What is Permaculture?

My interview for 21st Century Permaculture

Stefan Geyer, chair of the UK Permaculture Association, interviewed me recently for his show 21st Century Permaculture.
I met Stefan almost exactly 10 years ago at the European Permaculture Convergeance in Croatia, and I started teaching permaculture at Kinsale College immediately afterwards. Since I am just about to take a years’ career break (to take an MSc in Agroforestry at Bangor, Wales), and Stefan is chairing the International Permaculture Convergeance in London next week, this was a good opportunity to catch up and take stock and discuss what permaculture is and where it is going in the 21st Century.

Having had a chance to listen to it again here are a few reflections on what we discussed:

Stefan always starts his show by asking interviewees to give their definition of permaculture. This is interesting in itself- there are numerous definitions given, none of them really helping. Andy Goldring for example- who was also with us in Croatia and is current CEO of the UK PC Association, gives a very clear account of what it is: Defintion: a Design System based on natural systems for sustainability, which has Ethics and Design Principles. This is probably close to what I would have said 10 years ago- or up to just 5 years ago- but the problem is, none of this tells us what it actually is or how to do it:

The Ethics of Permaculture are generally given as “Earth Care” “People Care” and “Fair Shares”. OK- but does this tell us how to behave, or even how to garden? Does it tell us whether to use GMOs or not? Does it tell us whether local food is better than global trade? One person’s Earth Care is another’s Eco-cide. “People Care” sounds completely wooley, and in terms of how it is mainly delivered through PC courses, it is.
This blog post by a person unknown on the UK PC Association website will not enlighten you as to what it is, and in fact is the most garbled and confused piece of writing I have read about anything in a long time:

Next, reality is extremely complex and intimidating. Food/health scares (the evils of sugar, study links red meat to cancer), violence, toxic products and climate change – to name but a few – are never off the agenda. Your confidence is shaken, perhaps you have been personally affected by these stories. And there are always people behind each story. Is caring for these people, caring for ‘them’, possible?

Say what? Apart from learning that Blair and Bush are “not the men for the job” it reads more like someone’s untrammelled flow of consciousness. What can climate change mean for People Care- build windmills and cut back, even as a billion or two People do not yet have access to electricity? Or take the “Ecomodernist” approach of pushing towards a High Energy Planet with advanced nuclear reactors? Permaculture cannot in itself tell us which is the best way to care for either people or planet- yet there are strong but hidden assumptions that this could not involve nuclear power or fracking for natural gas.

At the forthcoming Convergeance Looby Macnamara is giving a workshop on “Personal Permaculture”. She is also the author of the main text on the subject, “People and Permaculture”. Drawing on Deep Ecology aswell as Ken Wilbur’s “Integral” approach, along with many other strands of personal self-help and psychology, this work again tells us nothing specific: zero data or analysis on the real world of concrete choices, trade-offs and paradoxes, while she occasionally sails dangerously close to the rocky shores of woo:

In the 20 years since Rod Everett has been practising and teaching permaculture he has only visited the doctor a few times, mainly to get a diagnosis of symptoms. Homeopathy, herbs , pressure points and specific exercises have helped to balance his body. He believes everyone can unlock their potential for healing. We can enable ourselves as healers by knowing the resources we have internally available to us, and exploring the gift of healing.

If you are looking for an example of Bad permaculture, there you go, right there. This is outright quackery being advocated here- how is that People Care in any rational sense? Homeopathy and medicine-by-anecdote is very harmful to people. If I were asked to write a People Care book I would have to start with critical thinking and how to search for evidence: the crucial first step to make a better world has to be better information and better training in how to interpret such information. Alas, I see no evidence that Permaculture can deliver this.

Similarly, the Permaculture Principles- which exist in different forms- might be a useful thinking tool for a beginner designer- “Let each element in the design have more than one function” is useful, but not specific to Permaculture- all good functional design would include multi-functional elements. For the most part, the PC Principles are just vague aphorisms, and indeed Holmgren, when he re-wrote them some years ago, linked each one with a traditional proverb: “A stitch in time saves nine” “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” “Make hay while the sun shines” and so on- invoking the common sense wisdom of our fore-father’s in the homely life on the farms of yesteryear. Well, we already have the proverbs- what does permaculture add to that? Again, nothing specific- but the two of main influences on Holmgren- Steiner and Schumacher (“Small is Beautiful”) tell us all we need to know: Permaculture is an ideological movement rooted in the much broader anti-modernist and retro-romantic movements that have been around since the beginning of the modern era.

