Agriculture word cloud

Language and Permaculture, Part 2: Practical Ideas for How We Use Terminology

In the first part of this article I explored a few of the key terms associated with permaculture and how becoming conscious of their meaning and implication can help us empower permaculture as a tool, even more than it may be already.  In this part I look at some practical ways we can apply these terminological changes, and some examples of organisations or projects who are putting them into action.

Where to start?

As noted in my previous article, permaculture designers are just some of many who have commented on the detrimental effect of not only intensive-input monocultural industrial agriculture, but of agriculture in general, on the land in which it is practiced. In order to begin using permaculture in a way which truly encourages regeneration of the planet, it can be seen as very important to extract permaculture from agriculture completely. Perhaps a good starting point for this is linguistically – as David Holmgren put it,

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“The permaculture vision of permanent agriculture has evolved into one of permanent culture.” (Holmgren, 2002) (1)

Terminology Part 2 01

Practically, we could also start encouraging a move away from an agricultural lifestyle.  In Part 1 I suggested that we begin describing permaculture practises as rooted in horticulture rather than agriculture, since in order to create a beneficial impact on the environment it is more effective to garden than to create fields. How can we put this change of terminology into action?  

If we are to affect real change in the environment, probably the best place to start is within ourselves. So, maybe an effective start to encouraging a move away from an agricultural lifestyle would be to start practicing it in your own life. Perhaps you are already doing this by practicing forest gardening or living or working on some kind of permaculture project. Even if you don’t have any land to work with, though, you can still take practical steps –  with your diet,
for example.  

Eating and helping the world

An often-repeated tale from Idries Shah and (sometimes attributed to  Mohandas Gandhi) tells of a woman asking for help for her son to eat less sugar. The story goes that the woman waits for weeks before anyone speaks to her son, and when she asks why it took them so long they reply something like, ‘I had to wait until I managed to stop eating sugar myself’ (see for example 2) .

The point being that if you wish to help someone to change it may be worth trying out the change yourself first. If we wish to truly help our confused, energy inefficient farming systems to change to more regenerative practices, we can first change our dietary intake to not include the main produce of the systems; say for example by quitting eating grains, “the heart of agriculture” as Toby Hemenway puts it (3), or by replacing any of the major soil-eroding crops with more environmentally-friendly alternatives.

According to a WWF report from 2006, the crops which currently cause the most soil erosion globally are: “coffee, cassava, cotton, corn, palm oil, rice, sorghum, tea, tobacco, and wheat”  (4).  Just one person reducing their intake of any of these may not make much of a visible difference, but imagine if everyone who believed in regenerative farming did it.

The 2012 report from UNCTAD (5) suggesting that we need to change our farming systems to “mosaics” of “regenerative production systems” contains content from over 40 authors; if they all changed their diets to reflect such “regenerative production systems” how much land could be regenerated?  

Alternatives are out there

This article is not trying to tell people what to eat: your body is your own to care for. As mentioned in previous articles (see for example 6), the most important thing with diet seems to be not what we eat but how conscious we are of the sourcing and effects of our food. Moving away from supporting the agricultural systems around you may not be as simple as giving up agricultural produce because you may not have anything left to eat. But it may be worth trying out a different kind of diet – say one rich in protein and vegetables rather than carbohydrates from grains.

Whatever practical steps in your diet you choose to take, there is a lot of information out there which could be helpful. For example, Ken and Addy Fern’s database Plants for a Future (7), which lists the uses, edibility and medicinal value of over 7000 different plant species. One of the database’s search functions is to look for substitutes for particular foods; for example you can search all plants which have the potential to be used as substitutes for, among other things, milk (8), eggs (9) chocolate (10) and coffee (11).

The importance of stories

In part 1 of my article I mentioned numerous writers who have studied the change in human society and culture which seemed to happen when we developed agriculture. Agriculture has become so in-grained (get it?) in our stories that perhaps it is worth recognising, as Joseph Campbell suggests (13), that as part of the change in culture we need a change in our cultural mythology. The major Abrahamic religions which are important influences on many modern societies, however atheistic or secular they may claim to be, include the tale of the banishment from the Garden of Eden (see for example 14).

Etynologically, some people think the word “Eden” comes from the Urgaritic base meaning “place that is well-watered throughout” (15). Toby Hemenway explores how the great deserts of what we now know as the Middle East used to be some of the most fertile places on Earth and it was only with the development of agriculture that the soil began eroding and water loss began to occur (3). In this sense the Garden of Eden story can be seen as an excuse for the development of agriculture and the subsequent effects of agriculture on the land being not something which we can control or are responsible for, but which are simply the punishments put on us by a vengeful tribal God-idea (14).

However subconscious or irrelevant-seeming this story may now be in our heads, as a metaphor it can be considered a powerful part of the way our thinking works, and changing the emphasis of the story can thus help to develop thinking which is not just trying to make up for the loss of the garden, but which recognises that this ‘Garden’ is something which we can personally create.   If you were not brought up in a society which is influenced by these mythologies, the changing of the metaphorical emphasis perhaps does not apply, though the principle – that in order to truly
change the way we do things, we also need to change our cultural stories – remains.

Agriculture and Ecosystems

One of the aims of Plants for a Future and of its sister-site Useful Tropical Plants (15) is to encourage food crops which can be grown as part of a food forest, or ecosystem, rather than as annual field-crops. In this way it represents a rich resource to help the home-grower in the step away from agriculture. As Toby Hemenway points out,

“agriculture does not support ecosystem function – you’re losing soil, you’re not creating anywhere near as much oxygen, you’re not sequestering much carbon dioxide” (3)

Hands with soil

So in order to support the ecosystems of our planet which in turn keep us alive, we need an alternative to agriculture. Many people have already spoken and written about this – for example, UNCTAD’s 2012 report ‘Wake Up Before It’s Too late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now’ (5) runs to 341 pages. As a source of information the report is very useful and in terms of showing that many international organisations are at least theoretically in favour of this change it is encouraging.

