PopulationWhy Permaculture?

Survival in Different Terms: A Healthy Ecosystem Is Not Based on Survival of the Fittest

As I’m working my way through and around Geoff Lawton’s online PDC course, I’m pulling out all sorts of nuggets, things that spur my thoughts or twist a smile onto my face. It’s great to hear about familiar ideas in a new light and to feel inspired once more with all the possibilities permaculture presents and all the possibilities to present permaculture.

Video: Geoff Lawton’s PRI Zaytuna Farm Tour

Somewhere near the beginning of the course, caught in the midst of a closing summary, Lawton said something that really resonated with me: It’s not survival of the fittest but survival of the most cooperative. The idea seemed simple enough to me, not overly off-course to how I’ve come to approach design, but it was just a moment where I felt the need to explore that trail of thought. Then, I thought you, dear readers, might like to, too.

Straight to the Garden

Immediately with the notion of survival through cooperation, I’m taken to the garden and the notion of guilds, including the wildlife (or domestic animals) that function within them. I’ve never liked the survival of the fittest mentality, but it never occurred to me just how far away from it a permaculture garden is operating. It doesn’t take much investigating to realize success in the garden comes from cooperation much more than domination.

Guilds are, in essence, the opposite of survival of the fittest. The whole idea is to not compete but rather to thrive in cooperation, with root structures feeding form different sources on different dietary elements. Each plant in the combination is providing its own contributions that benefit the other plants. Animals come in and find comfortable habitats, often in rockeries or logs, under leaves or in the trees, that have been designed in for them specifically, and they feed on pests, turn the soil, fertilize, and contribute. Insects and birds come in and pollinate. Nothing can overextend its presence or the system reacts and regulates. Survival comes through cooperation.

Video: Permaculture: Geoff Lawton at TEDxAjman

On the other side of the coin, we see the opposite happen with monoculture, or singularly dominated systems, which in fact require a tremendous amount of external inputs for fertilization and protection. These systems are susceptible to both disease and pests, which can completely decimate everything because there are no support species, plants and animals, to help. Then, the reliance on pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers and industrial machinery creates an overload of resources, which pollute the environment. The whole thing becomes an ebb and flow of negative dominance in hopes of a nutritionally deficient crop, half of which goes into landfills to become a problem rather than a positive.

Into the Landscape

But, the idea doesn’t stop at the garden. Landscapes that are designed to integrate, to create harmonious flows between water, forests, buildings, gardens, animals, humans, and more are what make for more successful, diverse ecosystems. When the elements cooperate, the benefits are numerous, when one dominates the results are dire.

For example, water is key to a well-designed property and crucial for the survival of all life forms, plant, animals, and human alike. However, if water becomes too prevalent, oversaturating an area for an extended amount if time, it can choke off plants, drown out animals, and destroy homes. However, with cooperative systems, where the water congregates into nutrient-rich streams, rivers, ponds, damns, and so on, or seeps into the earth in swales and rain gardens, it feeds plants and trees, supplies drinking water, and provides habitat for aquatic life, and so on. These things in turn purify the water and keep it healthy, as well as — on a forest scale — keep rainfall steady.

Video: 7 Food Forests in 7 Minutes with Geoff Lawton

Too much of grazing animals and the vegetation begins to disappear, the soil compacted. Too many buildings and the plants have trouble getting the sun, animal habitats diminish detrimentally. The ideas are not hard to grasp: When the notion becomes survival of the fittest, as opposed to most cooperative, in agriculture, in landscape design, the results are poor. When each element acts for the betterment of the system as a whole, it works. It can maintain and repair itself.

And on to the Economy

But, the idea doesn’t just stop with concrete notions like gardens and landscapes, economic systems, too, are proving one financial disaster at a time just how damaging the current survival-of-the-fittest form of capitalism that dominates the world is. Not only has it poisoned the planet, destroyed acres upon acres of rainforests and waterways, but it has also created huge economic divide that has most of the world’s wealth in the hands of very few, with a huge proportion of the global population struggling in serious poverty, often exploited by the wealthy.

