What is culture? What is permaculture? Part three of three:

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.

So!

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 inseperable 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.

 

  

 

What is culture? What is permaculture? (The New Year According To Who?!) Part one of three:

‘Happy New Year’ I suppose. Although I would rather celebrate New Year around the Spring Equinox, as Persians, Kurds and some Neopagans do. Starting the new year in the middle of the winter is a ‘rum affair’ if you ask me (in the language of an Agatha Christie novel. We live under the Gregorian calendar; it wasn’t the butler did it but Pope Gregory XIII). Also, note that there are thirteen moons in every year, and the first new moon of this calendar year isn’t until 17th January. Anyway, structuring the year is always going to be tricky, and there are various cultural implications of when and how we celebrate New Year. For a sense of culture and social cohesion, maybe I should have destroyed my health with alcohol last night afterall. Ah well, like I said, it’s a rum affair.

‘Culture’ is a word that is bandied about a lot but it is difficult to pin down. I think of human culture as ‘the sum of everything we do’, particularly those things that we do from day to day, repetitively, that define our collective and individual identities. Culture in this broad sense doesn’t just include all of our doing, but all of our thinking too. Everyone ‘does’ culture in every moment; we are all a part of a universal human culture which is different from the cultures of other species and the human culture of the past; although, past culture bears on present culture in a continual process. Human culture is also influenced by and interdependent with non-human culture; the non-human ecosystems that make up Earth. Together with non-human culture we are ‘Earth culture’.

The online Oxford Living Dictionaries definition of culture that fits loosely with these ideas is the second one listed, which says: ‘the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society’, (and I would add, ‘or species, or planet’ etc). Visit the full page here.

On the human level, we can talk of the cultures and subcultures of geographically located places, like our villages, towns, regions and countries. There are also subcultures that are defined by points of view and types of behaviour; for instance subcultures based on types of music. Subcultures are also based on socioeconomic status, or class. The habits, ways of doing things and thinking of members of one economic class will share certain likely common characteristics not common to other classes. Cultures of many types and on different scales overlap each other or nestle inside each other in complex ways. Our individual and collective senses of identity are also very much rooted in culture. Additionally, ‘online culture’ refers specifically to the culture of the internet, and ‘digital culture’ to digitally enabled or digitally altered culture.

Definitions of culture usually focus on the social element; those behaviours etc in a society or group that are overtly shared. Particularly strong expressions and reinforcements of culture are shared rituals and celebrations which are repeated over time; and so tradition usually plays a strong element in any culture. However I would also like to add that even our most private thoughts and private moments are culturally defined and in turn have a cultural impact; in other words, every part of our experience has a social (or consciously anti-social) element which bears on how we relate to others from day to day, and the various cultures and subcultures of which we are members.

To complicate things, the cultures which we perceive ourselves to be members of are not necessarily the cultures whose members would generally embrace us, and additionally, people in general may perceive us to be members of various cultures (depending on the perspective) that we don’t actually identify with. Others’ perceptions will affect how they behave towards us and can become self-fulfilling, so that we are pigeonholed into subcultures from a lack of personal motivation and /or skill on our side to be identified otherwise. This process of pigeonholing can further affect the lifestyle choices and cultural options available to the pigeonholed. There is a real power dynamic here of the labeller over the labelled. We can see that culture and labelling -of self by self and other- are closely related. So far we can also see that ‘culture’ indicates a very complex and uncertain reality for individuals in the modern world, although great opportunity is also implied.

Cultures of all kinds are woven together by underlying stories or narratives which can be truthful or not, and harmful or not. These are unconscious for most of the time and may remain obscure to many of the members of these cultures (for instance, the story of ‘infinite progress’ that underlies capitalist culture). There are also many stories consciously told within and across different cultures, of course; many wonderful (and not so wonderful!) diverse and colourful stories, all of which play a role in shaping cultures, from classic myths, through novels to blockbuster films. These do not only shape the cultures they originate in, especially in the modern human world which is interconnected more than ever before.

Some stories and elements of stories -both conscious stories and unconscious narratives- are told by cultures (as ‘tellers’) about other cultures (as ‘the told’); again this can become self-fulfilling for the told, especially when the tellers have the greater political power and cultural reach. In fact, some of these narratives serve to maintain the dominant cultural position of certain tellers, resulting in a very real oppression of the told (or in this context read ‘minorities everywhere’ for ‘the told’). Women as a whole have also been and continue to be culturally dominated by men, largely unconsciously on both sides (but consciously in key places of power), using such insidious stories. With these features of ‘labelling’ and ‘story-telling’ discussed, culture becomes a very political concept and also one that has a huge impact on mental health, dependent on whether people feel culturally empowered or not, within the mesh of overlapping cultures which they are subject of and to.

