Anti-GMO but Pro-science?

Many observers will be surprised to read today’s Observer editorial on GMO crops.

Citing the recent NAS report on GMO crops– which found no concern for health risks, no concern for loss of diversity on farms (and even some beneficial effects) and counseled against any mandatory labeling, with only resistance being flagged as a major issue- the Observer noted:

Europe is already becoming a backwater for new breeding technologies and needs to move swiftly to prevent this situation worsening, UK scientists warned last week.

The restrictive regulations that are blocking the growing of GM crops need to be stripped away as soon as possible.

and slated the anti-science stance of the Big Green lobby on this issue:

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other NGOs are happy to accept scientific consensus when it suits their purposes. They triumphantly quote academic research that backs their claim that climate change, brought about by increasing use of fossil fuels, now threatens major changes to sea levels, coral reefs, shorelines and global temperatures. Yet they are equally willing to say that scientists – who they are pleased to endorse as a profession elsewhere – are utterly wrong about GM crops. This is a dishonest act of cherry picking that makes a nonsense of the green movement’s claim to hold a superior moral position about the health of the planet..

Not everyone was pleased – Guardian writer and campaigner Alice Bell tweeted:

The second tweet is absolutely correct ofcourse- but the science on GMOs is far clearer than that on climate change- not the question of whether climate change is happening per se, or on whether CO2 is a warming gas, but on what policy this should imply. Policy is after all what Big Green are most concerned about, and on GMOs they are winning comfortably in Europe, where there are very tight restrictions and hardly any actually being grown. This is not what the science would suggest- proceed with caution, by all means, with proper regulations, absolutely, but Greenpeace et al are completely opposed to use of GMOs under any circumstances:

GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health.

That right there is your anti-science statement- because as the NAS report clearly shows- and this is just the latest in a long line of similar authoritative studies- the science really is in on the safety and efficacy of GMOs. Crop varieties should be regulated case-by-case on each trait, no differently from other varieties, and not on the breeding method.

I have been following this debate since then and  I have still not seen a serious case against GMOs being made that clearly distances itself from the fear-mongering, and is not essentially anti-science, usually laced with conspiracy theories and assumptions that all biotech scientists are shills for Monsanto. The “economic and political” debates always ride on the back of a caustic undermining of the scientific process and the deliberate spreading of FUD: Fear, Misunderstanding and Doubt.

Warren Pearce argues that there are valid concerns about the regulatory process:

This is rather ironic considering the Oberserver piece itself clearly points out that

The green movement also complains that GM crop technology is the prerogative of big industry and should therefore be treated with suspicion. But it is the very actions of NGOs – who have demanded strict regulations to block GM crop cultivation – that have achieved this state of affairs. Only major corporations, with large legal departments, can afford to get their products into the field while small outfits – often those with novel technologies that could help starving countries – are thwarted by cumbersome regulations.

While this may be true- there may be concerns about how these inquiries are handled- it is not clear that this is substantially different from how public consultation takes place on any other topic; nor is it clear that there would be anything like this level of interest were it not for the well-funded, constant fear-mongering and anti-science propaganda from the likes of Greenpeace and many Organic outlets and marketing organizations. Why the fuss about genetic engineering, and not other breeding techniques? Why such concern about consultation over moths and mosquitoes, but none over the well-established use of biotech in medicine?

I am all in favor of greater public engagement in both science and regulatory processes, but the two cannot be separated on the subject such as GMOs, where public debate, probably more than any other scientific topic, takes place in a toxic atmosphere where public science is assumed to be in the pay of Big Business.

In the meantime, the Observer editorial is a welcome change of tone for a paper which regularly takes a strongly opposing stance on this issue. We can imagine there may have been a few feathers ruffled:


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!

