Why Permaculture?

Challenges of Choice

Even before permaculture vernacular had become commonplace to us, my wife Emma and I were active in our pursuit of living more in keeping with how we wanted to treat the planet, its animals, and our fellow humans. We were already ardent boycotters, believers in fair wages, in animal rights, in corporate responsibility. We signed petitions. We were vegans who mostly cooked from scratch. We even shopped locally, utilizing farmers’ markets and small businesses.

Otherwise, we spent modestly. We felt comfortable in a one-room house with a single-digit appliance list. We bought secondhand clothing, more for the socially ethical implications, but nonetheless saved serious cash doing so. We patched that clothing when it got holes. We traveled on public transportation. Our computer, bags, tents, and whatever else all came used. As much as it saved us money, it was the principle that we were after: We didn’t want to waste the planet’s resources or create more trash when it wasn’t necessary.

To us, even if these decisions on their own didn’t effect a greater change, they kept us honest and accountable for our own choices. Permaculture has only further inspired us along this path, pushing the effort further as we learn or become more capable. One of the common misconceptions, I think, about living with these kinds of limitations is that it comes from a place of sacrifice, but for us, it hasn’t been. These options (or lack thereof) are what feels right and, ultimately, exactly what we want.

An Old Place Anew

Photo: Courtesy of hobvias sudoneighm

After nearly a dozen years of backpacking, usually in less developed places, Emma and I have just moved to the United States, where I’m from. While certain conveniences—bulk bins, thrift stores, and local microbrews—excited us about the move, by and large, settling in an advanced industrial nation filled us with fear. Suddenly, our options weren’t simply what was available at the market, and it seemed the assumption was that we’d adopt the cellular culture and cubicle careers and get on with how we—by birthright—were meant to live.

We, however, were coming for a different reason, though one that was no less blessed by the mere fact that I was born in Louisiana: The US now seemed our best chance to have a small homestead of our own, to live the way we wanted to, and to be in better contact with our families. In reality, we were actively planning, plotting, and pondering how to avoid becoming involved with full-time jobs, bank loans, and an overabundance of gadgetry. I don’t know if this reluctance makes us unique (there are others), but in many circles, it has made us somewhat of a novelty and sometimes, it seems, objects of pity.

I’m often left wondering how to express that just because something might seem nice doesn’t mean I need or even want it and, in fact, I could afford it if I did. How does one unpretentiously say I’m not buying new shoes because there are plenty of old ones that’ll do just fine and keep my dollars out of sweatshops and transpacific shipping? More so, how does one say such things without being pompous and accusatory to someone who does buy another pair of Nikes each season? While somewhere inside me I wish everyone took a similar approach to consumption, it takes enough energy—in the midst of aggressive marketing—to keep myself on the straight and narrow.

The Real Challenge

Photo: Courtesy of Mercy for Animals Canada

Defending such life choices is not a new concept to me. I’ve been vegan for several years, vegetarian for many more, and people have often taken that as prompt to talk to me about bacon, as If realizing how good it tastes (I wasn’t born vegan) was the deciding factor. I don’t want it because killing pigs on my behalf bothers me. Does it really need to be said that most vegans aren’t making the choice on a “how it tastes” basis? Obviously, it’s not my place to decide what others do in that regard (Well, I do actively write against factory farming and industrial agriculture), but for me, not eating pigs is an easy endeavor, not a sacrifice.

The real challenge of making these choices has been having them respected. I’ve never felt the need to individually attack people about what they eat, how they dress, or why they Tweet. In truth, I don’t even actively try to convince any one person to change, but I have spent a lot of time writing about sustainable and vegan (two separate things) lifestyles, working to help, hopefully occasionally inspire, those who want to make those choices on their own. Unfortunately, the most challenging part isn’t doing without something but having to do so within the social confines of others who don’t necessarily feel the same.

Unlike veganism, I think anti-consumerist sentiments aren’t quite so infuriating to those who don’t share them. (Call it capitalism and that might be a different story, but that’s for another time.) The interesting thing is that people pretend to not understand what a vegan can eat, but they’ll usually attempt to respect the choice. A friend or relative won’t buy a known vegan nephew a steak or a tub of ice cream (at least not more than once), proof that the tenants are understood on a basic level. But, when it comes to other stuff, those lines aren’t as well defined for either side, and things get complicated.

Morally Questionable

Photo: Courtesy of ビッグアップジャパン

If someone tried to give me a piece of sausage, then I’d politely explain I was vegan and wouldn’t eat it. That’s that. The offer was appreciated, but alas, this is the situation. Thanks. At the worst, there might be a bit of mockery. But, what am I supposed to do when someone gives me a gift from Walmart? I don’t necessarily feel less passionately about not wanting to support Walmart, but because that is less socially accepted than self-imposed eating restrictions, it comes off much more abrupt. In fact, to my own chagrin, I’ve mostly accepted without protest.

The fact of the matter is that, when people give (or even try to, in the case of the sausage), it generally comes from the heart, and that generosity is honestly appreciated. However, to what point are we allowed to uphold our own morals, and at what point does upholding social standards become more relevant than our own? I don’t know the right answer for this, but I know that, more often than not, it’s been my own standards that have buckled. It’s a pretty privileged position to be in: having moral objections to where gifts come from. Nevertheless, that is the position in which I now find myself.

