The Cult of Perma

Most thinking people would agree that we have arrived at final and irrevocable decisions that will abolish or sustain life on earth. We can either ignore the madness of uncontrolled industrial growth and defence spending that is in small bites, or larger catastrophes, eroding life forms every day, or take the path to life and survival.

-Bill Mollison Permaculture- A Designers’ Manual 1988

Permaculture is notoriously hard to define. A recent survey shows that people simultaneously believe it is a design approach, a philosophy, a movement, and a set of practices. This broad and contradiction-laden brush doesn’t just make permaculture hard to describe. It can be off-putting, too. Let’s say you first encounter permaculture as a potent method of food production and are just starting to grasp that it is more than that, when someone tells you that it also includes goddess spirituality, and anti-GMO activism, and barefoot living. What would you make of that?

-Toby Hemenway What Permaculture Isn’t- and Is

Permies just don’t do numbers

-Peter Harper The Big Rock Candy Mountain 2013

Peter Harper of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales wrote a fascinating critique of the permaculture movement earlier this year which appeared in The Land magazine. This was a follow-up to an earlier article from 1997 called Cleaning out the Stables.

What is significant about Harper is that he is an insider:

I have been in the ‘alternative’ tribe all my life. I am acquainted with the permaculture literature, did the 72-hour course nearly 20 years ago, contributed to the Permaculture Teachers’ Handbook, and personally know many of the luminaries of the movement.

Indeed, Harper already took a very different view from the majority of permaculture practitioners in the Teachers Handbook by pointing out that, if your goal was reducing dependency on fossil fuels- one of the core aims of the general sustainability movement- you would do better to focus on insulation and getting rid of the car rather than the main preoccupation of growing one’s own food, which accounts for a relatively small proportion of our carbon footprint.

So what is Permaculture then?

As should be clear from the above quote from the beginning of  Bill Mollison’s seminal Designer’s Manual, “Permaculture”- a corruption of “Permanent Agri-Culture” – came in on the back of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb and the 1972 Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. The world is on an unsustainable path which can only end badly unless we radically change direction. Peak Oil and Climate change, combined with loss of topsoil, fresh water and biodiversity, will mean imminent doom for humanity and the biosphere unless we revert to a much simpler life-style, running only off the ambient solar interest that accumulates through biological processes each day, rather than delving ever deeper into the Earth’s precious capital stores of fossil energy and other non-renewable resources. I think it is critical to understand this: without a Malthussian understanding of the world and a deeply conservative ethic that resists economic development and idealizes both the natural and the traditional, permaculture could never have come into existence.

Farming in particular was deemed to be in need of change. Rather than exterminating the forests and using chemical fertlisers and waging war on Nature with pesticides to grow our food, Permaculture would provide a design system that allowed us how to do things more in tune with natural rhythms and lead us to a gentler and more sustainable way of life. By closely observing natural eco-systems, in particular forests, we would be able to replace unsustainable resource use with small-scale systems that could sustain us without growth into the future.

Often defined as “sustainable design based on natural systems” it began in the late 1970s as a response to the excesses of industrial agriculture, advocating much more use of trees and perennials planted in polycultures as food crops, use of elements of a system in all their functions, and an emphasis on recycling, water harvesting from rooftops and also from swales, water catchment channels cut along the contours of the land; and “intermediate” technology such as small-scale renewables and low-tech DIY devices which might include for example compost toilets and pedal-powered washing machines.

But here already we hit the first obstacle, not a speed-bump, but a brick wall: Permaculture’s embrace of “design-by-nature” is an oxymoron, and the beginning and end of the concept is based on the naturalistic fallacy, as Harper points out in Cleaning out the Stables:

It is undeniable that natural ecosystems are sustainable: because they are still there after several billion years! Then why don’t we keep them? The answer comes as a great shock to the biologically naive: because in human terms, nearly all natural ecosystems are hopelessly unproductive. They just do not produce the accessible calories (principally as starch) to support large populations. And they don’t produce much accessible protein either: mostly they produce cellulose, largely in the form of wood. So contrary to common PC lore, Nature has to be tweaked to improve productivity, usually a lot, even beyond recognition. And ‘using nature as a model for design’ is not to be taken literally; in fact it is so easily mis-construed that I would withdraw it as a basic design precept for beginners.

Peter Harper’s critiques deal a knock-out punch: permaculture doesnt work. While claiming to be developing pockets of intelligent “natural” design which act as prototypes for an alternative to the modern industrial world, the permaculture movement lives in the fantasy world of Big Rock Candy Mountain:

Harper describes how he was first attracted to permaculture as an elegant system of passive design, constructing systems for rain-water harvesting for example that would get nature to do the work for you with very little maintenance required afterwards. He expected these ideas to be thoroughly tested in the field- as would happen in “normal” engineering- and the good ideas kept and refined while the bad would be thrown out.

OK then, so here we are waiting for all these new ideas and eager to put them to the test. What we got was more like a cult…..

“A cynic would say this lack of quantitative testing is not accidental, because it might reveal that many favourite notions are false, or at least not what they are cracked up to be. Most people attracted to Permaculture are young, dreamy idealists looking for some kind of system to structure their activities and impart meaning. It does not matter much whether things ‘work’ because you are not obliged to depend on them. It is their symbolic value that counts. I have encountered numerous ‘permaculture gardens’ with abysmal levels of productivity that have nevertheless persuaded their creators that they are virtually self-sufficient in food. A few measurements and numbers would quickly dispel this illusion, but Permies just don’t do numbers.

This reluctance of permaculture advocates to actually test any of their ideas along the lines of the scientific method was brought home to me two years ago on a visit to the Bullock Brothers Permaculture Homestead in Washington State.

Permies dont do numbers... Doug Bullock on Orcas Island, WA. 2011

Permies dont do numbers… Doug Bullock on Orcas Island, WA. 2011

Addressing a class of permaculture design students, Doug Bullock explained how they were sometimes visited by “researchers” who, inspired by the concepts of alternative farming they were demonstrating, wanted to live with them and study their systems and record inputs and outputs and collect data to “prove” that permaculture worked: Doug waved them away- “we are just not interested- that’s not what it’s about.”

Harper proposes a distinction between “smart permaculture”- which does want testable hypothesis but is more like an “immature academic subject”- and  “cult permaculture” which is more visionary and cultish and includes magic. He suggests that while the charismatic but temperamental Mollison is more in the second camp, the more cerebral and analytic of the two co-founders, David Holmgren, would be in the first. I find this a curious oversight, because as I have shown in my last blog post on permaculture, Mollison is in fact the rational skeptic, with Holmgren the awkward purveyor of metaphysics,  biodynamics and Mother Earth religion, despite their very obvious contrasting styles which might suggest otherwise.

And where, really, is this careful measurement to be found anywhere in permaculture? I am personally skeptical that the “smart” permaculture exists at all: I see little if any data collected by either Holmgren or Harper, at least on agricultural yields for example. Permaculture advocates tree crops, perennials and complex (and hard to maintain) polycultures over the vast monocultures of high-yielding industrial farming. Of the one example of a comparative study being done that Harper refers to, at Schumacher college, he comments

“Too early for results yet, but the permaculture movement should have done all this thirty years ago. Why didn’t it?

but then immediately points out its redundancy (it was surely redundant even 30 years ago):

“From long experience I can tell you what the results will be: the ‘forest garden’ will turn out to be a low-input/low-output system, while the standard horticultural plot will be a high-input/ high-output system.

This is the crux of the matter: any measurement or controlled studies that the permaculture movement might conduct itself will only be re-inventing the wheel and will hardly be able to add anything significant to the body of agronomic science we already have. Just as “alternative medicine” that works is just  called “medicine” so anything that could be shown to work in what is called “permaculture” is simply “good farming”, “good design” or “good engineering”.

A recent article in the UK Permaculture Magazine by Chris Warburton Brown addresses this issue of “permaculture science”, finding not surprisingly that there is very little; but while Brown lists various criteria for what such a science would look like, he fails to define permaculture in any way that could actually lead to testable hypotheses, and seems to see this as more of a problem of science, which is not “holistic” enough for the complexity of permaculture. While he acknowledges that merely quoting results that support your original hypothesis would not pass for science, Brown’s whole article is based on an explicit assumption that permaculture really does have something distinctive to offer, and that this is indeed provable: there is no suggestion that maybe it should be shelved as a failed hypothesis. Brown discusses the difficulty of measuring multiple yields- rather than just comparing the yield of fields of wheat grown in different ways- but resists the obvious conclusion of Harper that anyone familiar with farming would already know- industrial-scale monoculture is much more productive.

