“And Why Are You Doing This ‘Permaculture’ Thing?”
Over the weekend, my wife and I were discussing my last article (Permaculture, a Step by Step Change), and someone asked: And why are you doing this Permaculture thing? The answer somehow is quite difficult to address, but one has to have his thoughts and motivations clear in order to respond in a way that may inspire others to follow the path.
To define Permaculture
First of all, I had to be able to explain what permaculture means for me… and make sure this concept was in line with those of David Holmgren and Bill Mollison.
So, my explanation of what permaculture means is as follows:
Permaculture is the science that studies the relationships of all components of nature so we can use them and their relationships to survive without destroying anything.
It is important to state that we are another component of nature, we aren’t its owners.
Also is very important to value each component as being as important as the next. Of course, self-aware beings as ourselves might be able to take greater responsibilities in changing things, but rocks, soil, wind and water are equally as important. Without water, there is no self-aware being that may be able to live. Without soil, there is no simple or complex plant that will survive (of course you can think of epiphytes or hydroponic plantations, but all the nutrients that reach plants are found in soil, so, in one way or another, you will always need it).
Someone said that permaculture is a movement similar to that of hippies. A kind of sect. A group of eco-fanatics that want to change the system. It is true that when you do not know anything about something, you might find yourself feeling a little fearful about it.
The difference between sectarism and permaculture is that permaculture is not based on belief. Permaculture is a science in the complete sense of the word: It follows the scientific method in a way that is replicable and verifiable. Even though there are ‘gurus’, permaculture has no dogmas to accept or propose.
Of course, it is difficult to understand why someone would rather choose to plant food in their garden instead of having a great patch of grass, but Permies’ motivations may not be cuckoo after all.
When you take some time to quiet your head and thoughts and let your view rest on nature, water, wind or kids; you can be sure ‘something’ happens — a certain kind of peace moves inside you. It may be inexplicable, but it is there.
Permaculture follows that peace, that ‘natural way’ — that inner sense you feel when something is simply right.
When you find this in nature and evaluate it in the light of consumerism, excess and waste, you find permaculture to be right on.
Sadly, the most powerful motivator in our civilization is sex, then money. Both are interrelated: you use sex to sell, you need money to buy, if you spend money, you get sex… it is a great entanglement.
Nevertheless, if you spend to your heart’s content, your heart won’t be content once you place your head on your pillow at night. In the same way, if you have sex without regards to anything, you will feel a kind of hollowness inside. Sex and money may be not the best motivators for your happiness. Your restlessness might show you that someday.
So, the human race is always searching for happiness and contentment, and this leads to excess, waste and destruction. We destroy ourselves, our hearts, our bodies and our earth. We may not be looking in the right direction. We may not be searching for happiness and contentment in the right place.
In other words, this is what is called the ‘rat race’. Happiness is always around the corner, behind the new car, after the following trip, after the new house, when you get another raise…. We are basically animals with seemingly never-ending needs.
If you try to find happiness, you might find it is more about contentment than an intense emotion. There is no contentment in buying a more powerful car, there is only happiness (and it is ephemeral). Contentment goes with you all the way. It is a companion — a way of life.
Permaculture searches for contentment, not the rat race. Permaculture is not about bigger bank accounts, but about happy hearts that live in peace.
Of course, we have to function in an appropriate way in our system; therefore, permaculture has to be sustainable, now and in the future. So, if you start implementing permaculture in your life, you have to be able to pay your bills and your gasoline until the day you grow your own food and produce your own energy.
Permaculture is not a hippie movement. It is not a trend. It is not ‘in vogue’. It is simple observation of our surroundings and our earth and the outcome of that exhaustive investigation. Permaculture is the result of intensive and extensive research, and if you look back, it is a great pool of knowledge that we have looked down on.
Every civilization in earth’s history has, in one way or another, used permaculture to sustain their own people. When the idea of being bigger than nature started to grow, they left the permacultural principles, and the result was that they were overthrown by nature itself. Whenever you spit to the sky, it always falls down on your face.
