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.

(P71)
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!

The Heretic’s Guide to Vegan Cookery

Update: Andy Murray has emailed me with glad tidings- he tells me “the book has just been picked up by a publisher last month so it’ll be coming out later this year as a updated, improved, more recipes and photos and a more cooky cookbook. Also on kindle too.”
Watch this space for updates!
***

More from the Zone5 Archives. This book is too tasty to resist!
Originally Posted on 12 November 2009 on the now-deceased Zone5 blog

Book Review: The Heretic’s Guide to Vegan Cookery
Modern animal-free recipes from around the world with added musings inspired by the Isle of Avalon According to Harmonically Challenged Cook-
Andy Murray
Warning! Not suitable for Breatharians
The Good Elf Press 2009
187pp

Heretics guide to Vegan cookery

Astrology is an amazing tool to run your life by, without having to waste time with the fraudulent pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo of Science. Astrology explains wars, thunderstorms and plagues. We can even use it historically. For example, if we know exactly when and where Queen Elizabeth was born, we can find out exactly who she was without having to waste time on fictitious history books. With it we can even discover why Einstein was so damn clever. Astrology is way better than sex.

You don’t have to be a vegan to enjoy Andy Murray’s brilliant Heretic’s Guide, which is packed with dozens of tasty simple recipes to satisfy even the most hardened omnivore at least some of the time, you don’t even need to have any great interest in cooking or even food. That is because for our amusement and philosophical delectation there are numerous passages in between the recipes giving us fascinating and hilarious perspectives from the Mecca of New Age beliefs in Britain, the town of Glastonbury near where the author lives.

While waiting for the pumpkin soup to cook or in between making preparations for the Hazelnut and Celery Risotto you will be able to work up an appetite by rolling around clutching your belly after reading the sure -to-become-classic passages “Reiki Reiki Rise and Shine” “Cooking with Astrology” or “Breeding Gurus for Profit”.

This book has it all really- great advice on cooking with fresh ingredients and all the usual good reasons to grow your own and buy local; loads of easy to follow recipes including a big choice of soups, salads and dips; and inspirational chapter on cooking in the great outdoors, including a useful guide to wild food; Posh Things to Do with Vegetables; Main Meals; Side Dishes and Extras; Desserts, and Cakes and Biscuits.

And then the alternative Contents covers everything else- Cults, Gurus, Satanism, Religion, Crop Circles, Homeopathy- nothing is sacred and nothing is spared the sharp rib-splitting egg-whisk of Murray’s irreverence.

Homeopathic Cookery Doubters of this form of cookery pour scorn on the fact that a diner might receive a drop of gravy and a shred of carrot on a plate. How can this be a meal, they ask? What they fail to understand is that carbon,the building block of all life, has a memory. A potentised meal maintains a complete carbon hologram, the information of the whole, even down to the smallest atomic sum of its parts.A homeopathic amount of food is of course more than sufficient to provide all the nutritional benefits that would be expected from a plateful of food, and puts paid to any shrill cries of fraud. Filthy skeptics who come to the homeopathic table having already made up their tiny minds will throw down their napkins and walk away still believing what they believe to be true, and little can be done to change their wrongness.

Even Murray’s own sacred Creed of Veganism is given the once-over. This is something I know a little about, because I once lived in a vegan community on the Welsh Borders. I was not especially into veganism per se and went there to learn to grow vegetables; I happily lived a vegan diet however, but was aware of an acute divide between some of my fellow communards, who seemed to be at each others throats all the time.

On one extreme there were the the vegans who were happy to eat anything so long as it was vegan, including skip food, vegan chocolate from Malaysia (or somewhere) and chip buttys. This group of vegans were also keen to give over some of the best land we had to rescued sheep and aging dogs, and generally turn the place into an animal sanctuary.

All this tended to jar somewhat with the second group who apart from being rather snobby in their choice of edibles- Vegan Organic Wholefoods only, no white flour allowed, lots of Miso- didn’t seem to like animals at all anywhere near them. Wild animals were OK in their own wild homes, but no pets, farm animals or incontinent retired donkeys of any kind permitted.

Murray gives a total of 7 Vegan groups, including the Fat Vegan, the Sensitive Vegan and the Style Vegan, but presumable fits into he first category of The Common Vegan:

The most widespread of all vegans, the common vegan has been quietly animal free for years and still hasn’t died. Usually healthy, fit and happy, they tend to be quite normal, although sometimes a little willowy to stand in a strong wind.

For Murray, veganism might well play a role in a sustainable future, but is mainly just about bloody good food. While no longer a Vegan myself, my animal-free taste buds have been re-awakened by the Heretics Guide and who knows, so have some of my Chakras.

And with that I think Ill go and make a quick Potato Rosti.

