Three and a half billion years ago, the Earth was inhabited by bacteria who ate organic compounds such as sugar which at that time were plentifully supplied by non-living processes such as lightning, the heat of the Earth's core, and the sun. At some point the bacteria had reproduced enough that there was no longer enough food for all of them. This is when photosynthesis began. The ability to use sunlight to produce and store their own food allowed life to grow up and provide for itself, no longer dependent on the free food given to it by Mother Earth. This innovation, in addition to being a means to independence, also represents in itself an occupation or character development, much as in humans a career as a baker or potter not only provides for the individual a living but also aspects of personality and differentiation from others.
Us humans are at a similar point in history. Many of us have been for generations "eating" soil and other resources which the Earth was rich in when we got here, thanks to billions of years of work by nonhuman ecosystems. One difference from the bacteria corollary is that in this case, the food we have been using up is not just randomly being generated by nonliving chance occurrences. The ecosystems which produced this soil were using it to develop their complexity and stability. So, we have stolen it not from non-living "Mother Earth", but from the very living Gaia to whom we owe our own existence. The fact is, if we eat up all the "food", it's not just a matter of waiting for the external processes to produce more before we can reproduce again. This time we are eating both the food and the one who provides, Gaia herself. Of course we won't eat every last photosynthesizing bit of algae, but do we really want to wait another three billion years before we get the chance to reproduce again because our ecosystems have crashed back to the point they can't support us?
It's time for humans to grow up and provide for ourselves, rather than continue to scour the globe for the last resources that can maintain the lifestyles we've gotten used to. This is what Permaculture is all about - providing the real needs of human communities in ways that strengthen the ecosystems we need for clean air, water and food. It's a form of "photosynthesis", producing for ourselves, developing an occupation, in the midst of a society of consumers who are still eating up whatever they can find without regard for how long they may continue to be able to find it. And it's a real opportunity to develop ourselves as human communities, to become more interesting and distinct from those around us, to develop mature relationships with surrounding communities based on respect and mutual benefit and learning. Just as no two humans will choose the exact same career path in the village, yet they each have some bit of advice to offer the other, so no two Permaculture communities will choose the same design elements, each will be different according to circumstances, yet as a global community of Permaculturalists we will each have bits of advice to offer the others. And you don't need an intentional community to practice Permaculture - just start doing it where you are and you will find there are elements of it in people and relationships all around you. Strengthen those healthy relationships that you find, and you will be helping people who have never heard of Permaculture to practice it.
Cultural Imperialism vs. Non-Verbal Direct Experience
The culture of consumerism we are in the midst of has been around for a long time. Europe has been densely settled and urbanized for thousands of years. W.C. Lowdermilk describes how the Europeans drastically altered the face of the land in the process of building cities in his Conquest of the Land through Seven Thousand Years. As we know the health and wealth of a population is in its forests and soils which provide water. Five hundred years ago the forests and soils of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean had already been severely depleted by civilization after civilization exploiting them and managing them for their own self aggrandizement. European elites had been actively squandering the inheritance of their children for many generations.
The new world was enticing because it had a plethora of raw materials that had long been scarce in Europe. When the Europeans first came to what we now call New England, Pennsylvania and Virginia, they brought with them a cultural perception of how home looks and feels. The New World was much different from what they were used to: primordial forests and rugged wilderness, frightening and endlessly expansive. The Viking / Norsemen were killed off by the natives, and the first Europeans would not have survived without the help of the American Indians who had been living successfully in this apparent wilderness for thousands of years. Once established, the Europeans turned around and began their campaign of ethnic genocide against the natives, and began the rapid and consecutive deforestation of this apparently endless forested wilderness in order to build ships and make it feel more like home.
Today, just some five hundred years later, 99% of old growth forest has been cut, the Eastern deciduous forests have been clear-cut up to three to four times over and we have lost several feet of topsoil. Thirty-seven percent of rivers and streams and fifty percent of lakes and ponds are unfishable and unswimmable according to the US EPA, and we've blown up over 500 atomic bombs inside the US, have 110 hazardous waste incinerators and are preparing to build chemical weapons incinerators.