50 Shades of Green

A Spectrum of Environmental Thought

“You seem to spend a good bit of time slagging off environmentalists” complained a particularly earnest student to me recently. His gripe seemed to be to do with some fairly incidental comments I had made in passing about fracking being OK in principle, and Permaculture offering no silver bullet for delivering sustainable agriculture.
The thing is though, who are these “environmentalists” of which we speak? It is misleading to speak about “environmentalists” as if they all agree on things like nuclear power or GMOs; in fact, when it comes to the Green movement , we are talking about a very broad church indeed.
Here then, is a selected range of thinkers, movers and shakers on environmental issues, most of them who would identify with being “environmentalists” in some way. This also roughly equates with Professor Steve Fuller’s suggestion (see below) that we are seeing a dramatic 90-degree shift in the poles of political thought- no more so much “Left wing” and “Right wing”, much more “Down-wingers” (Dark Green environmentalists) and “Up-wingers” (eco-pragmatists and technophiles).
As we move through the spectrum, we see a shift from focus on the Precautionary Principle with regard to technology- a general aversion to any more “meddling with nature”- and gradually move closer to Fuller’s “Pro-actionary imperative”- the view that as humans, we are all but compelled to keep innovating and developing new technologies, leaping further into the unknown of the future, if we are to continue to thrive.

There are of course hundreds more writers I could have included. The exact placement of each writer is open to interpretation, and not intended to be precise, not least because many will be further one way on some issues (eg nuclear power or climate) and further the other way on others.

Here we go then- 50 Shades of Green:

Dark Green
This end of the spectrum tends to be quite extreme and ideologically motivated, characterised as:
-Suspicious of technology
-romanticizing the past
-romanticizing “Nature”;
tends to make apocalyptic predictions- the “Doomers”;
emphasis on “over-population”;
follows “Limits to Growth” philosophy: the Earth’s resources are finite, and humanity is approaching the limits- soon there will be severe shortages of energy, minerals, food, leading to a likely population collapse;
Peak Oil= Peak Energy- humans are like “bacteria on a petri dish” and subject to the same laws of limits as other species- it is only our hubris and arrogance that blinds us to this truth;
Humans must cut back and end economic growth, restrict use of technology, live simpler lives;
Moralistic- Humans are an inherently malevolent influence on the planet
Often Misanthropic = human-hating- seeing Nature as Pure and Humans as Polluted.

At the very extreme end of the spectrum…
Eco-fascism: eg Nazi Germany- Rudolph Hess was a leading Nazi Nature Mystic who believed the purity of the German race was intimately connected with the purity of the Land and its Soil –Blut und Boden– (“Blood and Soil”)- the Nazis were the first and only movement to promote Steiner’s mystical practice of Biodynamics on a large scale, which was also inspired by this view;
The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland– the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food; purity of the food maintained purity of the Blood- and therefore, purity of the Race.
Organic farming emerged after this time as a reaction against the rise of industrial farming which was seen as polluting, not just the soil and the land, but the Race.
This kind of thinking, while not explicitly racist in content, can still be found underpinning the Darker side of the Organics and anti-GMO movement. In many ways, the foodie movement in general is best seen as versions of Kosher foods- a modern take on the age-old tradition of identifying ones tribe by the food it eats. “Pig meat unclean” and only eaten by the Infidels becomes “GMOs unclean”.
This position is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva, who, while feted widely by western environmentalists who would prefer to see themselves on the Left, in her native country is more closely identified with right-wing nationalistic interests who shun modernity and have vested interests in the maintenance of the caste system.

Deep Ecology

Anarcho-primitivsism- Derrick Jensen “The Culture of Make-Believe”

Dark Mountain

We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

– from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

Thomas Malthus 1766-1834- predicted food supply would fail to keep up with population increases, leading to inevitable famines;

Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

– Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power”,

May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report cited here

Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962

Limits to Growth 1972 Club of Rome report by Meadows and Randers;

Jared Diamond 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Richard Heinberg The End of Growth 2011
Heinberg is an influential figure in the Peak Oil movement, which sees the peaking in world oil supplies to be happening now and leading to inevitable collapse of modern industrial society;

Transition Towns Network
A world-wide network of community projects started in Tones, Devon in 2004:

is a charitable organisation whose role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the Transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions…Ultimately it’s about creating a healthy human culture, one that meets our needs for community, livelihoods and fun.