So, our motivation to look into permaculture is not fanatical. It is realistic. You just have to look outside your window. If you only see concrete, you have to be preoccupied. If, when you go out you only see vehicles spewing toxic fumes, you have to be preoccupied. If you go to the countryside and you only see great monocultures, you have to be preoccupied.
Nature is letting us go ape, but not for long. Things will change, and when they do, your bank accounts, your big V8s will be little more than a long lost memory. Things are starting to change, signs are everywhere, but they may be subtle for now. We are at the stage where change is not as painful as it will be the day it becomes urgent; and I am not talking about Hollywood style catastrophe — I am talking about ‘in your skin’ type of catastrophe.
Happiness and sustainability
Being that we all are in search of happiness and we want our children and grandchildren to be happy as well, we have to think carefully about what we are leaving behind.
Permaculture, focused in a conscious way, may address both.
When you embrace the principles of contentment, your heart stops asking for faster, higher and more expensive things and experiences. When you stop excess in your life, you begin to feel happy for simpler things, things you already have or are given to you by nature’s grandness. You start to appreciate everything and pay less attention to advertising.
If you live a simpler life, permaculture will fit right into your lifestyle, and happiness will start to smile at you.
If you start to live in accordance with sustainability, things will start to come out of the scope of banks, credit and advertising. You will be taking a foot out of the rat race speedway. You will have more peace, you will smile more and worry less… your roof will have water heating devices and your garden will be filled with succulent things to eat!
Never-ending debt, never-ending desires and advertising to sell you what you don’t need, do not go in harmony with happiness and sustainability. This way of life simply cannot be sustained much longer. People are dying from stress, without getting to know their children, whilst destroying the Earth. If you add everything up, you might find that this situation is a mad as a March hare.
When you acknowledge this, it will be the day you understand permaculture. The idea is to make our culture permanent. It is the only way. Nature always wins. In the long run, everything is taken back to its place, so we can work with her or against her, but she will do what she has to do, and whoever is in the way will be run over.
So, start to look for happiness and sustainability.
Thank you so much for your very inspiring and nourishing article. May we all keep moving and growing on the path of change..
Greetings from Morocco!
Beautiful, thank you for this post, really hits home why I’m on a journey to discover permaculture, and hits home to why we need it in our own lives.
“Permaculture is a science in the complete sense of the word: It follows the scientific method in a way that is replicable and verifiable”. Really? Most permaculture sites are (should be) specific and what works in one place may not (will not necessarily) work in another? How is permaculture replicable, and therefore verifiable? Being scientific may infer some kind of respectability (for some), but the history of science is certainly mixed. Perhaps you could define what you mean by the “scientific method” – is it the science that brought us industrial ag, pesticides. Permaculture may use the insights of science (where relevant) but I don’t think you could call permaculture science.
Thanks for the article. It has made me realise I am well on the to living within my permaculture.
beautiful post, sometimes its hard to explain why I connect with permaculture, it just feels right! Thanks, Liz
Hi Peter, science is simply a methodology for organising knowledge in a systematic format to explain and predict how things work, which uses observation to gather information. It aims to explain things in ways that can be tested and verified so that we arrive at a common understanding. You’re mixing it up with “technology” which utilises the understanding and knowledge provided by science to do, um, well, you know what… in the name of human progress.
The scientific method is a clearly defined principle for progressing human knowledge of the material world – see a longer explanation here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method
The statement “Permaculture is a science in the complete sense of the word: It follows the scientific method in a way that is replicable and verifiable” – that is actually correct. The laws of physics and laws of ecology work the same wherever you are. Water will always flow to the lowest point, the process of forest sucession turns bare dirt into forests, etc.