Suddenly, in a world of low-priced junk, discount box stores, and free-flowing money, more and more often I find myself on the receiving end of a plastic gag gift or a package of something I wouldn’t normally buy, eat, or use. It’s all out of good fun or from a good place, but as someone who goes to extremes to avoid using plastic bags, buying from multi-national conglomerates, supporting GMO-sourced products, and boycotting various other things, it tears away at my soul. With the holiday season upon us, what am I supposed to do?

Photo: Courtesy of Emma Gallagher

Here I am, back in the States, dealing with a whole new set of first-world problems.

Feature Photo: Courtesy of opensourcway

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. You could accept the generosity of the gift-givers, and then follow your own phiiosophy of not wasting things by handing on the gift to a charitable organisation, maybe one that gives Christmas gifts for people who can’t afford

  2. May I ask you if you have any problems with bones, teeth or general health (organs, glands etc) since and during eating vegan? My question comes from my ongoing research and self-experiment on food, well-being, body ph and tooth decay. After discovering the work of Westin Price (Nutrition and Physical Degeneration) I was curious how a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet could be implemented. And I mean healthy as in long-term, forever, longer life and so on.

    Also I come frome having my own chickens, eating their eggs and rather sell roosters to others starting a flock than butchering them. So I am just curious about the long-term health effects. Because it is my understanding that I can much better fulfill my role as a steward of earth, the longer I live. It’s just a matter of efficiency, really. Factoring into this is the understanding of how aborigines related to animals and nature in general, humbly seeing themselves as a part, in a big cycle of birth and decay, life and death.

    I would be most happy for any answer, and thank you for the article, I feel your first world problems.

    1. I understand and appreciate your perspective regarding concerns over the health issues you raise. As a vegetarian myself considering the move to veganismo, I have done a lot of research over the years (pre and post the current tech revolution!). There is no problem whatsoever with either life choice and longevity as long as you approach diet in a balanced and informed way, making sure that your nutritional needs are met. And a plant based diet can and does meet those needs, as long as you have the patience and knowledge to see and acknowledge biased information (on both sides of the ‘debate’).

    2. I’ve been vegan since 2013, and I was a vegetarian for seven years leading up to that. During that time, I’ve never had a cavity, have lived a very active lifestyle but never injured a bone, and have visited the doctor only once for a cut that got infected. I’m not sure what that means, but I certainly don’t feel plagued. I doubt I’m the only one, though I’m certain some people may struggle.

  3. Hi Jonathan, try connecting with your Baha’i community and you will be unlikely to experience these problems. bahai.org

  4. I’m supposing most of these people who concern you are extended family, neighbors or others who you associate with enough for them to to bother giving you a gift. If at all possible I’d try to communicate an option that would please both you and them. I know it’s a bit awkward to ask someone for a specific gift. But while you may be blindsided occasionally, most times you kind of know who may get you something. And hopefully it’s because they genuinely want to please you. So might as well be honest. An enjoyable social experience, support for some local organization you care about, or another non-material gift request would be my suggestion. It will get much more murky if you let known you want new warm socks, but not from Walmart please.

  5. Wow, very inspiring read. Thank you for pouring your heart out. You have given me so much to digest. I am leaning towards a more minimalist lifestyle too and am reducing my foot print as much as I can. I can see there is so much more I need to do. Thank you so much.

  6. The way I have gotten around unwanted gifts is to say ‘Do not buy me any gifts’ This seems an acceptable thing. Fortunately my family, particularly the ones who insist on buying gifts, are tuned in to what is acceptable and what is not. Many people find the whole gift giving at Christmas a burden, particularly financially and getting let off the hook by me is often a relief.

  7. In the past we used to buy ethically sourced gifts from charitable organizations, but even this seemed to be based on ‘should’ rather than ‘could’ (ie. what’s expected rather than following your own gut feeling). We then decided to stop giving gifts at Christmas and now only consider younger children’s birthdays with gifts that hopefully engage their imaginations and creativity. There is no point buying gifts for the sake of societal pressure, especially as most of us have everything we need and indeed want.

  8. At Thanksgiving 2004, my family exchanged lists of preferred charities, which we did then and there. For Christmas we gave a donation to a charity on each recipient’s list. We still do that today. Our holidays are now filled with great food and family time (one Christmas we spent part of an afternoon watching, out my dad’s windows, more than 20 wild turkeys forage in his back woods), and nobody even misses the boxes of stuff.

    Perhaps you could send out cards now to those who have given you gifts in the past, wishing everyone warm and wonderful holidays, and announcing that while you have always appreciated gifts, this year your family are asking that anyone planning to give you something during the December holidays please donate to their choice from your list of charities. Include as wide a variety as you can manage, and include local organizations.

    If enough of us do this, it may catch on. Speaking to Robin’s comment, people can give a small gift to one organization, avoid overspending, do some good in the world, and learn the value to themselves of giving to those in need.