TTN promotes the urgent need for a response to the “twin threats” of Peak Oil (resource depletion) and Climate Change (pollution of the Global Commons) by forming re-localisation projects. The vision appears to be a return to more-or-less self-sufficient local and regional communities growing their own food and producing their own energy and other resources, in a general move away from globalisation, technology and progress; they could be characterized as a “neo-feudal” movement.

Supporters and alliances include Prince Charles and the Schumacher College; their seems much in common with the ideology espoused by Rudolph Steiner and other early 20thCentury reactions against modernity.

Permaculture –again, closely aligned with and informing of Transition, Permaculture began as a landscape design method, but now represents a very broad movement claiming to work towards a “Permanent Culture”, Permaculture clearly began as a reaction against industrialisation and modernity and a conviction that society is surely doomed should it continue down its current path;
Also linked with Anthroposophy, Organics and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The giant multi-national green NGOs Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth probably fit in around about here, with a strong anti-GMO and anti-nuclear stance;

George Monbiot
Monbiot is one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and aligns strongly with the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate Left; but he also has links with Dark Mountain and the darker Greens on many issues, while at the same time breaking ranks in a rather fundamental way through his advocating of nuclear power as the “lesser of two evils” when considering the need for base-load low-carbon energy to tackle climate change.


Thus far those cited have tended to believe in the inherent unsustainability of the modern world and call with varying degrees of urgency and optimism for a retreat “back to Nature”;
Coupled with this is frequently found at root a rejection of Enlightenment values- which see human agency as liberating us from the confines of an often merciless “Nature”- as hubris. Instead, they argue, the escape from “natural limits” is a dangerous illusion.
Most mainstream environmentalism including the Green parties of Europe and the US tend towards this view.

Now we look at those who support conservationism and environmental protection in various guises, but who see this as best happening in the context of modern industrial society which should continue to use human ingenuity and technology to solve environmental problems without a wholesale abandonment of modernity:


Sometimes also known as “neo-Greens”;
Mark Lynas
The myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

In this article, Lynas points to recent research suggesting Diamond (above) was wrong to point to Easter Island as a metaphor for ecological over-shoot and collapse.
Lynas falls between the two ends of the spectrum as he also has very dark views of potential climate apocalypse (viz his 2006 book “Six Degrees” and more recent “The God Species” about planetary boundaries.)

Other thinkers are less concerned about any concept of absolute boundaries.

Eco-pragmatists believe technology can really help the environment- indeed, it is unethical in the extreme to abandon the poor, and they see bringing the rest of humanity out of poverty to be the number one priority. As people become wealthier they naturally take more care of the environment and reduce family size;
See Maslow
Advanced technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering are cleaner and can both feed and bring energy to the world and help solve some of the problems of earlier technology; “Nature” is something to conserve, but not something we should be aiming to return to.

James Lovelock

The maverick scientist is the hardest of anyone on this list to categorise- on the one hand, his Gaia hypothesis inspired a generation of Deep Ecologists, and also the broader environmental movement, to think differently about the planet; on the other hand he has in recent years made a dramatic turn-around from stating climate change will result in the end of humanity, to “noone really knows” and advocating technofixes including fracking, nuclear power and the geo-engineering.

Hans Rosling Population Growth
TED Talks: Global Population Growth

Rosling shows how development and the demographic transition is leading to a reduction in fertility rates and decline in population growth rates, which is happening all over the world more rapidly than expected.
Essential viewing: The Magic Washing Machine

Emma Marris Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Fascinating look at changing perspectives in ecology and conservation in a world where very little if any “nature” that hasn’t been modified by humans remains.

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
In this talk, Kareiva takes issue with the romantic notions of Nature of Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline

We are as Gods – and must get good at it.

Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a pioneer in permaculture and appropriate technology in the ‘60s, discusses 4 Environmental Heresies:
-cities are green
-nuclear power is green
-genetic engineering is green
-geo-engineering is probably necessary to tackle climate change.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute: The Death of Environmentalism
-a Key article from critics of the mainstream environmental movement

Norberg and Shellenberger reject the idea that it is human population and overall human impact that is the problem, instead embracing enlightenment values, seeing technology and human progress the key to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Daniel Botkin Botkin challenges the “Balance of Nature” narrative in Darker Green Environmentalism

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist

To go back to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature

Self-sufficiency is poverty.

TED talk: When Ideas Have Sex

Ridley believes human beings became the dominant species through innovation, specialization and trade, aided by our unique ability to communicate through language;
the “optimist” in his book’s title places him further towards the “upwing” of the spectrum, believing that technological innovation can continue to improve life for humans, overcoming environmental problems;
unlike most of the previous writers, he is controversial and outspoken on climate change, believing it to be less of a threat than the Darker Greens.

Bjorn Lomborg
The Skeptical Environmentalist 2001
Cool It! 2011 Book and Film

key article: Lomborg Explains how to Save the Planet

How we live today is clearly unsustainable. Why history proves that is completely irrelevant.

Lomborg was influenced by Julian Simon (d.1998)

In The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon argued that human innovation and economic forces would always overcome apparent or temporary resource limits, as in the saying ”The stone-age didn’t run out because we ran out of stones”- in other words, we will always be able to find better substitutes long before a resource actually expires.
Lomborg continues to be skeptical of the more doom-ridden end of the spectrum, and in particular, while accepting that man-made climate change is a problem, believes the mainstream policy response is all wrong, and the key is once again technological innovation- we cannot move away from fossil fuels until we have a cleaner alternative that is also cheaper- and in the meantime there are far more pressing human and environmental problems we should be spending our money on solving.

Patrick Moore Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout 2010

Pure science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

Moore believes much of the “Dark Green” environmental movement had become irrational and reactionary and anti-science.
More than other “eco-pragmatists” mentioned, Moore is skeptical of the science behind man-made climate change, tending to argue that CO2 plays little if any role in warming the planet, and is certainly not a risk.

At the extreme end- Promethean Greens
Believe technology and human innovation will ultimately lead to a better environment- there is no “Nature”- only what humans decide will remain;
Even asteroid-mining or deep space travel will be possible eventually;
Transhumanism– human-computer link-ups; nano-technology; and even eternal life after the Singularity is reached and life-expectancy advances faster than real time.
Eg Jacques Fresco’s The Venus Project
See Mark Stevenson An Optimists’ Tour of the Future for an entertaining survey of future technologies that may not be that far off.

As mentioned in my intro above, in his 2014 book The Pro-actionary Imperative Professor Steve Fuller takes issue with the dominant Left-Right dichotomy, instead positing “Down-wingers” (anarchist Deep Ecologists and Conservatives) and “Up-wingers” (Marxists and Libertarians). He himself advocates Transhumanism as a political strategy, embraces technological fixes- but, in sharp contrast to the more secular/atheist tendencies of other Prometheans, this emerges from his Christian belief that God made us in his image ie our destiny therefore is to literally become As Gods, and not just metaphorically as per Stewart Brand. Successful risk-taking is what has made us human, and the last thing we want to is allow the Dark Greens to slow this down.


So there you have it. Let me know if you think there are any major omissions. In truth, we are all environmentalists– once we have sufficient wealth and security to worry about things beyond our immediate survival.

Big Ag and Small Farms- Why we need both

Colin Tudge has an article for last week’s Oxford Real Farming conference. Unfortunately, he provides little evidence for many of his assertions, repeats many long-debunked myths and seems intent on promoting a black-and-white world or Goodies (small farms) vs Baddies (Big Ag and GMOs) to have a go at his pet hate of “neo-liberalism”.