This is why I gave my definition of permaculture as being a political and ideological movement rather than a system of design. Yes, there is agroforestry, and that is a real thing; but agroforestry doesn’t claim to have a “whole systems approach” which by defintion means it encompasses an entirely new way of doing everything– including something as nebulous as “people care”. You can do agroforestry without claiming that all agriculture must be converted to such systems in order to save the planet, and without being anti-GMO and anti- “monoculture”- which doesnt mean what people think it means, or what they learn it means on most permaculture courses.

That it claims to be a unique “holistic” design system is anyway belied by the other frequently cited definition of permaculture- that it is “Revolution disguised as Organic Gardening.” This is closer to the truth- a regressive and ultra-conservative political movement, full of New Age woo and quackery, that pretends to be about gardening- but -note- *Organic Gardening*, not complex polycultures or forest gardens with tree crops and perennial understory’s “Designed by Nature”. Very few people have created such gardens, and Martin Crawford’s successful plantation of walnuts and sweet chestnuts in Devon is essentially a true monoculture (you cannot rotate nut trees!), the grass tightly mowed beneath to ensure that the nuts can actually be collected. Yes, his nearby forest garden is fantastically diverse, full of unusual greens and fruit, but this cannot replace broadscale grains produced in ever-increasing yields by Big Ag.
The vast majority of permaculture course graduates will not know this however, they will leave instead convinced they can replace the evils of modern agriculture with forest gardens full of Gingkos and Turkish Rocket without ever having to have compared yields. Permies dont do numbers.
And after all that, mainly they will go forth and do normal Organic gardens with rows of carrots and broccoli. This is the reality of permaculture in the real world, as practiced by thousands of design course graduates: sure, fruit and nut trees, but mainly, for the most part, just annual veg.

John Seymour would be proud- in truth, there is little to distinguish anything you will find in permaculture- including pig tractors!- from what he was writing about in the self-sufficiency movement of the 1960s and 70s. Permaculture is basically that plus a load of New Age faff and Dark Green political activism.

Undeterred by my “sharp and bitter” critiques of the movement, Stefan was keen to defend it, largely on the basis that getting out into Nature from the city is really good and anything that can help people experience this has got to be good. Ah, but that is exactly how cults work- there are thousands of ways people can get out into nature, from wildlife and hiking groups, to family fun days and camping holidays. What does permaculture have to offer that is extra? See above- the ideology- that modern life is rubbish and humans are bad and destroying the environment, and that we need an entirely new World Order, a complete system overhall, one that Permaculture can offer and that will make everything Whole and Nice and Pure again.

How many permaculture course invite people to consider that we need technology to protect ourselves from Nature? That being materially wealthy in an industrial society allows us to enjoy the natural world far more, without being at its mercy, either from being eaten by a bear or starving to death? How many even learn enough about history and ecology to understand that in most of the world, what passes for natural beauty has been almost entirely re-written by the hand of Man?

Stefan said interestingly that he had met representatives from nearly every position on my 50 Shades of Green spectrum at permaculture courses over the years. He could be right, but they would hardly be evenly spread: though regrettably I lack the data to prove it, the overwhelming majority of people in the permaculture world would sing to the same hymn sheet: anti-GMO, anti-Big Ag, anti-fracking, anti-nuclear; pro-Organic, pro-alternative medicine, and anti-capitalist; a smaller percentage but still significant would be anti-science and adopt varying degrees of New Age beliefs, Biodynamics practices, faeries, magic and astrology or whatever you are having yourself. Permaculture is a bit of a free-for-all in that sense, but since it is part of the broader Food Sovereignty movement, and increasingly political in tone, I do not think Stefan is correct to say that GMO advocates for example are represented in permaculture.

