A case for Permaculture

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There’s no doubt in my mind that we have reached a point in human history where we must decide collectively to save ourselves or not. We must adapt quickly and evolve.

In the last 40 years, primarily through human exploitation and habitat loss, the population of terrestrial and oceanic vertebrate species has dropped by over half; our freshwater species have dropped by 76%. [3] On our current trajectory the oceans may run out of commercial fish species by 2048. [4] If we change nothing, then nothing will be left.

Recent climate change research shows that civilisation has crossed four of the nine safe planetary boundaries. With the loss of biosphere integrity, land system change and altered biogeochemical cycles (such as phosphorous and nitrogen runoff) we are losing our ‘safe operating space. [6]

We have exceeded our planets capacity to provide and yet there are ever more mouths to feed. With current production practices we need more than one and a half earths, and counting, [5] to meet the current demand we make on nature. Yet already over a billion people go hungry every day.

Backed up by solid science the dire predictions of complete ecological collapse are now commonplace news. Yet like a possum caught in the headlights, we hesitate at our own peril. To say it’s all a bit grim is a massive understatement.

When it all seems that grim, the only alternative I see is hope, a reorientation of the spirit. With hope comes the capacity to take a big breath, dig in and get on with the epic task of restoring the balance.

I see examples of this everywhere, from massive re-greening projects where tens of millions of trees are being planted to restore entire landmasses [6] to grassroots movements across the globe making a stand for local food resilience and sovereignty. And I see a new generation of young folk coming up through the ranks who are unobstructed by shame and have boundless enthusiasm for the future of our precious planet.

I also see new innovations in science and engineering that have the potential to move primary production away from leaky linear models, akin to the Green Revolution, to more integrated circular models.

And I do believe our planet has a tremendous capacity to restore itself just as long as we give it room. It doesn’t mean we need to leave it alone; perhaps we just need to work with it, as one would with a kindred spirit.

Working with nature Brazilian farmer Ernst Gotsch transforms 1,200 acres of completely deforested land into a biodiverse and productive block

With the right skills and experience we may even be able to accelerate that healing process, and for me, for my journey, that’s what led me to permaculture…

Ecosystem Engineers

My journey into permaculture began in the late 1990s. As a traveling salesman wandering the globe, I observed the steady decline of nature everywhere I turned. With a young family in tow I felt compelled to search for something I could do in response to the world’s plight, something logical and practical that would show my children a better way of living.

I can’t quite remember how but I quickly learned of permaculture and before I knew it I had enrolled in my first permaculture design course. I felt like a green Jedi Knight, and quite sheepishly, today I still do.

Permaculture gives you ‘new eyes’

Bill Mollison

It’s a romantic notion, having the ability to manipulate whole ecosystems as engineers of a healthy, balanced planet, but that’s what permaculture has come to mean to me.

If you will indulge me, let’s formalise a title ‘ecosystem engineer’ and start jotting down a job description. It might go something like this…

From a values and ethics perspective you believe in caring for the Earth, caring for People and in balance and fair share. You aspire to work with nature, applying practical knowledge and science across a range of domains. You combine this with a cool head and a good deal of patience and compassion to effect whole design.

You leverage the twelve principles of permaculture in your designs and in the application of those designs. By observing and interacting [i] you seek to understand the full ramifications of your plans and actions. You catch and store energy [ii] by leveraging the abundant gifts of nature in your designs so you can obtain a yield [iii]. By applying self-regulation and accepting feedback [iv] you can adapt to the unexpected.

You use and value renewable resources & services [v] and are able to produce little or no waste [vi]. Your only by-products feed into the creation of other products or services. To develop such systems you design from patterns down to details, [vii] and your systems are integrated rather than segregated. [xiii] You apply small and slow solutions [ix] so you can build momentum and carefully adjust your course direction as you go.

You use and value diversity [x] in all it’s available forms while taking advantage of edges and margins, [xi] those special places which harbour the most available energy. Finally you creatively use and respond to change, [xii] accepting that nothing is constant including your designs. Entropy is everywhere!

While you understand that permaculture was originally born for application across land and nature stewardship. [a], because you’re such a lateral thinker you apply the same ethics and principles over other domains necessary to sustain humanity. Built environment, [b], tools and technology, [c], culture and education, [d], health and spiritual wellbeing, [e], finance and economics [f], and land tenure and community [g] can all benefit from your attention.

