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Permaculture - new paradigms for a sustainable way of life

It is easy to get down about the way things are going in the big, wide world out there - ever growing levels of pollution as world population grows and everybody is clambering for ‘a better living’, which seems to be achieved by accumulatingever more 'stuff' designed for the landfill. Resources are dwindling and fierce wars are fought over rare metals in far off places. Those on the frontlines of these wars will likely never benefit directly from the riches of their land, but are paid just pennies for risking their lives.

Even supposedly democratic governments seem to have forgotten that they are meant to be serving the people, not rule them as subjects of a plutocracy.
It is easy to lose hope and resign oneself to ‘that’s just the way it is’ and get on with life. One person alone can’t do much anyway, so why bother worrying about anything, right? Might as well just enjoy the ride, play the game and try to keep a jolly face.

Wrong! It doesn’t have to be that way. Things are changing, quietly and persistently. A movement is growing, resilient, strong and healing, sprouting at the grass-roots level, from one community to the another.


It has been said that the next revolution will be fought in our gardens, and I am beginning to see it that way, too. This non-violent, quiet revolution is called ‘Permaculture’, and it is slowly, but surely spreading, not just across the country, but across the entire globe.
Some of you may have heard of it. Sometimes referred to as the ‘no-dig’ system of gardening, conventional growers, even organic growers, tend to dismiss it as a naive and impractical way to feed the millions of hungry mouths around the world. Perhaps that would be true if the aim was to merely replace industrial farms with permaculture farms and continue with the same economic system that we have been locked into for centuries. But clearly, that is not the answer. It has gotten us into the mess we are currently sitting in.

Industrial farming is on the brink of collapse. Soils are depleted, ecosystems are badly degraded and the ‘working paradigm’ is based on war against nature, war against insects and other ‘competitors’, to get maximum yield for maximum profit. Nutritional value, tasteor diversity don’t seem to come into the equation. Instead of using heirloom varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases and adaptable to different climate conditions, agro-industrialists merely produce ‘biomass’.

To that end seeds are engineered to withstand spraying with toxic pesticides and herbicides - with the predictable result of also breeding resistant ‘competitors’ - weeds and insects that can no longer be kept in check with the conventional chemical weapons that agricultural industry has been relying on in the past. Stronger poisons are needed - but where will they come from? And how will they affect wildlife, and how will they affect our own health and nutrition? Well - I’ll leave you to imagine that.

The paradigms of permaculture are not based on maximum yield for maximum profit, but on abundance, and on co-operation and sharing. It is based on restoring, rather than exploiting ecosystems. The emphasis is on ‘thinking globally and acting locally’ - If excessive yields are produced, these can be sold on the national or international markets, but first, lets produce local food for local people.

Presently the market is based on exploitative cash crop economies in ‘developing’ countries: communities are disenfranchised, their land is ‘grabbed’ by multi-nationals and turned into cash crop monocultures - like palm oil, or coffee, or bananas and a host of other items. Peasants are left with no land, or even the time to grow enough food to feed themselves. Instead they depend on the pennies they earn for their labour in this ‘feudal’ system that has its roots in colonial times.

We can’t change the whole world at once, but we can start in our own back yards. We can create cooperative permaculture farms and yards, sharing yields with neighbors and friends and thus reduce our reliance on industrial agriculture that brings us products flown half-way around the world to fill our supermarket shelves with the same stuff all year round. Think globally - grow locally.


How is Permaculture different from Organic Farms?

Permaculture design is fundamentally different from any conventional agricultural, even organic farming, in that it seeks to imitate and cooperate with nature. Bill Mollison, regarded as one of the fathers of Permaculture, summerised its philosophy in three ethical paradigms and 12 principles.

The ethical paradigms speak for themselves: care for the earth, care for people and fair share.

The 12 principle of permaculture need a little bit more of an explanation:

1. Observe and Interact:
Permaculture seeks to work with nature. The gardener observes and tries to understand the processes at work in a given habitat, then interacts with these to fortify some features and maybe discourage or relay others.
2. Catch and Store Energy
Resource management is a crucial aspect of the system - water, as well as compost are crucial resources. By recycling grey water and building catchment areas for rain water, water can be harvested and retained instead losing it by allowing it to run off.
Likewise, biomass is returned to the soil in the form of compost and mulch. The continuous process of nurturing the soil restores its vitality. Instead of becoming depleted it is invigorated and restored.
3. Obtain a Yield
Permaculture is not intended as ‘self-sacrifice’. We all need to live and our ‘input’ must produce some kind of truly worthwhile ‘output’. In an ideal world our gardens will supply all our needs, but it is limiting to think of yield only in terms of ‘products’. Aesthetics or relaxation can also be ‘a yield’.
4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
In a world of limited resources we need to strive for balance and ensure that not only our own, present needs are met, but also that the needs of generations yet to come can also be met - as well as taking the ecosystem as whole (with all its interacting species) into consideration. The aim of permaculture is to produce abundance - but not just for ourselves, but for all the species that share in our space. The longterm effects of our actions may take a while to manifest. We should always observe and respond to ‘feedback’ and be prepared to change our ways if the effects in the long run turn out to be damaging to one or the other part of the system as a whole.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
Nature supplies us with everything we need. Make use of all the resources that are already available, share and trade resources, and upcycle or repurpose things that are already at your disposal instead of buying new.
6. Produce No Waste
As an extension to the 5th principle, consider the waste impact of everything you buy or produce. Kitchen scraps can be composted, but what about all the plastics inIf it can’t be recycled, reused, repaired or repurposed it is ultimately designed for the waste dump. Aim for 0 waste.
7. Design From Patterns to Details
Before we start working on a plot consider the patterns that are at work - the seasons and weather pattern, the geological patterns and features. Clever design can save work by utilising whatever is available to maximum effect. Focus first on the overall patterns, then fill in the details.
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
Nature does not produce monocultures, which leave crops vulnerable to pests and diseases. Instead, it creates eco-systems that thrive as a whole. The pests of one plant are the benefactors of another. The balance is kept somewhat in check as neither becomes dominant if the garden or farm has been established to produce abundance and diversity.
In Permaculture garden plots are not planted in monoculture fashion, but form plant communities composed of diverse species that can thrive together within the garden ecosystem.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
We naturally think that we need big solutions to deal with big problems. But very often the opposite is true - especially when it comes to gardening. The earth is made up of gazillion micro-environments which call for special adaptations rather than a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Smaller scale also means more manageable.
10. Use and Value Diversity
Diversity is a key concept of permaculture. In nature conditions are constantly changing and organisms respond by adaptation. Species have evolved to thrive in different conditions. We never know what sort of weather we will have during the growing season - and with the effects of climate change weather extremes have become the norm, rather than the exception. The best way to safeguard food security is to plan for these extremes by planting different varieties of the same thing. If one does not do well that year, another may thrive. Our food security depends on diversity - not on a few patented seeds that are specially manipulated to be resistant only to the chemical weapons of industrial agriculture.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
The margins are where things get interesting and where different elements can interact and adapt. In nature marginal environments are often the most interesting and most diverse. Socially, the edge is where new ideas are born.
Creatively Use and Respond to Change
Change is the only constant. By anticipating change rather than resisting it we can use it as an opportunity and adapting to the challenge.

The 12 principles of permaculture apply to small or large scale horticultural projects and even to large scale ecosystem restoration. But permaculture is not only about food. It is ultimately about ecology, which includes human ecology - in other words, human/nature interactions. It is about restoring the integrity of the web of life of which we are, but one strand among many.

How Permaculture can save Humanity and the earth, but not civilization

Green Gold - John D. Liu

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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.


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