I should clarify one point that I made in the interview: I said the “overwhelming majority” of my students were anti-GMO. In fact this is an exaggeration- there was a much wider spectrum of views amongst students than that, although it would still be true to say I think that the majority of those coming to the course would start with anti- views or at least suspicions of.
One girl who came for an interview said she wanted to help solve some of the many problems in the world. “Which ones?” I asked. “Monsanto’s Terminator seeds” she shot back. I assured her that these had never been used (although it might solve other issues if they were). “They must be!” she replied.

On another occasion, after a class in which I had given some scientific references on the subject of genetic engineering, I was pressed into having a class meeting, as some of the students had issues with the way I was delivering the course. Very reluctantly, I agreed. We sat in a circle, some 20 or so of the class, and I began, “So it appears that some of you feel my classes are biased. Is that what people think?”
About 7 or 8 hands went up and one by one each and every one of them told the class that they did not think I was biased, that they found the classes stimulating and informative, that they appreciated what I was doing. Not a single one of the Dark Green students was prepared to openly criticize me to the group.

This was one of the highlights of my years teaching permaculture, and if any of those who supported me on that day are reading this now, I salute you.

The political -and philosophical- stance of permaculture is best expressed in this recent superb post by Tamar Haspel:

There’s an unbreachable divide between advocates of modern conventional agriculture and, essentially, everyone else, from the mainstream (organic, local, anti-GMO) to the less-so (biodynamics, permaculture, agroforestry). The parties are entrenched, the tone is partisan. But I think we ought to be able to get along, because all hard-core advocates of this or that food philosophy have two things in common: They’re paying attention, and they’re wrong.

I hope you enjoyed the interview, as I did, and I would like to give a big thanks to Stefan who did a great job, and especially for having the open mindedness to interview such a Permaculture Pariah!


18 thoughts on “What is Permaculture?

  1. Looby “occasionally sails dangerously close to the rocky shores of woo”? “Homeopathy, herbs , pressure points and specific exercises have helped to balance his body.” I’d say she’s foundering on the rocks.

  2. While I agree with a lot of what you have to say, I cannot see how it is helpful to make such general and offensive statements as “Permies don’t do numbers”.

    I am a professional mathematician, and a budding permaculturalist. Certainly, much of my permaculture planning has been detailed calculations of calories, carbs, protein, fat yields, etc.

    It seems to me that I will be able to get all of my food needs met on less than the average acreage, through mostly perennial crops, in an integrated diverse system. I will rely primarily on nut crops (chestnut, hickory, pecan, walnut, hazelnut), along with some perennial tubers (sunchokes, apios americana). Perennial greens and fruit are easy to fit into the system. Nut shells will actually provide a significant fuel yield for home heating (1000 pounds of nutshells ~ 8500000 BTUs which should supply much of the heating needs of a tiny superinsulated home)

    This seems, undoubtedly, better for the planet than the way I am eating currently, in every way. I will not be relying on fossil fuels for transport, storage, nitrogen production, etc. I will not be relying on fossil fuels for heating. The land will have greater plant and animal diversity. I will use less land. My carbon footprint will go way down. I will enjoy myself.

    Can you please tell me what evils I am committing, and why I should abandon my plans?

