An Introduction to Permaculture

by Gregg Brazel

Permaculture is a design methodology that takes its cues from Earth's natural systems - how they organize, interact, coexist, cycle, and recycle.  Rather than attempting the impossible - conquering, controlling and manipulating the elements and other life forms - permaculturists create integrated structures, landscapes, and economies that work much like the planet's own perpetual systems.

The term "permaculture" was coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s as they were developing strategies to produce a stable agricultural system in their relentlessly arid outback.  Initially meaning "permanent agriculture", the definition was expanded to "permanent culture" as social norms have important implications for sustainability.  Mollison's Permaculture: A Designers' Manual is still the preeminent text on the subject.

why look to "low-tech" for design cues? 

What makes nature's systems supremely efficient?  Amazingly, there is almost no waste in nature (aside from heat loss from fires, decomposition, and other processes).  Summer leaves become next spring's compost.  Coastal fog is either absorbed by giant redwoods or burned off by the sun to regroup as east-bound clouds.  Animal and insect carcasses biodegrade and replenish soil nutrients for the micro-organisms at the base of the food chain.  Nothing is produced that does not serve a function and become a source of energy and raw materials at its death, powering the next generation of life.

So everything in the wild cycles and recycles.  Water as rain, snow, fog and condensation loops between the atmosphere and earth's surface, watering the flora and fauna, recharging lakes and streams, seeping into underground aquifers for long term storage, and evaporating back into the sky.  Plants and animals interact in ways that naturally produce balance and keep the system in check.  Ultimately, no link in the chain can become overly dominant as its food supply will dwindle, thus reducing the population of the organism that threatens the entire community.  Given this remarkable efficiency and admirable self-governance, there is still much to be learned from the wild.

ecosystem-services

To understand the enormous roles played by Earth's primal systems, we only need look at the economics.  It's estimated that the "ecosystem services" provided for "free" by our natural environment are valued at $33 trillion annually, or 2.5 times the US GDP.

"Ecosystem services are those fundamental life-supporting services - seemingly infinite and free - that we take for granted, such as purifying air to breathe, water to drink, and providing fertile soil to produce the food we eat. We are even less aware of the other services that ecosystems provide: pollination, dispersal of seeds, climate stabilization, flood protection, erosion prevention, decomposition, detoxification, maintenance of biodiversity, control of agricultural pests, and carbon sequestration, to name a few." [Quaker Earthcare]

Replacing even part of these "services" with synthetic alternatives will simply be unaffordable.  Not only must we work to preserve existing systems, we should expand on them by incorporating the "no waste" model into our own design strategies, thus reducing energy and material usage, pollution, and a host of other systemic problems.

adapting nature's strategies to human culture

Earth is now home to 6.6 billion humans (a 400% increase in the past 100 years) and rising.  At the same time, the prevailing political and economic ideology is of perpetual exponential growth.  Assuming a modest annual growth rate of 3%, in one hundred years we will be consuming 18 times (1.0399 = 18.7) the energy and materials that we use today.  And unlike nature's continuous cycle, the developed world's pattern of usage and consumption is mostly linear.  That is, raw materials are taken from a finite supply, used for some increasingly short-term purpose, then sequestered in an anaerobic landfill, ending the useful life of all the mass and embodied energy of these discarded resources.  We might reasonably question the mid- to long-term feasibility of the project of human civilization under such conditions.

As witnessed by the scars on landscape from the last 200 years of industrialization, it's apparent that this pattern cannot continue indefinitely.  The belief that technology will come to the rescue in the nick of time is held by many people with near-religious fervor.  However, looking at the correlation between technology and resource usage, we see parallel lines that continually trend higher.  Technology is often mistaken as energy, but the two are entirely separate and different.

Permaculture provides the solution to these problems by placing man back into the natural world and providing a new (old) perception of what is important in this life.  It rearranges priorities, provides balance, and turns neo-classical economics on its head.  While the central bankers and Wall Street traders loathe change, a new paradigm is undoubtedly in the cards.  We can thrash and tumble like driftwood in a tsunami to some unknown shore, or we can design and be prepared for a better future.  Permaculture is one of our options that deserves serious consideration. 

 

permanent agricultural

It's instructive that the most beautiful landscapes on the planet develop and thrive with no human intervention.  As opposed to the sterile mono-cultures of suburban landscapes and industrial agriculture, nature's gardens are complex, interactive systems that self-organize around existing conditions and opportunity.  Weeds will move into barren or disturbed landscapes where nothing else will grow.  The weeds proceed to break up tough soil, retain rainwater and lower soil temperature.  They scatter leaves - producing compost and mulch - and create rich soil humus with their root structures.  With these amendments, the landscape is tolerable for the next round of life - shrubs, herbs, flowers, insects, birds - to enter, and before long, trees and mammals will appear on the site.  All of this accomplished without tilling, irrigation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides; the only energy inputs coming from free and ever-present wind and sun.

In contrast, modern industrial agriculture goes by the name "agribusiness."  This is more than just semantics: the culture has literally been removed from the process.  Single-plant crops covering acres are grown in soil that has been sterilized with toxins and refortified with synthetic fertilizer. 

Mono-cultured plants and petro-chemical supplements result in soil depletion, erosion, toxic runoff, groundwater contamination and reduced bio-diversity.  Neighboring crops and wildlife are killed from overspray.  Fossil fuels power the production and long-range transport of our food supply.  Pesticides and herbicides are made from oil, while the nitrogen-based fertilizer is derived from "natural gas" (methane). Given the world's rising energy demands and depleting reserves, this arrangement is increasingly tentative. 

lost knowledge base

In the past 100 years, the US has gone from a population where 50% farm to 2% today.  And of those that farm, most work in "agribusiness", where agriculture, in a true sense, is not practiced.  In other words, we are losing a knowledge base that has built up over the past 10,000 years.  In the case of a major disruption in energy markets, or other destabilizing event that causes a breakdown in the centralized food supply system, it is imperative that this knowledge be retained to ensure food security.  This goal, too, is accomplished through permaculture's agricultural strategies.

food & energy

Most people believe oil and natural gas to be finite materials deposited by the decay and compression of ancient plant and animal life.   So, once we use the last of it, the supply is gone for a few million years.   However, the global oil spigot will probably not go from "on" to "off" in an instant.  It is likely that we will experience a production peak, after which extraction will go into steep decline.

For obvious economic reasons, the "cheap oil" is extracted first.  That is the stuff that lies close to the surface, in regions of relative political stability, and is inexpensive to refine.  Looking around, it appears we may have already reached the peak.  As I write this, wars of dubious motive are being fought on top of the world's largest oil and methane fields.  A new facility is being built in East Chicago, Indiana, to process "tar sands" from Canada.  Without elaborate explanation, let's just say that this is not high quality product.  At some point, the energy to extract, refine, distribute and defend a barrel of oil exceeds the energy in the fuel coming out of the pump.  When (not if) that happens, there will still be billions of barrels of oil in the ground, but no point in retrieving it (more on peak oil can be found here).

As we know, modern agriculture is highly dependent upon fossil fuels; factory farms simply cannot operate without huge inputs of petro-chemicals.  Many experts also agree that the demand for fossil fuel is now outstripping supply.   Making matters worse, if the giant "bio-diesel" hoax is pulled off on a large scale, it will become a resource black-hole, consuming energy, land, forests, water and tax dollars to maintain the national dependence on automobiles and semi-trailers.

The time to start planning an alternate strategy to feed ourselves is now.

 


 

permaculture in architecture, design and construction

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resources

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