PERMACULTURE: Time for a fresh approach to environmentalism

PHOTO: Permaculture design in the social mainstream: a classroom largely of recycled building material designed by permaculture-educated architect, Terry Bail, at a local government community centre in Sydney.

PERMACULTURE’s relationship with the environment movement has been fraught at times. There has been criticism of the environmentalist approach to change just as there has been a hesitancy about permaculture expressed by environmental organisations.

This became clear to me back in the nineties when I went to work as community liaison with Greening Australia, the federally-funded but independent national environmental agency managing the Billion Trees Program. On my first day on the job the manager said to me, “I don’t know if permaculture is of any value to what we are doing”.

I knew that many, most, probably, environmentalists at the time did not regard permaculture as an approach to environmental improvement. Or, if they did, they did not regarded it as being in the environmental mainstream. In part, this was because the Permaculture Design Certificate, the main entry to the design system for those serious about it, at the time was focused more on the design of rural smallholdings. This some saw as a contradiction because most Australians, including most environmetnalists, lived in cities. Most had no aspiration for the rural life. All the land most would have to develop would the their urban backyard.

The comment made to me by that manager at Greening Australia signified the ambivalence the then-politically strong movement held towards the permaculture design system. It was an attitude that would continue to crop up over the years as some in the Landcare movement, which was a predominately rural movement, would clash with permaculture practitioners over land management issues such a weeds on farmland.

So, where does permaculture fit into the broad environment movement, if it does at all? To figure that out we need to look environmentalism as a continuum spanning the distance from the biocentrism of Deep Ecology to the reformism of light green environmentalism.

More than opposition

If mainstream environmentalism was reticent when it came to permaculture, permaculture returned the favour in its reticence towards the environment movement.

Bill Mollison, co-founder with David Holmgren of the permaculture design system at the end of the seventies, warned its followers that the environmentalist focus on opposition, on campaigning against what they did not want to see, took their focus away from creating those things they did want to see happen.

In other words, Bill positioned environmentalism as a reactive and oppositional social movement focused on stopping the schemes of government and industry. In contrast, he situated permaculture as a social movement building its preferred future, though there existed no articulated, agreed picture of that future other than that summed up in permaculture’s three ethics – care of planet, care of people and sharing of excess recourses.

Permaculture’s preferred future remains a hazy concept, but given the environmental, economic and social dynamics of the present time that might be a good thing. Like any mutually exclusive duality, the truth was that environmentalism and permaculture have leaky margins and there is considerable crossover between the two.

Bill’s statements about the campaigning approach of the environment movement of the 1990s formed the basis for a criticism of campaigning as a means to change that has persisted within permaculture. It led to a critique of environmentalism and the movement around it that you still hear today htough less so than in the past. Yet, without an environment movement acting in direct confrontation to government and corporate interests, Tasmania’s Franklin River would be a hydroelectric impoundment rather than a wilderness, tourism feature and venue for adventure sports. North Queensland’s tropical rainforests would be sawn timber planks rather than a biome whose main attraction to visitors is its naturalness and wildness.

Most in permaculture know this and the criticism of those earlier days has mellowed somewhat. Even at the time, Bill and others influential in permaculture acknowledged the value of the environment movement. The critique of environmental campaigning was superimposed over the knowledge that it was necessary to safeguarding significant environmental assets. This created something of a cognitive dissonance in permaculture.

Many in permaculture sympathised with the environmental campaigners and realised their actions were necessary to preventing the loss of biologically-valuable natural systems. They also knew that permaculture lacked the capacity for the coordinated rapid action that the environment movement was capable of. With its philosophy of small and slow solutions practitioners realised permaculture had very limited capacity to respond to the big and rapid schemes of government and industry.

Bill’s statements were about the environment movement as it existed in the 1980s and the 1990's. However, the movement has changed in a way he would have perhaps been more comfortable with. Those where the days when ‘big environmentalism’, the big, national environmental organisations, grew from their humble beginnings as small organisations. The Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation are examples. The movement succeeded in its quest for political influence at the state and federal level and the natural environment rose to a high position among voter concerns.