The report does also mention some practical projects, with the main focus seeming to be on Egyptian organisation SEKEM (16). This is a group of companies promoting biodynamic agriculture in Egypt, who since 1977 have “helped over 700 farmers in Egypt to shift from conventional to Organic agriculture” (16).

Such action is admirable, but it is interesting that this is the main practical example in the report (other examples are more geared towards trade agreements, “structural readjustment” and changes in financial structure). The report describes biodynamic agriculture as ” a specific form of organic agriculture that views the farm as a self-contained, self-sustaining ecosystem'” (3).

It does not mention the mystical traditions of biodynamic agriculture, some of which are based on physical and observable phenomena such as the movement of the moon (17), though some cannot necessarily be verified with direct experience or have much relevance to the specific site where they are being practiced, as they come from the inventions of Biodynamic creator Rudolf Steiner. For example, Steiner’s recommended compost preparations involve doing many things to “harvest the cosmic forces of the soil” such as stuffing the bladder of a red deer with yarrow blossom and then burying it (18).

Terminological Inclusion

In order to truly engage in the creation of more regenerative and abundant food systems it is important that we recognise the importance of contributions from diverse areas. In this, UNCTAD and the biodynamic movement may be key allies for the use of permaculture as a global tool to help ecosystem creation and regeneration. Perhaps if we are to really harness the power of language, however, it can be seen as also important to make clear what it is we are practicing, and become aware of the stories others’ lives are based in, whether it is the world of international trade or the mystical traditions of Rudolf Steiner.

However helpful changing our personal stories may be, if the results are engaging in observable regeneration then we don’t need to bring our individual beliefs or ideologies into it. so although sharing our stories may be beneficial to others, we don’t need to expect them to work for everyone, and neither should we be using others’ stories if they don’t work for us. We can catch and store the energy of other projects if they are beneficial to us, and allow the energy to flow past us if it is not.

Energy and how we can use it

Practically, catching and storing energy can create a huge difference in our ability to generate abundance. One example of this is catching the human energy which we produce ourselves, so often referred to as ‘waste’ and taken away from the system, though a rich source of minerals and nutrients which can help to regenerate soil if we allow it to. There are many innovative examples out there of how people are using human poo as part of their systems – typing ‘compost toilet system’ into the Permaculture News ‘search’ tab comes up with 17 pages of results! (19)

One from Toby Hemenway’s talk which is simple and quite inspirational is the blackwater system at the Centre for Sustainable Development (20) in Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Here they made an enclosed concrete basin full of broken-up pieces of coral into which all of the toilets flushed. In the coral they planted native trees and plants which are nourished by the ‘waste’ from the humans at the centre, and which in turn can provide food and nourishment for the humans again.

Language Games

Permaculture has been and continues to be an inspiration for people all around the world. In order to propagate permaculture ideas effectively, we need spoken and written language and to use this effectively, it is important to consider the effect of the terms we use. However, of equal importance is putting our words into practise and actually living as though we are in a regenerative, abundant world.

The more we do this (and how you do it is up to you – from changing your diet to implementing compost toilet systems, and from changing the way you talk about permaculture to working your land in a different style) the more we can start to realise that ‘the problem is the solution’ and the world we want already exists.


1. Holmgren, D, 2002. Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren Design Services: Australia

2. Shah, I, 1971. The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mullah Nasrudin. Plume: London

3. Hemenway, T, 2010. ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization’. Talk given at Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, North Carolina, USA and uploaded 9/2/13 to Films For Action: – retrieved 10/12/16

4. Carey C., Oettli D. (2006) Determining links between agricultural crop expansion and deforestation. A report prepared for the WWF Forest Conversion Initiative. Main points readable online here: – retrieved 10/12/16

5. UNCTAD, 2012. ‘Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now’. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as a PDF here:  – retrieved 10/12/16

6. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘The Meat Industry and Ideas for What We Can Do About It’. Permaculture News, 15/4/14. – retrieved 10/12/16

7. Plants for a Future, 2016. ‘About Us’. – retrieved 10/12/16

8. Plants for Future, 2016. ‘Database Search: Milk’. – retrieved 10/12/16

9. Plants for Future, 2016. ‘Database Search: Egg’. – retrieved 10/12/16

10. Plants for Future, 2016. ‘Database Search: Chocolate’.  – retrieved 10/12/16

11. Plants for Future, 2016. ‘Database Search: Coffee’. – retrieved 10/12/16

12. Campbell, J,  1986. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. New World Library: California, USA.

13. Christian Bible Reference, 2016. ‘Adam and Eve: Genesis 2:3’. – retrieved 10/12/16

14. Online Etymology Dictionary, 2016. ‘Eden’. – retrieved 10/12/16

15. The Ferns, 2016. ‘Useful Tropical Plants’. – retrieved 10/12/16

16. SEKEM, 2016. ‘About Us’. – retrieved 10/12/16

17. Gros, M, 2016. ‘Lunario [Lunar Calendar] 2016’. Artus Porta Manresa: Castellvell del Camp, Spain

18. Proctor, P, 1997. Grasp the Nettle: Making Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Work. With Gillian Cole. Random House: London

19. Permaculture News, 2016. ‘Search: Compost Toilet System’. – retrieved 10/12/16

20. Centre for Sustainable Development, 2016. ‘Welcome: About Us’. – retrieved 10/12/16



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