Perhaps the more exciting, flashier side of permaculture is making stuff. Designing a build is full of hopes and dreams. It’s so inspiring to stumble upon methods for growing a forest garden, harvesting water from a rooftop, and constructing an energy-efficient home. And, it’s something we can show people: “These are my raised garden beds! This is my rain barrel! These are my new solar panels!” Truthfully, gardens, rainwater, solar panels—this isn’t a bad start.
That said, the idea of curbing consumption is likely as relevant, if not more so, for getting the most from a permaculture design. It is certainly central to a permaculture lifestyle, and in fact, it might just be the point of all those exciting designs and additions in the first place. Ultimately, we are trying to minimise our negative impact on the environment until, ultimately, we can maximise our positive impact, reinvigorating the natural world as opposed to damaging it at a less severe rate. But, again, minimising our negative impact is also a good place to start.
Why this is worth bringing up is that, without realising it, we could put all these cool designs into play and miss the point completely. For example, while raised garden beds are a common permaculture design technique in wet climates, they make no sense, in fact create problems, in arid climates. They would require constant watering in the desert, where sunken gardens work better. To the point, permaculture is not just a plug-in system. There is a purpose, multiple purposes, behind the stuff we make.
That’s because the designs are to limit our resource consumption and reverse planetary pollution whilst being highly productive, including generating energy, food, fertility, community, and so on.
An Easy Illustration
One of the easier ways of illustrating this point is looking at renewable energy systems for a home. Conventional homes these days are absolute energy hogs. Seemingly everything runs on electricity, from clocks to phones to stoves to water heaters to air conditioners… fridges, freezers, pumps… microwaves, kettles, bread makers… toothbrushes, shavers, hairdryers… computers, televisions, sound systems…
Some of these items, like toaster ovens or hair curlers (anything that uses electricity to heat), are absolute energy sucks, while others, say a laptop or light bulb, are so undemanding as to be virtually benign. Some things that consume a lot energy are totally avoidable by, for example, hanging clothes to dry instead of using a tumble dryer. Some things can require a lot less energy by, for instance, using an insulated coffee press rather than sending power to a coffee maker for an hour or more every day.
Because we are so accustomed to on-demand energy from fossil fuel-driven power companies, the cost of running a house with electricity is more readily defined by dollars and cents added to a collective monthly bill. However, when we delve into producing enough electricity at home, most likely from solar panels and storage batteries, the realities of creating that much power ourselves (and the cost of that) can crash off-grid dreams quickly. And, that’s before we ever get into embodied energy to produce all those extra solar panels and storage batteries.
An Easy Solution
Regardless, the solution is not to add more solar panels and storage batteries to provide the amount of energy currently consumed; rather, it’s to lessen the energy demand. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to view this as making sacrifices, but to think this way is counterintuitive to the permaculture mindset (at least my permaculture mindset). Instead, the idea should be to look for solutions that require less energy and recognize what additional benefits the different method could provide in comparison to the more consumptive one.
For example, hanging clothes out to dry requires no electricity as opposed to the megadose of kilowatts needed to tumble dry. While tumble drying seems more convenient (faster), or at least has become the status quo here in the US, there are a lot of reasons it makes no sense. There are also a lot of positives for doing it a different way, the old-fashioned way in this case. Let’s just look at a few:
1. In summer, as we struggle to cool our homes, the heat generated from the tumble dryer causes the AC to work overtime. In winter, we could be drying clothes near radiators or other heating devices that are already at work instead of doubling the energy demand.
2. Hanging clothes on a sunny day gets us outdoors. That means we can get some vitamin D, check the garden, or collect the mail. As for renewable solar energy, it also means we are washing clothes when the sun is out, perfect timing for our batteries to recharge.
3. This physical task keeps us moving rather than being sedentary as we wait for the dryer to buzz, and though that does ask more of us physically, what the modern lifestyle seems too often to lack is physical activity. Small tasks like this add up.
4. People often comment on how wonderful air-dried sheets and clothes smell. In fact, it’s so beloved that we now have numerous chemical additives to try to capture the effect. Why not avoid the chemicals and carcinogens and go for the real thing instead?
5. The added effort on our part, rather than relying on a machine, also means we are more likely to wear an outfit multiple times before unnecessarily cleaning it. That’s less energy used by the washing machine and longer life for the clothing.
Undoubtedly, the amount of energy saved from hanging clothes, as well as the pollution avoided by not using the dryer, makes doing the laundry this way much more sensible. That means we now need less solar panels and batteries to provide the house with enough energy. It also means we can now start looking for innovative ways and places to put clotheslines, and we are back to permaculture design, a holistic system.
An Easy List
Of course, the dryer is but one electrical appliance in a sea of others. How many can we replace with manual counterparts? The coffeemaker, the vacuum cleaner, the can opener, the heater, the water heater, the washing machine, the cooker… basically, anything people managed to do before everything became electrified. Sure, some things add unparalleled convenience, such as a freezer in the summer or a water pump, but there are many ways we can reduce our consumption with just minor lifestyle changes. Major lifestyle changes, such as cutting back to one infrequently used television (or none) without a surround sound system, could reduce that solar panel count even more.
The grand designs for doing these things more energy-efficiently, like so many in permaculture, have been around us all along. Furthermore, what I have personally found beneficial from the lifestyle change is an emboldened sense of power (physical and mental) and purpose. I can now (or, should I say I have the confidence now to) make sourdough bread, grow food, build a house, can tomatoes, split firewood, design a spillway, and too many other tasks to list. As significant as that is, while doing things manually might take more time, I do them because they matter. Without firewood, the house gets really cold in the winter.
Having a purposeful list of tasks means I waste less time (but definitely still enough) watching YouTube, and that, yet again, means I’m using less electricity. A life well-earned is so much more fulfilling than one that feeds into the cubicle career, compulsive consumption, and corrosive convenience of contemporary living. Collectively cutting back on consumption, buying less food, clothing, gadgets, tools and toys, in addition to using less electricity, flushing less freshwater, and burning less fossil fuel, would have a far bigger impact than any individual permaculture site we could build. The world could right itself were we not constantly poisoning it, and the real fear in that regard is that it eventually will do so before we are ready.
This is not to take away the fun part of permaculture because, without a doubt, building those cool designs is how we move forward while cutting back. Less consumption (and ultimately renewal) is, in fact, the reason for all those creative projects, so this is only to say that we, particularly those of us who are new to permaculture and excited by the fun part, should not forget the goal. In my opinion, one of the best beginning moves to make as a permaculturalist is to look into living differently. From that vantage point, the designs make so much more sense