“Yields are also subjective” he says: “a grower might consider one sack of fruit from an apple tree with no labour a higher yield than two sacks from a tree that was pruned, cultivated and fed. Inputs of time, labour, fertiliser etc. need to be considered alongside yields.”

What is missing here is obviously that there is a hierarchy of yields. Even one apple might be valued more than a ton of apples if it brings a smile to a child’s face; but what value is that smile as a “yield” if the child goes to bed hungry? If you need to pay the bills and earn a living as a farmer, your higher apple yields are all-important; if you are hungry, or live in a country blighted by hunger, the total amount of food you get today- and every day- trumps any feel-good factor of “being holistic”. Happiness and job satisfaction come second after a full belly, every time.

This is explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which does in fact form part of the Permaculture Design Course curriculum- but is another example of permaculture completely ignoring its own teachings, even when they are valid. Permaculture attracts a middle-class hippy-peasant chic  that seems obsessed with the belief that poor people are happier, that this modern concern with actual, measurable yields and wealth is the whole problem. Instead, meeting physical needs is seen as somehow dirty and base compared with narcissistic aspirations of spiritual purity and “well-being”.

Just as Bretharians- who claim to survive on pure prana and need no food at all- invariably turn out to have a fridge full of sausages, so permaculture uses wishful thinking and Good Intentions to hide the fact that its own larder is very sparse indeed, and even the most successful permaculturalist will also avail of industrial food, diesel for the car and even the occasional international flight to attend conferences. In common with its close sister Organic farming, permaculture is really just the icing on the cake of industrial farming, a fossil-fuelled smoke-and-mirrors that feeds on industrial society all the while it claims to be replacing it.

Of course there are costs and benefits, inputs and outputs: in the real world, outside Big Rock Candy Mountain, these issues are commonly dealt with under “accounting”, something which from reading Brown’s article you get the impression is as yet unknown within the permaculture community but which, should it be stumbled upon,  will be trumpeted as a discovery to rival that of the Higgs Boson.

From Brown’s article again:

Preparing content for the Permaculture Digest, I have found little of use to the permaculture community in conventional plant science literature. Because research papers are expected to show strong statistical significance, work has become lab-based, not field-based. Moreover, in order to avoid complexity “contaminating” the results, there is an emphasis on the smallest units of analysis: genes, microbes, chemicals. This boosts conventional crop yields, but inevitably leads to interventions at a microscopic level and to GM crops.

Shock horror! Genes and chemicals just sound so… unholistic – how could a “permaculture science” ever embrace such things? And note the unquestioned assumption that this kind of “reductionist” science leading to GMOs just has to be bad- see the Toby Hemenway quote at the start of the post. Brown effectively acknowledges that permaculture is a political ideology, yet cannot join the dots to see that it cannot therefore be a science.

The strong link between permaculture and the reactionary anti-GMO movement is only too obvious to anyone who reads Permaculture Magazine, which campaigns actively on behalf of Vandana Shiva. Noone within the permaculture movement seems to have noticed that, given the challenges of keeping yields high in forest gardens while promoting biodiversity, and the much longer time-scales required to breed more suitable varieties of perennials and woody shrubs,  genetic engineering should be seized upon as a great ally of permaculture. See for example the work being done to resurrect the American Chestnut, something that could not be done with traditional plant-breeding methods.

One of the few scientists to take a critical look at permaculture is Dr. Linda Chalker-SCott of the Washington State University’s Extension Urban Horticulture department. She examines Toby Hemenway’s  book Gaia’s Garden and finds it lacking in rigorous science on a number of counts:

-his advocacy of invasive species such as bamboo, with scant regard for the ecological problems that can be casued by invasive species; (see Part 1: Permaculture- Beginning a Discussion;)
(Holmgren also has a controversial take on this issue, strongly advocating the work of Theodoropoulos, which is generally considered pseudoscience.)

-pseudoscientific advocacy of “companion planting”, “mineral accumulators” including the use of some poisonous and noxious weeds; (Part 2, Permaculture- the discussion continues;)

-another permaculture favourite, sheet-mulching with cardboard- this creates an impermeable layer at the soil level which tends to lead to anaerobic conditions; (Part 3- More Concerns);

-the expropriation of scientific concepts and words and re-defining them for use in permaculture; and failure to draw on the existing scientific literature, instead relying on grey literature and pseudoscience throughout (Part 4- Final Thoughts).

How can there ever be a “scientific permaculture” when many of the movement’s leading figures themselves seem influenced by pseudoscience, and apparently unaware of the real body of scientific knowledge in these areas?

Despite the laudable and as far as I know unique attempt by the Australian Permaculture Research Institute to have a teacher’s registery to restrict pseudoscience in permaculture, the movement will never be able to extract itself from the end-of-days religion of the wider environmental movement that it was sired from. Without resource depletion and Limits to Growth thinking, permaculture simply has no meaning at all. It is curious that Harper, for all his insights into how the movement deludes itself and is all fluff and no substance, still feels it has value and can be salvaged.

Permaculture then is a broad church and Harper is correct to say there are many permacultures; nevertheless it is inescapable that permaculture as a political movement fits snugly alongside broader conservative environmentalism, with its mixture of elitist traditionalism and eco-fascism, closely associated with New Age spirituality, anti-science and pseudo-science, the quackery of the Organics movement and “alternative” therapies, middle-class health-food obsessions and quasi-religious misanthropic convictions about the purity of Nature and the Fallen-ness of Mankind.

At the end of the day though, once you strip away the pseudo-science, the Sky-is-Falling doomerism and the feel-good idealism of living in barefoot communes and growing your own food all you are left with is the Cult of Perma.


53 thoughts on “The Cult of Perma

  1. “Without resource depletion and Limits to Growth thinking, permaculture simply has no meaning at all.”
    Wow. Spoken like a true capitalist, coming from the perspective of “what’s in it for me” and “how does this turn a buck”. Just wow.

  2. Hi Graham,

    I think you nailed it on the head with this article.

    After becoming “Permaculture Certified” and working on a organic, small-scale farm for the last year. I’ve unfortunately come to the conclusion that, permaculture is indeed a well-intentioned, yet unsustainable practice. It’s a nice idea.

    I haven’t found a permaculture school that is entirely self-sustainable. Most schools require students to pay them thousands of dollars in order to sustain themselves. OR the permaculture site is located in a climate that has PERFECT conditions for growing food all year round. How do you run a sustainable, permaculture site in Idaho?

    There is a great book called “Lords of the Harvest”, which chronicles the history of the GE foods. The book is a very sobering experience for someone (myself) who thought GMO’s are bad. My original thoughts on GMO’s had no scientific basis, only emotional. Currently, I can’t say that I’m 100% okay with GMO’s or with organic food. I find myself straddling the fence between the two. Both sides have pro’s and con’s. Time will tell which side is correct. My suspicion is that it won’t be ONE side, rather a combination of the two’s beliefs.

    The biggest problem I see with environmentalism, agriculture, GE foods, etc is the lack of communication and transparency between farmers, agri-businesses, scientists and consumers.

    • Hi Michael thanks for your comment. I agree communication is key- some of the best science communication re GMOs can be found on Biofortified. Personally I find biotech scientists very transparent and keen to communicate what they are doing and why, farmers too.

  3. Oh my. You sound like the Mark Lynas of permaculture here. You are totally going on a “PermaWatch” enemies list (if they have one like GeneWatch, where I’m on the list).

    In my peak-oil days, I took a permaculture 2-day class. I liked many of the concepts, and the other folks seemed well-meaning. But being the evidence-based type, I could see some holes. For a backyard hobbyist, nothing too awful, with available work-arounds. But to run and feed a whole planet? Er…

    That said, like Tim Minchin–I’d be open to evidence:

    You show me that it works, and how it works,
    And when I’ve recovered from the shock–
    I will take a compass and carve “Fancy That” on the side of my [to be determined].”

    But I don’t see that evidence.

    So when I came out of the doom, I took with me the ideas that did work for me, and went on with my life. I like the way it’s working. I hope you find that too.

