Jesse Tack and I have been sitting down and filming ourselves in conversation. Our first session was wide ranging on the theme of social permaculture. This, our second, was much more focused as we talked about ways that we could address the design deficiencies of our current living situation. Strategies that we can easily implement in urban areas to improve our relationship with energy.
Jesse Tack and I have been sitting down and filming ourselves in conversation. Our first session was wide ranging on the theme of social permaculture. This, our second, was much more focused as we talked about ways that we could address the design deficiencies of our current living situation. Strategies that we can easily implement in urban areas to improve our relationship with food.
Jesse Tack and I have been sitting down and filming ourselves in conversation. Our first session was wide ranging on the theme of social permaculture. This, our second, was much more focused as we talked about ways that we could address the design deficiencies of our current living situation. Here we discuss some of the ways that homes could manage water.
In her book People and Permaculture, Looby Macnamara speaks of the way we humans have a penchant for categorizing, compartmentalizing and for creating boundaries between things (where boundaries do not really exist) to facilitate our understanding of the world. This division does allow the human mind to begin to understand complex systems. At the same time, however, there is a danger of losing sight of the bigger picture and therefore our ultimate goals, which can prove counterproductive. “Can’t see the forest for the trees,” as the old adage reminds us.
One paradigm informing our current civilization is that humans are separate from nature, an idea reinforced throughout the development of Western religion and philosophy. Because it emerged in the context of this paradigm, the mainstream environmental movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has undermined its own intentions. By envisioning humans as separate from the environment, a dichotomy has been created where humans should be “hands-off” and not set foot in nature, lest they “disturb” or “disrupt” natural ecosystems. In reality, we humans are a part of nature, deeply connected to and dependent on all other species for our survival and continuance on this planet. However, it is also apparent that we would not, nor should not, sacrifice ourselves as a species in order to protect nature, since we are inextricably part of this planet’s biome just as is every other species on earth. The paradigm of humans as separate or outside of nature has effectively doomed most environmental action to the status of window dressing, preventing any truly meaningful, long-lasting change toward the end of real sustainability.
Permaculture, a holistic design science which attempts to reintegrate humans into the landscape, was first developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s and 1980s. Permaculture’s three ethics – earth care, people care, and future care – are implied to be three aspects of the same concept. Over the years of permaculture’s development and practice in the context of the environmental movement, itself in the context of the human/nature separation paradigm, people have naturally tended to emphasize earth care over the other two ethics. This is evident in the fact that most people today tend to think of permaculture primarily as landscape design or as an agricultural, gardening, or homesteading method.
If one of the three permaculture ethics is missing or deemphasized, then the other two ethics break down. Tim Winton describes an example of this disintegration in this article, which starts with his experiences at Tagari Farm, a permaculture proof-of-concept farm designed and established by Bill Mollison. While all the members of the farm came together in like-mindedness and worked hard at the earth care aspect of permaculture, the farm as a whole eventually suffered because the needs of all the people involved were not being met. A lack of structure and a prioritization of earth care over people care meant that people burned out on the project, realities fell short of expectations, and that tragically, a member of the Permaculture Institute took their own life.
We as permaculturists too often have overemphasized the earth care aspect and are still viewing the care of the earth/environment as separate from caring for ourselves as human beings. Often when we design with permaculture, the more subtle needs of people are ignored or misunderstood, or the design has unrealistic wishes for what the people will be able to do and when they will be able to do it. If we create designs that don’t take into account all of our personal needs, behaviors, and cultural context, then we are not creating effective, holistic designs that meet all three permaculture ethics.
Human beings, especially those of us living in high material wealth societies, have trouble understanding our own needs a lot of the time. The first step in people care is to identify our needs – observing ourselves as we might observe a landscape to gather information for our design. Increasing our awareness of our true needs in the first place leads to better understanding the needs of the earth, and the needs of future generations of people. Only when we have identified what our needs are will we be able to put them in the appropriate relationships with other elements so that they work for and not against the system.
Ultimately, to achieve permanence, we seek to integrate ourselves into the landscape – as is our rightful place – as functional players in a functioning ecosystem. Permaculture’s holistic view requires the integration of all three ethics: earth care, people care, and future care. Prioritizing one of the three ethics means we “unprioritize” the other two, thereby negating the possibility of a “permanent culture.” When we balance the meeting of our real human needs with the needs of the earth to sustain itself and with the needs of future generations to provide for themselves, then and only then are we living in an ethical and permanent way.