    • “Permies dont do numbers” is a phrase coined by Peter Harper- see my earlier post where I reference Harper. If you dont like it I suggest you take it up with him- if you find it offensive, I suggest you get over yourself 🙂
      It is widely acknowledged within the PC community, including from its main protagonists, that PC lacks research and data to back up its claims- this is for example the main thrust behind the recent research program initiated by the UK PC Association. Meanwhile, people are largely drawn to PC because they feel that PC offers a distinctive “method” that is far superior to “conventional” agriculture, often citing wildly exaggerated claims about increased yields etc.. As I have made clear in these posts, in practice, most of what PC practitioners actually do is simply Organic gardening with annuals. We already know that Organic farming on average yields about 30% lower than conventional for high energy crops. Obviously it is better to turn fossil fuels into human food than to use extra land for the same result.
      No-one has demonstrated what you claim to be measuring, ie “that I will be able to get all of my food needs met on less than the average acreage, through mostly perennial crops, in an integrated diverse system.” It sounds like this is just theoretical and not yet achieved? If so, being a mathematician wont help you- you need to be a professional grower. How many years will it take you to achieve this from slow-maturing nut trees? What is the acreage you are aiming to use? I have already pointed to the problems of growing understory under nut trees- your nut yields will be vastly reduced since you simply wont be able to harvest most of them which will be lost to rodents under the undergrowth. How much labour will be going into your system? Most likely considerably more than conventional systems.
      It is great that you are measuring everything, but theoretical values are pretty meaningless- you need to be measuring actual yields from the land. By all means publish your results, preferably in a peer-reviewed paper, and show how much better perennial woody agriculture is, but if you succeed you will essentially be the first to do so.
      It is highly unlikely you will use less land, and even more unlikely your carbon footprint will “go way down” simply because your food is not a major part of your footprint. Giving up electricity (perhaps starting with your computer!) would save more carbon much faster. Simply switch it off… “Way down” does not sound very precise. If you really do numbers we want a verifiable % value that you have actually achieved, not just aspire to.
      One more thing: most people live in cities and will not in any case be able to follow your example. Unless your system is actually able to be replicated by modern farmers, and be economically viable as well as more sustainable, it will remain just a curiosity.
      I am sure you will have fun as I have had attempting something similar the past 13 years, but we have every reason to remain skeptical about your claims of higher yields.
      Best of luck!

      • My “higher yields” are compared to the standard american diet, and are mostly due to a largely vegetarian existence. Probably a vegetarian non-permaculturist would enjoy a similar acreage per person. I make no claim of exceptional yields per acre, especially compared to something as amazingly productive as potatoes and soybeans. Only that my personal food choices will not be worse than conventional agriculture, and will be better than the standard american diet, from an environmental (and probably health) perspective.

        I am planting this spring, on about an acre (this may expand over time). So everything thus far is theoretical.

        The model I am employing is pretty simplified. Nut trees are planted at a spacing which is typical of nut tree orchards (depending on the tree, 30′ to 40′ centers). These trees mature at between 40′ and 70′ high. They are arranged such that the smallest trees are toward the south, with the larger trees in the north. I plan on having a dense subcanopy of shade tolerant fruit trees (pawpaws and persimmons), along with shade tolerant fruit bushes (honeyberry, currants) in the tree rows. These will be planted at such a density as to shade out the understory. This should result in a leaf litter dominated forest floor with very little herbaceous growth. My root plantings will occur elsewhere.

        Labor will probably be quite high compared to conventional agriculture, but will not rely on fossil fuels at all. In particular, I expect to get more calories in than I get out. I have heard (but have not verified) that it takes roughly 5 calories of oil to get 1 food calorie, on average, in our current system. Is this true? (you seem like someone who might be able to back up the answer, one way or the other)

        I do plan on measuring my yields, and in particular, tracking my carbs/fats/proteins coming off the land through time. You may find http://farmerscrub.blogspot.com/ interesting as another, smaller scale, experiment along these lines (although I do not at all agree with his Deep Green Resistance politics).

        The permaculture lifestyle goes beyond the diet, of course. I also plan on composting my waste on site, employing a root cellar for food storage, designing and living in a superinsulated tiny house, telecommuting (I think this beats giving up the computer), harvesting rainwater, and so forth. Permaculture does not have a monopoly on any of these ideas, but I think that it is a convenient package. They are all useful, thoughtful ways to reduce your impact. Global warming is a reality, and I feel personally responsible for decreasing my carbon footprint as much as possible (short of becoming a hunter/gatherer). Part of this is not having children (my wife and I plan on adopting).

        It is also appealing to me economically: investing my money and labor into systems which meet my basic needs, I gain the security that, even if I lost my job, or there was an economic collapse, or whatever, I still might be able to meet my basic needs without relying on global levels of infrastructure. Moreover, by investing in soil, and trees which last for generations, I can pass this lifestyle on to others who might enjoy it.