    • Re the Minchin quote LOL…. and I didnt know you had “peak oil days” Mary, so I see I was in good company after all 🙂 Yes there are some grand fun DIY projects you can learn on permaculture courses, and plenty to interest plant geeks- edible landscaping is groovy! but not nearly as practical as many would have you think, and certainly not a replacement for conventional farming. Why can’t people just enjoy gardening, whatever system they choose, without having to make out it will save the world and is revolutionary and everyone else is just going nowhere?

    • BTW re “PermaWatch” list- dont give them ideas!!

      • Heh. Sounds like this will get around the community without it.

        Yeah, I read Heinberg and went to one of his local talks. I read Kunstler. I was on a PO board sometimes (LATOC). But I actually got them to install a “tin foil” category to keep the conspiracy loons out of the main discussion threads. That worked pretty well for the worst crackpottery. And I mocked the gun-nut-bunker-doomers. Funny, though, there was a board melt-down when the predictions didn’t play out. The founder went off the rails (this is where he is now:

        I don’t think you really can maintain the illusions if you have any grounding in reality. The data tells another story, and the rest of the world goes along. I got some good tips on things like a great pressure canner. I love my cast iron cookware now. My 100mpg scooter is crazy fun. I used my backyard rosemary for roasted potatoes tonight for dinner. But I never went full doom. I was more interested in more durable stuff to do less buying of disposable crap, and more efficient use of energy in general for enviro reasons as well.

        So I took the useful stuff and left the doom and the fictions.

        • Oh wow LATOC – yes I read Matt Savinar and thought his book was great at the time! I had heard he had since gone off at the deep end. “The data tells another story” – yes but what made me take another look at the data was getting fed up waiting for the colapse. I mean the 2008 banking collapse was terrible, but nothing like as bad as what the likes of Savinar was predicting, a Mad-Max scenario. As the years went by I just started thinking, “why hasnt the system collapsed yet? There is something wrong…” Anyway your comments make me think I should start collecting interviews with ex-peak-oilers. Maybe we should start a cult 🙂

  4. I do see there being an amount of pyramid selling around permaculture. The idea of sustainable livelihoods from the approach, are often actually reliant on revenue from running courses.

    “Without resource depletion and Limits to Growth thinking, permaculture simply has no meaning at all”

    I never really bought the idea of peak oil. If oil becomes unaffordable it will because of war in the Middle East (so we’re safe there then!). It is a finite resource, but in the long run we will be able to make the same stuff from plants and crop waste (like Continental are making car tyres from dandelion sap).

    But a culture of self reliance including in terms of job creation, a reflection on inherited land use and skills, to inform what land use and skills are really worth passing on because they are truly part of a good way to be (not just about addressing immediate economic needs), are meanings outside of resource depletion. And high-input high-output systems are fragile in the face of uncertainties (eg increasing climate variability), as is a just-in-time supply chain shipping around the world.

    One of the key things which makes permaculture distinctive from organic and other ‘Eco’ ideas, is having ethics right at the core. Food growing with diverse crops at small scales is crucially about food sovereignty, the distribution of power that comes with the distribution of production.

    Keeping hold of traditional skills helps fix things rather than throw them away, and supports making things of utility and beauty worth inheriting not just selling. Keeping alive traditional land use patterns like coppicing or hay meadows fosters environments often better for wildlife than many ‘wild’ ‘natural’ ones. Keeping some capacity to produce things locally supports resilience. Keeping hold of the diversity of our plant variety heritage helps with marginal land agroscience has had little interest in, and will ironically be helpful for GM developments.

    Much of the world will be practicing small-scale low-input farming come what may – organic growing has to be part of the mix.

    I am and will be working toward ‘quantitative permaculture’, beginning with a two year research project on growing peat free funded by Defra. I appreciate the kind of critiques presented here, and feel a ‘permanent’ future for permaculture absolutely requires addressing these kinds of concerns.

    • If you dont accept Peak Oil, you reject the basis of “Permaculture”: Holmgren even wrote a whole book (Energy Futures) about it. Without Peak oil and the adaptations you mention, there is no need for permaculture; nor is anything you mention distinctively “permaculture” rather than just conservation etc; Organic farming is definitely not permaculture! and there are a lot of problems with the premise of organics, it is not clear at all that is is any better than conventional agriculture and is based on pseudo-scientific ideas. Lower yields- which applies to agro-forestry as well, do not make for feeding 9Billion while conserving the natural world.

      • You are conflating oil being a non-renewable resource, with Peak Oil. Do you not accept that oil is a finite resource?

        Absolutely none of it is distinctively permaculture. One of the best permaculture talks I went to was about traditional land use patterns in Wales which have been broadly similar since the ice age until close to modern times. They didn’t call it permaculture – but it was and could be again permanently sustainable.

        And it can be more productive than the modern wildly unprofitable hill farms which have only been kept going through subsidies. That’s because they mix the livestock instead of only sheep, and include woodland with the pasture, providing shelter soil improvement winter forage and slowing nutrient loss and erosion.

        Permaculture starts with a determination to be permanently sustainable, and working through a design process to get to it. What is distinctive about it is taking all the things I mentioned together, the old and the new, the economics the environment and the ethics (all mentioned in the core statement of permaulture), in one integrated picture to develop an integrated response.

        Similar groups and ways have thinking have come and gone though, such as the Diggers, or the Gryth Fyrd (who also had three core statements, a culture of self reliance and many other permaculture elements. Shame about the eugenics though). Permaculture is a long way from beoming a solution for everyone – but increasingly large scale networks are having increasingly large scale impacts including in places with serious challenges for people to get enough to eat, like El Salvador

        • Peak oil and “oil running out” are basically the same thing for the purposes of defining permaculture- this is the beginning (and end) of permaculture: industrial oil-based society is fundamentally flawed and we need to Power Down and revert to a low-tech, more simple lifestyle. I dont accept that of course: industrial society is the most brilliant way of saving ourselves from the vicissitudes of “nature”. Oil is only theoretically finite- long before peak it will be substituted by cleaner and more energy dense fuels such as natural gas and nuclear fuels.So, no need for some kind of radical systemic change, and certainly no need to head back to the stone-age.

          You write as if you really think you know what “permaculture” is, as if there is a shared agreed and precise definition: there is not, only a shared ideology (see above).

          Permaculture starts with a determination to be permanently sustainable, and working through a design process to get to it. What is distinctive about it is taking all the things I mentioned together, the old and the new, the economics the environment and the ethics (all mentioned in the core statement of permaulture), in one integrated picture to develop an integrated response.

          There is no such thing as “permananently sustainable”- a meaningless concept that can mean everything and nothing. “The old”- how about slavery? “the new” -Im a nuclear advocate- ever see that promoted on permaculture courses? How about genetic engineering? Didnt think so… Intergrated response …to what?? Peak oil/oil running out perhaps? Fundamental flaw in human psychology that makes us want to change things for our own benefit? Yes I think that is it.

          Where is your evidence that these old systems of hill-farming were more productive than modern methods? Permanently sustainable- with a growing population billions more than existed in the ice age? Sounds like the same old reactionary romanticism to me Im afraid.

  5. The planet has fed itself for million of years without poison farting mechanical monsters.

    So, the bit that you don’t get is that permaculture has no intention to feed a planet where 90% of the people (like in the developed countries) are spending their time on non nonsensical jobs or outright destructive ones (destructive on a physical or social level) while still expecting to be fed, clothed and overwhelmed with planned-obsolescence-designed toys.

    Yes, Nature, to avoid using the word permaculture, can feed, clothe and entertain all of us, and keep us healthy as well… without the smart-ass monkeys in lab clothes.

    Instead of giving you more info I’ll give you some homework that should help you re-gain focus on what permaculture is all about : go find the definition of “sustainable devellopement” as officially declared by the UN. Then find permaculture’s definition of the same as defined by Mollison and compare. You might understand something about what this “cult” is all about and what it can do for the planet.

    • The planet has fed itself for million of years

      LOL! The “Planet” is not alive ofcourse; but you are aren’t you Alexandre- and I would be very surprised if you manage to feed yourself more than a small fraction of your needs, even if you are an enthusiastic “permaculturalist”. But even if you were mainly self-sufficient in food your abilities to grow it would still depend entirely on science and technology, most importantly plant breeding, not to mention tools from swivel-hoes to tractors. With a growing population, we will only manage to feed ourselves with better and more technology- “the Planet” will do nothing for us in this regard Im afraid. Oh, I forgot- you “Nature is abundant” folks think there are too many people dont you? Yeah, it all comes back to that at the end of the day…

  6. Yes for the purposes of defining permaculture – but no in real terms. So say what you mean.

    Are you saying you think natural gas isn’t finite? Industrial society as it is being practiced in the USA is the the most brilliant way of ending increases in happiness (going down since the 1950s and lifespan (USA has lowest among industrialised nations that have resulted from technological advances. So lets not follow their shining lead.