Tudge begins:

The sad state of Britain’s dairying has the same root cause as the billion worldwide who are undernourished, the billion who are overweight and/or diabetic or in danger of heart disease, global warming, the mass extinction of our fellow creatures: global agriculture, and indeed a global economy, that is geared not to the wellbeing of humankind and of the planet but to short-term wealth, in the simplistic belief that money per se is good and can solve all our problems no matter how it is produced or what it is used for.

To put things right we have to think deeply – in fact re-think from first principles – and act radically.

Tudge’s philosophy is firmly rooted in the back-to-the-land small- is- beautiful tradition beloved of Organic farmers, locavores and romantic pasturalists. The line-up for the Oxford Conference promises more of the same, including offerings from Schumacher College. Continue Reading

We don’t need GE crops but Africa does

Another book review from the archives of my previous blog Zone5.
Paalberg’s book is as relevant as ever- although there has been some movement on GE crops since I wrote the review, by and large they are still slow to take off in most of the continent. The only thing I would change is in the post’s title- we in the developed world also need GE to help improve  the efficiency and environmental resilience of farming practices.
Starved for Science stands as a damning indictment of the environmental movement’s ideological campaign against genetic engineering, which has made the task of solving hunger and poverty in rural Africa much more difficult by keeping it from those who need it the most.

We don’t need GE crops but Africa Does

First posted on 10 September 2010 on


Starved for science: How Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa

Robert Paalberg
Harvard University Press 2009 Pbck 235pp

Harvard Professor Robert Paalberg has written a book that makes essential reading for anyone interested in global food politics and why Africa still fails to feed many of its people.
Africa remains the only region on earth with increasing poverty and hunger. The number of Africans living on less than a dollar a day increased 50% since the early 90s; Between 1991 and 2002 the number of malnourished people in Africa increased from 169 to 206 million, with nearly a third of sub-Saharan Africa malnourished, compared with just 17% in the developing world as a whole.

Paalberg accounts for this as a result of policies that since the 1970s have resulted in a massive decline in investment in agricultural science in Africa. While in Asia and South America, farmers benefited from the new science of the green Revolution, and have been able to both feed their growing population- confounding the predictions of neo-Malthusians- and bring many out of poverty as well. India started planting new Green Revolution short-straw varieties in 1964; by 1970 production had doubled, averting fears of famine.

Why did Africa get left behind? Paalberg argues that while in Asia and South America had strong enough institutions and science to continue with their own scientific developments with little further outside assistance, Africa was became influenced by a change in the political and cultural climate in Europe from the 1980s onwards. In particular, this has seriously slowed the uptake of Genetic Engineering in Africa, which Paalberg argues is a result in part of the ideological position of many NGOs working in Africa.

In order to examine what lies behind this ideological position, Paalberg gives a detailed account of the rise of the Organic movement in the west, and a strong consumer movement demanding more natural food:
“This reification of what is “natural” is in part a cultural reaction to the hegemonic expansion of modern science. Advances in modern science tend to diminish both unspoiled nature and unquestioned faith, prompting those with a strong romantic or spiritual side to register their objections by seeking foods that incorporate less modern science. “
This view had already emerged in the US as early as 1892 when a clergyman called Sylvester Graham invented the “Graham Cracker” as a reaction against additives used to whiten bread. Paalberg points out Graham was a “patriarch and a prude; he thought women should go back to milling their own flour and believed in vegetarianism as a means to control sexual passions.”

In Europe, Rudolph Steiner founded the vitalist school of philosophy called Anthroposophy.
“‘Vitalism’” explains Paalberg “was the once-dominant view that living things had a chemical composition different from non-living things”- a view known to be untrue by science since 1780, yet one that still underpins much of the organic movement even today. Steiner’s “Biodynamic” techniques- a mixture of sympathetic magic, astrology and animal sacrifice- seem to have been growing in popularity in recent years.
Sir Albert Howard’s 1940 publication “An Agricultural Testament” was also influential in this reaction against science in farming: “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.”