Seralini’s anti-GMO paper retracted

Remember those garish photos of rats puffed up with tumors supposedly as a result of eating GMO corn that were widely circulated last year? The paper those photos appeared in, by Gilles Seralni et al, has now been retracted by the journal it was originally published in, Food and Chemical Toxicology. The editor A. Wallace Hayes has sent a letter of to Seralini, telling him that it will be retracted if does not agree to withdraw it himself.

You can read Hayes’ letter here as reported by Retraction Watch.

Scientists’ reaction to the retraction can be read here.

The study was widely criticized at the time with many scientists condemning the journal for publishing such a questionable piece of work. In fact, the Seralini paper was transparently an act of propoganda:

Seralini is a quack, who consults for the homeopathic company Sevene Pharma. He published around the same time as the GMO rat study a book called (in French) “We are all Guinea-pigs!” Seralini’s organisation CRIIGEN has a homeopath as its current president. Seralini is also associated with the faith-healing New Age group Invitation to Life.

The study was fabricated by activist scientists with a political and commercial vested interest in undermining the public’s confidence in genetic engineering.

Claire Robinson, editor of Seralini’s anti-GMO website, attacked Hayes’ decision as “illicit, unscientific and unethical”, but according to Jon Entine writing today for Forbes, these conflicts of interest alone should have been sufficient reason to refuse publication:

Robinson’s rebuke highlights just how badly Hayes and Elsevier has mishandled this entire affair. The original research clearly violated numerous ethical guidelines for animal use, standard media protocol, guidelines for sample size in animal tests and a variety of other standards that should have prevented it from ever being published. Among his many ethical missteps, Séralini also failed to cite pertinent prior studies, claiming his research was original, which it was not, as even Robinson acknowledges. The studies he did not cite were relevant and contradicted his results. None employed such brazen cruelty to animals. Not citing the relevant literature is itself considered scientific misconduct.

Robinson argues that failure to deliver “conclusive” results is not sufficient reason to retract a paper; but in fact the study was so badly designed- trying to test several variables with insufficient sample sizes and inadequate controls- that it would not have been able to generate meaningful results in any case; however, neither the authors, nor the media, anti-GMO websites and prominent food writer Michael Pollen reported the study as “inconclusive” but rather, claimed it raised serious issues about the safety of crops developed using genetic engineering- flying in the face of the hundreds of studies that have proved GMOs to be safe.

I left comments to this effect under Robinson’s post; they were, predictably, deleted.

As it happens, the only meaningful correlation the study showed amongst all its confused groups of rats was that the males fed on water with Roundup lived longer! Funny how that was not the headline that went around the world.

Instead, the sickest part of this whole story is that the “scientists” deliberately left the cancered rats alive much longer than ethics or humanity would permit, until the tumors accounted for 25% of the rats’ body mass, just to get the shocking photos they wanted for maximum impact value. After all, pictures speak louder than words and most people are not going to look beyond to scrutinize methods or motives.

Such is the murky world where you find the nexus of Big Quacka, Big Organic and Big Green.

Fluoridation: Stealing our Precious Bodily Fluids

{Update: I had just finished this post when I came across a response to Waugh from the Irish Expert Body on Fluorides and Health, pdf downloadable here. They reinforce some of the same points I have made here and address a number of other issues Waugh raises, concluding: “It is apparent that Mr Waugh’s report does not form a basis for a review of current dental health or fluoridation policies.”}

Fluoridation- a sensible and effective public health measure- or a commie (or Big Government) plot to steal your bodily fluids?

Fluoridation of public drinking water has been an environmental hot-topic for decades. I remember going to a talk about it nearly 20 years ago. More recently the odd phenomenon of the anti-fluoride movement has come to my attention through a report by Cork-based environmental scientist Declan Waugh.

In Waugh’s lengthy report Human Toxicity, Environmental Impact and Legal Implications of Water Fluoridation which does not appear to have been published in a peer-reviewed journal and does not have the status of a scientific paper- he makes the following claim:

While the practice of fluoridation of drinking water was intended to have a beneficial effect on caries prevention and to reduce social inequalities in dental health, there is now unequivocal evidence to show that the practice is now contributing to adverse public health risks and environmental impacts. The public have always been assured that there was absolutely no possibility of any harm or risk from fluoridation of water. There is now unequivocal evidence that demonstrates that this is not the case. This report presents the scientific and medical evidence from over twelve hundred peer-reviewed scientific articles that demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that fluoridation of drinking water is a significant contributory factor to the negative health burden of Ireland. This report presents a summary of the published peer-reviewed health and environment related literature on fluoride and its implications for human health and biodiversity.