    “I used to think that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” Prof Gus Speth, former environmental advisor to Presidents Carter and Clinton

    Permaculture is an integrated response to how best to be. Clue: don’t cling to a set of privileges which can’t be extended beyond the developed world because there is not enough stuff on the planet. We in a world where commodity trading of foods stuffs along with increasingly unpredictable climate, amplify the need for local food and fuel production capacity. You are happy with the stuff you have now. I want them permanently, however things pan out.

    Nuclear is coming too late for the yawning UK energy gap, and has never lived up to it’s billing – without the subsidy from making nuclear weapons it never made sense, except that it fits centralised governments preference for big single projects. It never stood up in the short term, never mind the long term of real cost accounting. Public health and public finance always get left to foot the bill, because no business would touch it with a barge pole if they didn’t get to sign over all the liabilities. Give communities a decent share in locally generated energy and the opposition to such projects will evaporate.

    On GM, I am still awaiting your response to my comment on ‘The Anti-Science Of The Greens’.

    Hill farming of sheep is likely to end without subsidies vs

    Surely the cult is of modern industrialised agriculture, dependent on massive subsidies to keep destroying biodiversity and depriving the worlds poor of a fair market for their goods.

    • It doesnt matter that gas or oil wont last forever. Two reasons: 1) nothing lasts forever! eg wind turbines have a life expectancy of 20yrs tops. Your quest for “permanence” is illusory- we live in an entropic universe of continual change. But it is also reactionary (and so bad imo) and unnecessary- permanent change is cool! Perfect for humans. so 2) being human means continually adapting, innovating, driving change and responding creatively to change. Fracking seems to me to be a quintessential example of this. Your challenge if you see this process ending is to explain why now of all times the future should be different from the past, ie you need to explain why innovation is going to suddenly stop. Then you need to find a way of telling that to the some millions of technicians, engineers and scientists around the world, I dont think the message is going to get to them very quickly.

      Permaculture is an integrated response to how best to be.

      That is a really good example to show permaculture as a cult. Vague, undefined and with almost mystical allusions: there is of course no agreement on what constitutes “how best to be”. For example, you are the first person I have heard from within the permaculture movement who accepts GMOs might not be all evil. So you need to have a chat with your colleagues in powerdownland rather than we me. Good luck with that.

      don’t cling to a set of privileges which can’t be extended beyond the developed world because there is not enough stuff on the planet.

      Like your computer perhaps? Come off it Urban, I have this debate every week: the whole back-to-nature End-of-Growth environmentalist religion is blatantly Hypocritical with a Capital H. Noone, not you, not any “permaculturalist” is ever going to give up their energy slaves. Just try washing your clothes by hand and see if you have any time for the internet then! Next you can grow ALL your own food and then start making your own clothes as well, because the old ones aren’t going to last forever you know.

      Humanities’ natural state is short lives and poverty. Industrial agriculture has done more than anything else to help people out of poverty, including your good self. What is needed is higher quality technology in agriculture, not back to peasantry. Or perhaps I should say, well OK then you first…

  7. Constant change is apt to be a succession of short term responses, which however exciting and engaging at their time, lack long term thinking – and fill our cities with unloved rubble instead of masterworks of architecture.

    You make a set of assumptions
    1 Permaculture requires that you take on creation or supply of everything
    2 It is anti-technology
    3 Permanence means being unchanging, rather than stable

    But doesn’t require producing all your own food – it requires applying other criteria than price, and putting energy into systems that support those and out of those which don’t. It is about taking on the decision making powers in a way that comes with being ready to choose where your energy goes, to the point of being able to opt out of supply chains and practices you don’t accept.

    This kind of sovereignty applies also to fuel & energy supply, buildings, as well as transport and technology. I want a 3D printer, as well as an iron forge, so I can make a full range of tailored tools to take the drudgery from stripping willow bark or grafting fruit trees. I travel as far as possible by bike which along with a trailer I aim to make from coppice materials (bamboo & hazel). Not because I have to, not to the exclusion of 4x4s or flights where appropriate, but because it’s about taking creative autonomy over my impact on the world.

    Stability is not the enemy of cultural dynamism, but crucial support for it – just as the diversity of a polyculture grows over time in the stable situation of a hedge or wildflower meadow (supporting resilience too – see the long term studies at the Landlife centre). You say there would be no time among the drudgery, but it’s been estimated hunter gatherers ‘worked’ less than 4 hrs a day.

    Fluctuating populations pose major challenges – not just when numbers rise beyond the capacity of a landscape for hunter gathering (which is invariably linked to managed landscapes, not abdication from influencing them), but also when numbers drop below what can maintain traditional land uses (as people leave a countryside that denies them satisfying autonomous jobs available in cities). These population related issues can be addressed: there are proposed permaculture aid systems, that integrate food growing, clean water production and sewage into an air-droppable unit, while long term management of landscapes sees them managing themselves, and intervention in terms of harvesting can respond to need (chestnuts can produce more calories per acre than wheat).

    Making a collective decision to return to a landscape of abundance, while also recognising what we really need and really find important, is not just for rural landscapes. Today I visited chickens and salad growing on a rooftop, and later helped build a roundhouse on the previously abandoned lot the tees had grown on, around some of the most densely populated areas in Europe.

    Why wait for jobs, wait for housing, ration healthy food to those who can afford it. They wait like low hanging fruit, in the results of a reassessment of how we engage with our world, to integrate fairness good stewardship and stability into decisions we have been sleepwalking into.

    • Right- so now you are talking about being a hunter-gatherer. With a bike and 3D-printer and roof-top gardens? (And, apparently, computers…)
      And we already live in a landscape of abundance, on a scale unimaginable to pre-industrial societies. There was no “abundance” in the past, this is a romantic myth. Hunter-gathering could only support a population of a few tens of thousands (in the UK)- so once again your position seems to depend on a Malthussian wish for catastrophic population reduction.
      I’m not making any assumptions- I’m just pointing out that Permaculture is more a cult and political ideology than anything else, and is so vague that absolutely anything could in practice be either included or excluded from what people define as permaculture. I think you are really confirming that – concepts of “permanence” or “stability” remain vague and undefined (in natural systems, everything is in flux all the time, on wildly varying timescales) while specific practices (riding a bike, building a roundhouse) are as much personal preferences as anything (and can be jettisoned whenever it suits).
      But I am genuinely interested on how you think your own views on genetic engineering sit with the rest of the permaculture community, and the Food Sovereignty movement, pretty much all of which seems to be militantly opposed to GMOs under any circumstance- see my links in the post re Permaculture Magazine, and Toby Hemenway’s article I quote from in which he equates a definition of permaculture with being anti-GMO.

  8. I only ever had one short conversation with Bill Mollison and I asked if Permaculture worked and could be scientifically quantified. He was very clear in his position. As far as he was concerned, what worked was what what counted and, if funding could be found, he’d like to see some proper research and quantification so that practices that did not work could be dropped. That was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t know if he is still alive or has had a change of heart but it seemed reasonable then and sounds reasonable now so it seems odd that Permaculture people don’t like numbers or real research – I blame the Anthroposophists for the way the green movement has slipped into such sad disrepute. Peter Harper is often excellent on many issues and CAT would not have thrived with out him.

  9. Permanently sustainable could be translated as: without internal contradictions between the goal/s and the means. So not self-overturning.

    Permaculture aims to combine the productivity of agriculture, with the self-maintenance of wilder ecologies (there is an interesting review article of the relative qualities of hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural lifestyles here: – there was certainly abundance with relatively little work, though a lot of violence to keep populations stable – contraception makes that redundant though, no Malthusianism needed).

    A shift from maximum output, to maximum output ,for the input – greater efficiency in fact, and less waste of energy (yes at the cost of lower yields, but higher in the places that need it most, where investment is low). Recognising that our system is precariously balanced on a stable price for a single commodity, oil, which geopolitics constantly line up to undermine, is not peak oil doomerism, but sensible caution, for us – and essential to equity for those who can’t and may never be able to afford such carbon intensive methods.

    “We not be able to fix the economy. But we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them feel happier.” – Penalosa, Mayor of Bogota, who has pulled investment from highways and put it into bike lanes, and public spaces.