I think it is true to say that as modern individuals we all have a ‘cultural repertoire’ which I would define as ‘the sum of all the attitudes, feelings, thoughts and behaviours internalised within us which we can choose to employ variously and selectively according to cultural context and personal cultural aspiration’. In fact I would say that everything about us can be used as a cultural instrument by us or by others acting on us, or with us. Although ‘feelings’ are typically described as more reactive than the other more proactive elements of ‘thinking’ and ‘behaving’ etc, actually we have a lot of choice about the way we feel and how we process or use that culturally (without going into how others can use our feelings for their own cultural ends).

Personally I am very lucky: I realise that I have a large cultural repertoire at my disposal which allows me to move fairly comfortably (but never completely comfortably) through many quarters of society. But this has become a deliberate cultivation and survival strategy for me -borne partly from a former mental breakdown- and is partly a sign of a culturally incoherent modern society. My ultimate position is to assume membership of a complex global culture, but grounded ecologically in my home region of mid-Devon, or more widely and conveniently, southwest England. I have a great feeling of cultural freedom. Some people don’t have the privilege of cultural understanding that I have or do not take on identifications like this with much confidence (my own intellectual confidence borne in part from my privileged white liberal middle-class culture); and so culturally they may retreat, more or less, into subcultures -including physical localities- which in modern times are often incoherent and fragmented. (I touch on this incoherency and fragmentation a little more in Part Two of this post).

I theorise that many people don’t realise the extent of their cultural repertoires or don’t have the skill to employ them effectively. Many more people are culturally impoverished, meaning that there is a lack of cultural options available to them -in awareness, and practically. Also, their socioeconomic status or ‘class’ may make it very difficult for them to realise the extent to which their culture is actually impoverished, the extent to which it is dominated by insidious cultural stories from other quarters, and the extent to which it is unnaturally divorced from the land and (mostly non-human) Earth culture (more on this in Part Two). Then again, even those in the most culturally dominant quarters e.g. the nation state culture of governments, and the technological culture of Silicon Valley and the like, do not usually realise the extent of their unnatural divorce from Earth culture or rather, are in denial.

On the plus side, although it may be partly a spuriously neoliberal view, in modern times there is more opportunity for some, including those traditionally from quarters of the culturally oppressed, to develop larger and more diverse cultural repertoires than ever before, especially using the online culture of the web, which includes the ability to group with others to form subcultures in the pursuit of social and ecological -and hence cultural- justice. Yet, the choice not to have so much choice has been taken away, potentially at the expense of the model of the grounded, nurturing, localised culture that some would like to have the option of ‘returning to’ though they might have never personally experienced it. On the positive side again, via internet culture there are currently many inspiring ways to connect with and be touched by people and events from around the world, which can bring emotional fulfillment and nurture certain aspects or identifications of culture that we hold within ourselves. Additionally, internet-based subcultures, for instance formed around special interests, can provide support and well being for individuals who are otherwise relatively isolated.

This is where I am right now; I am relatively isolated and lonely; I exist between worlds, the rural and the urban, the individual and the communal, the unemployable and the entrepreneurial; and currently, although I am lucky to feel part of a global as well as regional culture, it’s all a bit confused. 2018 for me will largely be about how I define myself culturally amongst all the cultural options open to me (and open to most of us). How I redefine myself culturally will also be key to how I move the Epic Tomorrows blog forward. I have high hopes and aspirations that internet culture, despite its shaky ecological foundations, can be a massive force for helping shape emergent global culture -and all the subcultures and individuals nestled within- in a way that has social and ecological justice at its core. In Part Two of this post I will look more at the concept of ‘global human culture’. In Part Three I will explain why I think Permaculture, with a big ‘P’ and permaculture with a small ‘p’ both have potential to be the containing baskets, as well as the weavers, of a globally sustainable culture. I will explain why I think a branch of permaculture needs to develop as a fully fledged ‘ethical social science’, in order to facilitate globally sustainable culture.

And now, feeling a little uplifted that I have finally finished (Part One!) of this post, I feel more genuinely able to say, with great cheer, and a herbal tea instead of a beer…in a culturally reinforcing kind of way…Happy New Year!