The repetition of “unequivocal” and “beyond reasonable doubt” in a self-published report written by a single individual with no published papers in this field should raise more than a few eyebrows: there is no scientific committee that would put their name to Waugh’s conclusions. Continue Reading

Greens are Just as anti-Science on Climate as on GE

Update: Keith Kloor has just told me on Twitter that he has also been critical of the term “denier” as he discusses on this post.– which certainly shows he is aware of the issues I am raising here; however, he does indeed use the term “denialism” in the post on Seralini, without any indication of what he is actually referring to, and thus seems to fall into exactly the same traps.

The anti-science tendencies and frequently evidence-free stance of the Green movement finds a recent major example with the publication last week of Seralini’s GE-corn/roundup-fed rat trial, complete with garish photos of rats puffed up with tumors, which is being used to create wide-spread fear and panic about the safety of eating genetically engineered food.

John Vidal in the Guardian provides an egregious example of defending the indefensible, for example defending Seralini for winning his libel case against Fellous, president of the French Association of Plant Biotechnology, who suggested Seralini might be biased by his funding sources; but then casually throws in his own equivalent slur – of guilt by association- with the comment that UC Davis “has close links to Monsanto and other GM companies” while providing no evidence whatsoever that this would in any way, or has in any way influenced the impartiality or compromised the integrity of the the biotech scientists working there.

(For the response of a public scientist to charges of “shill for Monsanto” read Kevin Folta’s superb piece here.)

There has been a vigorous response from scientists and bloggers condemning the study as hopelessly flawed. There were not enough subjects in the control groups. Not all the data was published (and there is, rather unusually, a petition of scientists calling for the release of same); there appears to be no statistical significance to the data we do have showing any meaningful difference between the groups, with some of the controls having a higher incidence of tumors than the test groups; and mysteriously, there appears to be no distinction between high-and low-dose groups of either the corn or Roundup, which the rats were also tested for (an appears to have the same effects), defying the basic premise of toxicology that it is all in the dose. The Sprague-Dawley rats used are well-known to be prone to developing cancer anyway after the (very long period for a rat) of 2 years.

In my opinion, the methods, stats and reporting of results are all well below the standard I would expect in a rigorous study – to be honest I am surprised it was accepted for publication.

opined Prof David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding Of Risk, University of Cambridge.

More damning still, the Statistical Laboratory at the University of Cambridge note:

I am grateful for the authors for publishing this paper, as it provides a fine case study for teaching a statistics class about poor design, analysis and reporting. I shall start using it immediately.

There is another even more startling point here as well, raised by @mem-somerville and taken up by Worstall which is that all lab-rats in the US have been eating some RR GE-corn for over a decade because that is just what the feed happens to be, with no noticeable effects or difference with European lab-rats where GE corn is not grown.

Apart from these flaws and the condemnation of so many scientists, it is obvious that the Seralini study is a put-up job to discredit GE crops and manipulate the political process.Seralini heads CRIIGEN which is an anti-GE activist group, he has a history of controversial studies producing results that have not been replicated and fly in the face of hundreds of other GE safety studies; and one of the co-authors of the report and president of CRIIGEN , Dr Joël Spiroux de Vendomoisis, is a homeopath. Continue Reading

We must trust our public scientists

Earlier this year a group of protesters from the group “Take the Flour back” marched on Rothamsted Research Institute with the intent on destroying public science, in this case a field of genetically engineered wheat. In doing so, they were not only anti-science, but anti-democracy.

Take the Flour Back march on GE wheat

Debates about controversial technology like Genetic engineering or nuclear power often come down to one simple question: who to trust? It is “normal” – for people who have not really thought about it- to be distrustful of science done or funded by or in anyway connected with Big Evil Faceless corporations, especially if they are Monsanto; and indeed it is of course standard procedure for science papers to declare any potential conflict of interest- if they do not do so, then there are double the reasons to be wary of their conclusions.

However, just because a study is funded by a company with a profit motive does not mean that the science is wrong or bad; it could just as easily be good science. The idea that corporations, in league with public scientists, would happily risk serious public health outcomes for profit seems an almost pathological level of paranoia on a par with the worst of conspiracy theories. It would clearly not be in their interests: to date, no adverse health effects from GE crops have been found; if there ever was any, it would set back the GE cause by decades. To show bad science is being practiced, you would need to read the studies, scrutinize its methods and conclusions and challenge it on its own terms to refute it- in other words, you would need to engage with the normal workings of science yourself.

This takes some study and work; much easier to just go to a dedicated anti-GE site and pull out some “report” or paper or anything really that tells us: GE is dangerous, the companies are trying to take over the world’s food supply and we should just not trust them.

But why should we trust the activist sites? This is the question I would like to ask protesters, because in my frequent debates and conversations with them, they seem quite unaware that there maybe bias and vested interests on both sides of the issue. All too often it seems to come down to a conviction that Capitalism is Bad- and therefore Wrong-and anything that attacks Capitalism is Good- and therefore Right. Continue Reading