DesignWhy Permaculture?

Simple Permaculture Design Over Complex Technological Solutions

Another Rant on How the World Might Actually Get Closer to Sustainable Living

When I talk about sustainable living, by no means here do I mean to bash technology. Point of fact, I make part of my living writing online, a career that didn’t even really exist when I was plodding through an English degree. For that matter, 95% or more of my research happens online as well. And, last week I wrote an article about the nickel iron batteries my wife Emma and I are going to use with our solar array. I drive a truck to my other job (gardening) and have been known to use cordless power tools from time to time. In other words, I recognise real value in technology.

All that said, as the innovative green movement continues to gain ground, I find myself concerned that new solutions are being centred around future problems.

  • Compostable and bio-based plastics have become all the rage for the environmentally concerned consumer looking for a bottle of water or soda. But, these plastics may be worse than the old stuff. For one, they are compostable when the appropriate industrial facility is around to process them, a process that requires lots of heat and energy, which undoubtedly is not ecologically sourced. Otherwise, these plastics can’t be recycled, and they end up in the landfill or ocean.
  • Similarly, I continually see natural gas touted as “clean energy” because burning it doesn’t create the same CO2 pollution as other fossil fuels, but of course, the fracking required to acquire it is every bit as horrible. Fracking releases fugitive methane into the atmosphere, worse than CO2, and it heavily draws from and irreversibly damages fresh water sources. There’s also a lot to suggest it’s doing some serious damage beneath the surface.


Rather than getting too mired into the flaws of the many possibly well-intentioned “green” efforts, a la corn-derived biofuels or lab-grown meats. Suffice to say that the real problem seems to be a defiant resistance against the obvious answer: We need to change how we are living. This isn’t to say never use technology, but more so, it’s an effort to gain perspective on what we are doing as opposed to what we are buying. Spending our money on greener products is worthwhile, but it’s not going to fix the earth’s problems so much as prolong them.


A Better Design Leads Towards Sustainable Living

While cleaner energy is great, the more relevant line would be less reliance on electricity and fossil fuels. While bio-plastics may have potential in the rapidly approaching post-petroleum age, the answer would be less plastic packaging and while renewable bio-gas is useful, it’s no reason to grow more monoculture fields of corn. We should be moving away from that. The effort has been to maintain all the conveniences of the contemporary lifestyle rather than recognise the lifestyle itself is the flaw.

Pursuing simplistic solutions—sustainability by design—would make a much more positive difference for the planet than constantly rearranging our products to address the latest acknowledged catastrophe. However, the practical solutions don’t come without sacrificing some of the extravagance with which we’ve become accustomed, and they may require a different effort on our part. It could mean a life without electrified everything. It could mean waiting at a bus station. It could mean growing gardens instead of lawns.

Rather than always banking on technology reinventing a greener version of the creature comforts, permaculture first focuses on finding simple designs to supply our needs. The examples are plentiful:

  • Solar hot water heaters use the sun rather than electricity or fossil fuels to heat our water. However, they might require showering at certain times of day (or the week) in order to have them work properly.
  • Biodigesters for clean cooking fuels not only provide free energy, but also they deal with “waste” products like manure and food scraps. Of course, this would mean maintaining the bio-digester as opposed to endless grid-fed electricity or gas lines for cooking.
  • Passive solar heating/cooling can drastically reduce the amount of energy needed to heat and cool a home. But, they do require orienting our homes according to the planet rather than the street or our neighbours.
  • Geothermal cooling makes a lot more sense than air conditioning. Installing underground earth tubes costs less than a decent air conditioner, and there are no electric bills to pay thereafter. Plus, the geothermal air is cooler than where most would put the thermostat. That said, the temperature can’t be adjusted to particular tastes.
  • Rocket stove thermal mass heaters are efficient wood-burning stoves that can be run off of small diameter wood, at which time they could be designed to use for cooking, heating water, and heating the home. The stove design burns the wood fuel so completely very little smoke is even produced. Now, there’s wood to gather.

Rocket Stove

  • Greywater irrigation systems, along with a good mulching regiment, sensible earthworks, and garden placement could all but eliminate the need to pump freshwater anywhere. Plus, our grey-water could be naturally filtered rather than chemically cleaned with black-water. These grey- water systems require monitoring and plants.
  • Composting toilets, speaking of black-water, could hugely reduce our freshwater usage as well as provide fertiliser for sustainable food, timber, and resource-producing forests. At the same time, we’d be reducing a crappy situation for the planet: sewage. For it to work, though, we have to handle the compost as opposed to flush and forget.
  • Perennial food forests combine plants and animals into productive ecosystems that both serve the planet and people. Food comes without chemical inputs to fertilise it or chemical pesticides and herbicides to protect it. Wildlife and domesticated animals get first-rate habitat. However, the harvest from a food forest isn’t as predictable as a chemically controlled corn field.

