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Permaculture Path to a Sustainable Future

Knowledgebase > Permaculture Path to a Sustainable Future

Permaculture — The Path to a Sustainable Future

by Bonnie North


“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were on when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Let’s take a drive down the east coast of North America from New York to Baltimore on Interstate 95. Once beyond the eye-burning vapors of the industrial dead-zones of New Jersey, our journey will carry us through a landscape of homogenous suburbs marked by exit signs to places with bucolic-sounding names like “Greenville,” and “Spring Hill.” We’ll roll past 300-miles of housing developments and chem-lawns with their attendant shopping malls, strip centers, parking lots and acres of macadam roads -all of this linked together by vehicular arteries that speed us along in a smooth flow of ad vertising billboards.

It all appears quite “normal” to us. This is the American Dream in manifestation, the post-industrial materialisation of mass aspirations to comfort, security, autonomy. It’s very easy to forget that a mere 300 years ago all the ground we’ve just covered was what we would now call “wilderness,” vast forests, wetlands, coursing streams, fecund bogs… Now we have most of those streams re-routed into cement culverts. Most of the bogs and wetlands are choked dead with fill and s lathered over with concrete. There is not one stump remaining from those forests.

We have considered this total alteration of the landscape to be symbolic of “Progress.” But as the latest readings come in, evidence is beginning to mount that these tract developments and “village centers,” are the setting for a way of life that may well be doomed. Scientists, biologists, economists and even a few politicians are becoming aware that it is simply not sustainable.

The Native Americans, who lived here for many hundreds of years and yet altered the land so little, would speak of seven generations. When decisions of magnitude were considered the potential impact on their descendants -unto seven generations- was held close in mind. This is what we have failed to bring into our prevalent mode of thinking. The dreamers of the American Dream have always held “making a better life for your kids” close in their collective heart but the vision of this “better life” rarely extended beyond one or two generations. Perhaps because we are a people of such mixed heritage we have little sense of tribal identity to extend our feelings of family beyond those children we could hope to live to see. Or perhaps we simply became intoxicated with this bountiful continent which seemed to offer wealth that was inexhaustible.

But nothing is truly inexhaustible and now we are finding that WE are the seventh generation! The fruits of the 300 short-sighted years of man’s “conquering” this land are ripening fast and the harvest is bitter to survey. Our God Progress and His Omnipotent Technology may have double-crossed us. We find ourselves waking from The American Dream and choking in industrial and household waste. We dimly perceive that we are dangerously close to exhausting the earthly resources that sustain life on this planet. We can’t see any clear path to the future. We eat anti-depressants to fog our fear and tell ourselves that somehow more and more technology will magically provide some quick fix.

“This is wrong-thinking and dangerous.” warns Peter Bane, publisher of The Permaculture Activist. Bane argues that “Further centralizing control and greater applications of industrial technology cannot save us. These forces and processes have brought about t he crisis and cannot forestall it. Only by changing the basis of production and the nature of power can we build a world that is appropriate to our generative and loving instincts and to our nature as inquisitive and creative beings.”

It’s true that we can’t move backwards and un-do what’s been done even if we wanted to. Five billion people cannot live on this planet as hunter-gathers in a stable eco-system. There are too many of us and that stable eco-system is no longer. We have destroyed it. We must look squarely, bravely and with clear eyes at the mistakes of the past while re-vamping our vision of the possible future. An entirely new mind-set is required to meet the challenges of mankind’s present impasse.

Permaculture, signifying permanent agriculture-permanent culture, may well be the first-born child of that new mind-set. The term Permaculture was invented by an Australian engineer named Bill Mollison, it is also the copyrighted name of an international organization he founded in the early 1980’s.

Mollison had been a scientist with the Tasmanian Fisheries Department when he noticed that the fish stocks were collapsing, that the seaweed on the shore was thinning out, that large parts of the eco-system under his stewardship were disappearing. At first he followed the usual path of protesting the political and industrial systems that seemed to be killing off the natural world around him. These efforts merely left him increasingly bitter and frustrated- “I decided it was no good persisting with opposition that in the end achieved nothing. I withdrew from society for two years; I did not want to oppose anything ever again and waste my time. I wanted to come back with something very positive, something that would allow us all to exist without collapsing the biological systems around us.”