Where to go from here
A simple action that we can take to assess whether our design is balanced is to state explicitly how it fulfills each of the three permaculture ethics – essentially, to use the ethics as a design tool. More about this at liberationecology.org.
- A lack of design for people care is the inspiration for Looby Macnamara’s book People & Permaculture. This book is an excellent and highly recommended exploration into what people care really means, and a useful tool to begin discovering and designing for our human needs.
- For more on future care, and why we use that term instead of the more traditional “fair share” or “set limits and redistribute surplus,” see our past post Future Care.
Image Source: Øyvind Holmstad (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Jesse Tack and I have been sitting down and filming ourselves in conversation. Our first session was wide ranging on the theme of social permaculture. This, our second, was much more focused as we talked about ways that we could address the design deficiencies of our current living situation.
Permaculture is an operating system for problem solving. It runs the programs of appropriate technologies from all human cultures, at all locations on Earth. This is our field of study. The designer chooses the programs for any given situation based on timing, location, and pattern understanding/recognition.
City permaculture would therefore be specific to the particular city, climate, hydrology, stage of succession, people, shape and size of neighborhoods, and a host of other factors. However most cities share many common features and many common fragilities.
In brief, some fairly reliable appropriate programs to run in most temperate climate cities would include:
Micro-communities: Groups of people working together toward common goals. 100 people is a good target.
Increase water storage in soils, ponds, and roof water collection by several orders of magnitude. Measure results.
Use buildings for South-facing trellises for lowered energy costs of most buildings.
Link roof water and grey water systems (toilets, sinks, washing areas) to pond systems.
Subsidized forest gardens through programs like Swan Song for the Lawn, free trees, wholesale purchase, tax breaks, grass tax, et al. Establish beautiful, breath-taking demonstration sites within each neighborhood.
Season extension for leafy salad greens. Cold frames. Tunnels. Glasshouses. Root Cellar winter production of nutrients and vitamins. See mental health numbers improve. Measure results.
Use time banks and gift economies to establish an abundance of time and an abundance of the giving spirit. Get creative and imagine systems that reward time and giving.
Use of wood efficient heaters and radiant thermal mass heaters combined with coppice tree systems for endless firewood.
Compost ⅓ of all city waste for fuel and compost. Raise chickens on compost.
Remember, the unique mix of elements you will find in each location may mean that these items will have to be adapted to the locale. This is not an exhaustive list, merely a place to start. The implementation of just one of these ideas would be a great step forward towards a future worth living in.
Here’s the first part of a conversation that Jesse Tack and I had early in January at the Ugly Mug Coffee Shop in Ypsilanti, MI.
Jerusalem Artichoke Pickle
Makes one Gallon
5 lbs. – Jerusalem Artichokes
3 tbs. – Sea Salt
1/8 c. – Cumin Seeds
Clean and shred (or cut into 1/2 inch cubes) the jerusalem artichokes. Place in a large bowl and mix with sea salt and cumin seeds. Pack into crock or other wide mouthed, non-reactive container, making sure that the top is covered with liquid (add some salt water if necessary). Place a weight, such as a plate with a jar of water on top and then cover with a towel or other cloth to prevent contamination from dust and insects. Allow to sit near room temperature for a week or longer then refrigerate.
Remember, if you don’t like the way it looks, smells or tastes – don’t eat it! The longer it sits unrefrigerated the more flavorful it will get, up to a point. Then it just becomes a soggy mess. Feel free to add or substitute seeds, spices and vegetables of a similar texture.
Permaculture as a design science is unique among other systems because it makes use of ethics. What are ethics? On his website permaculturist David Holmgren says, “Ethics are culturally evolved mechanisms that regulate self-interest, giving us a better understanding of good and bad outcomes.” Essentially, ethics are a tool that allow us to evaluate our actions and guide us toward a desirable end result. In permaculture, there are three ethics by which we design landscapes and other systems. Earth care and people care are always the first two, but over the years of permaculture’s development, there have been multiple interpretations of what the third ethic of permaculture is. We think future care should be the prefered choice.