    “So if we really care about freedom for everyone, we need to design for everyone, not only only the brave.” – Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.

    History shows that a lack of attention to both environmental & social sustainability can lead to collapse, however secure people have thought they were

  10. I’ve just looked up permaculture. It may not be a very productive system, but the sheer amount of words used to explain what it is, is certainly productive to the highest order. Never have I read so much and learned so little.

  11. Here is an interesting article regarding a paper which has been published recently on Silvopasture systems.
    A silvopasture system would fall under the permaculture umbrella
    (unless of course you are in the “cult of perma” and believe we should only be eating vegetables).

    The paper suggests that the system increases in “increase in growth and milk production.” while increasing biodiversity, reducing run off and improving animal welfare.

    The article

    And here is the full text of the paper

    And what about Martin Crawfords claims in the BBC documentary that a forest garden can feed unto 10 people per acre?

    • That’s a really interesting paper Wayne, thanks; most of his examples come from the tropics, Columbia, and Silvopasture definitely has a big role to play in some areas there. There are also interesting agro-forestry systems in Ireland the UK and N. America, but I would be skeptical about claims of higher yields. One issue is, can it be widely replicated, does it apply to temperate regions, is it a much more complex system which requires far more farm labour etc?
      Part of my discussion about permaculture is, what does it offer that isnt covered elsewhere? In other words, silvo-pasture and agro-forestry are not specific to something called “permaculture” which claims to be an all-encompassing “holistic” design-for-life system.
      I am not sure what Crawford means when he says a forest garden in the UK can support 10 people per acre- where is this demonstrated, since his own garden is not designed for yield as he states himself? Especially since they then go on to point out that Forest gardens cannot produce grains, which is where 50% of our calories come from. Crawford claims he achieves the same yield from nut trees as one can with organic wheat- this is believable ( I have seen his nut plantations myself) but I am not sure where this has been published as a peer-reviewed paper;
      but this is exactly where organic yields fall down the most, achieving only 60% on average of conventional. Note also that Crawford’s nut trees are grown as a mono-crop; it is also not clear how widely this could be achieved and how reliable the cropping is. Generally, nut trees lend themselves to hilly country where large mechanized farming is not suitable. It meets the image of bucolic back-to-nature lifestyle but it is unrealistic to think it could replace grains in general. Also, Crawford says sweet chestnuts have the same nutritional content as rice, but wheat is more nutritious than rice (higher protein).
      Hoskins’ film is largely about peak oil- a hypothesis I consider the have been falsified, as I have written elsewhere on this blog. In any case, she is confusing agriculture’s dependence on oil with that of gas- fertiliser, the main limitation for organic yields, is made from gas, not oil, and as we know, fracking has made vast quantities of natural gas available. Heinberg is simply wrong about this. In addition, it is technically possible to make nitrogen fertiliser from wind, which could even be done on-farm. And as with general permaculture small-farm philosophy, Hoskins and Heinberg specifically say there will have to be far more farmers, reversing the trend of the last century, which is simply not going to happen. I would support more small farmers for all sorts of reasons, they play an important role, but they will never replace large-scale industrial farming.

  12. That is the question, Can it be replicated here. I don’t see us getting as high a yield of nuts in this country.

    I was doing some research during the summer on the evolution of permaculture through book which were written on different subjects and realised that Millison and Holmgren only collated the information that was already there and gave it a cool name. Other than keyholes and the 5 zones I’m not sure what they really added to the whole subject other than a philosophy, unless of course they come from elsewhere.

    In regards to farm labour, it would obviously take a lot more energy to harvest from this kind of system as opposed to a tractor harvesting massive fields of wheat but if we take into consideration the cost of the tractor (plus the interest on the loan which was probably needed to buy it), the cost of running it (fuel, tax, maintenance) and the cost of housing it (al of which leaves the local economy to massive corporations) ,and compare these to the cost of paying a wage to more people to harvest an afro-forestry (or any type of system), money which would probably go back into a community, would it not be more beneficial for the economy on the whole to revert to this kind of human energy intense farming? Not forgetting the damage this kind of system is doing to the soil and ecosystem and of course we should consider the cap payment without which “modern” farming would not survive.

    Do you think a method simper to that which Masanobu Fukuoka wrote about and adapted to our climate and what we could grow would work here?

    • would it not be more beneficial for the economy on the whole to revert to this kind of human energy intense farming?

      well Im tempted to say, “you go first!” If people want to return to peasant agriculture then presumably they can. But noone chooses that: the “back-to-the-land” movement, including permaculture, is practiced largely by privileged people who also have subsidies in the form of the dole of grants; or for whom one of the parties at least has a cash income. The Organic movement for example is clearly a capitalist movement that has carved out a profitable nice by demonizing the competition (“Chemicals!”) and charging higher prices on a spurious claim of having a superior product. Where in reality is there a rich-world move back to labour-intensive farming other than purely as a lifestyle choice? I just dont see it anywhere, and I have been around those who promote it as an idea for nearly thirty years.

      So, no, obviously noone really wants to be a peasant farmer, they just like the idea of it. The movement is mainly promoted by paternalistic elites who have no intention of doing the hard graft themselves. This includes Fukuoka, who again appears to have zero data or published research to back up his extravagant claims of yield increases. See this interview with him.

      A Japanese college professor that went to Somalia and Ethiopia said this is the hell of the world. I said, “No, this is the entrance to heaven.” Those people have no money, no food, but they are very happy. The reason they are very happy is that they don’t have schools or teachers. They are happy carrying water, happy cutting the wood. It is not a hard thing for them to do; they truly enjoy doing that. Between noon and three it is very hot, but other than that, there is a breeze, and there are not flies or mosquitoes.

      So why isnt Fukuoka happy carrying water and chopping wood? Go figure. Many other leaders of the back-to-the -land movement are the same, from elitst backgrounds, eg Prince Charles, Goldsmith; everywhere in the green movement there is the romanticization of poverty by those who are not poor. That is what self-sufficiency is, poverty.

      As for whether modern farming systems are “sustainable” firstly: they are feeding the world. Abandon industrial agriculture and we will see famines like never before. Secondly, they need to improve, but these improvements are taking place and have been doing so for decades. Sustainable intensification methods allow yields to continue to increase while managing soil depletion etc; new crop varieties including GE are reducing the need for chemical inputs; a new technique called N-fix may even be able to dramatically reduce the need for synthetic fertiliser.

      • Hello Graham,
        what do you think about SRI and its adaptations to other crop (been thinking about how this could be supported by some mechanisation attempts)? And do you know whether N-fix is on the market yet? I would give it a try.

        • Hi Wolf
          It is not really clear what SRI actually is- what the farmers using this method actually do- or whether or not it “works” – certainly the claims made seem extravagant and in any case it appears to be an addendum to Big Ag, using labour-intensive plant care in addition to conventioanl inputs of herbicides and fertiliser. See discussion here and here.
          I have not heard anything recently about N-fix. It would certainly be big news if it works, but I don’t think it is out there yet.

          • I did some research. And there is a comparable method to SRI mentioned by Hans Egon Döblin in 1928. The only online source I found is German and a PDF on a permaculture side.. but the book can be had obiously.
            It says there, that he was able to yield 15 tons of wheat per hectare – but the method is cumbersome – obviously. I cannot say how reliable that is, but I know a man in Austria who did it on 200sqm and made about 10-12kg per 10sqm which is quite good for the first attempt.
            I will try it this and the next few years on small patches. If it should work I will try to build co-develop a robot mounted on a tractor capable of planting.
            Sure, the method could be enhanced by GMO, but not in my country (Germany).
            For me in the whole discussion about GMO, organic, permaculture and what not I rarely see arguments considering precision farming and robotics. I wouldn’t say that this is the silver bullet either, but helpful.

  13. «And note the unquestioned assumption that this kind of “reductionist” science leading to GMOs just has to be bad- see the Toby Hemenway quote at the start of the post. Brown effectively acknowledges that permaculture is a political ideology, yet cannot join the dots to see that it cannot therefore be a science.

    The strong link between permaculture and the reactionary anti-GMO movement is only too obvious to anyone who reads Permaculture Magazine, which campaigns actively on behalf of Vandana Shiva. Noone within the permaculture movement seems to have noticed that, given the challenges of keeping yields high in forest gardens while promoting biodiversity, and the much longer time-scales required to breed more suitable varieties of perennials and woody shrubs, genetic engineering should be seized upon as a great ally of permaculture.»