Tea breaks are allowed, actually the more the better, because it means you’re thinking hard about what you are doing and the implications of your actions. However you must work weekends and every other day for that matter because the world needs you on the job right now. No previous work experience is required but if that’s the case find yourself an elder or two willing to guide you while you are still potentially dangerous.

This is a job description I don’t think you’ll see in your local job column any time soon but it needs to be in my opinion. The ethics and principles embodied here, borne from the work of Bill Mollison [1] and David Holmgren [6], may be the key to saving our species.

Here’s a quote from the UN Trade and Environment Review (2013)that gives me hope that changes are in play at a much larger macro level [8]

The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach.  This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.  We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services

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UN Trade and Environment Review [2013]

My take on this is that we all have a role to play as producers and consumers in agro-ecological systems. If we focus as a community on local solutions to these global problems then that could make a big difference. It’s lots of little things that may turn the tide, and for that I think we need every ecosystem engineer we can get our hands on.

Our Natural Capital

Let’s park the job description for the moment and focus on the job at hand. How do we break this planetary crisis down?

So it’s all about inappropriate management of our natural resources or ‘natural capital’ isn’t it?  I like the term natural capital which The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report aptly describes as ‘an economic metaphor encapsulating the idea that our economic prosperity and wellbeing are reliant on the resources provided by a healthy planet.’

It means that the value of that apple tree in your backyard isn’t just about the fruit it produces; rather it’s about the ecosystem services it provides. Trees act as the lungs of our planet; they store carbon, build soil and provide homes and food for vast communities of life. They also perpetuate rainfall and by converting light to energy they fuel the ecological processes that we depend on.

It’s also in the ‘green health’ services that contribute to our wellbeing when we reconnect with nature and the powerful antidepressant vapours released by microbes as we dig our hands into a healthy aerobic soil. [9]

If you consider our natural capital as a bank account, then our crisis could simply be described as poor banking. For a long time we have been drawing from that account without putting any funds back in. We all need to start contributing to the account before we completely run out of funds.

I know that’s grossly oversimplified the state of play, but in my experience complicated challenges can be approached more easily by starting simply. Once started, positive ripple effects ensue.

So let’s run with it for now and if you will continue to indulge me lets just assume you applied for the job, had an awesome interview, Gaia thought you were great, and are now you are an apprentice ‘ecosystem engineer’, so what do you do?

The Sacred Groves of Aotearoa

Well in India there are said to be something like 14,000 sacred groves [10] that are treated with absolute respect and reverence. They are often dedicated to ancestral spirits or deities, have religious significance and in some cases host rare plants of traditional medicinal value. I don’t know much about these groves to be honest, but I like the concept that we can consider natural spaces, our natural capital, as sacred.

In my own country of New Zealand we began creating sacred groves in the oceans back in 1975. By developing marine reserves we protected nature so it could restore itself. We quickly realised that the benefits to the greater ocean ecologies outside of those reserves was immense.

So perhaps your first task as an ecosystem engineer is to protect the natural capital that remains intact, much like a sacred grove. For some that grove might be in the ocean, for others it might be a patch of native forest or your back yard. For me, it’s the community garden I volunteer at.

One mans Sacred Grove

By creating and protecting these groves we provide islands of biodiversity that will help those who inhabit the planet weather the storm that is upon us. There’s no doubt some of these sacred groves hold answers to questions we have yet to ask, but if we lose them then we’ll never know.

Sadly that won’t be enough to turn the tide.  Big business is running rife today heavily influencing public policy where they have no right to be; our diplomatic knees go weak at the prospect of wealth and re-election.  But these big businesses only exist to supply consumers, and you are a consumer. 

Task number two is to lead by example as a consumer. You have tremendous influence through your consumer purchasing power so why not use that influence for the benefit of mother earth?

Choose your World – Conscious Consumers NZ

One of my favourite sayings is ‘look past the label.’ Appreciate that most labels are a sales pitch designed to entice you to purchase. Do your own research and get to the bottom of things, satisfy your own ethics and principles. This concept naturally extends to the labels politicians apply to themselves to get your vote.

Still that also won’t be enough to turn the tide. We must enter a phase in our history where we do more with less. We must budget well and be frugal with our natural and financial capital. We must spend wisely.

It’s interesting to note that over 70% of the world’s food is produced by small farm holders. Industrial agriculture provides the remaining 30% and yet produces far more waste across far more land. We must do better.

Circular Economies

Your third task entails facilitating a radical change from the linear, often high input, Green Revolution models of industrial agriculture that currently dominate our landscapes. Instead we have to move towards integrated closed loop, or circular, models that leave little or no waste.

