In the first two parts of this three part series I explored the concepts of human culture, especially global human culture, Earth culture (human plus non-human culture on Earth) and how these have become unnaturally divorced from one another in the modern world, with the accelerating help of the internet. The divorce is an illusion, but nevertheless is damaging. It would be tiresome and depressing here to have to describe the worsening health of the ecosystems here on Earth -by ‘health’ of course I mean the ability to support human life. I am of course human-centric in my perspective; it is virtually impossible not to be. The mental health of all of humanity is indirectly -and sometimes directly- related to the health of global non-human ecosystems. I will go into great length in future posts.
I am actually hopeful for humanity’s evolution to the next stage of civilisation, which in some respects, to some people, will necessarily look like uncivilisation.
Where does ‘Permaculture’ come in? Firstly, a brief description of origins: Permaculture with a capital ‘P’ refers to a ‘systems thinking’ approach to the ecological design of human-made edible crop systems, but also incorporating other useful crops, and sustainable settlements centred around these systems. The original meaning is ‘permanent agriculture’. The crop systems mimic non-human ecosystems (or more accurately, Earth culture ecosystems) to achieve resilience and minimal negative, perhaps even positive, ecological impact. The most common example of the designed Permaculture system in temperate climates (e.g. the UK) is the ‘forest garden’ which mimics the climax habitat of mixed deciduous woodland, with edible types of flora to represent all the various canopy and ground cover and shrub layers to be found in a natural woodland, especially in the most productive and diverse, woodland edge habitats. The first manual on Permaculture was written by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and published in 1978, titled Permaculture One.
Over the years, Permaculture has been adapted to a variety of climates and contexts around the world, and has given birth to a tradition of Permaculture courses (the standard introductory course being the Permaculture Design Certificate or PDC) where invaluable knowledge and skills of agroforestry and other elements have been passed on to thousands. Although there has been and still is a question mark over Permaculture’s ability as an approach to provide food for large numbers of people, it has been clearly shown to conserve and enhance soil health -key to the future of biodiversity -including humanity- on Earth. (This brings up the issue of excess human population. Let’s look at that another time.) Additionally, the concept of permaculture has expanded to include ‘permanent culture’; a way of looking at and designing the whole of human culture with deep sustainability in mind; at its root, learning from the infinitely renewable patterns and resource flows at play in Earth culture as a whole.
Now, a few words about the capitalist protection of knowledge in modern culture. Why did I refer to Permaculture ‘with a capital P’? Well, as with all areas of knowledge in a capitalist society, there is some implied ownership of the ideas; of the approach, by the people who originated it and teach and practice it today. If you are not an accredited teacher, you cannot teach Permaculture with a capital ‘P’. In an often chaotic global culture, where the truth can be anyone’s guess, the building up and protection of banks of knowledge and practice, especially as regards ecological sustainability, can be worthwhile. On the other hand, the PDC can be seen as a middleclass pursuit with a middleclass pricetag, despite there being subsidised places on some courses. The protection of knowledge in this way also perpetuates the fragmented, alienated and atomised consumer culture discussed in parts one and two of this post series. Admittedly, as long as friends pass books between them, and free libraries and internet facilities still exist, there will always be a slow dissemination of Permaculture knowledge to the rest of society -in the way of most human branches of knowledge. Most importantly, as Graham Bell notes in his excellent book The Permaculture Way, ‘permaculture with a small p’; those aspects of human conservation, agricultural and sustainability knowledge included in Permaculture, that have been practiced for generations as our natural biocultural heritage -otherwise known as ‘common sense’- is available to all of us. We can be ‘doing permaculture’ without even realising it, just as we are ‘doing culture’ all the time, and the culture we do, can always be said to be more, or less, permaculture than it could be.
Now here is where we get to the crux of it. For me, Permaculture (and ‘permaculture’) as an approach to designing sustainable human society, has the potential to be both a containing basket for all of modern global human culture, and a weaver of that culture into something deeply sustainable in the long term. It is a criticism levelled against permaculturists that the term ‘permaculture’ is used very vaguely by many, as a New Agey concept that bears little practical fruit for society as a whole; a concept that attracts dreamers, more than doers, despite the practical PDC courses on offer. I take on board this criticism, but I respond that, just because a set of ideas and practices inspires contemplation, poetry and envisioning, it doesn’t mean that those ideas and practices aren’t also very useful, (effects on biodiversity and soil health as compared to other agricultural systems, for instance, are proven.) For me, it is the sometimes vagueness of the term ‘permaculture’, with a small ‘p’, that is its strength; in these twin paradigms we live in of obsolescence of the dominant civilisation-mesh (Nature-destroying) and Transition to the new one, it is precisely because we don’t know exactly what the future holds, that we need flexible approaches and concepts to get there…
-But more than this. I think that Permaculture, or permaculture, whatever, has the potential to develop a branch of ethical social science. The ethical social science of Permaculture would be rooted in the observation of Nature and other principles of Permaculture as they stand. Principles such as ‘maximising edge’, ‘integrating functions’ and ‘creating no waste’. Integrated with current grounded Permaculture practice, and branching out from those roots, the ethical social science of Permaculture could develop a vocabulary of theory, research and consensual society-design which is cross-disciplinary, integrating the language of ecology and sustainability with the language of the social sciences. As the social sciences often don’t question the foundations of modern culture on which they rely, the new ethical social science of Permaculture, with its key feature of reintegration of segregated and protected areas of human knowledge; a grounded and cross-disciplinary approach, would also have the overtly political aims of environmental and social justice at its core. (Where existing social sciences are generally unconsciously / covertly political, at maintaining unhelpful social and economic structures).
The ethical social science, (or sociocultural science?) of Permaculture could be a key developing discipline -and may it be rigorously disciplined!- in creating what permaculture -permanent culture- purports to be. Specific elements of the science would tackle the alienation, atomisation and fragmentation of the dominant modern global culture, and also the tracking and potential guiding of emergent global culture as defined by the internet. It has been concluded by many, more well-researched and scientifically grounded than I, that relocalisation of culture, including a ‘powerdown’ of natural resource use, will also be key to the sustainability of global human culture in the longterm. This fits entirely with the necessary project of de-alienation and de-stratification that I have implied in all three parts of this series, which works on renewing and building culture that is grounded and based on our experiences and face to face human interactions in the here-and-now.
Mental health and well being are inseparable from this grand project of permaculture, including the protection of planetary biodiversity, and the ethical social science of Permaculture would explore, track, describe and influence human well being in a way that is reintegrated with Earth culture (human plus non-human culture).
Key to mental health is cultural empowerment. We must all feel able to comprehend and further influence the (now global) culture we live in. This comprehension and influence depends, in turn, on our power and agency as narrative-makers, story-tellers and engaged actors and audiences in and for the stories that are, hopefully consensually, told about us and to us.
A final thought: The relationship of modern human culture to truth, is ambiguous. Well, that includes this blog post. How much of this is really true and how much is based on the theories of academics who don’t get out much? Academia is itself an isolated and alienated area of stratified modern culture i.e. a key symptom of this culture which is potentially (and often actually) out of touch with the way we as individuals live our various cultures from day to day. Thus the ethical social science of Permaculture will fail if it relies on academics; if it is not constantly informed by the way that all subcultures of human beings live from day to day, and how we all perceive ourselves, including culturally.
I’m looking forward to getting outside again after writing this, and socialising some more with the folk in my neighbourhood. I’ll catch you next time.