In Permaculture: A Designers Manual, written in the early years of permaculture’s development in the 1980s, Bill Mollison states the third ethic of permaculture as, “Setting limits to population and consumption.” On his website and in his 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren similarly states the third ethic as “Fair Share: Set limits and redistribute surplus.” Starhawk has a slightly different way of articulating the third ethic: future care. Examining these three interpretations more closely, we see that setting limits and/or sharing the surplus are not the same as future care. They all are grasping for a similar concept, but which version should the permaculture designer use?
With this in mind, this is an instance where an integral approach, specifically the notion of the holon, can provide clarity. In short, holons allow us to hierarchically order elements and determine their relative order of importance, causal relationships, and dependencies. A simple exercise is to make the statement, “If we did away with x, there will be no y.”
Looking at the earth and people in this way, “if we did away with the earth there would be no people” is true while the reverse, “if we did away with people there would be no earth” is false. This tells us that people are a subset of and therefore dependent upon the earth, not the other way around.
The statement, “if we did away with limits there would be no earth” is not necessarily true; at the same time “if we did away with the earth there would be no limits” is also not true. They do not demonstrate a holarchic relationship. It is the same with the statement, “if we did away with fair share there would be no earth” and its inverse. Both are untrue. If we substitute “people” for “earth” in the latter statement and its inverse, both instances are again untrue.
However, we can truthfully say, “if there was neither earth nor people there would be no future.” The future is dependant on both the existence of the earth and of people. It should be clarified what is meant here by the use of the word “future.” The future in general (to our human understanding) will always continue to exist, whether humans are there to see it or not. What we are specifically speaking of when we say “future” in permaculture is the future of this planet Earth and the future for humans living on it.
People are dependant on the earth; they are a subset of our planet, not independent from it. Without the earth (earth care) or people (people care) there will be no future for either. So holarchically speaking, caring for the future rests on the first two permaculture ethics, which allows us to more clearly see the relationship between these three elements.
Fair share can still be understood as a part of caring for people. In order to care for people, we need to shift to an abundance mindset that allows us to freely redistribute surplus. However, it is easy to forget that the earth also needs its fair share. In order to care for the earth, we must not completely consume it (even if people have their fair share amongst themselves). Additionally, the future needs its fair share. Living well today at the expense of future generations is not a viable option.
Similarly, setting limits and sharing surplus are part of caring for the earth, people and future. They are directives toward the goal of future care, actions we can take toward that desirable outcome. It is possible that fair share, setting limits, and sharing surplus may not be enough to accomplish the goal of caring for the future. More or altogether different actions could be required. It is important to understand that these ideas are directives moving us towards a goal, but are not the goal in and of themselves.
Permaculture’s approach to climate change let’s [sic] us avoid short-sighted errors and find true solutions, because it is rooted in three core ethics: care for the earth, care for the people, and care for the future. The three ethics work together. We cannot truly care for the earth unless we take into account the people and the long term impact of our interventions. Ecological solutions that ignore issues of justice are doomed to fail. And we cannot care for the people if we don’t take into account the life-support systems of the earth that sustain us all. Social and economic justice movements that ignore the environmental constraints and ecological realities cannot truly improve peoples’ lives. To care for the future, we must share the surplus we create and limit our consumption.
When we bring people care and earth care together with an eye to future generations, we create a synergy that has immense power for healing and regeneration.
In permaculture, small changes can have large effects; these are the leverage points that designers look for. Shifting the phrasing of the third permaculture ethic to future care, more clearly defining our goal, better fits the pattern set by the other two ethics. This change will make the ethics more effective as design tools, make it easier to achieve our goals, and ultimately increase the likelihood of the desired outcome: a future for this planet and its people.
Earth Care – People Care – Future Care
What is integral theory in a nutshell?
Integral theory is a framework for understanding life, the universe and everything, developed by Ken Wilber. We think that integral theory provides an additional toolset that is useful in permaculture and want to develop and explore how it can enhance permaculture design. You can see our other posts on integral theory here. For a more in-depth explanation, here is Wikipedia’s article on integral theory.
What are the four quadrants in integral theory?
The quadrants describe four aspects or perspectives inherent in every holon (for more on holons, see our post on holons). Every holon has both an internal and external perspective to its identity, and these two perspectives have both an individual and a group aspect to them. Another way to define the quadrants, which we find to be particularly useful for permaculture, is to think of the internal and external perspectives in terms of “what” we are doing versus “why” we are doing it.
How is the idea of the integral quadrants useful for permaculture?