In 1968 he began teaching at the University of Tasmania and by 1974 he and a colleague, David Holmgren, had jointly evolved what they described as “a framework for sustainable agricultural based up on a multi-crop of perennial trees, shrubs, herbs (vegetables and weeds), fungi and root systems.” In 1978 he published his first book: Permaculture One, followed a year later by Permaculture Two and in 1990 by a giant of a book: Permaculture, A Practical Guide For A Sustainable Future, which has become the “bible” of the Permaculture movement. In 1991, the much smaller and more accessible (especially to the interested layman) Introduction To Permaculture, co-authored with Reny Mia Slay, appeared.

Mollison describes Permaculture as a “design system” for creating sustainable human environments. Based upon the an understanding of natural systems, it is “a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature.” Permaculture proposes “protracted and thoughtful observations rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.”

We may often hear the term Permaculture used indiscriminately when discussing any hodge-podge of organic farming methods. Although Permaculture certainly advocates strictly organic farming, true Permaculture goes far, far beyond. DESIGN is the key concept in the Permaculture approach. Legitimate Permaculture designing is complicated, rigorously scientific, unfailingly thorough and requires considerable training. None-the-less, since 1981 more than 7,000 Certified Permaculture Designers have graduated from The Permaculture Institute and are active world-wide.

Permaculture insists upon thoughtful stewardship instead of aggressive domination. Permaculture designing is site-specific, though based upon a complexity of essential principles hammered out by Mollison in his early years of research. It requires keen observations and the detailed mapping of a long-term path toward ultimate sustainability. The designer considers ever y aspect of the land itself: the contour, drainage, soil content etc… and also every aspect of the environment: rainfall patterns; prevailing wind systems; yearly sunlight cycles etc…

A good Permaculture design also projects the alterations that the institution of the planned design will create in the regional biosphere as the design system matures. Permaculture builds towards maximum sustainability in carefully plotted stages. It can require 15 – 20 years for a Permaculture design to reach maturity. Through the plotting of zones of activity; the institution of “guilds” of plants that compliment each other’s needs and grow together in synergy; and the planned rotation of foraging animals through the crops at various stages of their growth, a rational stewardship over the land, the plants and the animals is developed.

At maturity, a fully realized Permaculture site bears little resemblance to a “farm” as we know it today. Though deliberately established, tended, monitored and maintained by m an, it will APPEAR to be almost “wild.” Permaculture mimics natural systems. It incorporates the natural tendencies of the land, the plants and the domesticated animals into it’s plan -creating a naturally ordered system that is none-the-less intentionally designed to serve man’s needs while respecting the needs of all the species within the system. The result is high-yield/low-maintenance agriculture that maximizes the potential of the land and minimizes the effort required to achieve a bountiful harvest. This is what is meant by “working with, rather than against nature.”

The Permaculture Institute is active in every continent on the globe. Working humbly, and usually without governmental or corporate funding of any sort, Permaculture volunteers are doing the kind of good work in the developing nations that we once believed the Peace Corps was going to accomplish. Since 1984 the Institute has held an annual international conference bringing together teachers, designers and laymen from all over the planet to discuss the future of the movement and share its expanding applications as adaptations to essential principles evolve in new regions and biospheres.

The movement is growing steadily as new students and freshly graduated designers enter t he arena every year. Still Permaculture, an all-encompassing approach to one of the crucial elements in developing a sustainable way of life, is not well understood. More educational outreach is sorely needed. Chemically assisted mono-cropping is neither healthy nor sustainable. Yet usual methods of organic multi-cropping are labor intensive and expensive and thus are often rejected as a serious practical alternative. Ultra-efficient, high-yield/low-maintenance Permaculture designing, whether implemented on a large market-intended scale, or in the individual home garden, can offer us a real solution.


Submitted by Bonnie North, October 1996
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