Is a Permaculture world achievable, and if so, why are we moving in the opposite direction?
Every species has to live in harmony with nature, and humans are no exception. The alternative is gruesome and very short-term. Our ultimate and most valuable treasures are the soil and the sea. They provide all our food, and as long as we treat them well, we’ll never go hungry. If we treat them badly, we’re looking at a very unhealthy, bleak and hungry future.
But we have a problem, in that we have a system of global agriculture, energy and distribution that erodes the soil and poisons both the soil and the sea. That’s going to make us sick, and then, unless we stop, finish us, eventually. You can’t keep eroding and poisoning the soil, and you can’t keep poisoning the sea and damaging the life in it. A system that does that is a short-term system, and the end of the term won’t be pretty, and probably not even survivable.
I don’t think there are any people who try to live their life according to Permaculture principles for whom this isn’t a given. It’s not really controversial. The information’s out there. You can see how much the way we live damages soil, the water system and ecology. Have a look here, here and here for a start. This is peer-reviewed stuff, but it’s not difficult. It’s just measuring things.
It’s a starting point for any useful discussion about how we’re going to live in future. So it’s quite surprising to talk with intelligent people who don’t get it. And I think people who do get it often underestimate the number of people who don’t.
Regardless of how many people believe, understand or have even heard about what’s happening to nature, we have to solve this problem if we’re going to survive. A world based on Permaculture principles would, I believe, provide the solution. But there’s something missing from Permaculture, and that’s an implementation plan.
At the moment, capitalism is getting bigger – it’s providing more and more of people’s food, energy, banking, transport, housing and a lot of their other needs – everywhere in the world. And capitalist principles are almost the exact opposite of Permaculture principles.
In terms of our sheer numbers and of our economic activity, we need to shrink to a level that doesn’t destroy soil, sea and nature. We need a system that doesn’t constantly grow, like a cancer. And that system isn’t capitalism.
This isn’t a left / right thing. Capitalism isn’t a right-wing system. China’s communist government do it really well. It’s a game of money – whoever gets the most is in charge. Genuine right-wing thinkers know that capitalism isn’t right-wing. The most important thing to genuine right-wing thinkers is freedom, and they know that capitalism concentrates power, and takes away freedom. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the right understand this more than the left at this point in time – which I find astounding, but true nevertheless.
Permaculture is a great thing, but it isn’t ‘it’ because it’s not moving towards a position where it can provide a viable alternative to capitalism. We’re not moving in that direction. The world is being run more and more on capitalist principles, and further and further away from Permaculture principles.
It’s important to talk about what ‘it’ might be. It might be a way of implementing a Permaculture system, or it might be an entirely new system. But first, we need to get the majority talking about it, rather than about football scores and fashion. And we’re a long, long way from that.
It’s urgent, but I don’t think it’s too late – although it’s going to take a lot of pain to get back into equilibrium. But the first step towards that is acknowledging that we haven’t even started moving in that direction.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1lin scrannage January 31st, 2017
Alison Smith, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge was talking this morning on Radio 4’s Life Scientific programme about algae, towards the end of the broadcast she was talking about how she thought that mixed farming systems might offer more in terms of food producing capacity than current industrial farming systems and was geeting rather excited about how we may in the future be able to farm algae and use by products to feed fish – to feed humans and then use human waste to feed algae……….( I suspect she has not heard of permaculture !) All well and good , except she was talking in terms of 10 to 100 years to get this in place……………….
2Steve Gwynne January 31st, 2017
Reproduced from Confederation of Soviets of the Atlantic Archipelago (CSAA) facebook group.
Between the local and the national another scale of authority is suggested by organicists as a means to reorient England. If planner-preservationists saw the region as a unit of modem planning, organicists offered a different regionalism, decentralized and ruralized: ‘The whole secret of England is her regionalism. She is one but composite in infinite variation.’ Organicists build up the region from geology and topography as a counter-modern unit. For [H.J.] Massingham regional symbolism could include the most traditional country squire: ‘his values are individual, co-operative and regional … The regional idea as the nursing ground of the home and family sense is contrary both to individualism and the automatism resulting from it, and the squire is regional both in history and in vocation.” As part of his ‘Alternative to Death’ [Viscount] Lymington proposed a regionalism of ‘ecological comity’, with “each ecological region as self-supporting as possible”: “England should be divided into regions which have an ecological and historical background rather than the arbitrary regions evolved for war-time defence … functional development and self-government should take place within these regions.” ‘
David Matless, Landscape and Englishness, (2nd ed. 2016)
Alternative to Death: The Relationship Between Soil, Family and Community. Viscount Lymington (1945).