        I also do not claim that everyone should adopt my way of life. It is simply one which seems satisfying to me. The creator of Soylent is perhaps doing more for the environment than anyone else, by providing a convenient vegan way to eat.


        p.s. You may be interested in leaf protein concentrate. This seems like the highest per acre yield of protein we have available. I plan on wild harvesting nettles for this purpose.

        • Here is the question I really want to ask: Do you view the actual practice of permaculture (natural building, planting nut trees, rainwater harvesting, communal living, etc) as harmful, or are you mostly concerned with certain other thought parasites which seem to hitch a ride (like anti-vaxxer, anti-gmo, anti-nuclear, etc)?

          I am personally interested in the “permaculture lifestyle”, but I am tentatively pro-nuclear (have not read/digested enough about long term safety issues), pro-gmo (they seem safe, and helpful, especially the new gmo american chestnut!), very pro vaccine (I do not want polio).

          • Mainly the latter- ofcourse, planting nut trees etc is not harmful in and of itself; but the advantages of most of these things you list are wildly over-rated, and permaculture courses give a false impression of how easy they may be, how beneficial etc and I think this is harmful. Spreading false information and unrealistic expectations is always harmful to some extent. It would be better to have a well educated population with critical thinking skills and a basic understanding of science. Instead, PC is part of a wider anti-modernist anti-science movement, driven by eco-doom- and fear-mongering. The techniques of self-sufficiency and natural building and renewable energy are not accessible to the majority of the population- if we all tried as a society to reject industrial materials and urban living then we would be condemned to poverty and our total environmental impact would increase– consider what would happen if the massive urban populations started moving back to the land to follow the PC dream! The impact on remaining wilderness areas would be immense. So in that sense PC is profoundly elitist.
            Moreover, many of these techniques are only promoted as a means to attack modern society, eg PC and Organics are presented as a simple eco-alternative to “Big Ag” which is demonised as poisoning the land etc while its incredible success at feeding millions of people and relieving them from peasant servitude is ignored. Mostly, these practices of Organics and Natural building are not widely practiced but just proposed as an idea, and the subsidy they require from industrial society is hidden and obscured. Nor will they have any significant or in most cases even measurable impact on the environment. Obsession with recycling, “natural” food and materials etc show PC more as a cult that operates through controlling people’s thought patterns and behaviour and lifestyle choices.
            So there is nothing wrong per se with the individual practices but they are being done for the wrong reasons. Same with having children- ofcourse, it is an entirely valid choice for you as individuals to not have children and opt to adopt; but it is very sad and wrong if people are discouraged from having children because of climate change or the environment.

          • Personally, I think that it is very possible for someone to have “critical thinking skills and a basic understanding of science” and still be incredibly concerned about the present course of human civilization, to the point of being worried about collapse. You may be familiar with http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/. A very rational dude, with some serious understanding of science, who is also very concerned about the long term sustainability of our way of life.

            I think we are faced with some very real problems. We cannot continue to increase our energy use at the same exponential rate or (a la “do the math”) we literally boil our oceans in a few centuries for purely thermodynamic reasons. So we need to figure out how to adapt to a new economy which is not based on energy growth: i.e. humanity needs to adapt to a constant power usage.

            If you think civilization is going to collapse anyway, you might as well try to develop the skills and resources which allow you to live without it. This doesn’t mean you are “procollapse”. It doesn’t mean you want “Big Ag” to fail. It just means you are worried about it, and actively hedging your bets.

            Personally, I am hedging my bets. I am really doing all I can to increase public knowledge of math and science: in my case by producing open online mathematics content. I think we need lots of good people working on nuclear energy, better solar cells, better batteries, crops which utilize sunlight more efficiently, etc. Not all of these people are going to live in a hut in the woods. It is not realistic, and would also probably hinder progress.

            From this perspective, permaculture starts to make a lot more sense. I do not want my every waking hour devoted to farming. This would make me “a slave to the land”. I really like spending a significant amount of my time thinking about mathematics, and teaching others about it. So the question becomes (as a personal choice, not as a categorical imperative), how do I grow a significant portion of my calories, for comparatively less labor, in the absence of industrial society (in particular, if I can only use hand tools). A diet based on fruit, nuts, and foraged greens seems like a quite logical choice. Couple this with the fact that I have always enjoyed nature, hiking, gardening, etc, and it seems like a very nice hobby to take up as well.