Lady Eve Balfour was next in 1943 with her book “The Living Soil” which inspired the formation of the Soil Association in 1946, “still the institutional guardian of organic farming traditions in Great Britain.” The SA’s leading patron is HRH Prince Charles, “the most prominent exemplar of this blue-blood attachment in England to pre-industrial, chemical-free farming”.
In the US, J.I Rodale coined the term “Organic farming” and founded the “Organic Farming and Gardening” magazine in 1942. Rodale was also a big fan of alternative health care and supplements.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” perhaps did more than any other book to warn of the dangers of chemical pollution from farming. The environmental movement had come of age and began to have a real influence over public policy.

The movement grew rapidly with the rise of an alternative youth culture in the 1960s and 70s, getting a major boost in the US in 1990 with the creation of a single national standard for organic produce.
However, even today in the US the organic sector makes up only 2% of total food purchases and using only 0.4% of cropland. The claims of the organic movement of safer, more nutritious food, and of being more beneficial to nature, are not in general supported by scientific evidence. Paalberg argues that the per capita amount of land need to feed people has declined by more than 50% in the US since 1920; a switch now to organics would require far more land, threatening much of the remaining forest and wild areas.

Carsonain environmentalists cannot refute this logic, but they resist accepting it because it requires them to endorse a larger rather than a smaller role for modern science.

More science had already reduced some of the harm from chemical farming highlighted by Carson; bringing in more science to farming now is still the best way to address the environmental impacts by making farming more efficient. The Organic movement has proved to be still wedded to its ideological roots.
The prevalence of the “nature knows best” ideology has been possible because the west has already seen so much improvement in agricultural productivity, as a result of science and technology, that it is well-fed and unwilling to take on yet more in this sector, switching its concerns to reducing the impact on the environment of farming.

Paalberg accepts that this stance makes sense in the west with its excesses of CAFOs, and a subsidy system that encourages over-application of Nitrogen fertiliser, and problems of obesity rather than starvation.
In addition, the modern world seemed to feel an acute sense of loss of community and connection with the natural world and began to harbor romantic notions of returning to an agrarian past.
What might be understandable if misguided at home has become disastrous in Africa, where essentially farmers are poor- and therefore sometimes hungry- because of too little science, rather than too much. African farmers mostly own their own land (unlike in South America) and so would be well placed to benefit from improvements in crop technology for example, but a combination of powerful western NGOs and corrupt African governments discouraged investment in this area.

{Correction 16-09-10: Paalberg does not say most African farmers own their own land but emphasises that there is far more access to in Africa than in, say Latin America, with only 15 landless landless people in the countryside to every 100 smallholders: “This greater prevalence of land-secure smallholder farmers among the poor in rural Africa increases the chance they will benefit from a farm-technology upgrade. Yet not just any upgrade will do. A new farming technology will be pro-poor as well as pro-growth only if it raises the the total factor productivity of small as well as large farms.”}

This opposition to science is most strongly expressed when it comes to genetically engineered crops. This technology was first being developed at a time when public science funding in agriculture was declining, leaving private corporations like Monsanto to step in and lead the way. The organic movement has banned the use of GE crops; Europe has kept GE food crops out altogether so far. Paalberg sees the ideology behind this as going beyond the simple environmental and health concerns, extending to issues of carrying capacity and population:

Carsonian environmentalists were offended because gene transfer was so clearly an attempt to engineer and dominate nature rather than live within nature’s normal reproductive constraints.

Perversely, the environmental concerns of the rich world became transplanted into Africa, where people struggle to feed themseleves still.
“Farming in Africa is a world apart from farming in Europe or North America” writes Paalberg, and goes onto say:

In Africa…farmers today are not involved in specialized factory farming. They are planting heirloom varieties in polycultures rather than scientifically improved varieties in monoculture. They have a food system that is traditional, local, nonindustrial, and very slow. Using few purchased inputs, they are de facto organic. And as a consequence they remain poor and poorly fed.

