EducationGeneralPopulationSocietyWhy Permaculture?

If That’s Not Permaculture, What Is?

I call myself a permaculturalist, a word that still doesn’t officially register as valid on my spell check. I read about permaculture daily, and I write about it weekly. I’ve been asked hundreds of times by strangers, friends, and family to define permaculture, and to varying degrees, I’ve done so with practiced proficiency. I often find myself listening to permaculture podcasts, enthused by unusual topics—how to grow mushrooms in the closet or creating natural dyes from flowers—that seem to hold sway as part of permaculture. In a word, much of my life is devoted to not just the practice itself but learning more, sharing more, and developing more as a permaculturalist.

Permaculturists- Jonathon

But, what if my spell check is right? What if the term itself is still suspect? Is anyone truly a permaculturalist? Many of us follow the practice with a nearly zealot-like fervor, quick to extend of the extents to which our practice reaches and, unfortunately, often just as quick to point out other people’s failings to be “true” practitioners. The movement has grown to such popularity that it has burst through, continually expanding beyond, the simple seams—those ethics and principles—that once bound it together. At the same time, it’s popularity has also shrunk the practice into houseplants on someone’s windowsill. In a word, nowadays, what one person celebrates as permaculture, another is likely to dispute.

I’ve volunteered and worked many places now under the guise of making a permaculture garden, even though I don’t really believe a garden, in and of itself, warrants the label of permaculture. To me, the practice is a more complete thing, a set of interacting systems, including home and energy and resources and commerce as a whole, that create a sustainable lifestyle. A garden alone doesn’t make that life. Despite my best efforts to make the gardens work with cycles, including pre-existing structures or facets of the property, they never quite turn out as I would design. But, the techniques, the planning and thoughts are there, so what do I call them?

Swale Paths on Contour
Swale Paths on Contour

At what point is something permaculture?

The further I delve into this practice, the more I can see an elitist divide, as well as a sort of pop culture version of permaculture. Truthfully, I think both spectrums and everything in between, as long as they are practical, responsible and productive, are great components to the overall direction of permaculture, just as differing (but cooperative) points of view within a society theoretically leads to more balanced conclusions. We need permaculturalists who push themselves to the limit, who strive to create systems—be them individual or community villages—that can exist in complete isolation from the global status quo, and we equally need those who exist much more interactively, within and outside the boundaries of permaculture communities.

What I fear at times is that the weight, or lack there of, placed on the term permaculture becomes too burdensome and distracting. Many lifestyle permaculturalists take a great deal of pride in what they are doing, and to have it put on par with someone dabbling with growing salad greens in their petroleum-based condominium can be irritatingly unequal. Consequently, there sometimes seems to be a battle of the terminology that detracts from the purpose of what we are all doing. A little urban food production is a great thing, a free-standing sustainable system is something to which we should be aspiring, and obviously we can’t call the two efforts the same thing.

Or, can we? Every single permaculture project out there has its own varying degree of self-sufficiency, its particular successes and failures with regards to energy and resources and waste. I would venture to say that none are perfect, but I would also say that much is to be taken from the honest intentions of participants. An urban apartment will never produce as much food as a 10-acre homestead, but a 10-acre homestead isn’t possible for the entire population of the planet, at least not all at once. It’s the effort from all arenas that really matters. Each tiny step towards a cleaner, more sustainable existence, societally and individually, equates to an improvement to larger concern of humanity surviving on this planet and the planet thriving due to humanity.

A Horseshoe Hugelkultur in Orgiva (Spain)
A Horseshoe Hugelkultur in Orgiva (Spain)

But, can we say any effort is permaculture?

As I said before, I find it difficult to call the gardens I’ve made “permaculture”. I find myself explaining them to people as demonstration sites, examples of some of the techniques discovered, reinvigorated or supported by permaculture. I hesitate to call them permaculture because I recognize they are incomplete, excluding of all sorts of cycles needed for sustainability, and due to different circumstances (these gardens are not mine), I know that those flaws are not being and are not going to be addressed. For my personal practice, cognitively ignoring obvious steps towards self-sufficient, waste-free systems is the anti-thesis of permaculture. So, again, what is that I’ve helped to create?

Interestingly, having not yet developed my own piece of land or home, that incompleteness has been the case with nearly every project I’ve worked on. So, then, how can I say what I do is permaculture or that I’m a permaculturalist? As well, I don’t hold an official PDC (nor do I feel it’s necessary), and my knowledge of plants and solar electricity and eco-construction is largely lacking from where I feel—and, no doubt, many would feel—it needs to be. In other words, despite my honest intentions, the fact that nearly every aspect of my life, from where I live to how I brush my teeth to what beer I buy (I would ideally prefer to grow the ingredients and brew it myself, but that is miles away from happening.), is influenced by what I consider permaculture-related pursuits—despite all that, I find myself constantly questioning my own practice.

However, what I have seen from these demonstration sites is that they truly make an impression on people, and each person, including me, involved in them opens up to new possibilities of permaculture. Everything from catching rainwater to using chemical-free, biodegradable soaps becomes more purposeful and realistic. It is from these experiences, this continuing uncovering of meaningful solutions that occurs, that I’m drawn to the idea of permaculture. Complete or not in my practice, It’s something I have to be part of, and in the same way, complete or not in their practice, it’s something that I wouldn’t want to deny for someone else.

Showing Off Apple Cider Vinegar
Showing Off Apple Cider Vinegar

If this isn’t permaculture, what is?

For me personally, permaculture is not an on/off switch I can flick when it’s convenient. Rather, it is a permanent mindset, one that I’ve made characteristically my own, that I strive to take with me into nearly every decision. This is not to say all those decisions work out as the most permaculture appropriate, but a grander awareness surrounds each flight or trip to the supermarket or garden I make. However, at the moment, despite valuing such things, the fact of the matter is that I do not live in a setting with composting toilets, 100% renewable energy, or a perfect greywater system. It would still hurt me (and I would disagree) to hear someone in a more advanced stage say I’m not a permaculturalist. While my practice isn’t complete (Whose is?), I believe that the actions we do take must count for something.

Varying degrees of proficiency has to be part of it, else the movement will miss out on a lot good people ready to engage, and that would not behoove permaculture or the planet on the larger scale. Not everyone has to adopt it with unwavering gusto right off the bat, or ever for that matter. With its emergence into popular culture, permaculture is being claimed, examined, dissected, and pulled into many new, sometimes unforeseen, directions. Consequently, not every practitioner will embark on the same quest as the next, but it’s the collective movement towards something truly better—for ourselves, others and the planet— that results in the sort of big changes needed. Strict practitioners alone can’t get the job done.

For me, I don’t care what it’s called or what I’m called, but rather that I’m doing and practicing the things that the term permaculture represents: earth care, people care, fair share. One of the biggest aspects I’ve taken away from permaculture is that the people involved in it have inspired me to no end. Whether it’s off-the-grid living or an edible lawn, they are active, innovative, and (in my case) almost ubiquitously inclusive. It makes me want to be active, to be a permaculturalist, too. With permaculture as a part of my life, I have continually learned more, done more, and shared more to help others and the planet towards a more sustainable state. If this isn’t permaculture, what is? If I’m not a permaculturalist, who is?

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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