Then, as we start to investigate countries that are moving more and more towards a cooperative distribution of wealth—free healthcare, free education, free food for the hungry, free homes for the homeless, we find places that are considered amongst the happiest and most successful in the world. This intrinsically moves the whole society, from corporation presidents down to corporations’ custodians, in the direction of more concern for the wellbeing of everything: other people, the planet, animals, and on it goes.

Video: Wealth Gap: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Cooperation creates positive outcomes and stability for many. Survival of the fittest first produces results for “the fittest”, but those results eventually wane and waver as the support systems that the fittest once enjoyed disappear. We saw it in the garden with monocultures. We see it in the landscapes with floods and erosion from water. We see it in economic systems: They only work when a population has the means to participate in them. Eventually, either the rich will not survive without the poor, or the poor revolt and collapse the system.

It’s One World for Us All

It’s a funny notion to think about really, one that seems so simplistically obvious that nearly every child on the planet grows up learning to cooperate with others. Somehow, though, it’s a lesson that gets lost far too often. Humanity has not really been cooperating with the planet or even itself. We’ve been dominating everything we can, and if we don’t start righting that course, the system will fix itself and we are what has it out of whack. The rising number of environmental catastrophes, of human-created catastrophes, are a clean sign.

Video: #15 What if we change – Perennial Paradise –Zaytuna Farm

Those prognosticators of permaculture have been saying it for years, and I have to say this new turn of phrase has brought it back to light for me. Thanks, Mr. Lawton. I have a lot more work to do.

Feature Image: Caiman in Panama (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

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.


    1. Jonathon Engels Thanks. I like it.
      My point is that we should take control of the term. There’s actually nothing wrong with it, except that certain right wingers have been allowed to define it in terms more suited to the gymnasium and the battlefield – and the long-running war against nature. In fact, “fitness” is not just the ability to dominate, but history shows that fitness is the ability to cooperate, work together, design and build. Permaculture requires selection of elements that “best fit”, of have maximum “fitness”. To not just survive, but to flourish, we need permaculture on a grand scale.

    2. Indeed…. but the misuse or even abuse of language should not be sufficient reason to not take the time to understand a concept: “survival of the fittest” has been mis-used by people who dont take the time to understand that the “fittest” is the one most likely to survive: essentially a fairly meaningless tautological statement. Understanding how best to survive is much more interesting: in some situations, it can be competition, and in many many others, it can be cooperation. There are also many varieties of cooperation, and guilds are one but not the only one: others includes symbiotic relationships leading to co-evolutionary change… its a complex, wondrous world and and not something that should be reduced to a single sentence / slogan in a political way!

    1. As I’ve heard it, Darwin never used the phrase. “Survival of the fittest” came from a journalist who was trying to dumb evolution and Darwin’s findings down for newspaper readers. I like to think of it as “survival of the fit-in-ning-est.”

  1. I am having a hard time seeing where John Oliver’s commentary on income inequality plays nicely with Geoff Lawton’s comment, ” It’s not survival of the fittest but survival of the most cooperative.” The fact is, we need those with money but we also need those without money to contribute what they can. John Oliver is totally negating the power of diversity as well as anything else folks have to contibute besides money. Am I the only one who realizes that 1% of people are payed 37 percent of all the individual taxes paid in 2009 and similarly subsequent years? Plus, collectively, these folks donate a ton of money besides.
    Folks, they are the dynamic money earners and they ARE doing their share of distribution. Where are the societal nitrogen fixers? The societal insect deterrents? Why are we so fixated on only the dynamic money earners in the “permaculture” system expecting them to pay $15 an hour to someone who either doesn’t care enough about the job they are doing to do it well or is otherwise totally unfit for it? (Yes, I have worked at minimum wage fast food and other on several occastions and because I had a good work ethic, I climbed the ladder rather quickly in the systems.) Maybe we as a society ought to put more effort into matching folks to their strengths rather than pretending they are good at stuff when they are not. How long would a plant guild work if we pretended tomato plants were nitrogen fixers and used them as such? We need to start looking at society like we would a giant plant guild.

  2. This looks like a misunderstanding of Herbert Spencer’s Darwinian phrase “Survival of the fittest”. The “fittest” just means the ones best able to adapt and reproduce more copies of themselves, this includes the ones that cooperate better.

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