The term ‘circular economy’ [11] draws on the principles of nature and applies them to industrial economies. Natural systems produce no waste; they only produce by-products that are then cycled back into other systems. A circular economy seeks to achieve the same for its industrial base using the financial levers that drive that it.

Our financial systems also need to evolve so we can incentivise those who protect and build natural capital, those who contribute and integrate into a circular economy, and penalise those who don’t. By improving our management practices for industrial agriculture and the greater economies they serve, we provide a practical response to divisive topics such as climate change. We can respond in a way that is good for all, as it provides more for less, both economically and environmentally.

Rethinking progress – The Circular Economy

Heal yourself and your Community

With tasks one through three in play we might well be on our way to solving this planetary crisis. What remains is a more personal task of fueling our bodies and minds to last the journey. We must also look after ourselves.

We are all essentially children of nature but many of us find ourselves isolated from nature through modern constructs and concrete. These barriers often isolate us from our community as well and in many ways prove to be unbalancing.

Task four, treat yourself well, grow some of your own superior produce even if it’s just a few herbs, a small patch of spuds or a single fruit tree.  I’m a firm believer that we are what we eat and any produce can be a ‘superfood’ if you grow it well.

If we eat produce that’s full of the right minerals and vitamins, some call it nutrient dense produce, then we can build and maintain peak cellular health. With peak cellular health we feel better and we think better.  We’re also more capable of defending ourselves from disease.

Epigenetic scientists, those who study gene expression influenced by mechanisms other than changes in our underlying DNA, are beginning to demonstrate that aspects of our own health condition, that essentially come from what we eat and how we live, are passed on to our offspring, the next generation. So we will pass on good genes to the next generation of ‘ecosystem engineers’.

By developing your own sacred groves you can reconnect with nature and your community. Community orchards and food forests provide an ideal way to begin, and will build communities with greater solidarity and self-reliance.

I have first hand experience with community gardens, as a member and as an administrator. It continues to astound me how they can serve as community linchpins bringing neighbours from all walks of life together as a community. They are truly wondrous things.

Moving on and Moving in

If you’re interested in further exploring some of the challenges and concepts I’ve briefly covered, look to the references at the end of this publication. I highly recommend both the World Wildlife Foundation Living Planet Report [3] and the UN Trade and Environment Review [9] as good base level reading for the challenges at hand.

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World Wildlife Foundation Living Planet Report [2014]

I also want to stress that while permaculture is what I call what I do, there are folks out there fulfilling the same ecosystem engineer job description who don’t, and some have done so since well before the term permaculture was coined.

We don’t need to be precious about a label and the planet doesn’t care if we are permaculture practitioners, farmers, scientists or agro-ecologists. Over the years I have had the good fortune to learn and experience a wide range of production systems and I can tell you confidently the answers will come from everywhere and everyone.

My focus for this publication now turns back to the orchard, my training ground as a permaculture practitioner.


[3] Living Planet Report 2014, Species and spaces, people and places – A World Wildlife Report produced in collaboration with the Global Footprint Network, Water Footprint Network andthe Zoological Society of London – ISBN 978-2-940443-87-1

[4] Worm, B. Science, Nov. 3, 2006; vol 314: pp 787-790. News release, SeaWeb. News release, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

[5] Regarding planetary boundary framework research led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University at this Wiki

[6] Farm Managed Natural Regenerationhttp://fmnrhub.com.au Lesson the Loess Plateau – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjNDiBCb-mE and http://eempc.org/loess-plateau-watershed-rehabilitation-project/

Greening the Desert – http://permaculturenews.org/2007/03/01/greening-the-desert-now-on-youtube/

[7] For further reading on the essence of permaculture and explained in details see Dave Holmgrens permaculture principles work here http://permacultureprinciples.com/

[8] UN Trade and Environment Review 2013 – Wake up before it’s too late 
UNCTAD/DITC/TED/2012/3 United Nations Publication ISSN 1810-5432 – http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf

[9] “Identification of an Immune-Responsive Mesolimbocortical Serotonergic System: Potential Role in Regulation of Emotional Behavior,” by Christopher Lowry et al., published online on March 28, 2007 in Neuroscience.

[10] For the Sacred Groves of India see this Wiki

[11] For information on circular economy see this Wiki Also see Ellen Macarthur Foundation – http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/also ‘Towards a Circular Economy: Business Rationale for an Accelerated Transition’ – http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/TCE_Ellen-MacArthur-Foundation_9-Dec-2015.pdf