When I studied Permaculture with Geoff Lawton, he taught about how building a food forest creates a living ecosystem which attracts beneficial predators, as it provides them with various food sources and a home, resulting in a pest free food production system. Geoff’s farm is in a far warmer climate than my garden. As a scientific experiment, I applied the PRINCIPLES which I learned about, using the plants that grow in my specific climate that serve the same functions as those Geoff uses, and in true scientific fashion, I was able to reproduce Geoff’s results and was able to verify that the system he taught for natural pest control did indeed work! You can read about it here: https://www.permaculturenews.org/2011/04/13/lessons-from-an-urban-back-yard-food-forest-experiment/
Permaculture is indeed a science, my background is in science, and I can firmy reassure you with full confidence that permaculture resembles the same systems I studied in university. Permaculture specifically is an applied science, and how can it be anything else when you consider that it is made up of a whole series of sciences – ecology, agriculture, biology, geography, architecture, appropriate technology, etc. Sure there are great bits of indigenous knowledge and wisdom in the system, but that is also sound, reproducible and verifiable. Just because native/indigenous peoples of the world don’t wear white labcoats, doesn’t mean that there isn’t sound science behind what they do. Some of our modern medicines are based on ancient herbal remedies.
The wiki article on Permaculture defines it as “branch of ecological design and ecological engineering which develops sustainable human settlements and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems”.
Science IS NOT technology! Why do people get so upset when anyone mentions that permaculture is an applied science???
By the way, great article Juan, I enjoyed reading this, so much truth in what you’ve written! Thanks
Most people misunderstand science, even people who claim to be scientists. It is also clear that most people, including scientists, do not understand how to construct and design a scientific experiment. Anecdotes are not science, but they are a form of knowledge.
Just because permaculture is partly made up from aspects from some scientific disciplines does not make it a scientific discipline. It’s like asserting that landscape design is a science because it is based on biology and botany!
I have not, as asserted, confused science with technology (though they cannot be as easily separated as suggested by Angelo).
What I object to is the characterisation of permaculture itself as science. I don’t object to it being called (in part) an applied science as Angelo states, (or even applied ecology – I’ve even used that description myself), but it’s much more than applied science. David Holmgren does not call permaculture a science – he calls it the “use of systems thinking and design principles that provide an organising framework ….” We all know that there is no commonly accepted definition of permaculture – it is so scientific that it cannot agree on a single definition of itself! That makes permaculture more art than science!
To use the wiki quote from Angelo, science is “the method of inquiry (that) must be based on empirical and measurable evidence (and) subject to specific principles of reasoning” (emphasis added). Pemaculture may use some of this reasoning, but it also used other means of arriving at its design/process/implementation/management (thank goodness!). It may also sometimes be based on empirical and measurable evidence, but it does not do so very often, if at all. This is not to imply that it does not use science that itself is based on empirical and measurable evidence.
I suspect that permaculture likes to legitimise itself by using the word science (though there are better ways). However, science is simply one way amongst many of knowing what’s going on (and permaculturalists also use many ways to understand what’s going on, most especially through observation). Science has, unfortunately and undeservedly, an esteemed status to many. Science with its overreliance on rationality, objectivity, separation, linearity and mechanisation is one form of truth. Other forms of truth, for example, those based on emotional, relational, and experiential truths (to name a few – even Juan uses happiness and contentment as valid paths) are devalued. That is, science is hegemonic.
What permaculture offers is a more respectful (not scientific) orientation towards nature. The scientific subject/object knowledge orientation needs to be subject to a major epistemic revision that would legitimate and be expressed in different methodologies of reciprocity, generosity and communication in place of monological methodologies of reduction and human centredness that abound in contemporary science.
PS: I also have a scientific background!
I am very happy to read all your comments. They give great richness to my work. I appreciate so much your knowledge and contributions.
Thanks so much.
Your suggestions are so valuable.
Hope to have you in Guatemala someday.
All the best,
Thanks Juan – lovely to read your comment. One of these days I hope to find myself in Guatemala – and look fwd to seeing you/your work.
Hi Juan, You say, “The difference between sectarism and permaculture is that permaculture is not based on belief.” Is that to say that you don’t “believe” in Permaculture and its tenets? I am just trying to understand the difference between sectarism and belief in Permaculture.
When I refer to sectarism and belief, I am talking about Dogma. Dogma is an imposed belief. Permaculture has belief, but based on knowledge that can be proved in a certain way.
Thanks for your comment,
All the best,