    I strongly feel that the most effective way to improve the sustainability of our economies will be to engineer our domesticated organisms to more effectively “work with nature” and also provide for us the energy efficient feedstock for new technologies to draw upon.

    I feel all approaches need to be tried. Paraphrasing Bruce Lee, adapt what is useful and reject what is useless. To know what is useful and what is useless, you need to test and measure. While there’s no reason to suspect a looming, vertiginous ecological catastrophe just around the corner, such a catastrophe would only be readily apparent in hindsight. Thus I feel that achieving long term sustainability and maximum flexibility in food production as quickly as possible may be crucial and acting with some urgency may be required.

    I also feel that the first and foremost measure of sustainability should be usable Calories produced per unit of land area. As long as our population is over 7 billion people and rising, any attempts to improve sustainability which do not give priority to this principle are deeply flawed almost by definition. This is specially so if you accept the premise that, no matter how wisely designed, no agricultural system is ever going to be an adequate replacement, biodiversity-wise, for the natural habitat it is eliminating. From a conservation standpoint, intensive agriculture, in minimizing land use, is not merely a good idea, it is a duty.

    If any of the ideas from permaculture can work toward these goals, they must be adopted. I totally agree that genetic engineering and other inputs from modern science are likely to be the only way to make that possible and, rather than being discarded from our tool chest, should be embraced. For instance, to reap the possible advantages from making perennial crops more prominent in food production, we will surely need to make current perennial crops better suited to intensive agriculture or to derive perennial crop varieties from current crops that, though well suited to intensive agriculture, currently exist only as annual plants.

    * Even if one sees no intrinsic value in natural habitat and believes that global disruption of ecosystems is likely to have only manageable consequences for the foreseeable future (a deeply flawed view, in my opinion), the fact that all of the prime arable land in the world is already in use has, in and of itself, dire implications to the expansion of the land area devoted to agriculture. Namely, diminishing returns for additional land area converted into agricultural production are certain. In other words, as more land area is diverted into agricultural use, the additional area thus diverted becomes, by necessity, less and less productive.

  14. «The strong link between permaculture and the reactionary anti-GMO movement is only too obvious to anyone who reads Permaculture Magazine, which campaigns actively on behalf of Vandana Shiva.»

    On the subject of Vandana Shiva, here’s an interview in which we can see her awkwardly equivocating over these very same issues:

  15. Part of my discussion about permaculture is, what does it offer that isnt covered elsewhere? In other words, silvo-pasture and agro-forestry are not specific to something called “permaculture” which claims to be an all-encompassing “holistic” design-for-life system
    It’s like you’re saying architects have no role, because everyone knows it’s engineers that make buildings. Engineers keep making the same buildings, architects take up the challenge to design something new. A good designer isn’t defined by designing their own tools, but knowing what is possible with the tools available.

    if your goal was reducing dependency on fossil fuels- one of the core aims of the general sustainability movement- you would do better to focus on insulation and getting rid of the car rather than the main preoccupation of growing one’s own food, which accounts for a relatively small proportion of our carbon footprint.
    Yes, but there is a lot to do, and food is one area everyone can take some action on and learn by doing (building a turf roof, insulation, and a bike trailer from coppice timber, transport, are in the canon too though). From housing to transport to packaging to resource management to remediation, other fruitful areas for permaculture generally require knowledge of an industry, of techniques, of regulation. The first step is being empowered enough to imagine things designed differently, by finding a place to make a change.

    claiming to be developing pockets of intelligent “natural” design which act as prototypes for an alternative to the modern industrial world
    Biomatrix Water have done a feasibility study on sustainable urban drainage for Glasgow that is one of the best examples of permaculture I know of. Their design aims to facilitate development of land held up because of lack of additional capacity to deal with runoff from paving and roofs that go with development, to improve water quality in terms of sediments & organic pollutants, substantially improve biodiversity while dealing with blu-green algae & duckweed blooms, and potentially even support food growing (chinampa style), all while beautifying our cities and making our waterways and boating lakes healthier nicer places to be (improving tourism besides). These floating islands have now been used in Manilla, the Philipenes, China, Liverpool and London, with plans for Chicago, Manchester & more. I was particularly impressed by the tracing of phosphates through aquatic systems in order to calculate the needed capacity for them. Galen Fulford who developed this technology is a permaculture teacher, and the work of Biomatrix featured in Permaculture Magazine autumn 2012.

    mostly they produce cellulose, largely in the form of wood. So contrary to common PC lore, Nature has to be tweaked to improve productivity, usually a lot, even beyond recognition. And ‘using nature as a model for design’ is not to be taken literally
    “Leontino [Balbo] has achieved what many people thought impossible, yet it’s had little influence on the global debate. Public scientific and political attention has focused on technological fixes to give us the extra food we need, GM, precision farming intensification. But if sugar can be produced on that scale by recreating natures way, what about other more essential foods. Can we produce grains that way?”
    This is quote from
    Hugel beds are a similar recognition that cellulose may be the best alternative to synthetic or animal derived fertilisers, which are unavailable or unaffordable for much of the world.

    Where in reality is there a rich-world move back to labour-intensive farming other than purely as a lifestyle choice? Leontino Balbo, the producer of around one third of the worlds organically grown sugar, achieves yields around 30% higher yields than conventional farms in his area.

    Of course there are costs and benefits, inputs and outputs: in the real world, outside Big Rock Candy Mountain, these issues are commonly dealt with under “accounting”
    Yep. And it’s been nothing like real cost accounting, which looks set to sort the muddle out you are so proud of ( Conventional agriculture’s accounting has been done so sloppily in the UK that almost no sectors of it, could work without subsidies – ones which especially in uplands have been managed against the nations social and environmental interests ( through a bizarre system that sees a tiny number of landowners able to pass on land without inheritance tax, and excludes people from having the real stakes in the countryside that would bring the innovations and diversification needed there, and sustain the engagement with creating new (or recreating) livelihoods there (e.g. by following

    This radio programme struck me as a great example of a simple permaculture design around plastic:
    It is simply over-engineered for the vast majority of short term and one-off uses we put it to, and worryingly persistent in the environment. So, the process goes: how far can you do without? replace? reuse? recycle innovatively? Then apply a mix of those, along side a recognition that making less stuff if we don’t need it, minimises the problem to be solved. Redesign our lives.

    The attitude of careful use of resources accords with peak oil (which I too am sceptical of), but also with efficient resource management, which will be the hallmark of successful economies of the future. See for instance

    In summary, all you have to say that sticks is that permaculture has a history of aversion to science and quantitative methods – and as the permaculture movement gains momentum and scale, these are being addressed in food production as well as many other areas, such as those I mention here.

    • I dont see you are adding anything to the discussion here- just going round again with the same points I have already addressed.

      It’s like you’re saying architects have no role

      not at all- the distinct role of architects and engineers is clear: “permaculture designers” are just “designers”- what is distinctive about them is nebulous claims about being “holistic” and having some special magical powers to join everything up, as if other designers do not. In reality the opposite is more likely to be true: permaculture designers are less likely to have a professional training; their belief that they have unique skills just shows how little they know Im afraid!

      Yes, but there is a lot to do, and food is one area everyone can take some action on and learn by doing (building a turf roof, insulation, and a bike trailer from coppice timber, transport, are in the canon too though). From housing to transport to packaging to resource management to remediation, other fruitful areas for permaculture generally require knowledge of an industry, of techniques, of regulation. The first step is being empowered enough to imagine things designed differently, by finding a place to make a change.

      I think this shows the problem of what Lomborg calls trying to feel good rather than actually doing good: cults succeed because the entry bar is so low: as you say, anyone can do simple tasks like growing veg and feel they are part of a World Changing Movement, when really they are just feeling good, assuaging their guilt perhaps, but doing nothing to address real problems which they are in any case mis-diagnosing. People who have never grown a carrot do a bit of mulching and suddenly they are experts on agronomy and are going to save the world. This is exactly how cults work. Why can you not just have an allotment or garden or practice DIY without being subsumed and used by “community leaders” and “social entrepreneurs” to bolster their profile and book sales? Doing stuff is good; doing stuff with groups of friends and your local community can be brilliant. But if you end up with a soical movement that thinks it is changing the world by replacing industrial agriculture with home gardens or fossil fuels with diffuse renewables then you have a problem, not a solution.

