As I've delved further and further into the world of permaculture lately, I am increasingly viewing it less as an agricultural technique and more as a revolutionary ideology--a countercultural movement with the potential to redirect the course of human history. In listening to an interview with Toby Hemenway, whose excellent book "Gaia's Garden" I'm currently reading, I was fascinated to hear him describe the potential for our civilization to evolve into a horticultural society. A horticultural society stands in contrast to our current techno-industrial society, which is still very much rooted in the growth patterns seeded by the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago (excuse the puns).
The agricultural society we currently inhabit is predicated on exponential growth, overspecialization, the domination and destruction of nature by "culture," and the apotheosis of technology. It's not a terrible stretch of the imagination to envision how the current strain of virulently materialistic capitalism arose from the early concepts of land ownership, surplus, interest, and profit, along with the current legal and political system whose primary preoccupation is property and wealth acquisition.
A horticultural society, at least in the context of permaculture, implies a different type of civilization altogether. Food forests and perennial plantings provide food on natural timescales and within natural limits. The emphasis is on a system of continuous abundance that can be achieved by studying and tweaking natural systems, with a minimum of human input.
Putting questions of land ownership and overpopulation aside for now, this system, practiced on a massive scale, has the potential to meet the universal existential human need for sustenance, while providing habitat for non-human species and counter-balancing the destruction of nature and natural systems that is currently precipitating climate change and mass extinctions not seen for millions of years.
Horticultural societies have existed on earth since before the so-called agricultural revolution. They have predominated in the tropics, where climatic conditions are more constant throughout the year; however, Native Americans maintained vast food forests in the major river valleys of North America prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Masters of the art of permaculture, such as Sepp Holzer and Geoff Lawton, have shown that when permaculture techniques are applied on a broad scale, formerly unarable land can become a lush and productive landscape supportive of both humans and wildlife, within the timeframe of a few years. Following the techniques of permaculture, it is almost trivial to grow flowers in the desert: What's perhaps even more magical is to grow mushrooms in the desert of Jordan, where the locals don't even have a word for mushrooms, as Geoff Lawton demonstrated in "Greening the Desert."
What permaculture also offers to its practitioners is a "time-rich" existence, where the basic needs for food can be met with a few hours worth of work per week. This leaves much more time for recreation and time spent with family and friends. It also offers a way out of the conventional society that is destroying the planet--through resource depletion, overpopulation, financial depredation, etc, etc --in favor of one that provides for basic human needs while working to heal the non-human life of the planet.
Moreover, permaculture seems to be the only viable alternative to the techno-industrial-agricultural society we inhabit at the end of a 200-year-long fossil fuel spree. Whether we run out of cheap oil or whether we are constrained from burning the remainder by the effects it is having on our climate doesn't really matter. The fact is, our modern food system, and the civilization that supports it, is entirely reliant on fossil fuel inputs at every stage. When fossil fuels are no longer an option, humanity will depend on reliable and resilient local food systems that require few inputs. Permaculture, practiced on a massive scale, can fill the gaps left as the agricultural system collapses, or more hopefully, withers away. Just as importantly, permaculture can remediate the damage done to the soil, air, water and habitat that is jeopardizing the only planet available to live on.
Subscribe via RSS