    BTW, in 2004 everyone in my family coincidentally gave to Habitat for Humanity International, to be used where most needed. On 12/26, the catastrophic tsunami hit Indonesia and wiped out towns there and all over the region. Later I made a list of all the countries affected and checked out Habitat’s website. They had chapters in every one of them.

  9. What an inspiring story! Thanks for sharing. It is so good to hear of yours and your wife’s courage to adopt a totally different lifestyle based on ethics—doing what is good rather than talking about what is good and then doing what is comfortable and acceptable. I am also impressed that you try to not force others to comply with your own ethics, that you value and appreciate where they are coming from instead of expecting them to bend over backwards to accommodate you. I think that says more about your character than anything. I commend you for that. I was previously a vegetarian for much of the same reason. I am no longer, as there are certain nutrients I needed for growing babies that are found sufficiently only in meats. I have since discovered that even eating vegan is not cruelty-free as a majority of the modern methods of growing, harvesting, and processing of plants for food are actually very destructive and deadly for any wildlife and organisms that are in the vicinity. Rabbits and mice get mangled all the time in combines, for example, not to mention the destructiveness and harm to even the farm workers that pesticides and herbicides cause.
    Thank you for stepping out and living your convictions. I’m inspired to evaluate all I do in light of what is the right thing, not just the convenient thing or the popular thing. I wonder what kind of a world we would live in if one by one we would begin to live doing things because they are good, rather than because they are expected.

  10. Thanks to everyone for all the comments, encouragement, and ideas. It’s really flattering to have garnered all the time and effort. I’ve read them all and taken them to heart.

  11. Thought provoking read. I have faced similiar issues with gift giving. My take is to try and encourage insistent gift givers to buy from local artists and crafts people, charities, or do homemade gifts or kind deeds instead of the super-store thing.

  12. Hi Jonathan,

    I generally avoid responding to this sort of thing, but when I got to the part where you mentioned that your “standards” buckled, I felt that you were not just virtue-signalling, but actually struggling with a heartfelt problem.
    A bit of background – I have always been disgusted by consumerism and the career-oriented life, but I have never deluded myself about any sort of moral superiority of my choices. I just find the nihilism of consumerism to be depressing and aesthetically offensive. Perhaps that was just my Catholic upbringing.
    At any rate, I have never cared much whether people approved of my lifestyle, because it was something that I did because it is right for me, not to show others how virtuous I was. I think you might find it helpful to adopt this perspective. We are lucky to have the choice.
    I can also explain why anti-consumerism and anti-capitalism get a different reaction from people (other than your unfortunate name). I am anti-consumerist because I am thoroughly Capitalist, and therefore find the materialism and nihilism of progressive globalism to be as offensive as the “historical materialism” (aka Marxism) that spawned it.
    How does this help you with your problem? Easy. Once you get off the high horse and accept these people as your moral equals (hard, I know), you can do as somebody else in the comments suggested – re-gift to the less fortunate. You can then thank your friends for their gift, and explain that although you are blessed with enough for yourself, their kind gift allowed you to help those less fortunate, and that in itself is the best gift they can give you.
    That gets your message across, while showing your friends that they are valued, and that you in no way see them as your moral inferiors, and it might actually prompt them to better align their gifts with your values. So you do, indeed have a choice, but the choice is not between your “morals” and your friendship. The real choice is: what are you in this for? Do you get pleasure from feeling morally superior, or from actually living in a way that is good for your soul?
    The only reason I have posted this comment is because what I get from your post is that you are troubled by this, and actually do choose the latter. I hope that my comment will help you be more at peace with it, as you realise that the real problem is a hate-filled ideology that seeks to isolate people from those who care for them.
    Your instincts are right, and you are not caving in when you reject hate.

  13. I really love and appreciate this article.

    I, too have had these questions, as I increase in ethical behavior and lovingness, how to interact with those who are behind me yet. I usually think of those who have been ahead of me and how they have inspired me. It was always done with an unwavering truth that was still loving, even if I felt confronted emotionally. We all have to practice not pandering to others’ addictions, be they emotional or material, and being firm for truth is part of that practice.

    The more I do it, I know that people may not be happy with me in the moment, and even project anger at me, but they will walk away with what I have given them, and respect has been established. Respect for myself by having a healthy boundary and telling the truth, and respect for them by speaking to the higher potential in them.

    Any condescension people feel means that there is a low hum of anger in me coming through. And shows me I have yet to grieve the unloving choices of others, or fear I have about survival and living in a world where most people do not make loving choices. And harder still, work through remorse and repentance for all the harm that I have caused by being the same way. There can be a lot of self-punishment under there that is not at all productive. Rather, humility and courage will accept the love that will actually help us heal.

    These emotions are released each time I fully experience them, and then that space in me is replaced with more hope, understanding and willingness to do the work, as well as an ability to receive much more, thereby correcting any poverty-like misperceptions that may be interwoven with the desire to live simply.

    It gets better with practice, and I am always looking for and inspired by people like yourself, who are ahead of me in ways and slogging your way through the experimentation. I know then, that I will do that for someone else, by practicing the same honesty and sincerity.

    One hand ahead and one hand behind, as an elder once told me.

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