What I am illustrating here is how people attempt to understand and shape the world based on what is familiar to them. This is tied to our tendency to generalize and homogenize both about cultures and about landscapes. This tendency is something that I would like to elaborate on. Making the New World look and feel like highly impacted home is an example of Cultural Imperialism. Cultural Imperialism is when the transnational corporations and their governments attempt to homogenize, westernize, industrialize and technologize other cultures or populations who have not yet succumbed to these pressures.
In Permaculture we want a cultural tradition which strengthens and respects biodiversity and cultural diversity. If the Europeans had learned more how to live in cooperation with the Forests, the wilderness and the Native Cultures, we would have a very different world today. In Permaculture we need to be wary of generalizing in all of its forms, one of which is a tendency to want to be prophetic. While there are recurring patterns in the world, nature and reality, we must remember the Heisenberg uncertainty principle which demonstrates that you as the observer affect the observed; the exception to the rule is the rule, and the Permaculture concept of site specificity. Many things are more determined by site specific elements than they are by general principles that we might find helpful for overall designs and pattern recognition.
We must always remember that nature is both beyond and within language and formulas. Some aspects of nature can be described by language, others cannot. Human constructs of analysis are bound by language and cultural perceptions which have dramatically conditioned and shaped our ways of seeing and understanding. We must be humble to our limitations and correspondingly recognize how destructive we can be when we act out of this "rational" perspective which is blinded by its cultural mindset and ignorant of the rest of reality which is not apprehended by it. While our tools of analysis are very powerful, the wisdom of their application comes in our addressing their limitations by backing them up with more non-verbal direct experience in a place or with a culture.
In Permaculture the culture we are creating will be very site specific, each region, each community creating its own localized ways of living and being. Generalizing and prophesizing, while entertaining, tend to miss the nuancical miraculousness of living which fortunately defies human understanding. As to what will happen when we run low on the current fossil fuel and nuclear income, it will be very different for each neighborhood, for each group of people. The shape and design each community creates will be site specific. We want a Permaculture that doesn't get lost in doomsdaying or prophesizing but respects and helps to create beautiful, diverse, healthy, site specific ways of living.
Human Scale, Community Based, Bioregional Designs
In terms of the Design Process what this looks like is more on-site observation and analysis. Find old and new maps, as large and detailed as possible. We want to match our suggestions with the existing place and find out how to regenerate and increase the diversity of available harvests in a way that respects and cooperates with the subtleties of this place and its human inhabitants.
Since we understand in Permaculture that the Earth has been trashed by human hands we want to apply human energy to regenerating new and healthy ways of living that enhance biodiversity. In addition to healing native diversity we want to provide ecologically sound stability and health to the human populations that reside in a given place. The pursuit of healthy, sustainable human settlements is essential in order to discontinue the overextending of what the Earth can provide and sustain.
A great deal of the present cultural paradigm in the G8 nations involves extremely heavy handed methodologies for providing themselves with what they want. Massive quantities of toxic fossil and nuclear fuels are involved in transportation and distribution necessary in our current centralized systems. The war machine gives us political clout to seize resources from people who may have been using them more wisely than we will, or to manipulate them to do what we want. This pattern has been familiar to Europeans since the 1600's Enclosure Act when the Crown seized common land from the peasants to produce sheep wool for textile mills in which the newly displaced peasants were workers. In the process of extracting resources from developing countries, we leave a legacy of pollution, contamination and fragmented societies and ecosystems. People from once thriving farming communities are now the poor in the cities. In the process of all of this we are also contaminating ourselves and destabilizing the planet's ability to support complex oxygen breathing life forms.
Back to design, this points to the need to be selective in Permaculture designs about how, when, why and where we use fossil fuel/nuclear powered machines and processes. The simpler we keep our tools the more it minimizes the scale of the impact of our mistakes. Start high in the topography and work down using hand tools and focused human labor to prevent erosion and revegetate. We want people powered, biologically powered, community based design solutions.
We also need more regionally specific sets of ideas, approaches and techniques for each region to be offered in the teaching of Permaculture Design processes. We need Bioregional Vernaculars, common everyday languages of ordinary people in particular localities, which help to give more regional cultures to the designs people create. We want to seek out people who have been paying attention to the land. This kind of local wisdom is invaluable and you will get to know more of it over years of living in a particular place. Keeping your designs small and human scale with hand tools enables you to reconfigure them over decades of developing them as you learn more about what works where you are.
