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!

Natural News Observer

Has the Observer become like Natural News?
You would be forgiven for thinking so on reading today’s issue which carries an article by one Lucy Siegle with the alluring title “Are biodynamic products worth the money?”

Hmmm tricky one that, let me think for a minute… no. Actually, no.
That is because they are nothing more than products of Organic farming with a load of whackeroonery added- astrological plantings and weird and somewhat unsavory compost preparations which employ such exotic techniques as burying cows horns stuffed with manure at certain phases of the moon. Siegle explains:

Growers are famous for planting according to the phases of the moon and burying cow horns filled with “preparations”. Actually there’s method in both these forms of madness: research shows that plants respond differently to different moons, absorbing more water during the full moon, for example. As for the animal horns, silica is extracted from them as the elements break down, maintaining soil fertility.

Wat? Research? I dont think so- plants do not respond to tidal forces exerted by the moon, but even if they did, this is not what Steiner said- he claimed that fruit should be gathered on “fruit” days (according to the Moon Planting Calender) Flowers on “Flower Days” and so on- ie that the supposed moon influence actually differentiates between differnet parts of different plants depending on which part we humans are interested in eating. A quaint if rather anthropocentric view of the Cosmos- the Stars and the Planets all revolve around for our benefit, how lovely.

But wait- we Noes Dis is Trues because as Siegle tells us, Steiner was a scientist!

Based on scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical theories, biodynamics is a “holistic and regenerative farming practice”.

Nooo! Steiner was not a scientist. He was an esoteric looper who believed that his gardening methods would help bring down “etheric energies” which would transmute into spiritually purer food and hence a spiritually purer race. Purity of the Soil would lead to Purity of the Food – and so Purity of the Race. Yes, that is correct- Steiner’s religion Anthroposophy, unbeknownst to the innocent Observer readers and purchasers of fine Biodynamic Wines, is really a system of Kharmic racism. That might explain its popularity in Nazi Germany. Seriously.

“Ah!” I hear you cry, “but I went to a Biodynamic Farm and saw lovely vegetables and drank lovely Biodynamic Wine- weird and mystical though it may sound, this stuff actually works!!”

Well Duh, if you are a good gardener and do most things right- sow the seed in warm soil at the right time of the year, not too deep, protect from vermin and heavy rain and cold, weed and water, feed and nuture, then you should get perfectly fine produce. Sacrificing Reason on the Altar of whacked out cultish pseudoscience will not add anything else I’m afraid to say- and yes, the actual science has been done on this.

Lucy Siegle apparently

is one of the UK’s most recognisable opinion forming journalists on environmental issues and ethical consumerism, devoted to widening their appeal. She is also a knowledgeable and experienced awards host and keynote speaker, and is a regular presenter on The One Show.

This is bad news for people’s opinions on environmental issues so, and barely elevates the Observer to the comic-book status of Natural News.

And as if to add insult to injury, with reference to some of the comments, Alicia Hamburg points out on Twitter:

A more shocking indictment I can hardly imagine…

GMOs and me in 500 words

First published yesterday on GMO Skepti-Forum

Impermaculture

I left college 27 years ago with a fairly typical anti-establishment ideology.
Having flirted briefly with CND and the anti-nuclear movement in the early 1980s, I determined that there was no hope for modern civilisation- that it was unsustainable– and resolved to a back-to-the land life of self-sufficiency. I quickly got involved with permaculture which I still teach a version of to this day.
My first encounter with GMOs was at an Earth Day event in Maynooth around 1998. Vandana Shiva was there, and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, debating with a Monsanto executive. Many of my friends had been involved with direct action against Monsanto trials in Wexford, which put paid to GMOs in Ireland for a long time. I went along unquestioningly with the strongly held views of my tribe, but even then I was vaguely aware that I really didnt know anything about GMOs.
Some years later as I learned more about science and critical thinking I became disillusioned with the permaculture movement, with its New Age religious beliefs and superstitions. Slowly, painfully, I found an effective debunking for one environmentalist myth after another. The turning point on GMOs was reading Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline and Professor Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchuk’s Tomorrow’s Table. I remember racing through the earlier chapters of Brand’s book to get to the bit on GMOs. It was a revelation- everything everyone I knew was saying turned out to be false.

I became fascinated by both the science and the sociology, politics and psychology. I went on holiday to the US and visited Pam and Raoul at their home in California, and got to see Pam’s lab where I met my first transgenes. I engaged in countless debates on Facebook, Twitter and blog threads. I lost many long-standing friends and to some extent have become estranged from my community. I have been constantly surprised by the viciousness and blatant dishonesty people I previously respected have been willing to engage in in order to defend their irrational beliefs. It turns out that the anti-science of the Greens is not progressive and “left-wing” but rather betrays a deeply conservative, traditionalist and reactionary mindset. GMOs are just a form of advanced plant breeding; historically, new methods of breeding have often been opposed by the status quo.
Activists can only see things in simplistic black-and-white terms and absurd conspiracy theories. Theirs is a darkly narcissistic and negative view of humanity which they seem to despise, in contrast to the assumed purity of Nature which they revere, oblivious to how Nature only seems sublime when you have a full belly.
On the other hand I have also been surprised and delighted at the more open-minded students on my course who have shown it is possible for people to shift their thinking, sometimes dramatically and quite quickly, just from having new information presented in an interesting and engaging fashion.
They are the ones who give me hope and make the battles seem all worthwhile.

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