Ever since the beginning of our culture, when people switched from a nomadic foraging lifestyle to a sedentary farming lifestyle in the Fertile Crescent about 10,000 years ago, humans had a hard time adapting to this new way of life.
Agriculture, it seemed, and human settlement itself was tantamount to starting a war against Nature. Author Daniel Quinn wrote:
What man build up, the wind and rain tore down.
The fields he cleared for his crops and his villages, the jungle fought to reclaim.
The seeds he sowed, the birds snatched away.
The shoots he nurtured, the insects nibbled.
The harvest he stored, the mice plundered.
The animals he bred and fed, the wolves and foxes stole away.
The mountains, the rivers, and the oceans stood in their places and would not make way for him.
The earthquake, the flood, the hurricane, the blizzard, and the drought would not disappear at his command.
Because of this endless battle it seems obvious to us that humans are not the ‘divinely appointed rulers’ of this planet and can’t do with it whatever they want. The world doesn’t meekly submit to human rule, it defies us – which is why we think it is wrong to do gardening “against” Nature (like f.e. conventional agriculture which uses chemical poisons against it’s ‘enemy’). It is futile to think this battle can ever be won.
Permaculture is gardening with Nature, learning and understanding how Nature works, what she wants, accepting her, and trying to compromise and work together so that the both of you are happy.
In any place with enough rain it is easy to find out what Nature really wants. Leave a piece of land untouched and observe for some decades or centuries, and you will see that Nature always thrives to be rainforest. If you leave any piece of land untouched, it will eventually turn into rainforest, so we can say that this is what Nature wants – and what she does, if we leave her alone. First come the pioneer plants that improve the soil, then, when enough biomass is accumulated, small shrubs and trees will begin to grow, that will make way for ever bigger trees and an ever bigger variety of living beings in general. Even lakes turn over centuries and millennia into forests again – first organic material fills the lake up as sediment, and turns it into a swamp and then a moor, which is extremely rich in soil nutrients, making it the optimal place for a new forest to evolve.
We like Nature’s plan, and we can not only live with it, we want to help her achieving it! Permaculture means working hand in hand with Nature, so we help turning our piece of land into a stable ecosystem (=a forest) even faster, and in exchange we will have an extraordinarily high presence of fruit trees and edible plants in general.
We are not alone on this planet, there are billions of other species that all want to live and be part of this great adventure that we’re all partaking in. We don’t try to reduce the number of those fellow species, we don’t try to wipe them out or banish them from our garden. We are willing to share with them, so that they, too, can continue to coexist with us and preserve the abundance of life on this planet.
Agriculture makes those ‘competing’ insect and plant species an enemy to be stamped out with chemical warfare, just to gain 5-10% more profit. We give the insects their fair share and take for us what’s left – which is usually more than enough.
Contrary to popular opinion, permaculture is not only sustainable, it is regenerative. To understand what this means we first have to take a closer look on what ‘sustainable’ means. The Oxford Dictionary defines it with being “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level“. That basically means that you can do something over and over and over again, if the conditions permit it. But it also means that if something is sustainable, it doesn’t get better (or worse). So it is actually not all that good.
Toby Hemenway said about this:
“Just imagine someone asks you, ‘How’s your marriage?’ and you answer ‘Oh, well, it’s sustainable…’. It’s not all that good!”
‘Degenerative’ are destructive things, like factories, dams, cars, airplanes, that do damage to the ecosystem.
‘Regenerative’, on the other hand, are things that improve the environment, that make things better than they are. Nature is the best example for a regenerative system.
Humanity’s actions have been degenerative for the last 10,000 years; basically since we started converting our surroundings into fellow human beings through agriculture. But more on that later. The really destructive phase in our degenerative history began with the industrial revolution and accelerated ever since.
Because civilization has an undeniable degenerative tendency right now, it seems important for us that our goal should not only be sustainability, but to engage in regenerative activities, as to repair the damage we’ve inflicted on the planet so far (or at least give Nature some time to recover).
A simplified example for sustainability could be an organic farm that grows 100 kg tomatoes, sells them and buys 100 kg compost to replace the lost nutrition with. For the sake of this argument we forget about factors like insects, weather, and seasons, so the whole process of growing and selling and growing again can be repeated indefinitely.
“Sustainable development” is another one of those confusing words that sound positive, but are under closer inspection not all that good. The United Nations define “sustainable development” as a “form of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. This is very squishy phrasing, since the word ‘development’ itself is a fancy term for ‘environmental destruction’, and the definition of ‘needs’ is clearly up to the individual. There are people that claim they “need” oversized SUV’s because they have a big family. There are others who “need” their skinny vanilla latte at Starbucks to get through their boring and exhausting working day. So without further definitions of the word ‘need’, it is open what “sustainable development” really means.
But sustainability aside.
Permaculture in itself is regenerative.
Permaculture uses techniques that take Nature as a role model (you won’t find monocultures in the jungle) and makes Nature an ally instead of an enemy. Permaculture doesn’t sustain the land, it improves it. Instead of repeatedly using chemical fertilizers for a short-term boost, it makes the soil itself better, inviting earthworms and using nitrogen-fixing plants to improve soil fertility in the long run.
Permaculture is, in contrast to agriculture, not only about taking, but also about giving.
We don’t only want to be sustainable, we want to be regenerative. Our land used to be a palm oil plantation, one of the worst examples of a monoculture. Since the beginning of our work here in 2012, we have cut down most of the oil palms, dug a fish pond, added organic matter to the previously exhausted soil, planted a huge variety of different plants that benefit from each other and give us back their fruit in exchange, and by now you couldn’t guess that this place once was a palm oil plantation.
Our long-term goal is the reduction of work. Like the famous permaculturalist Masanobu Fukuoka with his method of “do-nothing”, we want to create a place where Nature is in harmony and only little effort is needed to sustain the farm. We have in mind a form of ‘food jungle’ where the plants are planted in a way that they benefit from each other and maintain a stable food supply. Like Fukuoka, we try to cooperate with Nature rather than trying to “improve” upon it by conquest. When you grow a variety of wild vegetables and greens together with some domesticated produce in a well-balanced environment, not much work is needed to sustain a regular food supply. (The permaculture design of the five zones is a good example for this, with the fifth zone being basically wilderness, allowing hunting and gathering of wild foods.)
We want to learn what it really means to supply yourself with everything you need. Whether it is natural building techniques (like adobe or wood/bamboo) or useful handicraft (like roof tiles, woven wall screens or archery equipment), we want to know it all!
Learning and education has reached a level of alienation that leaves the individual utterly doomed in case of a sudden change in our society (like its almost inevitable collapse), and really useful knowledge is not taught in schools or universities. (read more here)