For instance, the Appalachian landscape has very different design opportunities from the Rocky Mountains or from the Tropics. The Appalachians are 400 to 500 million years old with diverse deciduous forests, limestone aquifers and once deep topsoils. The Rockies are more like 40 to 50 million years old; they have primarily sandstone aquifers and are mostly conifers. The design goals and issues are very different between these two vast areas. In Appalachia there are a lot of opportunities for using springs in one's design. In the Rocky Mountains there is more need for rainwater catchments and less topsoil to begin with. The eastern Appalachian and Piedmont area had such deep topsoil that even after three to four consecutive clear-cuttings of the forest it still continues slowly but surely to come back in some newly adapted assemblage. On the West Coast in the Cascade Mountains, when the forest is clear-cut the soil washes off and trees don't grow back. The soil/forest/water dynamic, the fundament of healthy diverse communities of all kinds, is very unique for each place on the Earth.
We can observe a particular aspect of this dynamic at the Center for Bioregional Living. The land here was clear-cut at the turn of the century, quite late compared to most of the East because of the comparative ruggedness of the mountains. Then cattle were grazed through the forties and haying continued until thirty years ago when certain steeper areas were allowed to reforest, with the help of some planting of pine trees. Before the reforestation, a certain valley, the one we now get our spring water from, was observed to be without water except during runoff from snow or rain; the springs had "dried up". Now, after thirty years of trees growing on this land, a high percentage of them sugar maples which provide us with syrup, the springs have returned and flow perennially. This is a common occurrence in this bioregion; when the land is covered by trees it is less hot, and springs flow more freely.
Permaculture needs to help in the process of regional adaptation of human communities. Part of how we will do this is by deepening our understanding of how to design differently in different places. Our design principles are only useful in so far as we recognize their limitations, and that they are pointers or indicators for us to continue to build on, develop and evolve. Permaculture is not a static answer. It is a morphing question, one version of which is: How can we learn to Live Well with the Earth, humbly, respectfully, abundantly thriving.
From siting, to elements, to design goals, each area, each place has very different variables, parameters and opportunities. To name a few: siting and orientation of dwellings and other structures in the landscape, what materials are abundant and locally available that can be harvested sustainably, assemblage and design of a polyculture perennial forest garden, when to harvest and how to store foods and materials, how to restore damaged native ecosystems like stream corridors and wetlands, what are the available wild edibles that we want to increase the abundance of, and how to manage a woodlot sustainably. All of these elements will be very unique to a given site and the region it lies within.
We want to shape future landscapes based on an in-depth, localized understanding of how to do the things which Permaculture recommends. Each region, depending on its characteristics, will find that many of the different land use patterns that humans have tried out can be adapted to act in harmony with healthy diverse ecosystems, while others are better suited to another place or are just bad ideas. For example, most of the Eastern woodland communities might find the following to be good ideas: water powered grain mills like those of the 1700's, kitchen gardens like those that most households had pre-industrialization, regional self-sufficiency such as that enjoyed in the Philadelphia area pre-long distance shipping on the Mississippi during the mid-1600's to mid-1700's when Quaker communities had good relations with American Indians and borrowed traditional techniques from them as well as using other techniques that worked in Europe, fieldstone and wood southern-exposed houses, barns on contour within good eyesight of the house, gravity-fed spring systems, and spring houses for dairy milk and other storage.
As we hold in our minds all the ideas that appear to work in harmony with local ecosystems, we must spend a good amount of time observing what is happening on our sites and visualizing how our proposed systems will interact with what is already going on. Humans have made enough mistakes over the past few thousand years that we should be able to learn from them and grow up. It's time to use our powers of observation to get to know Gaia and the humans and non-humans we have relationships with. Only then will each of us see how our own actions can best be fit in to the strengthening of the community as a whole. As we contribute to a healthy community, that community will become strong enough to provide for us, and we won't need to continue to pillage. It is time for us to evolve a truly advanced and mature culture.
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Lowdermilk, W.C. Conquest of the Land through Seven Thousand Years. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1953.
Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. What Is Life? Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.
Shepheard, Paul. The Cultivated Wilderness, or, What is Landscape? Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.
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Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States.
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