      The examples you give of recycling etc are excellent but you seem to be just trawling around for anything that looks good and then claiming it for permaculture! That’s not going to work; there really is no such thing as permaculture, just “good design” and “bad design”; you cannot claim other people’s projects for your cult, that’s just naughty!

      You reference a publication by the extrememly partisan and ideologically motivated Sustainable Food Trust, further supporting my case of a cult in operation here: one of the authors Patrick Holden is an Anthroposophist. That I think is your problem. See discussion here. Even as you try to refute my argument, your own examples just provide more evidence to support it.

      In summary, all you have to say that sticks is that permaculture has a history of aversion to science and quantitative methods – and as the permaculture movement gains momentum and scale, these are being addressed in food production as well as many other areas, such as those I mention here.

      I see no evidence at all that the permaculture community is addressing these issues, certainly not in food or energy. It is fundamentally anti-science, strongly aligned with Anthroposophy, organics and the anti-GE lobby; in energy, fundamentally anti-nuclear and anti-fracking; on climate completely alarmist. You are strongly re-inforcing that view, not challenging it.

  16. Dear Graham,

    I have some points I have questions to you, is there a chance to write you an email? Otherwise the comments may get 1 DIN A4 or even longer.

    Thank you

  17. I find it interesting, to say the least, that while you claim science and quantitative research to be your measure in defining Permaculture as a pseudoscience, you fail to include a single refereed scientific journal article to support your argument. Instead, you make reference to unscientific Blog postings like the “sheet mulching” which are so demonstrably incorrect.
    I would encourage you to take a walk through an established (10 years old) food forest built on previously unproductive land and understand that Permaculture abundance means producing more than you need, not feeding the world from a flat paddock/field. If everyone produced food on their land (like we use to do in the 1930s and 40s) the need for food with high carbon miles would be dramatically reduced. Permaculture practices are good design and gardening, but they are based on a much more laudable premise that discourages a reliance on fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and GMO.

    • Linda Chalker-Scott’s analysis of sheet-mulching is as far as I know distilled from a review of the peer-reviewed literature; why is it “demonstrably incorrect”- she acknowledges that cardboard sheet-mulches can be an effective short-term weed0supprsssing measure, but are not recommended long-term because they form impermeable barriers to the soil.
      In general I have not included any other peer-reviewed references since there was no need to- “permaculture” makes claims that are not backed up by any evidence. It is just faith- your comment that I should walk through an established food-forest is just another anecdote- where is your data?? as if to say “just believe…” It is obviously possible to plant things and improve the soil and restore eco-systems (by various means); this does not demonstrate the low-input, high-output claims of permaculture.
      Re food miles- studies have shown that transportation accounts for only a small amount of the embodied energy in food (farm inputs, machinery, harvesting, refrigeration all account for more.) Obviously it depends on the kind of food and how it is transported, but huge container ships chugging around the planet do not add much embodied energy per unit of food for meat, dairy or staples.

      • It is not my intention to engage in a protracted conversation with you, but just a couple of comments:
        1. I’ve used sheet mulching to convert a non-productive area of my property into a highly productive area. The plants that I’d planted 5 years ago have become vigorous and very healthy in less than 12 months since the sheet mulching went down and it is now possible to dig a hole in the ground without the use of a crowbar. The soil is moist and dark and has become productive without the addition of any fertiliser or other soil conditioning agents. I’ve seen no scientific evidence that suggests “they form impermeable barriers to the soil” and this has not happened on my property. The cardboard simply breaks down and disappears.

        2. Oil and other fossil fuels are currently quite cheap, but this will not last. Have a look at the oil price trend over the past 10 years ( In ten years time the price of oil will have more than doubled, and that assumes no shortages in supply. It is more likely that over the next 50 years the trend will be exponential rather than linear. Permaculture farm fossil fuel inputs are much lower than that of a commercial property because the farming is small scale, intensive and seeks only to meet the needs of its residents with the surplus shared with local people.

        I’m not saying that all the claims some chose to make about permaculture are scientifically correct, they are not. It is our responsibility to bring those false claims to account, as it is to correct others, like yourself, who make or support claims that are in error.

        I can only suggest that you try it yourself and make your conclusions based on what you observe and consume. Life is not about supermarket consumption and disconnection from the land, it is about being connected to your food, being confident about what you chose to consume and what effect that will have on the long-term sustainability of humans on earth.

        • On account of his ‘About’ page, I have to guess Graham must have some level of experience in this. At least I would hope so.


        • Yes I have done tone of lasagne mulching myself, it has pros and cons. I actually stopped using it a couple of years ago because although it is effective at suppressing weeds I found it time-consuming to collect and lay enough cardboard. After a few months tough perennial weeds would come through anyway. It is fine as a short-term measure, as you say it breaks down, so can be helpful- but then weeds will come back and to repeatedly add cardboard may not be good for the soil in the long run. So wood-chip is better, more breathable. I find it easier to get straw so I tend to use this quite thickly which is much faster and handier and seems to do at least as good a job.
          As for oil price, well you could be a rich man if you can predict the prices in even 5years never mind 10! Predictions of oil getting scarce have been wrong for a very long time. In the US at least gas is cheap and abundant and substituting for oil for transport fuels in haulage so slowly we will use less oil Im sure, but we will find substitutes. I predict prices will vary 🙂

  18. Wasn’t food production in the 30s and 40s largely (for the time) high tech, intensive and centrally organized from ’39 onwards? As for food miles, the whole system was supported by Atlantic Convoys bringing resources of all sorts fronm the USA and beyond. I agree that more allotments and more city gardens might well be a good thing – we’d all get more exercise for a start even if efficiency in production was poor – but the 1930s anf 40s is an era I would not want to emulate; powdered egg, spam and chicory ‘coffee’ anyone?

  19. When you compare permaculture and commercial agriculture (or any two systems) I think it’s important that your evaluation includes ALL consequences of both systems, not just the “yields”. This is a major issue in “value” analysis, especially for capitalist economic systems, which are notorious for invisible (hidden) externalities. I think it would be useful to include a complete list of consequences in your analysis (intentional, unintentional, positive, negative). The comparative value of both systems could then be more fully validated.
    There are 2 issues that do puzzle me about the permaculture domain. First, why are there equal numbers of men/women in the practice, but nearly all of the “idols” (leaders) are men? Secondly, why is the practitioner population so predominantly white/middle-class? There is obviously some causality here, but I can’t identify it. An empirical analysis would be interesting if you had the time to do it.

    • Yes I have discussed this on other posts, eg see latter half of discussion here.
      The main impact of any kind of farming is clearing the forests; so higher yields per acre means less land cleared, more land for the forests.
      Since Organics even to maintain the yields it currently has to depend on a Nitrogen subsidy from conventional agriculture, it is a moot point as to how to compare- the systems co-exist really more than it might seem.
      The thing is, food isnt optional- yield has to come first, regardless of the impact (even though obviously it is desirable to limit this as much as possible)- the down-playing of the importance of yield by well-fed food-secure westerners I think provides an answer to part of your second points. “Grub first.”
      Agro-forestry and permaculture are attempts to keep (part of) the forest intact while producing food also- but yields are lower in most cases, so it is swings and roundabouts. Agro-forestry certainly has a role to play, but cannot substitute for high-yielding arable crops.
      Consider Haughley experiments. The trial using synthetic fertilizer has maintained high yields consistently for decades- why change? If we can improve it, great- but not at the expense of yield.
      Ofcourse permaculture depends on the belief that use of fossil fuels is “unsustainable”. Maybe ultimately they are- but it only takes about 1% of the world’s natural gas supplies to supply all our current needs for fertiliser; it is also possible to use electrolysis/methanation to manufacture synthetic fertiliser from the air, using wind/solar/nuclear. We are not running out of gas any time soon.

      • There’s a very well known concept in economics called marginal utility. It basically means that the amount of utility you derive from consuming something is not constant and that every bit of additional excess consumption will yield ever diminishing returns in obtained utility. I think in environmentalism there should exist a concept of marginal harm (perhaps this already exists in economics and I don’t know of it because of my ignorance on the subject?). This would entail the recognition of the fact that the ratio of the harm from externalities due to the consumption of resources divided by the amount of resources consumed is also not a constant.

        For instance, I think that one could reasonably argue that if we were using 1% of our land mass for agricultural production changing our agricultural production methods to ones which required a doubling of land use might very well have negligible environmental impact in the big scheme of things*. One could also reasonably argue that if the proportion of land devoted to agriculture was closer to 40%, switching to a technology which doubled land use could be nothing but catastrophic. I would further argue that every additional acre in use under the first scenario would be producing substantially less harm than every additional acre in use under the second scenario.

