Properly defining and orienting permaculture is of prime importance in its being appropriately applied. I’ve found it to be a very useful personal exercise. Doing so prevents me from straying too far from its practical origins and helps to keep it from being transformed into some kind of Utopian, escapist ideal.
First referencing Bill Mollison’s definition (taken from The Designers’ Manual):
Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the practical conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.
Permaculture, as a design system, attempts to integrate fabricated, natural, spatial, temporal, social, and ethical parts (components) to achieve a functional whole. To do so, it concentrates not on the components themselves, but on the relationships between them, and on how they function to assist each other.
It is in the arrangement of parts that design has its being and function, and it is the adoption of a purpose which decides the direction of design.
Permaculture is concerned with the institutional and functional design of the dynamic infrastructure provided by the natural world in the form of ecosystem services. We are given a concrete means of intelligently managing natural capital in a way that strengthens it while supplying our needs in an ethical, conscious manner.
Our practical goal is to create designs that self-regulate/self-manage – just like ecosystems do. Without pollutants. Without unnecessary extra work.
The purpose of a functional & self-regulating design is to place elements or components in such a way that each serves the needs, and accepts the products, of other elements.
An Important Factor to Consider:
The context in which permaculture is applied is critical. And, I’m not simply referring to the physical, geographical, topographical, climatic contexts.
It’s going to mean different things to different people depending on who you are, where you are and where you would like to go.
It’s very personal. The reasons for being drawn to permaculture are driven by a variety of factors. For some, it’s concern for the environment, for others it’s economic, or political, or social – or, more likely, a combination of all of these factors.
All of them are closely related. None of them exist in a vacuum or in isolation.
The Prussian military thinker Karl Von Clausewitz was quoted as saying:
War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.
A couple of useful corollary statements easily follow (attributed to the American dissident thinker Michael Ruppert):
Politics is a continuation of Economics by different means.
Economics is a continuation of Energy by different means.
Money represents the ability to do work. Fossil fuels furnish the ability to do work – quite a lot of it, and, for the moment, relatively cheaply when one accounts for the finite nature of its supply in relation to what it facilitates.
Before the advent of fossil fuels (and modern finance), the ability to do work was represented by the possession of human chattel – or slaves. History – in its politics, economics, and social development – can be condensed into the progressive unfolding of how we have determined the most effective ways for our human needs to be provided for and subsequently how wealth is generated. Permaculture has far-reaching implications in altering our understanding what is available and what is possible in every conceivable area of human endeavor.
From that perspective, permaculture stands as a wholly revolutionary concept in form and function given what it can potentially provide us with. We collectively cannot allow it to be made into another alternative lifestyle affectation. Or some sort of Utopian, escapist fantasy which marginalizes itself by remaining at the fringes, alienating those who need it most.
The modern era – the Industrial Age – is synonymous with the the Oil Age. One doesn’t exist without the other. Viewing our present world through that lens, it becomes quite easy to understand the state of things.
Given the finite nature of the lifeblood of the modern world, one can do nothing but concede that the economics and politics driving it cannot continue.
As Herbert Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under American Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, once said:
If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.
Economists are very good at saying that something cannot go on forever, but not so good at saying when it will stop.
We are all in some way, shape or form, implicated in these statements. We’re all affected by this reality.
Ultimately, we all have to answer a couple of questions given the aforementioned: How do we best supply our needs? And who determines how that question is answered? These are longstanding historical dilemmas requiring practical solutions.
Our collective sociopolitical/socioeconomic situation is dictated by how those questions are answered.
This lies at the heart of what drove the formation and development of permaculture in its ethics and practice.
The "Hi Lo-Tech" integrated design methodology embodied by permaculture will become an essential tool in formulating the vision of a post-industrial, post-oil world and what it needs to look like in order for it to be viable.