A deeper shade of green

As the environment movement grew and matured it gave birth to different schools of thought or shades of green. One of these was the Deep Ecology of Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess. The philosophy was articulated in Australia by the then-Lismore-based John Seed at the Rainforest Information Centre. John’s activism to in protecting rainforest has been long-running, dating back to the time when northern NSW’s Terania Creek and other subtropical rainforests were threatened by loggers. That – Terania Creek – was another environmental success story that today preserves the region’s forests.

Interest in Deep Ecology peaked in the 1990s. It postulated that nature should be the controlling influence on human development and in its own way reiterated the oft-quoted statement of Henry David Thoreau: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world”.

Deep Ecology was a philosophical underpinning to the Earth First! movement. Popularised in the novels of US wilderness advocate, Edwin Abbey (the most galvanising was The Monkey Wrench Gang, a tale of a mixed bunch of eco-saboteurs), it formed a philosophical basis of radical environmentalism at that time. Deep Ecology was never a numerically significant part of Australia’s environment movement although its ideas gained some influence. That movement, mostly, was politically reformist in nature, seeking to reduce the impact of extractive industries.

Deep Ecology is nature-centric while permaculture in human-centric, or anthropocentric. None less than co-inventor of the permaculture design system, David Holmgren has pointed out this reality.

Permaculture is essentially about development, but development of a kind that integrates nature into its landuse designs, reintegrates it as a component of urban centres and that, through designing intensive production systems that occupy less physical space in the landscape, would allow more space for nature to follow its own evolution as a component of integrated landuse design.

Whereas environmentalists sometimes fence off natural systems to keep people out, permaculture avoids the fences as treats remnant natural systems as functional landscape components. They are included in design, not set aside for ‘protection’. It takes a design-thinking rather than the environmentally-segregationist approach of many in bushland regeneration and environmental restoration that sees nature and human settlement as separate, largely-irreconcilable entities.

As an anthropocentric design system, permaculture might have some sympathies with Deep Ecology but there is a substantial philosophical divide between the two.

Not quite light green either

Whereas Deep Ecology is biocentric, light green is reformist.

Light green is the term sometimes applied to those who see environmental values being achieved by tweaking the existing socio-economic system. They seek economic value in environmental initiatives like the development of ecotourism or opening new markets in environmental technology such as renewable energy. Those, too, figure in deep ecological thinking, however they are where light green environmentalism stops.

While Deep Ecology sees the value of nature as being intrinsic, as nature being valuable in itself, the light green approach is environmentalism as market-friendly, as instrumental. The light green motivation for preserving an area of bushland, for example, might be for its environmental services like water filtration and education whereas Deep Ecology would see it as being valuable in its own right, and environmental services being a secondary benefit stemming from its preservation.

Light green environmentalism can certainly be part of permaculture because it does offer market value. Tourism around some natural feature, for example, would bring visitor expenditure into a regional economy and might even have a spin-off in job and small business creation. That in itself would reinforce the value of the natural system to the region and increase willingness to preserve it in good condition. We see this today in places like Tasmania, with its mountains and cool temperate rainforests, and in other places. There, small businesses ahve sprung up around adventure sports and the state’s national parks service has monetarised its lands through the sale of national parks passes and fees for the main walking tracks.

A bit of this, a bit of that and something more

If we really have to apportion a shade of green to permaculture, and I hesitate to do that, then I would call it ‘bright green’.

Wikipedia has a useful entry on the term:

“The term bright green, first coined in 2003 by writer Alex Steffen, refers to the fast-growing new wing of environmentalism, distinct from traditional forms. Bright green environmentalism aims to provide prosperity in an ecologically sustainable way through the use of new technologies and improved design.
“Proponents promote and advocate for green energy, electric automobiles, efficient manufacturing systems, bio and nanotechnologies, ubiquitous computing, dense urban settlements, closed loop materials cycles and sustainable product designs. ‘One-planet living’ is a commonly used phrase. Their principal focus is on the idea that through a combination of well-built communities, new technologies and sustainable living practices, quality of life can actually be improved even while ecological footprints shrink.
“Around the middle of the century we’ll see global population peak at something like 9 billion people, all of whom will want to live with a reasonable amount of prosperity, and many of whom will want, at the very least, a European lifestyle. They will see escaping poverty as their nonnegotiable right, but to deliver that prosperity at our current levels of efficiency and resource use would destroy the planet many times over. We need to invent a new model of prosperity, one that lets billions have the comfort, security, and opportunities they want at the level of impact the planet can afford. We can’t do that without embracing technology and better design.”
…Wikipedia –

