Time to Garden the Planet
©2006 Peter Bane
Politics has captured the attention of Americans again after a generation of lethargy because the world's problems are growing more complex with each passing day. We face endless war over oil, rampant consumerism, a hollow economy and a crumbling dollar, an epidemic of obesity, toxicity and illness, and a medical system out of control. Hunger and plague stalk the global South.
At the risk of being thought romantic or utopian, I assert that the solutions to these and most of the world's dramatic crises rests in a rather simple shift of our awareness and our behavior. We must care for the Earth and for people, and share that which is surplus to our needs so that others may meet their own. We must also consciously limit our consumption and population. These ethics are central to permaculture: they belong to no nation or creed but to all of humanity. It's time to garden the planet.
When human beings shifted our economy from the wild harvesting of nature's surpluses to the cultivation of cereal crops at the end of the last ice age, we started on a course of collective self-discovery: Will the clever monkeys solve the puzzle in time? Can they figure out how to grow enough food to keep up with their sex drive?
So far, the answer is no. The Agricultural Revolution, sparked in the semi-arid regions of the Near East about 10,000 years ago, has been a failure. The production of surplus grains has always led to increases in population that outstrip the productive capacity of their regions, leading to war, empire, destruction of forests, and migrations. On a shrinking planet, there's nowhere else to go.
All politics hinges on the question, "Who eats?" To get to the root of politics we have to talk and act on food. Freedom isn't just "nothin' left to lose," rather it's an abundant supply of locally grown food for every household. Our current food system, and with it the entire economy of the now hyperlinked world is balanced precariously on a dwindling supply of fossil oil and gas, controlled by a tiny elite of mostly foreign powers.This is not a temporary problem to be solved by technology or better management. It is a structural problem of geological limits and burgeoning population that will never go away until we break our addiction to oil.
Thirty years ago, two Australians, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison discovered in their conversation about energy and equity that they had something to say about this problem. They described their response to global limits and the failure of central authority with the made-up word, "Permaculture," or "permanent agriculture."
In the generation since Permaculture I was published, a hundred thousand others have joined this conversation around the world and Permaculture has come to mean "permanent culture," because, of course, no system of farming can exist without a just and stable society to support it.
Besides being a paradox ("permanent" means long-lasting while "culture" is about continuous change and adaptation"), Permaculture is a way of seeing the world that emphasizes context and processes. It requires a shift of focus from objects and actors—which is the cultural bias of western civilization and of our English language in particular—to relationships. Whether seen as feminine or right-brained or Eastern because these qualities have been suppressed in our culture, the capacity for holistic thinking is really about balance —drawing on both sides of the brain and emphasizing the connections between them.
Permaculture is also a design system, based on ecology and taught by grassroots networks, for creating human habitats—homes, neighborhoods, towns, and the countryside—that capture energy, grow food, and recycle wastes, as they grow ever more diverse and abundant. The principles are simple but not trivial:
• Humans must be engaged interactively with the natural world around us;
• Our chief task is to capture and cycle solar energy, using it to meet our needs;
• We have to feed ourselves and regulate our behaviors to fit in with nature;
• Biological systems work best;
• Waste equals food;
• The patterns of natural systems show us how to create cultivated ones;
• Combine top-down thinking with bottom-up action;
• Always integrate elements and systems for mutual support;
• Choose small and slow means;
• Cultivate diversity and look to the margins for action;
• Be prepared for change.
These have endless ramifications.
And out of these networks of "each one, teach one," has grown a social movement for people-centered development and grassroots scientific research that has successfully demonstrated pathways for a low-energy future in 100 countries. The abundance of cheap fossil fuel and the material excesses of USA culture have retarded Americans' awareness of Permaculture, but the rise of energy prices and the continued contraction of the global economy are helping awaken more people to the need for which Permaculture was created.
Permaculture has a great analysis of the world—Energy comes from the sun, therefore it's time to reorganize our economy and technology to recognize that (Think biology.); The Earth has limits, of which energy, water, tree cover, and soil minerals are especially critical to life; People, once educated, are best able solve their own problems and meet their own needs locally, so teach them to teach others. The household, not the factory, is the source of prosperity, so create edible landscapes everywhere people live. But the Permaculture story would be empty theory if it didn't lead to positive action for change.
If you want to turn the world on its head, it takes a really good idea and a lot of practice. And that's where the design system comes in. You apply these principles to your own life, your own household, your own economy to make permaculture happen where you live. And every one is different. Starting at the back door, permaculture designers and activists have created city farms, food forests, solar homes, living roofs, edible parks and schoolgrounds, backyard fish ponds, community health centers, water gardens, local currencies and credit unions, farmers markets, ecovillages, and a worldwide university.
What will be your part of this story?
The true test of permanent agriculture is whether it builds and maintains carbon (organic matter) levels in soil. This takes trees, animals, careful observation, persistence, and a new worldview. No mechanized agriculture can do it, only people who understand their kinship with all of life can. The land needs people. At the same time, there can never be enough "stuff" in the marketplace to satisfy our profound need for love and meaning. These can only come from relationship—people need the land and each other. In a world of diminishing resources, the only inexhaustible resource is our creativity and our undying connection with the Earth. These come together in the garden, and while Permaculture is much more than can be imagined by one person or captured in an essay, it is most often and truly associated with the garden, our deepest image of connectedness with the original source and of a world filled with pleasure and delight.
Bloomington resident Peter Bane publishes Permaculture Activist, the world's longest-running journal of permaculture design. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article also appears at http://www.relocalize.net/time_to_garden_the_planet