If bonds of community are based on organic regionalism (bioregionalism), it makes me think that the partisan prejudiced-based politics of left/right is mainly a national-scale concern which would, over time, dissipate if the primary focus of self-determination was at the regional-scale. This is the true freedom that genuine rightwing thinkers aspire to and the freedom that genuine left wing thinkers aspire to.
I’ve been thinking through the Culture War that is gathering pace in many capitalists countries and it dawns on me that
The Guardianista Liberal Strategy is to
1. Ferment mass delusions. Eg the democratic choice to impose labour flow control to strengthen up national resilience – population growth and facilitating increased high impact living vis a vis preserving green infrastructure – is distorted into language games about mass xenophobia.
2. Then use the ensuing mass psychosis to ferment an oppositional soft xenophobia.
3. Having created a gullible ‘liberal’ audience, sell them memes, ideas, books and music.
Effectively we are seeing left liberal commentators manipulate large groupings of liberals in order to promote the corporate cultural capitalist liberal elite. I include Monbiot, Jones, Mason, Toynbee, Cohen et al in this analysis and it is highly disturbing to me that these people are using soft forms of xenophobia and psychosis as a narrative tool to promote cultural capitalism.
Im afraid the only real option is to not only engage with these destructive language games but also form a political grouping that is going to convey an Organic/Permaculture Bioregionalism. Building up a social/populist movement is simply not going to cut through this sea of alternative facts and delusions that are being promoted by these liberal cultural elites. Hence we have the emerging Green and Peasants parties forming in and around North-Eastern Europe.
So the question is whether we are motivated enough to put ourselves in the political firing line, speak out against partisan prejudiced-based national politics which inevitably leads to soft xenophobia and the status quo of a capitalist based system, promote a confederation of self-determining bioregions as an alternative with an emphasis on regional self-reliance regarding soil, family and community.
As you argue, this will undoubtedly mean that left/green liberals will see this positioning as rightwing conservatism/fascism and whilst I know Chris Smaje has been trying to formulate a leftwing version of regional agrarianism, this I think is an impossible task since current left liberal thinking totally rejects labour flow controls and surely Permaculture does require the prudent management of all biotic and abiotic flows.
Do you have a different take on how permaculture can be expressed as a political system that excludes the management of labour flow controls?
3Steve Gwynne January 31st, 2017
Also. I think the implementation is by moving ourselves to a particular region, i.e the Republic of Wessex in order to build up a political consensus in a single region as both a demonstrator model but also because the more like-minded people together in one location the better in terms of local government representation. Frome is an obvious example in this respect. Also an implementatable plan would be just that by starting from the bottom up. I.e start from the region in locational terms and then move towards the national in terms of greater political representation.
4Chris January 31st, 2017
As soon as a Permaculture system can be proved to be short term financial gain, then the arguments(s) will gain recognition. The issue seems to be ‘Is capitalism responsible for the destruction’ I would argue no and offer an alternative view. Is short term greed responsible for the destruction – of land, sea and community.
It’s quite possible to grow more food, for less financial input, and faster, than the current methods. But financial institutions are unable to perceive a monetary gain using new methods since they are not being given some of the facts IN A FINANCIAL FRAME. To much emphasis is placed on ‘green policies’ or on ‘environmental concerns’ and not enough on financial gain.
If I/we can prove to a bank – or a lender – that the financial return is more profitable using Permaculture or Aquaponics or Groasis boxes then I/we will get the money for the development and implementation. Don’t rely on heart rending stories of too little too late since bankers have NEVER been interested in the heart, They are interested in the money.
