As the health crisis grows, the virus case numbers increasing daily, the future of society as we have grown to know it seems more unstable than ever. The value of money, of our financial markets, becomes more desperately flailing as the availability of commercial resources is less certain and less convenient. The global system is proving ultimately incapable, and the call for self-reliance has never rung so true.
But, this isn’t a time for doomsday sentiments. It’s a time to look to ourselves, our families, and our immediate communities to better provide our own needs. We can grow and preserve food. We can harvest and store water. We have the potential to make our own electricity, heating, and cooking fuel. While it’s been useful to have fossil fuels and global shipping networks, it’s also made the world (climate change) and individuals more vulnerable.
Permaculture design and the permaculture lifestyle helps to move us in a stable direction, at least at home and possibly within our own communities. Just as we permaculturalists work to make our landscapes resilient, we make ourselves and our communities that way. If ever there were time for more people to start practicing self-sufficient life choices, now is it, and here’s what it’s all about:
1. Food Production
Growing food at home, as well as preserving food, is an integral part of permaculture. Even small urban and suburban lots have the potential to produce hundreds of kilos of food annually. This can include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, and even meat. This kind of food security not only insures we don’t go hungry and do have a nutritious diet, but it eliminates the drive of fossil-fueled, chemically-dependent industrial agriculture. Permaculture designs incorporate systems for growing diverse sources of food and preserving some of it for the future, particularly with power-free options like fermentation and dehydration. Health emergencies, then, don’t require trips to the supermarket but, rather, the pantry.
2. Fresh Water
We need fresh water to live, even more than we need food. Municipal water has become more and more questionable with chemical slurries used to “sanitise” it, and bottled water—the modern standard—is even worse. This is particularly so when the fact remains that we have the ability to harvest, clean, and store our own water naturally at home. We can use grey-water systems to extend its use, and we can use simplistic earthworks to eliminate the need for irrigation. Societally, we just haven’t done that, but it’s a priority in every permaculture design. Health emergencies, then, don’t require stacks of bottled water in the garage because there’s a huge storage tank ready and waiting.
3. Energy Sources
Permaculture shelters are designed (or retrofitted) very thoughtfully to provide our energy needs without undue reliance on larger national and global energy systems. We can design homes to work well for us as families and as small communities.
Home designs (and even garden designs) within permaculture systems look to minimise our need to produce energy, tapping into what nature provides. Sunshine can give us light and heat if we position our windows sensibly, and we can similarly use clever designs to have power-free food-growing systems in winter. The earth itself, just a couple of meters down, provides temperature stability, both for cooling and heating systems if we connect our homes or greenhouses to it. Thermal mass and insulation can also serve us well for storing and trapping, respectively, warmth or coolness. With permaculture design, we seek out passive energy as something crucial to design around rather than a blind focus on aesthetics. In this way, we make our world comfortable by default.
Of course, passive sources can’t provide all of our energy needs, rather it lessens the demand for energy production, so for the rest of our energy, permaculture systems push into renewable sources. We can use fuel wood for heating, cooking, hot water, and light. We can tap into water and wind, as well as the sun, to provide electricity for running modern conveniences like computers and freezers, which are essentially luxuries but also pertinent to today’s world. Compost, including humanure, can provide heating (and hot water), while producing fertility and biogas for cooking fuel or powering generators. There are many renewable sources of energy that we can produce and rely on.
While some outside production is likely necessary for things like solar panels or micro-hydro turbines, designing with these as opposed to mains power puts us on a more self-reliant track in which we can still take advantage of useful technologies without constantly calling on outside sources to power it.
4. Communal Effort
While self-reliance may seem somewhat isolationist, the permaculture reality is that it is not, that the practice on the whole is focused on community, on changing the social structures we have now into something more cooperative and constructive. We have the capacity to grow all our food, build our homes, collect our own water, create our own power, and so on, but there is no illusion as to how much more efficient it is to work as a team to accomplish such things. With that approach, we can have so much greater abundance, and we can tap into so many more skill sets. And, when we produce our own needs as a community, we have a much truer sense of relying on one another to be self-reliant. Our interactions are based on community collaboration rather than dependence or exploitation, on partnerships as opposed to employment. Working together this way is what creates the bonds necessary to help each other when the time comes.
5. Real Recreation
A permaculture lifestyle establishes healthy habits at which we are productive, active, and mentally stimulated, and still we have ample time for pursuing personal interests and idleness. We get outside in the sunshine and fresh air. We labour together over tasks that are meaningful, and we socialise with neighbours as opposed to social media pages. When technology is a useful tool but not a way of life, we have the capacity to expand our interests in more tangible ways, and we tap into recreational activities that feed our souls, minds, and bodies rather than check us out of daily drudgery. Recreation is a real need for humans, but it needn’t be mindless or slothful, at least not all of the time. Permaculture sites leave little room for saying “there’s nothing to do” and yet they are also very forgiving when that’s what we long for. They’re designed to be so.
Meeting these basic needs of humanity seemingly should be a priority to us all, yet modern living has taken us further and further from it. When we run out of food, it’s to the supermarket, not the garden or root cellar. Our water comes in bottles from chemically treated municipal sources, not clean springs, wells, and rooftop rain catchments. Our energy is on-demand, convenient, and limitless until, perhaps, it’s not there. Then, we are somewhat helpless: unable to heat the house, unable to cook a meal, and unable see at night. We’ve learned to fear our neighbours and sit next to friends whilst flipping through text messages. Video games and Netflix are the way we unwind. It’s not to say any of these things in the right circumstances are wrong, but as an all-consuming way of life, not having some semblance of self-reliance leaves us lacking, particularly at our most vulnerable moments.
Permaculture thinking prioritises our needs and leaves plenty of room for our wants. That could make for a much more stable future.