In other words, permaculture has lots of solutions for the environmental issues the world is facing while providing for our basic needs (and then some), but most of them rely on people being malleable enough to accept new ways of doing things, putting in the effort to live greener as opposed to buy greener. When green choices aren’t sold as products, each individual must live differently to effect change, but the results actually do equate to something better for the environment.


Appropriate Technology

In short, earth’s environmental woes are inevitably increased by the ever-growing economy upon which modern lifestyles revolve, including an endless array of guilt-free eco-products. Green dreams are being sold to us: caught up in convenient, doused in the disposable, and tempted by extraneous technology. We are lulled into maintaining lifestyles that have betrayed us with streamed sedentary entertainment, social media advertising for fruitless online shopping, and subpar nutrition from thousands of miles away. Industrialised humanity has taken advantage of the planet’s hospitality, and we are being lied to with new playthings to justify bad habits.

However, the answers are not complicated, and the solutions have real purpose. They are the ingredients to a fulfilling life. Some of us have linked healthy habits to gym memberships and organic food, but all of that exercise and activity could come from more productive pursuits, like growing that organic food, turning the compost that fertilises it, climbing an apple tree to prune it, walking to work, chopping firewood, or any other number of things provide an experience and outcome far more rewarding than running on a treadmill. The answers are not complex technological solutions. They are practical and cost nothing.

When we expend our energy this way, living green—the permaculture lifestyle—as opposed to buying green—the consumerist lifestyle, there is less and less need to fret over food miles, ply ourselves with plastic packaging, or exercise on electrified equipment. When convenience is curbed little by little, we transition into a truly active life in which the things we do provide the things we need. Designing our days this way, designing our homes this way, will move us much closer to sustainability than another app for tracking where our food was sourced or improved version of the light bulb.

Technology is something we can use to help us get there. It is not necessarily the means by which we live green.

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. I was a project manager involved with Alternative Fuel technologies at Ford Motor for years beginning in 2003 which has provided insights that aren’t readily obvious to many of us in the Permaculture/Holistic/Nature based community.

    You might want to revisit this compound statement, ” I continually see natural gas touted as “clean energy” because burning it doesn’t create the same CO2 pollution as other fossil fuels, but of course, the fracking required to acquire it is every bit as horrible. Fracking releases fugitive methane into the atmosphere, worse than CO2, and it heavily draws from and irreversibly damages fresh water sources. There’s also a lot to suggest it’s doing some serious damage beneath the surface.”

    Natural gas’ “clean” claim has nothing at all to do with CO2, it’s because unlike other fuels, fossil and renewable, it releases considerably less toxic pollutants than other fuels, it burns cleaner and more fully, which is why it’s safe to use, even in space heaters in an enclosed home without the need for flue, smokestack or chimney. It burns “cleanly” and “cleaner” when compared to almost all other fuels, including renewables.

    It should also be noted that natural gas is usually not the “target” for drilling and fracking, but a byproduct of drilling for oil. If it were not captured and used as a fuel, it would be a greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere, much more powerful than CO2 and most other greenhouse gases, while burning this fuel results in inert compounds that don’t increase the net greenhouse effect. Common practice when drilling for oil is to just “burn it off” at the well site when there isn’t storage capacity or a way to get natural gas to market. So it’s going to be burned whether we burn it or the drillers do.

    So yes, it’s cleaner and safer in almost all regards. Try firing up your rocket stove in an enclosed space to confirm this. Rocket stoves are awesome, but they aren’t that clean.


    1. Thanks for explaining this Alex.
      In the way it all works, it is in a more clarified order now of how the process really is being done via Oil drilling as you explained etc etc.
      My conclusion is, in a extremely simplified view: It is to stop thinking we need oil at all, After all, we are simply over-invested in Fossil Fuels in the 1st place and unnecessarily,, so lets all not forget the Electric Cars which were Silenced many moons ago Its like Pyramid selling the Fossil fuel dependency and Forced Consumerism upon the whole World and our being groomed to buy overpriced fossil fuel-dependent vehicles to the point where we are saturated with them. And overly Identified with their status Symbolisms. Lets face it we all get some level of pleasure from driving a Fossil fuel Vehicle.
      So regardless of the,” he said she says” nuts and bolts we get caught up in the whos right and whos wrong with the details which I am sure is just the way “They” like it !!!
      Lets all make more sweeping agreements that we wont get bogged down with distractions on the details and just cut to the chase. Fossil fuel vehicles need to STOP being manufactured to create the world wide dependency, etc etc
      So I know I cant save the world in a discussion online But its time to get on our front foot with our thinking and our responding to the bigger picture.. This is my take on things. There Ive said it…
      Respectfully Yours ( a fellow peer)

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