way again, we shall feel the same about our towns, and we shall feel as much at peace in them, as we do today walking by the ocean, or stretched out in the long grass of a meadow.

    Christopher Alexander, “The Timeless Way of Building”, page 549.

  3. I just scrolled Google now and found that Crystal Waters Permaculture Village had used Christopher Alexanders design systems in the layout of the village, something that made me happy. See:

    I wish that the entrepreneurs and bureaucrats had to use the design systems of Permaculture and Alexander too, to make meaningful lives for people and save the nature. For me I feel some sad these days, the most beautiful place here by Lake Mjøsa was bought up from a huge entrepreneur here in Gjøvik two weeks ago, a superb site to create an ecovillage. I’m sure they’ll destroy the place completely! But what can one do, when they put millions, I guess tens of millions (N.Kr.) on the table? Money roles!

  4. This is a good piece IMO, the linked piece “the finite nature of its supply” is more… in yer face… regarding peak Oil. I am still amazed to come across people who have never heard of Peak Oil, let alone be aware of the implications. Even people who claim to understand the implications, often are unaware there is no replacement, nothing can replace the easy energy 80 million barrels of oil per day provides the global community, nothing.

    Often people are placated by the often heard solution, that all we need is further investment, yet they fail to realise Big Oil is not investing, because there are very few fields left worth drilling, those that they think may be worth it are already being drilled, often coming up with dry holes and no fossil fuels (Falklands for e.g.).
    Exxon spent over $50 Billion buying back it’s own shares, obviously this money was available for new prospects, but they choose to buy back their own shares and hand dividends to shareholders instead, they choose to downsize for a reason, because they know any money spent on prospecting will be wasted with no net return.

    Øyvind: many thanks for that link, some useful design tools well explained.

  5. I picked up this from Alexanders website about his vision of a new world, I really hope we’ll soon enter this new kind of world, for me this seems like a world of Permaculture!


    * A world in which we experience, daily, our unity with the universe

    * A world which is made like nature – and in which we are daily making nature

    * A world in which the daily process of making, adapting, and deepening is a vital part of our lives

    * A world in which there is something to believe in – not a religious thing – but a believable vision of God as the unity behind all things which guides us and impels us to act in certain ways. God not conceived of as a construct of any organized religion, but as a fact of nature and its wholeness.

    * A social and political world which contains (and explicitly provides) the freedom for us to act in this way – something we rarely have today.

    * A world in which we feel the cultural trace of human beings before us who made and loved every part

    * A world in which we value ourselves according to the beauty of the places we have carved out, and modified, and taken care of, and in which we have woven our lives together with that of other people, animals, and plants.

    * A world in which buildings are shaped according to these principles, and laws governing the shaping of buildings in this way, are the laws most precious to us, and those to which we give most weight.

    * A world in which we have an entirely new understanding of what it means for the world to be sustainable: not a technical matter, but a matter in which respect for the whole governs.

    * Above all, there is a world in which meaning exists. The deadly and frightening state in which we do not know why we are here, is replaced by a world in which there is a natural and accurate and truthful picture — an answer to the question ‘why am I here’ – one that is not made up, but that stems from and accords with the true nature of things.

  6. “How do we best supply our needs? And who determines how that question is answered? These are longstanding historical dilemmas requiring practical solutions.

    Our collective sociopolitical/socioeconomic situation is dictated by how those questions are answered.”

    True. This is why we must investigate new ways of addressing these ‘longstanding historical dilemmas’, or risk being mired in the status quo (i.e. capitalism), or worse, falling back into those ‘solutions’ that have proven so costly in the past to the wider ecology as a whole (i.e. theocracism, communism, socialism, ad infinitum).

    Therefore, I propose that we revisit communalism, because:

    “…our decision to create a better society, and our choice of the way to do it, must come from within ourselves, without the aid of a deity, still less a mystical “force of nature” or a charismatic leader. If we choose the road toward a better future, our choice must be the consequence of our ability – and ours alone – to learn from the material lessons of the past and to appreciate the real prospects of the future. We will need to have recourse, not to ghostly vagaries conjured up from the murky hell of superstition or, absurdly, from the couloirs of the academy, but to the innovative attributes that make up our very humanity and the essential features that account for natural and social development, as opposed to the social pathologies and accidental events that have sidetracked humanity from its self-fulfillment in consciousness and reason. Having brought history to a point where nearly everything is possible, at least of a material nature – and having left behind a past that was permeated ideologically by mystical and religious elements produced by the human imagination – we are faced with a new challenge, one that has never before confronted humanity. We must consciously create our own world, not according to demonic fantasies, mindless customs, and destructive prejudices, but according to the canons of reason, reflection, and discourse that uniquely belong to our own species.”

    Source: Bookchin, M. (2002) ‘The Communalist Project’. Available at

  7. I had a conversation with Nick Ritar about this last year at Zaytuna Farm. The discussion centered on trying to create progressively more refined and effective systems to usher in the types of conditions we’d all like to see.

    While that is certainly a necessary pursuit – identifying and implementing these systems – it’s a bit more complex than simply installing a better, more efficient, more egalitarian “OS(operating system)”. We’re not dealing with computers.

    Because human beings figure in somewhere, we ultimately have to have a means to produce better, higher quality PEOPLE to interact within the context of the OS…we need ways to better navigate and manage the human condition – as individuals. Otherwise, the problems we all deplore will continue to arise.

    But I’m afraid that’s beyond the scope of permaculture…

  8. Well said Rhamis. Permaculture can deal with our predicament via appropriate technology and the use of natural systems, but we’re likely a ways off from it handling our collective human condition, simply because we are humans with symbols and beliefs that can certainly stand in our way when looking at or trying things in new (or in our case, third world) ways. Permaculture is also adogmatic, so in a world rife with dogma we can’t expect it to do away with our traditional mindsets in the blink of an eye. It will take time for higher quality people and thinking from those people to become common place. Speaking of which, have you picked up The Ecotechnic Future from John Michael Greer — right along those lines…

    Ethan Roland made a good point; (paraphrase) “Landscape design is the easy part. Internal landscape design is a very difficult thing.”

  9. Just reminiscing out loud here…It was only about 15 years ago I was considering buying a very expensive alloy BMW skateboard, just because it appealed to me on an engineering level! What changed me at age 36 was when I caught on to Peak Oil (by investment research on oil Co.’s) and then researching it further for the next 8 years until now. The icing on the cake as far as my conversion from programmed consumerist goes, was discovering Permaculture around 2-3 years ago. My my how I have changed LOL!

    Now I imagine that if the full PDC was taught in schools, as part of the curriculum, we would be a lot closer to the world we would all like to see within a generation.

    Has this ever been pitched politically at a national level? Now seems a good time to try to influence policy, all the main political parties (in the UK at least) are setting out their “green agenda” for prosperity, they all seem to think green jobs will save the economy. Personally I don’t think anything will save the economy, but it’s worth using their green agenda stance to tip policy towards this goal IMO.

  10. Splendid idea from Pete, to make PDC a part of the curriculum! To effectively fight the evil powers in the world we need to “redesign” the patterns in peoples minds, for maybe as much as 95 percent of the population. This has nothing to do with brainwashing, it has to do with restoring our understanding of the world to the “pre-cartesian” time age, which is the true status of the human mind, and the only status of human mind in which we can stay whole in our world. Please follow this link to learn what the “pre-cartesian” time age is all about, the fifth comment on the bottom of the article:

  11. thanks for the link to that thread Øyvind.

    Share the culture, share the pattern language; I can dig that!

    Timely too, considering the other debate :D

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