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Permaculture And Its Future

by Jared Krebsbach

What is permaculture?What Is Permaculture? A New Paradigm

Although permaculture has been around for nearly forty years, most people are not familiar with it and those who are often view it as a fad form of gardening.

A closer examination of permaculture reveals that it is more than a fad and in the decades that it has existed, it has become not just a source of food for many people, but also a way of life and a philosophy that it as complex and varied as the crops that adherents of permaculture grow.

For one to truly understand permaculture it is perhaps best to view food production and consumption through a new lens or a different paradigm as permaculture people do. Once permaculture is viewed from a different perspective then its importance today and in the future will be more fully comprehended. Before the future of permaculture is considered a brief background of its origins and how it is practiced is warranted.

The Origins and Background of Modern Permaculture

As stated above, permaculture is much more than just a style of gardening; it is world view, a weltanschauung, which endeavors to combine ideas of design with ecology. Essentially, it is a philosophy that takes into account how humans affect their environment through consumption and ultimately aims to preserve various resources that include but are not limited to the following: energy, space/land, plants, animals, and water just to name a few. In practice, permaculture is most visible in gardening and small-scale farming, but it is not limited to those enterprises. Since the philosophy behind permaculture is organic, like the practice, it is always evolving, but its origins can be definitively traced to Australia in the late 1960s.

The philosophy of permaculture was born in the 1960s counter-culture of Australia where it was heavily influenced by the “back to the land movement.” Early adherents believed that they should practice what they preached in terms of an organic lifestyle and so began to form small farms and gardening collectives that they called “permanent agriculture,” which is the genesis of the term permaculture. The permaculture philosophy truly came to fruition when its ideas and practices were articulated by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in their 1978 book, Permaculture I: Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. The vision that Mollison and Holmgren articulated in their book caught on with a sizable segment of the counter-culture population who then formed locally based collectives, which in turn networked with each other. By the 1980s the permaculture philosophy had become a world-wide phenomenon as collectives and gardens could be found on nearly every continent.

Permaculture in Practice

In order to truly understand the significance of permaculture a brief survey of how it is practiced is needed. Although permaculture is utilized in a number of different fashions, the most popular and well-known manner is gardening and small-scale farming. As stated above, one of the core principles of permaculture is conservation of energy and resources. In terms of food production, this means that those who practice permaculture often advocate the consumption of raw foods since they require far less energy to prepare. Permaculture farms also focus on the idea of regeneration, which means for instance that tree and shrub lines are allowed to grow as habitat for wild animals. Permaculture farms do not necessarily have to be “off the grid,” but practitioners are ever mindful of the amount of power they use in day to day functions. Because of this, many permaculture farms are powered by wind, solar, and hydro power as those methods tend to use less energy, release no harmful chemicals into the environment, and are not intrusive to local wildlife. The key idea is to reach a symbiotic state with the environment, which is also apparent in the manner in which food is produced on permaculture farms and gardens.

Permaculture gardening and small-scale farming employs a number of techniques in order to produce food that is not only grown free of chemicals — often known as “organic” food — but also done in a manner that works in concert with the natural environment. One of the first methods that permaculture gardeners use is allowing the soil to “live.” Permaculture adherents view the soil as an essential part of the overall environment, which includes all of the worms and bugs that live in it. Worms especially are a life giving source as they add vital nutrients to the soil. Because of this permaculture gardens and farms limit the amount of digging but use a lot of mulch instead, because it requires less water and therefore less energy and resources. Permaculture farms and gardens also practice the crop-rotation technique, which has been employed throughout history for well over 1,000 years. In the crop rotation method a certain crop is grown in the first plot, the second plot contains another crop, and the third plot is fallow or used for livestock grazing. The crop rotation method allows the soil to naturally replenish the vital nutrients needed in order to keep growing decent crops. The symbiotic philosophy towards nature also extends to fertilizers and pesticides in permaculture.