One of the difficulties of understanding permaculture is that it resides in the internal singular quadrant (why I do), while the design is usually manifested in the external singular (what I do). Designs that are made using permaculture – or the elements in a design (e.g. swales and herb spirals) – are commonly mistaken for being permaculture themselves. We think that using the quadrants can help illuminate not only what permaculture is, but lead to better designs through a more thorough observation of the design site.
Typically in permaculture we use the concept of zones and sectors as a way to organize our thoughts on energy inputs and expenditures. Zones are a way to place elements in our design based on the amount of energy needed by us (the permaculturist) to have an influence or make a change. Sectors denote flows of energy that we can capture or deflect, coming into and through our permaculture designs: like sunlight, wind, water, wildlife, views, or noisy neighbors. The current permaculture concept of zones 0-5 fits neatly into the external singular quadrant, the “what I do” quadrant. These zones are external to our person, but generally end at the border of our property or sphere of personal influence.
Because we want to make sure that we are mindful of all of the potential influences on our design and our design’s effects in the world, we can use the quadrants as a tool to expand our model of zones and sectors. This expanded tool can help us more clearly identify where we can make changes to improve the success of our designs. These changes could include: adjusting our intentions, thought patterns and conceptions of our own designs (why I do); educating other people about what we are doing, how we structure contracts, or advocating for or against laws (why we do); changing behavior patterns or doing physical work in the landscape (what I do); working together with other people to build a specific project, or the sum of the changes that humans make in the landscape (what we do).
The internal singular quadrant, the self, is the overarching conceptual framework for the real-world manifestations of a person’s intentions (e.g. their permaculture design), which is constantly influencing and being influenced by what’s happening on the ground. In our visualization, the self completely encompasses zones 0-5, like the glass dome encasing the contents of a snowglobe.
Surrounding the self and zones 0-5 of our permaculture design are the external and internal plural zones, what we will call the world and culture, respectively. These are the sources from which the flows of energy (sectors) coming in to our permaculture designs originate.
The world is the societal and ecological “super-infrastructure” that encompasses “what we do” as a particular society, as a human species, and as a planetary community with all other life forms and natural forces. This super-infrastructure forms the physical basis for “what I do” in our individual daily lives and in designing for permaculture. In our visualization, zones 0-5 of a permaculture design sit atop this infrastructure and are dependent upon that base in order to exist (much like holons, and our holon mountain visualization). Sectors that come into our permaculture designs from “the world” include sunlight, wind, rain, water, climate, people, wildlife, plants, materials, pollution, views, and roads.
On the internal plural side, we have culture, the “why we do.” This cultural zone encompasses the world, the self, and all of the external zones within our permaculture design. Sectors that originate from this cultural zone include: business and economics, laws, politics, tradition, concepts of property, and cultural identity or bias.
It should be said that in practice, zones are not some monolithic, perfectly concentric construct, but instead are messy and reflect the interaction of many people in the real world. We have also considered expanding this model to include multiple people or locations, but thought that it would quickly increase the complexity beyond usability.
What we’ve done is taken the idea of zones and sectors and expanded it so that it can encompass more than it previously did, including the concept of permaculture itself. This model makes clearer the nature of permaculture design as the “why” rather than the “what,” and thus allows us to better communicate what permaculture is. In addition, by incorporating integral theory’s quadrants, we are better able to conceptualize, understand, and design for all the influences that affect our site and the effects we cause in the world. This gives us a holistic view of how individual elements fit into the entire design, and allows us to see the environmental and socio-economic context within which they exist. Because we gain this holistic view, we reduce our wastage of energy and time by having a full picture of not only what an element does and where it should be go, but also why we are using that element from a personal and cultural perspective, and what its effects in the world will be before we place that element in our design. With this understanding, we can expect our permaculture designs to be more successful – giving us a broader, system-wide view of what and why we do something not just for the benefit of us humans, but for the rest of the landscape and its non-human inhabitants.
Adaptability and self-regulation are the keys to the persistence of any system, be it an ecosystem or a permaculture design. By more thoroughly observing our site beforehand and evaluating the context in which our permaculture designs exist, we can better design our sites to adapt to change and are able to consider the impacts that our design decisions may have as they ripple outwards. This allows us to increase the adaptability and self-regulatory capacity of our designs toward the goal of their continued success. Our expanded, integral model of permaculture zones and sectors is a useful tool in our permaculture toolbox allowing us to do just that.