On technology, science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson put it this way:

“Many of the technologies we’ve invented are necessary to keep 6.5 billion people alive. We can’t go back from that, so we need to decarbonize really rapidly.”

Even in that Wikipedia definition of bright green environmentalism there are tensions with permaculture. In part, that is because permaculture is a melange of attitudes towards the environment that draws on both light green environmentalism as well as Deep Ecology, more the former when it comes to designing and implementing systems that include people. In permaculture, people are included in the term ‘nature’ as they are expressions of nature on this planet.

Complicating its attitude towards environmentalism of whatever shade, permaculture recognises the reality that we now live in the Anthropocene, the age of human domination of the Earth and of natural systems in which roughly some 75 percent of the planetary land surface is used by humans.

Natural systems exist where human landuse sets aside niches for it – remnant bushland, lands of no commercial value like deserts and cold polar regions (where they do not contain oil and gas reserves below the surface), swampland, steep mountains (though the mountains are used by traditional cultures for transhumance, hunting and other purposes), nature reserves and national parks. Even the natural systems of national parks cannot expand beyond their boundaries because human landuse planning limits their presence to those reserves. We could describe them as ‘confined nature’.

Recognising the contemporary world in this way, permaculture seeks to create space for nature within its landuse design for country and city. This is different to the biocentrism of Deep Ecology and the pragmatism of light green environmentalism.

I think that science fiction/speculative futures author, Kim Stanley Robinson, gets it right:

“I don’t think of myself as a humanist in the usual definition, but I’m definitely not a believer in deep ecology either. I don’t like the Ludditeism and antihumanism of deep ecology.
“I call myself a shallow ecologist. We’re completely part of the biosphere and networked with, and our health is dependent on it.
“But Gary Snyder among others has taught me that the nature-culture divide is a blurry, unnatural divide; we’re interpolated with the planet. The more we learn, the more we realize we’re ‘bubbles of earth.’
“But we’re also its self-consciousness. We’re its most articulate language speakers. We’re the ones who can mess things up really badly.
“I can’t go with the part of the environmental movement that is antitechnological. We’re so technological. I’ve been thinking about this and trying to look at if from a different angle. Can we find a balance, a way of doing things by the use of science and technology and political cleverness, that we could get to permaculture?”
Source: Boom magazine.

Robinson is one of the most articulate thinkers when it comes to our shared future and his depth of philosophical thinking on permaculture exceeds that of a great many who identify as being practitioners of the movement. He sees value in permaculture but whereas some in the movement shy away from humanity’s basic technological nature – the history of humanity and technology is one of co-evolution – Robinson grasps it as do other proponents of bright green environmentalism. He is also right that Deep Ecology can often create a sense of separation between humanity and nature in the same way that other strands of environmental thinking do, whereas Robinson and permaculture see them as the same thing.

Maybe permaculture’s is not an exact fit, even an uncomfortable fit with bright green environmentalism. The bright green is a future that engages with technology, markets, science, and not all who practice or who have some affinity with permaculture are comfortable with those things. Some would prefer nothing more than tending their own vegetable garden while they let the world go on. That sort of isolation, though, is no route to a resilient future because hermits have never changed anything. You need to cooperate with other people to do that.

Environmentalism as a philosophy has matured since the days when big environmentalism was born. Much of it has been institutionalised in practices such as environmental impact assessment, waste management and recycling, water conservation, regenerative agriculture, environmental law and renewable energy.

Now might be the time for permaculture to look at how it can reengage with environmentalism in a way that does not artificially separate humanity from nature but integrates people, land and cities in a fresh approach to developing resilient design solutions in the Anthropocene.