            I must respectfully disagree with you about children however. I think that the full realization of the power of contraceptives has yet to be realized. Decoupling sex (a basic human desire) from reproduction (another, distinct, basic human desire) is huge. I don’t think anyone should have a child without wanting one. I also think that population de-growth over time, until we have reached a population level which is sustainable, is really important. I am not for “voluntary human extinction” at all, but I do not see a lot of good coming from the population shrinking, so we can devote more resources to each person. Shrinking the population via birth control seems infinitely preferable to war or famine.

          • So you are a down-winger but not an extremist; I think as you learn more about these issues you should really move to a more up-winger position: there is no need (or likelihood) to scale back the total human impact. As a nuclear advocate, there is no reason to also claim we cannot keep increasing energy consumption- why not? In a world where over a billion people still dont have access to electricity, talking about “scaling back” or adapting to a constant energy useage is fatuous and anti-human. There is nothing- NOTHING- that will stop the world’s poor from accessing some of what we take for granted, thermodynamics be damned. More power to them- literally.
            I wonder where you might position yourself on my 50 Shades of Green spectrum.
            See also the EcoModernist manifesto.
            See Hans Rosling on population and the demographic transition. Population growth is something that is resolving itself as people get wealthier. The permaculture way would reverse this- as people go back to the land they will inevitably start having larger families again.
            The conventional Dark Green view sees the world’s resources as being limited in an absolute sense- a pie of a certain size acessed by more and more people. This is just western projection of the Yellow Peril- the starving masses are going to come and steal our stuff. Ehrlich is a good example of an establishment figure who believes this completely- the establishment and much of the scientific establishment also has bought into this myth. The reality is quite different- humans increase carrying capacity through technology (otherewise we would still be limited to the numbers of hunter-gatherers). We find substitutes and develop alternative technologies long before resources run out or cause too much damage. There is no stopping this process in the long run although regrettably Greens have managed to slow it down considerably, making things far worse.

  3. I would also like to ask you a somewhat more personal question: do you think the approach you are taking on this blog is optimal? My father is seriously anti-religious, he sees religious thought as poisonous, anti-science, and as holding humanity back. So he spends several hours each day arguing with creationists on youtube. I think the net effect of all of his labor is probably just to deepen the trenches between them. Are you at all worried that your oppositional approach could be having the opposite of the intended consequences?

    A single permaculturist making a case for using the GMO American Chestnut might do a lot to get permaculturists thinking about GMOs, while this blog probably (mostly) has the effect of making them stick their fingers in their ears.

    • Ive no idea, but all I am doing is saying “the Emperor Wears No Clothes.” Most people never change their views if thise views are held ideologically- that is well known, but one of the main obstacles (for religion also) is the taboo on criticism, so I think it is important to simply state things as I see them. People will obviously make up their own minds. If even one person stops to think “hmm, maybe he has a point here” then it is worthwhile. And, certainly there are many who appreciate it 🙂

  4. “Thermodynamics be damned” should never come from the mouth of someone who claims to be pro science, except in jest. Please read http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/. There are purely physical reasons we cannot continue to grow our rate of energy consumption by 2-3%/year for very long. A couple hundred years of this and we are toast. So, in my mind, it is better to start thinking about how to adapt to finite energy constraints now. I think that, with just the energy resources we have available now, we could give everyone on the planet a very nice standard of living. We could continue to innovate in art, science, etc. I just do not think that our energy use per person can continue to rise, which probably means no hoverboards, not everyone gets a Mustang, etc.

    There is no good reason to think that we will solve our energy problems. Our society is largely powered on fossil fuels, which are a finite resource, and we really do not have good scalable alternatives. Even nuclear energy is not perfect, absent good battery technology. We will have to massively overhaul everything to run on electric instead of oil. Just because innovation has largely solved our problems in the past does not mean that it will continue to do so. We could run into hard limits.

