Politics and PermacuIture: Is Permaculture a Political Act?

We live in troubling times.

I admit. I try to stay out of politics. I avoid confrontation. I would rather be in my garden. But the recent U.S. election has made me re-think that position. Political turmoil has split our country in two. Rising powers threaten to put us on the brink of extinction. All around the world we see unrest, hunger, poverty, and extremists that thwart peaceful efforts. The Worldwatch Institute website presents a lot of data on where we are at in terms of food, energy production and consumption, climate and the environment, resources, and populations and societies. The picture is not pretty.

The question is, what are we – each and every one of us on a personal level – doing about it?

We are presented with a unique opportunity for change; and a permaculture approach can be a powerful lever for effecting that change.

Definition of Permaculture

Permaculture Ethics: Earth Care, People Care, Return the Surplus / Fair Share
Permaculture Ethics: Earth Care, People Care, Return the Surplus / Fair Share. by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

But first – what IS permaculture – because there are many definitions out there – and if we understand it, we can better understand how we might better apply it. Some say it is a tool for designing a garden. Others treat it as a religion. I have to say it is a little of both, because it is a design tool based on ETHICS, a word that implies a belief system or mindset – a set of values. Those ethics, originally coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, are 1) care of the Earth, 2) care of people, and 3) return of surplus, which is shortened from the original “setting limits to population and consumption, and returning surplus to the benefit of the Earth and people.” Some people shorten it to “Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share.” I also see it as “Care of the Earth, Care of People, and Care of the Future.”

Also a big part of permaculture thinking are the 12 principles outlined by David Holmgren in his book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. I won’t list them all here, but these three directly apply to our current state of affairs: apply self-regulation and accept feedback; use and value diversity; and creatively use and respond to change.

When I first started learning about permaculture, I considered it primarily an approach for designing a garden that mimics nature and that would be, therefore, more efficient. I likened it to creating mini-ecosystems within ecosystems within ecosystems.

But I grew to realize it is much more comprehensive – it is also an approach to living that minimizes our environmental footprint, one that provides for human needs while protecting the planet.

And that is key.

Permaculturists apply “systems” thinking to their landscapes; this same kind of thinking can be applied to our communities, and from our communities, to our regions, and from there, serve as examples to the nation and to the world. We are systems within systems within larger systems—all interconnected. Permaculture is much bigger than our own backyards. It is about communities, humanity, sustainability, and continued human existence.

In Light of Recent Events…

Recent events have given me a new sense of urgency and yes, even fear. The new administration promises to be in favor of environmental exploitation; it is unlikely to apply self-regulation and accept feedback; the rhetoric does not value diversity. It is in many cases quite the opposite of the Earth Care, People Care, and Return the Surplus concepts of sustainability.

So…What Do We Do?

We can’t just protest, although certainly we need to make our voices heard. We have to do more. We have to offer solutions. Of course, there are a zillion ways we can all make a positive difference. But time is of the essence. We need to figure out the best use of our limited time and energy for the greatest positive effect. Like, right now.

Not everyone can stand with the good people at Standing Rock to protect water resources and sacred grounds (but we CAN sign petitions, contact our representatives, help raise public awareness, send funding or supplies). Not everyone can design solar and wind technologies (but we CAN reduce our own energy footprint, buy from companies who support green technologies, vote for measures that support sustainable energies and against those that don’t). Not everyone wants to open a recycling center (but we CAN repair what is broken, mend what is torn, and not buy things that just end up in landfills). You get the idea.

The key is Showing by Doing.

When we become successful, people take notice; more will gravitate toward what works and away from those methods and technologies that become recognized as destructive. These seemingly small successes have a rippling effect. They say far more than protest signs or burning effigies in the streets.

Sometimes we feel at the mercy of political upheavals. Even when we work within political systems, greater forces can turn things in a different direction; whether or not that ends up being another path toward positive change, only time will tell. We question ourselves – could we have done more? Almost always, yes, of course. What do we do with that information?

The current political turmoil in the U.S. might be quite temporary in the scheme of time, but it has the potential to do great harm on a global scale. Political, social, and economic systems are like air, soil, and water. They work together. Upset one, and there are repercussions across the others.

[su_frame align=”right”]“At present, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.” ~~Paul Hawken, 2009. “Healing or Stealing?” Commencement Address to the University of Portland, OR.[/su_frame]

Call to Action

It is all the more imperative that we return to those three ethics; that we fight for the protection of our planet (Earth Care), for human rights (People Care), and for the future of a world in which humans can still inhabit and thrive (Future Care). All the more reason that permaculturists MUST become political. We cannot NOT.

In the words of Graham Burnett in Permaculture – A Beginner’s Guide,
“Permaculture is revolution disguised as organic gardening.”

We are, indeed, by definition, a part of this underground movement. So although not everyone wants to become a radical political activist, each of us, whether rich, poor, urban, rural, or anything in between, can quietly build independence and resiliency through the simple revolutionary act of growing at least some of our own food, even if it’s only in a couple of flower pots. And if we grow a little extra, we can share it.

I have to tell a side story of a friend I met through the Internet: Harvey. Harvey was dying of cancer from being hit with Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. He purchased garlic from me and planted it, along with some kale and a few other veggies in some containers on his back deck. We corresponded frequently about how things were going and growing. Even though he was “tethered” to his oxygen lifeline, he managed to wheel out to water the plants, take snippets, improve his health through sunshine, fresh air, fresh food, a positive attitude, and a sense of humor. I thought, if Harvey can do this, so can each and every one of us! Thank you, Harvey. There are many who miss you, even those, like me, you never actually met.

But of course, there is more to it than just having a garden. There is so much to learn and to do. We need to regenerate our soils, build intensively productive food systems, and feed the world. Like the guilds in our gardens, we are strengthened by connections. We need to celebrate diversity, stand up for human rights, and for Pete’s sake, learn to work together! We need to somehow reverse climate change or we are doomed. We need to clean up our mess! In the paraphrased words of Bill Mollison, if we work With nature, rather than against it, the yield is theoretically unlimited. When our human needs are met, a lot of other problems dissolve.

Change Brings Opportunity.

How do we apply Holmgren’s 12th principle: Creatively Use and Respond to Change? Democracy is messy. Many are going around like the world is coming to an end – and it very well may be. What do we do about it? For permaculturists, it is a great opportunity for action. We must be the instruments for positive change.

Now, more than ever, the planet needs us. Humanity needs us. The future needs us.

Earth care. People care. Future care.

David Holmgren's 12 Principles of Permaculture Design
12 Permaculture Design Tools: “Thinking tools, that when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behavior in a world of less energy and resources.” ~David Holmgren

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