My last post generated a couple of interesting responses from within the permaculture community.
Most notably on Twitter, Rafter Sass Ferguson drew my attention to him with this odd comment:
Not worth re-tweeting @Skepteco‘s fallacy-ridden hatchet job on permaculture. A few valid points sadly lost in the troll bedding. Avoid.
— Rafter Sass Ferguson (@RafterSass) October 13, 2013
I thought this odd, since on his own website Liberation Ecology Ferguson states
I’m Rafter Sass Ferguson, and I do agroecology, political ecology, and permaculture.
which confirms at least one of my main points, that permaculture is a political ideology and movement rather than a science. Ferguson responded that “for me, unlike you, “political” and “social movement” are not naive epithets or kneejerk dismissals.” – but his next tweet seemed even more bizarre:
@Skepteco Despite yr fetishization of Science, piece displays zero awareness of most relevant discipline by which to judge pc: agroecology.
— Rafter Sass Ferguson (@RafterSass) October 15, 2013
Yet Ferguson is committed to gaining scientific credibility for permaculture- the same science that he blithely accuses me of “fetishising.” In fact, he has just had a paper called Permaculture for Agroecology accepted by the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. One of the main themes of this interesting paper, which reviews three decades of permaculture in the academic literature, is the uneasy relationship between permaculture and science. Indeed, Ferguson covers many of the same points that I do:
The manuscript follows a stratified definition of permaculture as design system, best practice framework, worldview, and movement.
Ferguson refers to the “agro-ecological transition”, by which I presume he means a political shift away from large-scale industrial agriculture towards a perhaps socialist movement of smallholders and small farmers as exemplified by La Via Campesina.
In his paper, he quickly identifies that the lack of a clear definition for permaculture is one of the main stumbling blocks:
the difficulty of providing a clear and distinguishing description of permaculture can cause confusion and hinder rigorous and systematic discussion.
He goes onto note that
While permaculture has a distinctive description of the techniques for which it advocates, few if any of those techniques originated from within the permaculture milieu. Permaculture practices are often adopted from or inspired by traditional agroecological systems, as in the case of tropical home gardens and the permaculture “food forest” (Mollison and Holmgren 1978).
even suggesting that
The “herb spiral,” a mound garden design proposed by Mollison for the production of culinary herbs, may be the only practice to have emerged from the permaculture movement itself (Mollison 1988).
In other words, “permaculture”- as a land-use design system- is almost indistinguishable from agro-ecology, and yet Ferguson seems determined to nevertheless carve out a distinctive niche for it as one approach to agro-ecology. While acknowledging that permaculturalists frequently exaggerate yields from their preferred polycultures, and tend to ignore the challenges (such as far more labour requirements) of establishing complex systems, he does not address in the paper (or elsewhere that I have found) the issue of lower yields in some agro-ecological systems.
He discusses at length much of the same issues that I cover, also quoting Chalker-Scott with regard to plant guilds and invasive species:
In response to internal and external criticism from native plant advocates over the extreme versions of this position (Grayson 2003; Holmgren 2004; Hemenway 2009), many permaculturists have moderated their views on species selection and regard nativity as an important consideration alongside functional criteria (Jacke and Toensmeier 2005; Hemenway 2009). Conflicts on this topic continue, however (Gehron and Webster 2012).
Ferguson notes that permaculture has been largely isolated from main-stream science, with obvious consequences:
The permaculture literature assigns the blame for this isolation on the inability of scientists and institutions to comprehend or appreciate the radical proposals put forth by permaculture…
there are cumulative effects from decades of relative isolation that go beyond the lack of research on permaculture systems. These include the lack of awareness, in the perma- culture literature, of contemporary developments in relevant science, the accompanying persistence of idiosyncratic or misleading terminology, and the potential for influence of pseudo-scientific theories. The idiosyncratic use of scientific and scientific-sounding terms, together with permaculture’s heterodox stance on issues such as species selection, has persuaded some writers to label permaculture as a pseudo- science (Chalker-Scott 2010).
In short, Ferguson largely agrees with the points that I have made, making his refusal to engage with me- despite initiating the twitter exchange himself- all the odder.
Ferguson has also discussed the definition of permaculture on a couple of recent blogposts, debating Toby Hemenway’s article (which I quoted at the start of my own post). Hemenway himself joins in the comments:
I have never argued that it is a design science. It’s not a science, because we rely on pragmatic “does it work or not?” methods far more than on a scientific search for falsification or mechanism. And I don’t think of it as a discipline. Disciplines have boundaries, and permaculture is highly inter-disciplinary. I find it most useful—meaning most productive of insight, guidance toward valuable work, and having broadest application—to think of it as a design approach, which, because it links and transcends disciplinary boundaries, can be used to solve virtually any challenge we’re facing. “Approach” is not a great word, but it’s the best I have been able to come up with. Permaculture is a pattern of strategy development for arriving at sustainable solutions to almost any problem.
Right- so it is not a science, just anecdotal, which means it is undoubtedly making a lot of mistakes and is of limited use in the first place; but as a “design approach” permaculture can solve all our problems! “Cult” flashes large in my minds’ eye when I hear such grandiose claims- this is surely a self-fulfilling prophecy in which any “solution” (as if we can even agree on what constitutes such) to any problem can be retrospectively identified as being “permaculture”.
(See also this comment under The Cult of Perma: “Permaculture is an integrated response to how best to be.” And how exactly is that, and how do we know it is the best?)
The discussion goes back and forth as to whether permaculture is a “movement” or just a design practice; Ferguson is adamant it should be explicitly seen as a movement and hence inherently political- the self-reliant community of small-farmer agro-ecologist collectives juxtaposed with large-scale industrial corporate agribusiness- while Hemenway obviously disagrees (though not, as I argued in my first post, particularly coherently).
Science is not based in ethics; Permaculture is. Permaculture is not only a design science.
These ethics- “Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares” – are probably the most vague part of the whole permacultural literature, quite abstract and undefined. “Earth Care” and “People Care” are clearly in conflict with each other in practically every environmental issue you could name, once you buy into Mollison’s initial premise that society is in over-shoot and the only way out is a radical change of direction, as indicated by permaculture. For example, fracking for shale gas will look after people by giving them cheap energy, but at some environmental (hugely exaggerated) cost;
industrial farming has liberated billions from the drudgery of peasant agriculture, but at a cost of loss of biodiversity and pollution, and the expense of non-renewable fossil fuels.
Predictably, despite paying lip-service to science and its value for giving credence to permaculture, Ferguson is more than happy to spread pseudo-scientific misinformation about GMOs:
— Rafter Sass Ferguson (@RafterSass) October 21, 2013
How I wonder does he equate the wooly permaculture “ethic” of People Care with his support for a movement dedicated to lying about health risks even when this hinders the development of humanitarian projects such as Golden Rice, a biofortified rice variety which could save millions from blindness and death, but which is fiercely opposed by most of the environmental movement?
This is the contradiction at the heart of all environmentalism, at least the Dark Green type, which I think clearly includes permaculture: People Care very often conflicts with Earth Care. I have never seen this obvious issue discussed anywhere within the permaculture community, and until it is confronted, permaculture will remain a misanthropic cult.