    So, while I am not convinced of a collapse within my lifetime, I also do not think it is such a far out possibility. I still think it is worth preparing for, especially if this preparation can be carried out ethically. I think spending my free time and money planting a bunch of trees on an old abandoned pasture is probably fine, especially compared to having a hobby like flying an airplane (like my neighbor).

    • Absolutely there is no guarantee we will be successful; but what is more likely? why would the future be so different from the past? There are lots of reasons to think that doomerism and Green ideology has stimied progress that could already have done far more- you prefer to ignore this point. Meanwhile, while your hobby is entirely worthy as a hobby (it is one I share with enthusiasm) “prepperism” is pointless- even if you were successful in growing all your own food, it would be stolen by desperate hoards in the event of a real collapse.
      Here is an example of the kind of technology that could be coming down the tracks which would re-set the entire conversation:

      • I agree that Green ideology has stimied GMO research and Nuclear power. This is a bad thing. I applaud any effort to try and shift the Green ideology: if we can convince people that it is really “more green” to embrace nuclear energy, that is a good thing.

        I do not share your pessimism about desperate hoards. I think a long collapse is more likely than a short one. If we do experience such a collapse (hopefully we do not!) I would see it happening more through wage stagnation, gradual GDP fall and lifestyle decline. The problem would basically be that, since oil becomes scarce, everything gets gradually more and more expensive. In other words, our labor can buy less “free energy”, so we have lifestyle decline. As we all collectively get poorer, it will start to make more sense to grow our own food, etc. In this scenario, I would rather already have lots of mature nut and fruit trees, rather than having to rely on labor intensive annual agriculture.

        That tech is way cool! I wonder if that 50% conversion factor is accurate, if so this is really impressive. If this could be made viable, it would surely be a huge game changer.

        I am still just not totally convinced that technology can totally save us. And the point about thermodynamics still stands: there is an upper limit to how much energy we can utilize as a species. Maybe we are not close yet. Maybe everyone on Earth can sustainably use 10x the energy as the average American today (given tech like what you are talking about). But there are upper limits, so we will have to learn how to make due at some point.

        There is another, psychological, reason to pursue some level of self reliance even absent any kind of collapse. Basically, I view self reliance as an alternative to financial independence. Have you ever read Mr. Money Mustache, or https://www.reddit.com/r/financialindependence?

        The basic idea is that, if you live substantially below your means, you can save enough money to retire quite early. Many people continue working after this point, but report a sense of freedom and well being knowing that, even if they got fired, or wanted to quit, or wanted to start a business, or wanted to become an artist, or whatever, they would be able to do so because their basic needs are being met by their investments.

        I view a permaculture farm as a similar kind of investment. If I invest in systems now which will cover my basic needs later, then I will have the security of knowing I can fall back on something. I view a nut tree as more reliable than a stock or a bond. I am currently living well below my means, so that I can ideally have both financial independence through stocks and bonds, and basic need self reliance through a functional permaculture farm in 10 – 15 years or so.

        • You misunderstand- it is not I who is pessimistic about desperate hoards- I am saying this is what drives a lot of the Green agneda. What is presented as being to do with “sustainability” or protecting the planet is really just fear of losing what they themselves already have. This is why there is pessimism concerning extending energy access to the poor- Greens are afraid there will not be enough to go around. This gores back to Malthus.
          Again, I’m not sure you understand my point about Greens stalling technology- not only is this a bad thing but it becoems a self-fulfilling prophesy: nuclear and GMOs have not reached their potential, the Greens argue, they are a false promise… but I am saying this is largely because of Green activism holding them, and other technologies up. In fact it is a deliberate political strategy. That GMOs are not permitted, mainly, in Europe is used to make GMOs look bad.
          Forestry, timber crops, might be a better bet for a pension scheme. I met a German man last week, aged 81, who had planted disease resistant elm trees here in West Cork. He cheerfully spoke of his business plant to harvest them for timber in 20 years! Inspiring.

          • I think I already catch your drift about the Green self fulfilling prophecies, and basically agree with you.

            With regards to timber, it is a nice idea, but essentially financial in nature. It depends on finding buyers, rather than having direct utility. I would find it less risky to just invest in an index fund (which I do!). I think that having *both* financial security (through IRAs, index funds, bonds, possibly lumber stands, etc) and basic needs security (through fruit and nut trees, rainwater harvesting and wells, well insulated home, coppice for fuel, etc) is optimal for having a secure “retirement”.