Yields of maize in Malawi for example are less than one tenth of yields in the US.
Many NGOs working in Africa seem motivated to keep them this way. Doug Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace places a great emphasis on safeguarding the “traditional knowledge” of the Africans. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) is the most prominent amongst NGOs promoting organics in developing countries; their mission in Africa is not to increase productivity but to enlist farmers there into the organic movement. Since so few farmers use synthetic chemicals it will be easy to get them certified. “Poor and nonproductive” Paalberg notes ruefully , “but certified organic.”

Paalberg is scathing about some of the approaches by NGOs. The German organisation Networking for Ecofarming in Africa has partners in 13 African countries to warn them of the dangers of “Western agricvulture” supplanting indigenous knowledge, yet promotes biodynamic farming in its workshops.

German trainers at one NECOFA session in Kenya in 2005 took the time to introduce local participants the importance of light rhythms from the planets and to instruct them in developing manure preparations that included essential bits of stinging nettle, chamomile, and cow horn (NECOFA 2005). Such knowledge is neither farmer-derived nor indigenous to Africa. Nor is it even knowledge.

Pedalling pseudo-science to hungry people is akin to quack therapists promoting homeopathy for AIDS or malaria.
Paalberg details the political process used by NGOs, aided and abetted by the UN and supported by a complacent governments in the west and corrupt urban-based officials in Africa, to block the use of science to improve the farmers lot there.
How much of this is to support lifestyle choices of the rich in western countries? Paalberg sees it as neo-colonial in its effects: nearly all certified organic produce in Africa is specialty crops destined for the west, not food for the locals. “Organic farming advocates from IFOAM nonetheless like to assert that organic agriculture in developing countries is not a luxury but somehow a precondition for attaining food security.”

What could GE crops do for African farmers? The most obvious is drought-tolerance (DT). Monsanto has played a big role in developing DT corn in the US, but African will have to wait before they can try it. Only South Africa is an exception to the red tape and stiffing restrictions that all other African governments have place don GE technology, following the European model.
In any case, the big companies are not developing DT varieties suitable for Africa because they see little commercial gain there; African farmers are simply too poor. If GE gets into Africa, it will be through philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has formed a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation called Alliance for a Green Revolution In Africa (AGRA). Monsanto is working with AGRA however to donate some of its technology to develop DT crops there. There remain many political obstacles, and Africa which needs this new technology more than anyone, seems destined to be the last to get it.
Friends of the Earth have been opposed to DT crops in Africa since 1999, citing the danger of them growing in areas currently unavailable to other crops as one of its main objections to GE.

“How strange that agricultural crops with new growth potential would be seen as a threat by the NGO community” notes Paalberg, “but such was the new political reality.”

A new generation of GE crops may help shift attitudes in the Europe. So far, the technology has been used to benefit farmers, with little apparent benefit to the consumer; new crops may have tangible benefits to those who eat them, and as with GE in medicine- which has not met with the same opposition- may then come to be more accepted.

Paalberg makes a tightly argued case for the unnecessary prolonging of hunger in Africa being at least partly fueled by ideological and even religiously motivated western NGOs. While there is an understandable attraction to the simple life of living from the land in the west- something that I have shared- those of us who choose this life are wealthy enough to afford everything from tools and polytunnels to the best seeds we can get, and we do not have to worry about going hungry if the rains dont come.

GE and other scientific advances would farmers here, and the environment also, but we are wealthy enough -because of the benefits technology has brought us so far- to have the choice. To actively campaign to keep these benefits from the poor is not just anti-science, but anti-humanity.

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.

The Cult of Perma

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

-Bill Mollison Permaculture- A Designers’ Manual 1988

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

-Toby Hemenway What Permaculture Isn’t- and Is

Permies just don’t do numbers

-Peter Harper The Big Rock Candy Mountain 2013

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

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

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

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

So what is Permaculture then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Brown’s article again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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