        I think that this is the context in which the comparison between intensive agriculture and more allegedly ecologically benign alternatives should take place. Of course, the same concept would also apply to carbon emissions (when the level of carbon emissions is small enough to be lost in the noise of the carbon cycle, additional emissions are much less harmful than when the level of carbon emissions is massive –as is currently the case).

        * One could easily contrive scenarios where this would not be so but that would be tangential to my point.

  20. On the one hand, I said I’d make a comment on this site. On the other, I see from the comments that you have had some fairly extensive interaction on this topic already and I’m not sure that anything I add will do more than provoke inflammatory remarks so I’m inclined to limit anything I have to say. Also, I’ve just written a thesis that alludes to ‘attitude polarisation’ of the kind I see here, which I identified as an unhelpful way of engaging. So, if possible, let’s agree to respect one another’s position without disparaging it. In any case, I’m not sure that you will find my take on this enlightening, since I am coming at this as a comparative philosopher, not as a scientist. However, I asked that question on Twitter because I live in rural west Mayo where the greatest problem for gardening is salt and wind, and I am interested in seeing what I can do to allow the land we have access to (an acre – there are four of us) to recover somewhat from its role, in previous generations, as a dump, a latrine, a drained field, a bog, and before then, possibly, an area that was covered in native forest. I don’t believe that one can ‘rewild’ (I would follow Robert Elliot, who called that process ‘faking nature’ on that). But I also don’t believe, as so much of what you say implies, that this is a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation. There is not ‘Nature’ over there (to be tweaked, thwarted, or otherwise engaged with) and ‘Humanity’ (or even just Graham) over here (to be defended, by himself, in the face of the ignorance of much of the rest of the species) on the other. Rather, we are enmeshed. I’m not ideologically attached to this position. It’s simply the way things are. I’m interested in permaculture because I think it might be interesting to see if systems can restore themselves, if we pay attention to how energy dissipates and matter cycles. In other words, I’m interested in seeing if a scientific basis exists to support the claims it makes. I see that you clearly don’t think so. Nevertheless, I think that this points to lack of research, rather than to an established body of evidence that permaculture is not beneficial to the evolved systems that it works through. From what I can understand from the comments, you’ve used ‘no dig’ gardening (which I think sounds like a useful process and scientifically supportable – you don’t rejig soil layers that have established microorganisms in particular ecological patterns and therefore the soil acts as a better basis for germination, etc). Anyhow, nuff said, eh? Thanks.

    • I think the “them and us” attitude comes very much from the “alternative” farmers, inc permaculture, Organics etc; it is a problem of their creating based on greatly exaggerating both the benefits of their proposed methods and the problems of mainstream agriculture. People should be free to practice the farming method they choose, under proper regulation, without one group – largely consisting of consumers and hobbyists- demonizing the professionals. It is this that I am taking issue with here.

      I think that this points to lack of research, rather than to an established body of evidence that permaculture is not beneficial to the evolved systems that it works through.

      Yes, this is exactly the claim made by Brown and Ferguson above- I think I have addressed this in the post that pretty comprehensively!! There is no definable, identifiable set of practices called “permaculture”; on the other hand, there is plenty of science on nearly every aspect of agriculture, which informs how most farmers actually farm. The problem is, permaculture people are largely ignorant of this- they are not agronomists, and instead choose to operate an alternative “science” which largely involves re-inventing the wheel. Brown clearly believes something called “permaculture” works, all we need to do is collect the data! That’s not how science works…

      No-dig is good on a small scale. Harder in a wet climate like West Ireland as it is harder to hoe effectively. Then you should make good use of green manures and lots of mulch (watch the slugs!)
      The benefits of no-till farming are fully understood and accepted amongst agronomists and agricultural scientist, and there has been very significant increase of this where Roundup Ready GMOs are permitted– something “alternative” farmers completely reject. No-till is much harder for Organic farmers of course since they cannot use herbicides.

      Lucy, there is already a well-established and hugely successful science of farming and ecology. It is unfortunate that so many have chosen to reject it, even though it is through this science that they themselves have enough to eat.

  21. What things do permaculture teachers say that don’t seem true?

    Well, as a permaculture teacher myself this could be a trick question- naturally I don’t say anything that isn’t true! But I guess the main thing promoted that is not true is that there is a king of magical “system” called permaculture, nased on un…

  22. And where, really, is this careful measurement to be found anywhere in permaculture?

    Mark Sheperd

  23. Steven Blackthorne

    One sentence stood out among many good ones in this post: “Permies don’t do numbers.” Right. Because quantification is quite outside of their way of thinking. Quantification means thinking like an engineer, making calculations to find practical solutions.

    They are most decidedly NOT engineers. They are ideologues and romantic dreamers, misguided ones, at that. This is one thing that I love so much about Stewart Brand. He thinks big, he dreams big, but in the end, he wants pragmatic solutions. He wants numbers that add up. It’s the fundamental difference between the romantic dreamer and the engineer.

    Brand was right on the money when he wrote about how romantics love tragedy. They don’t truly want solutions. “The romantics distrust engineers, sometimes correctly, for their hubris, and are uncomfortable with the prospect of fixing things, because the essence of tragedy is that it can’t be fixed. Romantics love problems…”

  24. So, there are problems with permaculture, but some scientists deny climate change and you don’t throw out science as a result, right? PC is an open network which anyone can make claims for and it has attracted all sorts, but at best it can be a sustainability design system, which I think is something which is really worth having. I treat all claims of PC as untested hypotheses, which are unlikely to be generalisable. A lot of it is a collection of ideas to try out and see what works where you are. One of the biggest problems I see is that people have taken a process which was conceived to meet needs of a household or community aiming to be low maintenance but not necessarily high yield, and to extrapolate to contributing to global food security. BTW industrial ag doesn’t optimise land-use efficiency either – it aims to maximise profit not production. Which would do better without petrochemicals? But PC would benefit from a process by which claims can be confirmed or refuted – it needs science.

  25. For me the only attraction of permaculture is as a way of combining a pleasant informal garden with some fresh fruit and veg, and relatively low maintenance. Include a sunny clearing, somewhere to sit, a bottle of wine ( not English! ), some olives…….

    Much more pleasant than a veg garden that’s bare earth for half the year and all the hassle of rotation, replanting each year and so on. Seriously, every Waitrose shopper should have one. But as a way to feed the world – maybe not.

  26. I learned about the perma-“cult” the hard way. When slogging through an engineering degree I was thoroughly disenchanted with I absorbed the idea of peak oil and then in seeking a solution permaculture. I then spent the rest of my twenties thoroughly obsessed with both peak oil and permaculture. Eventually reality soaked in, not a single permie farm or permie geared project that I had “interned” visited or worked on was even obtaining their ambigous goals. It was not for lack of exploring many of the “succesfull” or innovative permies either, I believe I’ve seen all the big names in the US. I was at that point thoroughly depressed and with my peak oil conviction considered humanity thoroughly doomed. I took multiple initiations with various spiritual teachers seeking some transcendent purpose for a doomed world which even resulted oddly enough in all the classic symptoms of spiritual awakening.

    But I was broke and where it not for a very ironic twist of fate that I was more less forced to work my way out of debt on an oil rig I never would have completely unwound the ideological center which locked me into such a worldview. I’m not about to try to counter the peak oil argument here, all I can say is that from first hand talks with numerous geologists and petro engineers that peak oil doomerism fails to grasp many important facets of the oil industry say a simple price vs resource availability curve for one. I was incredible naive and gullible and I think predisposed due to my discontent to fall for such a theory promoted by people with little knowledge of the oil industry. Even more gullible to fall into a desperate search for a future with a group of pastoral idealists who can’t seem to face up to the facts that their systems don’t work.

    None of this is to say that the holistic framework or systems designs within some permie groups don’t have relevance or utility nor is it to say that the the oil markets will not be volatile and that humanity will have to face the challenge of securing its energy over the early part of this century from new sources. We have as a society many profound challenges, its just I am much more willing to bet that industrialism will evolve and solve these challenges in little bits pieces and hacks, none of which will be particularly pleasing to people like myself who for whatever reason crave some holy grail utopic solultion.

  27. Hi, my friend has been trying to convince me of this “new”, “amazing” idea. It’s such nonsense, so thank you ever so much for having critiqued this stuff!

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