            It really comes down to how risk averse you are. Some people like to play the stock market, live on the edge, acquire businesses, etc. Most such people do worse than just investing in index funds. I am even more risk averse than the “invest in index funds” people, because I see that we could experience something like a great depression. So the diversification of my assets includes “basic needs” generating strategies.

            I don’t think there is really a “right” or “wrong” when it comes to how risk averse someone is. It is just a personality trait.

            So, in my case, I do not think permaculture is anti-science. I think that, for me, permaculture is essentially a diversification strategy. It focuses on meeting basic needs outside of the financial system, through long lived food bearing trees and perennials, and durable and efficient structures (like well insulated homes). This is not a solution to any problem of society. It is a hedge against the bet that society works out.

          • A hedge of hazel nuts in my case!

  5. Mr. Strouts, I would like to thank you. Thank you for saving me from the cult of permaculture. I have read your blogs on permaculture extensively, but have chosen to reply to this one because it is the newest. I have just recently extracted myself from another cult, the cult of Marxism-Leninism, and found myself searching for alternatives that would satisfy both my desire for revolutionary change and my long-standing affinity for the natural world, along with my anxiety that climate change will likely wreak havoc, and discovered permaculture. It was going well for a while, I was learning many cool techniques to reduce energy use and garden/farm effectively, but I balked when I started hearing that raw milk cures cancer. So I Googled “permaculture science”, found your blog on the first page, and here we are.

    I suppose it was too good to be true to begin with. Really? A way to live in perfect harmony with nature that is also “super-productive”? If this was really possible, why was it only discovered by a tiny Western movement in the 20th century rather than in millennia of farming? Why am I not seeing “inspirational” videos of subsistence farmers transforming their lives with “food forests”? Forget the science, when given a common-sense accounting permaculture beggars belief.

    That said, I am fine with permaculture being an ideology. I wanted a new ideology. The problem is I am not going to settle for a bad one out of convenience ever again. I have had enough of the “revolutionary science of Marxism-Leninism” which is anything but scientific and now reactionary rather than revolutionary, and permaculture’s only advantage over that is that it has yet to prove itself wrong so tragically. Again, thank you for saving me from wasting my time on another dead end.

    My problem now is, “Where do I go from here?”. I have not abandoned my commitment to becoming a farmer and a naturalist any more than my rejection of Lenin and Mao made me agree with Margaret Thatcher that “there is no alternative” to capitalism. So I’ll ask you two questions:

    1) I want to become a farmer. I grew up rural and the happiest days of my life were working and playing alone with crops+animals and nature respectively. How can I actually establish myself as a small farmer with an ecological bent? Do you have real resources for doing this, as opposed to the snake oil of permaculture? For reference, I am in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, where I have relocated because it is the most resilient to climate change. My current plan is to live semi-subsistence while selling luxury goods like wine and beer with a “natural” bent, but I want to do this right.

    2) Is there any hope of a like-minded community? I am actually down with the new age aspect, I love the natural world enough to worship it, but I am allergic to woo. It upsets my chakras. Is the environmental movement just hopeless for people like me?

    • Hi Alexander, thanks for your comment and I am glad you found my post welcome. I am not sure how useful I can be in answering your questions. For example, most farmers have an “ecological bent”- farmers and farming have been unjustly maligned to a large degree by elements in the Food Movement. For example, if you go Organic, you may think that is more “sustainable” but generally requires more land for the same amount of produce, and land should be considered a resource also. In farming, as in life, there are always trade-offs. I don’t see the need for an ideology myself, although one conceptualisation I find useful is “eco-modernism”- you might find the writings of the Breakthrough Institute interesting.
      Finally, I am not sure that “the natural world” and “farming” are really the same thing- I think this is one of the ways that, conceptually, permaculture goes wrong, by believing we can replicate “nature” in our farm systems. “Darwinian Agriculture” by R. Ford Denison has some interesting comments on this. Good luck!

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