It’s been several years since I first stumbled upon permaculture, and several years minus a couple of months since I started doing my best to practice it. Many people have a similar story, and my guess is, like me, they’ve been asked dozens, possibly hundreds, of times what permaculture is. But, it’s been a rarity—if it has ever happened at all—that someone asks me why permaculture. That might actually be more notable.
When permaculture came into my life, my wife Emma and I were on a trip through Central and South America, hopping from farm to farm on work-trades to both stretch our budget while traveling and learn a bit about growing our own food. We cared about the environment, so we’d guessed organic farms were the way to go. It only took a matter of weeks to begin hearing the term permaculture as byword. We borrowed some books and were soon engrossed in the practice.
Our life has radically changed for the better. We’ve become stronger people, physically and mentally. We’ve become more capable, able to grow and preserve our own food and to build our own home, while consistently adding to the toolbox: forage wild mushrooms, make an earthen pizza oven, design a grey water system, start a social business… The world, from twenty feet away to the entire global construct, looks totally different, and while it may sometimes be scary, there always seems to be identifiable, simple steps for us to take, right now.
The grand appeal of permaculture over basic organic gardening is that it is so much more. We had aspirations of living on a piece of land and growing a lot of our own food, but there were so many more ambitions beyond that. Permaculture seemed to both address concerns we already had about the world—capitalistic exploitation, petroleum dependency, pollution—and introduce new ideas to further our causes to counter them: sustainable building techniques, forest rehabilitation, water harvesting…
Rather than settling for organic gardening as a part of life, permaculture redefined what life could be. The lifestyle we were after, the one permaculture brought into picture, was much broader than growing food without chemicals. It was bigger than the standard vegetable plot, and it was more deliberate than trading store-bought chemicals for store-bought organics. It involved a re-imagining of the systems upon which the typical person relies, and it provided practical avenues into how to do it.
After all, humans require more than just food to survive. We need water. We need warm, safe, dry places to sleep and take shelter. We need each other, some form of community, social interaction, and mutual dependency. And, we need some understanding of how the world around us operates and where we fit into that. However, we can survive without movie theatres, smartphones, big-box stores, fashion trends, and/or the stock market. There’s plenty of room for fun, entertainment and financial security, but there’s also perspective.
Permaculture begs that we take a realistic assessment of how we are living and how we might individually live better for the collective: planet, people, and ourselves. That’s something Emma and I desperately want to do.
Why Permaculture Isn’t Organic Gardening
Permaculture is much more than organic gardening because it approaches a broader range of what self-reliant and sustainable living is. And, that is much more than what we eat. Permaculture involves the way homes are built and function. It involves where we source our energy and how we gain access to freshwater. It considers social frameworks, community economics, and local resources. It accounts for the waste we create, our impact on the world around us—both natural and cultural—and the efficiency with which we operate within it.
Organic gardening, despite those otherwise suggestive USDA labels, can be disturbingly conventional. Huge monocrop fields of produce can be grown organically by big conglomerate companies. Concentrated organic amendments can create massive imbalances in the local ecosystem, including nitrogen overloads into water sources and the birth of new superbugs to devour crops. Organic gardening can promote soil erosion, fertility loss, and petroleum dependency. In other words, organic gardens, like chemically grown crops, can cause serious environmental damage and often rely on that trade off. Sooner or later, that damage must be reckoned with.
Permaculture actively thwarts these maladies. In permaculture gardens, there is a focus on protecting and building soils, naturally increasing fertility, and avoiding pesticides and herbicides (chemical or organic) long before turning a profit. What’s more, a permaculture design has made caring for a more reliable, bio-diverse yield of crops less intensive, either decreasing the amount of petroleum used for machinery or altogether doing away with it. Organic farms offer no apologies for such things, permaculture designs eliminate excuses.
Why Permaculture Works
Permaculture worked differently than anything I’d seen before. The designs were holistic incarnations of all the things I was after. I wanted to grow healthy food. I wanted to build and live in a low-impact home. I wanted a life focused on real necessities rather than endless economic growth and consumption. I wanted free time. I wanted to be outside. I wanted to help the planet. I wanted independence, self-reliance, simple know-how. I found them all.
But, permaculture isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that never quite fits right. Rather, it’s a myriad of choices and options, a meticulous choose-your-own-story laying out of knowledge, a buffet of techniques that address individual needs and limitations. It’s a method for looking at our respective climatic zones, landscapes, financial means, physical capabilities, local resources, skillsets, and actual aspirations so that we can find ways to live happily, honestly, and humbly. No one’s version of a permaculture life or home is the same as their neighbours, but the goals are similar.
Rather than rules, permaculture identifies what works and absorbs it into the practice. In that way, there are options that can work for anyone anywhere and the possibilities are ever-expanding. Permaculture can be practiced in a Manhattan apartment, the most urban of settlements. It can involve hundreds of acres in the Arizona desert, the most rural and desolate of landscapes. Or, it can be a simple homestead in suburbia, earning a living off of half an acre. The point is that we cooperatively and individually strive for a better way of life, one that works for all, one that works locally for the benefit of the planet.
Why Permaculture Now?
The guiding ethics are to take care of the planet, take care of people, and share our surpluses with the planet and others. Those simple sentiments are something we all learn as children across the cultural spectrum. But, unbridled economies and unhinged consumerism have stripped those basics away, creating combative and exploitive systems in which people and the planet suffers. Who actual wants that?
Permaculture has simply re-imagined those simple tenants—taking care of others and our surroundings and sharing—for adulthood and modern times, and practicing permaculture involves systemic change starting in our homes. From those roots, we can grow into a more compassionate, respectful (and respectable) version of humanity, one that looks after the planet and people upon which we rely. What’s a better option?
Permaculture is something we can do now. It isn’t a product we have to buy. It isn’t a government policy we have to campaign for or wait on. We don’t need a farm or lots of money or even a backyard. We just need the will to start, the drive to take those simple, identifiable steps, one after another. The resources are there, the information readily available at no cost. So, why not permaculture? Why not now?