In modern society insecticides, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides have become a ubiquitous part, not just of large-scale farming, but also in small, backyard gardens. Permaculture eschews these practices in favor of more environmentally friendly methods that may take more work, but yield healthier crops. Natural fertilizers, from animal manure and carcasses, are used in permaculture and harmful insects are dealt with in a similar way. Certain plants and flowers, such as onions and marigolds, deter different harmful insects so those are planted alongside other crops as “companion plants.” Again, this method takes a little more work and research than simply spraying a pesticide over the crops, but permaculture advocates argue that the end result is more beneficial to both humans and the environment. Permaculture adherents also take a different view towards weeds than the average gardener or farmer. To most people weeds are a problem and something to be eliminated, but permaculture advocates see some weeds as good and something that should be lived with instead of wasting valuable resources in a losing effort to eliminate them. None of the methods that are employed in permaculture are new and in fact permaculture is in many ways much older than the counter-culture from which it was derived.

Pre-Modern Inspirations of Permaculture

Many practitioners of permaculture point to various indigenous cultures throughout the world as inspirations for their way of life: the Australian Aborigines, American Indian tribes, and the reindeer herding Sami people of the Arctic Circle are just three peoples who have influenced the modern permaculture philosophy. Some more erudite permaculture adherents point out that most people practiced some form of permaculture before the advent of modern technology and the transition from rural to urban living in the last 100 years.

One only has to briefly look at world history to see that there is some credence in that view. The ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians used the life-giving powers of the rivers they lived on over 5,000 years ago to create the first true human civilizations through both irrigation and transportation. The ancient Chinese and Japanese built wonderful, terraced rice paddy fields that fed millions of people and the Incas performed a similar feat in the Andean highlands over 500 years ago. Even the basic idea of crop rotation, as mentioned briefly above, was an idea that was first formulated during the Carolingian Empire in Western Europe over 1,000 years ago. All of these pre-modern peoples practiced permaculture to some extent as they produced food in a manner that was in equilibrium with the surrounding environment. Truly, permaculture has a history that actually pre-dates its name; but what does that future hold for permaculture?

The Future Potential of Permaculture

The popularity of permaculture in modern society appears to be growing for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons why more people are turning to permaculture is the increase and influence of large-scale farming operations that use genetically modified foods. Although the companies that grow genetically modified foods contend that they are safe and that they have to use them in order to keep up with the exponential growth of the world’s population, many remain critical and have turned to organic markets for their food. Many organic markets are stocked with food from permaculture gardens and farms, which gives an economic justification for permaculture in modern society. Other people who are suspicious of genetically modified food have begun to try their hand at permaculture farming, which many find is cheaper in the long-term than buying all their food from a grocery store. Permaculture practitioners also argue that the philosophy has made them more independent and self-reliant.

Some permaculture adherents point out that any major disruption of the nation’s food supply means that within three days the shelves at grocery stores will be empty. Although most permaculture gardeners and farmers are not preparing for the apocalypse, they state that in the event of natural disasters and prolonged civil disorder their personal food supplies will be fine. Most point out that this is just a subset of the overall permaculture philosophy; people should learn to rely more on nature and the ecosystem than on governments and corporations –after all governments and corporations rise and fall but nature is permanent. It is evident that for a number of reasons the permaculture philosophy will continue to grow and be an important of modern society.

Works Cited

Bell, Graham. The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps to Create a Self-Sustaining World. London: Thorsons, 1992. Print.

Crosby, Alexandra Lara, Jacquie Lorder-Kasunic, and Ilaria Vanni Accarigi. “Value the Edge: Permaculture as Counterculture in Australia.” M/C Journal 17.6 (2014): 1. Web. July. 2015.

Fazzino, David. “The Meaning and Relevance of Food Security in the Context of Current Globalization Trends.” Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law 19.2 (2004): 435 450. Print.

Permaculture Association. “The Basics.” The Permaculture Association. n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

Permaculture “What is Permaculture?” n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

About The Author

Jared Krebsbach

Jared Krebsbach earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Memphis in 2012. His dissertation focused on political and religious change in ancient Egypt and his work has been published in academic journals. Krebsbach has brought his knowledge and love of history to countless people as he has taught both world and American history at the college level for over eight years. More recently, Krebsbach has by-line a number of both academic and popular historical articles.