Guest blog by Jennifer Albanese
Photo by Susanna Frohman
Jennifer has been an organic gardening student and practitioner for over 14 years and a permaculture practitioner for 12. She has a special interest in soil and it's role in regenerating ecosystem health. Jennifer and her husband, Cliff Davis, co-own Spiral Ridge Permaculture, an educational, off-grid homestead, and New Agrarian Design, an ecological design firm. She lives in middle Tennessee with Cliff and their three children.
What is Permaculture?
By Jennifer AlbanesePermaculture is simultaneously a buzz word and something that many people have never heard of. It is misunderstood and misrepresented. However it is a term and a practice that everyone should be familiar with....as our future is uncertain and Permaculture is one of the keys to regenerating land and culture. It is a way for us to face the issues that haunt us.
So what is permaculture?
Permaculture is an ecological design science. The original concept of permaculture was created by two Australians, Dave Holmgren and Bill Mollison and originally meant “permanent agriculture,” but became “permanent culture” because it was applicable on a broader scale. I believe permaculture is more than a science...but we will get to that later. First, letʼs explore the design approach.
The Problem is The Solution
Permaculture asks the questions; What do we need, as humans, and how can we have our needs met while caring for the planet as a whole? Is there a way to live more harmoniously with the natural world and use technology appropriately? How can health and healing be maintained and regenerated on our landscapes, in our societies and in nature? How can our communities and food systems have more resilience when catastrophe strikes? How can we increase production, conserve energy and and have more sound economics? As permaculturalists, we try to answer these questions in ways that are practical and can be applied, not just theorized about. To do this we maintain a solution focused mindset, implement and test our ideas and receive feedback, from the system, so we may improve on the design. We are very aware of the problems, climatic, political, social, and economic, and we actively seek to ﬁnd positive solutions and share them with others.
Permaculture is a Science with Ethics at itʼs Core
Thatʼs what sets it apart. Permaculture seeks to design systems, be they farms, homesteads, cities, social structures, businesses or ﬁnancial systems, in a way that is holistic, which is how ecosystems function.
Everything is connected, in a web, and those connections, those relationships, are what make nature so resilient and abundant. The natural world gives us the ideas and the inspiration to create systems that mimic it. To be sure our created systems meet this goal, they have to meet the core ethics of permaculture: earth care, people care and fair share.
A permaculture designer must consider the planet, after all, it is the source of our sustenance. We build soil, rather than deplete it. We conserve resources. We recycle everything; water through the landscape, nutrients from the garden, waste from our households, energy from the sun, currency through our local communities. People like to term this “living sustainably.” Sustaining our level of consumption and our irresponsible degradation of the planet will not bode well for it. We have to go beyond sustainability and initiate regenerative processes. Nature knows how to ﬁnd balance on her own. There is decay and there is rebirth, it is all regenerative. However, the type of decay and destruction that humans have wrought, takes much longer to heal. We can help speed up the recovery process through good design. We are all part of the Earth, each animal, plant, river and person. Permaculture recognizes the intrinsic value of each. The next two ethics could also be grouped under earth care, but we often distinguish them to insist their importance as well.
How do we care for others? First we have to care for ourselves. If we wish to cultivate peace in the external word it begins internally. We can extend out our care to ever widening circles, our family, our neighbors and our broader communities. We have to assume responsibility for the part we play. Is it contributing to the greater good? Permaculture is about empowering people to take positive action, be responsible, cultivate loving relationships and become more self-reliant. Interdependence in key, though.
Interdependence is about connection and relationship, which is what creates the web we need for optimal functioning and resilience. Many often confuse self-reliance and self-sufﬁciency. Self-reliance means taking care of more of your own needs, which could mean, growing much of your food, not being hooked up to a central electric system, etc. Self-sufﬁciency means not requiring any aid, support or interaction. With self-reliance we have more interdependence, share resources, barter, and otherwise build strength in community. Trying to be completely self-sufﬁcient is rarely doable and does not contribute as much to the greater good, it is more self serving.
The ethic of fair share has two parts, seemingly contradictory. First, share and celebrate the abundance of the earth. Everyone has a right to clean water, good food, shelter, clothing and a decent standard of living. How much food do we let rot, because it cannot be sold at market prices? Why are large companies privatizing our fresh water supplies? In many starving countries, it is not lack of food that is the issue, it is politics that keep these people from thriving. These issues need to be addressed. People claim there is not enough, but it is simply not true. We need to stop hoarding. We need to stop suppression. Everyone has the right to live well but we currently have an unequal distribution of even the most basic resources needed to survive.
The second aspect of the Fair Share ethic is about accepting natureʼs limits. We need to recognize that some resources are limited and not easily renewed. Insatiable hunger and lack of respect for these resources could be our downfall. We cannot continue to mine the earth for oil, gas, precious gems and metals. There is only so much of these resources, yet we continue to build our empires on them. Our dependance on them is steadily increasing, while the supply is steadily decreasing. This is not a regenerative practice, nor is it sustainable. We each need to take responsibility for our consumption and our contribution to resource depletion.
So, how is Earth both abundant and scarce? Ask yourself, what resources can be renewed, given freely and help regenerate and which should be conserved and further the destruction of the planet? Expand your thinking to non-tangible resources, like goodwill, love, hate, and greed. Each action we take has a domino effect, we help shape our future with each breath.
But, isnʼt it a bunch of liberal hippy types?
Yes, of course there is a large contingent of environmental, hippy types...Permaculture serves their cause, but you will ﬁnd just as many practitioners that are not this way. Conservative Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and people of all colors and cultures have studied Permaculture and are putting itʼs principles, techniques and tools to work. These core ethics are not unique to Permaculture. They can be found in most religions, indigenous spirituality, and customs all over the world. We all want clean water, air and food. We all want our children to have a chance at life, a chance at peace and happiness. Now we have a design approach, with a universal ethical core, that can unify the people. The implications of uniting, formally disconnected peoples under a common cause, are uplifting. Can you see how powerful such a union can be? People healing landscapes, communities and themselves by being part of something bigger; a global movement towards regeneration that you can be a part of, starting in your own backyard. It is this power, that transforms people.
Permaculture is More Than Just a Design Science
In our courses, we consistently witness students transform. They are inspired and feel more connected. They feel part of a community of caring individuals, all from different lifestyles and cultures. They feel part of a world wide movement towards positive change. They leave with hope, infectious passion and sometimes a type of spiritual awakening. Healing and release happens.
For this reason, I say, that Permaculture is more than just science. Many permaculture folks donʼt want the word spiritual mixed up with permaculture. They are afraid it will discredit it and make it seem New Age like. To brand it as only a design science does it a disservice. I have never known a science with ethics at itʼs core, rather than just a side note.
As permaculture educators we do not teach spirituality. We teach design, encourage connection to nature, self and community and create a safe space for our participants to share, but the effects can be profound. Spirituality can be any meaningful activity that contributes to a personal transformation. For those whom the ethics align with their personal morals, permaculture can be an expression of the love they have and a way to serve, thus a part of their spiritual path.
Permaculture is just one of many tools and approaches we can, and should, use. It is a new perspective, a way of seeing how our actions effect the world. Permaculture is a way to design ourselves and our lives to beneﬁt the whole. Itʼs how I live my life and is part of my spirituality.