Salmon farming makes money – in the short term. Deep sea fishing making money is questionable (but don’t forget there is a political motive here as well) So why not farm other fish – Cod, herring etc. DON’T HUNT. FARM.
quote – from above ‘she thought that mixed farming systems might offer more in terms of food producing capacity than current industrial farming systems and was getting rather excited about how we may in the future be able to farm algae’ Mixed farming has been around for quite a few years – since the 18thC, I believe, in UK – and we CAN farm algae NOW.
No need to get excited about it BUT, and here is the crunch BUT, has anybody actually made money and proved it works AND THEN PROVED IT TO THE BANKS? Probably not since the algae farming is more than likely to be a university led project designed to make money for the university, which kinda takes us back to the top of this discussion!!
5Steve Gwynne January 31st, 2017
Permaculture or organic agrarianism or agro-ecology realises an entirely different system to the current one that facilitates greed and capitalism. The former is based on localised economies, resilience and mutual cooperation in order to satisfy community needs. It is subsistence in its outlook and only utilising high impact technology where necessary. The point of this neo-peasant lifestyle is to minimize inputs in order to cause the least amount of ecological damage. Therefore it is not profit-orientated but well-being orientated which attempts to widen moral agency to the entire ecological world.
Capitalism is the complete opposite and most importantly opposite in terms of its range of moral agency. Capitalism does not seek the moral and political representation of non-humans and is even very selective about which humans are given moral and political agency. This is because financial flows or financial-based valuations do not and indeed cannot incorporate costs that are moral in nature. This is the de-humanising feature of capitalism whereby humans and non-humans are reduced to commodities which can be calculated in terms of accountancy.
In essence capitalism is exploitative since Nature is not recognised as a person in the same way a corporation is. This means a capitalist can simply take from Nature without paying for a thing. In contrast, a system build on Permaculture principles recognises the personhood of Nature and so a Permaculture-based cost/benefit analysis will incorporate all inputs and all outputs. Capitalism is premised on externalising costs in order to displace responsibility to other areas of the economy, usually the taxpayer.
So in response to your argument, Permaculture and its associated systems distributing goods and services is not seeking to be profit-seeking so the likelihood of seeking a business loan with a business plan is unlikely.
However what is a particular financial obstacle is how to finance a mortgage or rent payments since most other bills are minimised within a Permaculture lifestyle. This obstacle is usually surmounted by cooperative collaboration in that finances are pooled so that land and buildings can be purchased as a collective. Then land and buildings (including the potential of building other low impact structures) are distributed according to need and capacity.
However a capitalist system by its nature will seek to restrict these permaculture endeavours not because they arent financially sound investments for banks but because permaculture by its nature is labour intensive and as a result, due to the notion of opportunity costs, will mean that less labour will be available to expand and grow an economy. Hence planning decisions tend to be prejudiced against low impact lifestyles and dwellings and local development plans will rarely if ever include a quota of low impact economic activities and dwellings.
The point of capitalism is to increase the wealth of nations which means replacing farming labour with technology which then allows that labour to be utilised elsewhere. The development of ever sophisticated technologies and automation is simply for that end. And it is the development of these sophisticated technologies and automation that is the destroying the world ecology not greed. Greed comes into it for sure in terms of how the gains from this ecological destruction are distributed but if there are deeper motivations in play, it is concepts such as ‘progress’, ‘modernity’ and ‘poverty alleviation’ in opposition to concepts such as ‘backward’, ‘nostalgic’ and ‘parochial’ that are the driving motivators of capitalism.
6John Harrison January 31st, 2017
I’m sure a big part of the problem is the capitalist system with its emphasis on short term financial gain. When it comes to farming it’s a rape and pillage system. Topsoil and ecological diversity do not appear on the balance sheet.
I’m afraid the fact is that most people are more interested in celebs and sport than the environment. It’s easy to preach to the choir but the rest of the congregation are too busy checking their social media for today’s event.
What we can do is to set an example by our own lifestyles and hope it rubs off.
7joshuamsikahutton January 31st, 2017
I’m with John on this one: “Set an example by our own lifestyles and hope it rubs off.”
