This post is the second in a three-part introductory series in which I elaborate upon the central topics of this blog, and the central tenets of my worldview. This post, as you may have guessed from the title, is about Permaculture. Yesterday, I posted about Panpsychism. A post about Polyamory will be forthcoming.
Permaculture. The word was originally coined as a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” but this is rather ironic in retrospect. Permaculture, in a sense, is the opposite of modern agriculture: it is what you might call ecologically responsible horticulture. I say “horticulture” because there really is no such thing as ecologically responsible agriculture, not if you use the word to mean what it actually says: the cultivation (“culture“) of fields (“agri-,” from the Latin ager, which means “field”). Razing an ecosystem, leveling the land, and planting single crops in martial rows . . . there isn’t really a way to do that responsibly. That way of treating the Earth can’t even be made sustainable, let alone beneficial. You might as well ask where to buy healthy fast food, or how to assault someone respectfully. Horticulture, on the other hand, is about the care and sustaining of gardens (“horti-” from the Latin hortus, “garden”), not fields. Simply put, agriculture is what happens in a field, while horticulture is what happens in a garden. Permaculture is a way of life in which ecologically beneficial gardening is the primary means of subsistence. Where the agriculturalist tills the soil, the Permaculturist plants by hand. Where the agriculturalist seeks imposed order and homogeneity, the Permaculturist revels in diversity and the emergent order of the natural world.
Permaculture is rooted in the recognition of a human culture’s three central responsibilities: caring for the world, caring for human beings, and returning the surplus. Though these are not hierarchically ordered, it is worth noting that caring for the world necessarily has lexical priority over caring for human beings—good luck providing for all humans without a healthy planet to sustain them. It is possible to care for the Earth without caring for humans, but any attempt to care for humans without caring for the Earth will ultimately fail. Humans could not survive without a healthy Earth, though the Earth has shown itself perfectly capable of doing just fine for billions of years without humans. That is not to say that humans have nothing to offer, or that humans are bad; on the contrary, humans have the capacity to be tremendously ecologically beneficial. The goal of Permaculture is to realize that capacity. When we take more than we need, instead of keeping it for ourselves and modifying our definition of “need,” we should return the extra, using it to improve the welfare of the Earth and of our fellow human beings. These two goals—human quality of life and ecological responsibility—are not opposed, but necessarily interdependent.
There is nothing more important or definitive about a society than how it finds its food. Though generalizations have a tendency to be misleading (well, generally), the most useful way of differentiating one society from another is by looking at how they make sure they have enough to eat. Whereas human cultures lived for hundreds of thousands of years in ways that did not destroy their world, modern industrial agriculture threatens to besmirch that record at every point along what we have come to think of as the “food production line.” Everything about our culture’s means of subsistence, from the eradication of crops’ genetic diversity to the toxic chemicals spewed all over them in a self-defeating war against pests, from the mechanization of farming techniques to the increased centralization of control in a few powerful corporations, from the billions of tons of lost topsoil every year to the very language we use to talk about food—every single aspect of our culture’s food system is destructive, totalitarian, and borderline pathological. It speaks volumes about our modern, globalized, industrial-capitalist society that we obtain our food in such an ecologically corrosive, suicidally unsustainable way. Instead of the ecological imperialism of agriculture, particularly modern industrial agriculture, Permaculture is committed to the idea that the organization of the ecosystem should determine the organization of the society, and not the other way around.
Permaculture is about listening to the land, and entering into a relationship with the place and its ecosystem. About living on the land like a respectful, responsible tenant, and not like a vindictive, tyrannical landlord. About valuing the local and the diverse, rather than imposing homogeneity in an attempt at a unilateral, one-plant-fits-all solution to the most important philosophical question in the world: what’s for dinner?