Permaculture principles are particularly useful because they are relevant both to designing a future sustainable society and also to designing an individual lifestyle that can survive the decline of our currently unsustainable society.
In this era of constant and accelerated change, I suggest that hoping for a “revolution” is futile. Lifestyles are changing so fast that we are constantly in a state of upheaval and dislocation. A “revolution” would just be lost in the deafening roar of change already going on around us and likely to continue into the decades ahead.
8Chris January 31st, 2017
As I said earlier, if we can present a short term financial gain USING technology and aiming the presentation in a financial manner, the financial institutions will see profit. Current farming methods – the ‘rape and pillage’ – SHOULD be changed ( I use fishing as an example) to reflect off-the-wall thinking BUT . . no financial institution will finance this since they can’t see the return. Maybe we should use financial presentations rather than moral presentations!! Now there’s an off-the-wall idea!!
9Dave Darby January 31st, 2017
Of the people you mention, I think Monbiot is genuinely interested in system change.
I’d like to see a world without borders, but it’s difficult to talk about the fact that the corporate controllers of the EU at the European Round Table of Industrialists knew exactly what they were doing when they extended the EU east, without first equalising the economies of east and west. They got an influx of cheap labour, and an opportunity to move in and destroy indigenous industries. Both those things have happened, to the detriment of working people, east and west, but London liberals are oblivious, because they’ve never really spent any time in working-class towns.
The West needs to stop hoovering up all the world’s resources, but we’re not going to stop that happening within capitalism – there are 150 countries with a US military presence that indicates they’re not going to give up that privilege without a fight.
10John Harrison January 31st, 2017
“Maybe we should use financial presentations rather than moral presentations!!” Possibly, take farming land. It has a value based -in part at least- on how good it is for growing. Let’s say it was £10,000 per hectare to buy with a topsoil 50cm deep on average. But no topsoil = no value so we could argue each centimetre of topsoil is worth 1 50th or £200 per hectare. So poor farming methods reducing topsoil devalue the financial asset as well as the real asset value to the planet.
Conversely, good practice improving the soil and creating more depth would add value. Bingo, an argument for good ecological practice that even a banker would go for.
I know I’m being simplistic but that was to demonstrate the idea.
11Steve Gwynne January 31st, 2017
Yes I see a world without borders working within the context of international socialism and a just-in-time resource management system but thats not going to happen anytime soon.
I appreciate Monbiot had a foot in each of the regionalised agrarian and international socialism camps but his pro-eu logic now puts him in the oblivious metropolitan liberal camp with all the others as far as I’m concerned. He might mean well but there is something about him that doesn’t convince me and I think on balance he is more concerned about his bank balance and preserving his liberal status than he is about permaculture principles. But maybe you know him better than I do.
I only say this because every green, left and right grouping who was concerned about eu neo-liberalism, self-determination and national policy sovereignty voted for Brexit. These Guardianista liberals were all strongly arguing for the same but when forced to make a decision they all switched. This was the biggest mistake ever in my opinion.
Their arguments for Bremain were not only superficial but showed just out of touch they really are. In particular, their conspiracy to create and propagate false claims of xenophobia only served to promote the aims and interests of the ERT.
Some deal was done by my reckoning and Monbiot was very much a part of this. His writing is all over the place now and is still littered with the same polemics used during the Brexit campaign. There is always two sides to a story but he has definitely taken sides and that is the side of the liberal elites.
Sorry went on one there. But if they had gone for Brexit as they seemed to support even a few months before, I believe we would really be seeing the likes of permaculture in the national press. However, because regional labour flows do need to be managed within the context of a capitalist system, they shied away from the debate. In other words they all play a canny game of appeasing people with more radical and alternative ideas but always fail to follow through. Skirting the edges is their game, not only in order to avoid making the tough life/death decisions of life but also because, as you highlighted, it would put them, at least from their perspective, into a rightwing position.
However their corporate job is to propagate prejudism towards the rightwing and therefore perpetuate the left/right divide. That is their only real purpose in life. Everything else is just an article filler, for Monbiot too.
So in a sense, at least from a permaculture perspective within a capitalist system, at the moment, the liberal left is just a propagated illusion that only leads to continued ecological destruction and deep down I think we both know that. How they can change their trajectory without losing face is an impossible situation that they have put themselves having entrapped themselves in their false claims of xenophobia. They will die with their shame rather than appear rightwing. Their only option now is to underlyingly promote international socialism or international capitalism. I.e they are now stuck between a rock and a very hard place being unable to promote either that convincingly without turning their readership off. Consequently they are now just apologists with an axe to grind which is probably why Monbiot is diversifying into folk music and poetry! I guess like the corporate record industry, they simply are not that independant.
Sorry! I really am a Monbiot skeptic arent I. Jonathon Harris is showing some potential though but like the rest he is a paid propagandist to stir up prejudices.
12Steve Gwynne February 1st, 2017
Is your approach a natural capital perspective rather than Permaculture per se and if so are you suggesting that Permaculture needs to incorporate a natural capital perspective?
Currently this comes under the general umbrella of ‘Eco-systems based disaster risk reduction and climate change adaption’ and in particular advances nature-based solutions. Obviously the ecosystem services perspective is a core feature of this approach as is resilience thinking with the latter providing the framework in which to conduct socio-economic assessments.
This link from the International Union of Conservationist Network demonstrates this sort of thinking and how it ties in with your more financial considerations.
Restoration of natural ecosystems makes society thrive.
This is the global umbrella group that deals with this area more specifically.
13Dave Darby February 1st, 2017
I agree. They certainly did shy away from the debate too, and their bread and butter seems to be the left-right divide. Guardian totally corporate now, and I’m surprised how few of its readers realise. Not sure about Monbiot, but he seems to be as good as it gets in the msm.
14Dave Darby February 1st, 2017
This is happening already, in Rojava. Let’s see if they’re allowed to get on with it after ISIS has gone.
15Dave Darby February 1st, 2017
Josh – a revolution just means systemic change, nothing else, and therefore a revolution can’t be lost in the background noise. It changes the whole game.
I’m not sure whether you’re saying that 1. we can have a democratic, sustainable world within capitalism 2. incremental change will bring about a new system, or 3. capitalism is going to self-destruct anyway, or 4. some combination of those things.
To take the first point. Capitalism requires permanent growth, because money originates as debt, (http://positivemoney.org/videos/) with compound interest attached, and only a growing economy can allow that interest to be paid. There are other reasons too – the global advertising industry, governments, stock markets and the media all promote growth, and growth is the root cause (http://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/steady-state-economics/) of ecological destruction. Capitalism also concentrates wealth, and as power can be bought in capitalism (http://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/the-democracy-problem/), it prevents democracy, and therefore our ability to do anything about its inherent unsustainability.
Incremental / lifestyle change is essential (it’s what Lowimpact.org is all about). But for it to bring about a new system, first we have to be moving, incrementally, in the right direction. But we’re not – we’re moving in the wrong direction, in leaps and bounds. Both ecological damage and wealth concentration are accelerating, capitalism is destroying traditional cultures all over the world, and here it’s absorbed most mutual societies, local authority housing, the Co-op Bank, and it’s going after the NHS; and far too few understand the need for change, incremental or otherwise, anyway.
And if we allow capitalism to collapse rather than replace it before we get to that point, the ecological destruction, starvation, disease, war and (almost definitely) nuclear fallout that will accompany it means that there is absolutely no guarantee that anyone will survive it, whatever their lifestyle.
To achieve a sustainable, democratic society we’ll need to replace capitalism with a system that doesn’t require permanent growth and doesn’t concentrate wealth; and systemic change is by definition revolutionary. But I’m not ‘hoping’ for a revolution, I’m suggesting that we plan one.
16Dave Darby February 1st, 2017
Capitalism is inherently unsustainable because it’s built on the false premise that permanent growth is possible. Just copying here from my comment below.
Capitalism requires permanent growth, because money originates as debt, (http://positivemoney.org/videos/) with compound interest attached, and only a growing economy can allow that interest to be paid. There are other reasons too – the global advertising industry, governments, stock markets and the media all promote growth, and growth is the root cause (http://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/steady-state-economics/) of ecological destruction. Capitalism also concentrates wealth, and as power can be bought in capitalism (http://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/the-democracy-problem/), it prevents democracy, and therefore our ability to do anything about its inherent unsustainability.
Even a reduction in growth to the low single figures causes mass unemployment and suffering, even though the amount of useful stuff to do in the world remains exactly the same. The profit-seeking of the banks is an engine of growth, but the majority shareholders and top executives of the banks aren’t being ‘greedy’, they’re just being successful capitalists.
17Steve Gwynne February 2nd, 2017
One small reason to feel abit more optimistic.
18John Harrison February 2nd, 2017
Interesting links Steve but the point I’m trying (badly) to make is that the current economics treat finite resources as if they were infinite, which is obviously unsustainable. An economic system that placed a quantifiable value on those resources would help prevent their being destroyed. Taking my idea of value of topsoil a little further – if farming practices that maintained or even increased the depth of the topsoil produced less than ‘rape & pillage’ but the loss of immediate income was less than the loss of capital income, a sustainable system makes better economic sense.
Once that topsoil is down to just a few centimetres and agriculture fails the land’s value is gone. Hope that makes some sort of sense.
19Steve Gwynne February 2nd, 2017
Hi John. Yes Im aware of the zero-sum nature of capitalism (see my 1st response to Chris) and the zero-sum nature of life in general.
I was just curious whether Chris was alluding to the ideas of natural capital and whether he thought the ideas of natural capital should be incorporated into Permaculture.
20joshuamsikahutton March 20th, 2017
I can’t really figure out what my comment was relating to, and if I can’t, then you’ve got no hope. My apologies.
As far as I can tell, my misgivings are regarding the idea that we can plan a meaningful revolution which achieves a long-term solution. What we are facing is not a problem, which would have a solution, but a predicament, which can only have responses but cannot be “solved”. (see http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.co.uk/2006/08/problems-and-predicaments.html). Human activity in the past 150 years has set in motion a crisis in the biosphere that will play out over the next century at least, affected but not significantly halted by how humans conduct themselves going forward. We are already locked in.
So, a revolution may perhaps be able to abolish financial-capitalism (to the extent that capitalism actually exists as a global phenomenon: Russia, China, the Middle East and many other people across the world don’t operate under a financial-capitalist power structure). However, this putative revolution would still have to deal with a global ecosystem that is completely out of kilter. And while it may be better at spreading the costs of climate and ecosystem change, it would be dangerous to suggest that it could “solve” those problems in any way.
21Dave Darby March 20th, 2017
Interesting response – thanks. Here’s my position.
The economies of Russia, China, the Middle East and everywhere else are capitalist, but the power of money is overridden at the top by various types of totalitarian regime. They’re all in the WTO.
The West – by far the dominant force, is capitalist through-and-through, in that power is economic.
But the common denominator is growth. Capitalism, whether corporate, state or tyrant-controlled is primed to grow due to the interest payable on debt (the route that almost all money takes into the economy) and the profit that needs to be generated. Growth is required for interest and profit to be payable. And pretty obviously, it’s the growth in the human economy (sheer numbers of people x per capita consumption) that is the source of the crisis in the biosphere that you mention. We have to stabilise the global economy, and that’s not possible within capitalism.
So whether the Archdruid sees our situation as a predicament or a solution, there’s no way out in a capitalist economy that is constantly trying to grow, like a cancer. We have to deal with that first, before anything else can help steer us away from the precipice (which may not ultimately be possible, as you intimate).
22Dave Darby March 20th, 2017
I read that Archdruid post. I often read JMG, because he’s an interesting writer, but he always seems to tail off to nothing substantial at the end – perhaps that’s why he has an aversion to solutions. This one was the same. I think he should be less sanguine about societal collapse, because in a desertifying, toxifying world with ecology haemmorrhaging and nuclear weapons by that time (probably) in the hands of warlords, human survival is not guaranteed. Death is and has to be part of the human condition, sure – but extinction doesn’t. The alternative is evolution. Currently, we’re on the path to extinction. I’m just suggesting we change direction – whether he wants to call that a response to a predicament or a solution to a problem is up to him, but it has to happen.