A central point of permaculture is to cooperate with nature, rather than fighting against it. But what does that mean exactly? And how to define what “nature” is?
Life began some billions years ago. Since that time, life’s goals seems to survive and perpetuate itself, either at the gene or whole-earth levels (respectively, the Selfish Gene Hypothesis by Dawkins, or the Gaia Hypothesis by Lovelock), or whatever in-between. To achieve these goals, living entities have had to: devise strategies to catch and store energy, water and nutrients; escape predators and parasites; reproduce.
The mechanism used by species to devise such strategies is evolution, that is to diversify their gene pool by mutations and to “choose” genomes matching the situation by selection. Thus living systems evolved to be adapted to external forces (energy, rainfall, rock substrates,etc — the biotope). But systems have to manage internal forces too: the interaction of species within them. Evolution privileged cooperation among species, enabling specialization and so diversity of opportunities leading to more efficiency. This cooperation/specialization mechanism defined niches for each specie, the role that it plays in the community, be it a pioneering species that help prevent nutrient loss after a perturbation, decomposers that close a nutrient loop, seed dispersers, etc.
So after this little introduction of ecology, the question remains: what is nature? We have some pieces of the puzzle (life, biotopes, evolution, niches) but how does ‘nature’ relate to them? The best way is to see examples of living systems and find if they match our idea of nature. Jungle is nature. One sees nature in plants that succeed to thrive in tiny cracks of asphalt, more than in an agribusiness monoculture field. Finally a permaculture system in which one selects species in the world to match specific needs can be a host of nature.
I will use the metaphor of a theatre to define what is nature in relationship with all the other elements. First, we’ve got the inert, the biotope, corresponding to the set, influencing the play. Life represents human actors of the play, as life is what binds all the other things and brings dynamism. Actors play a role, like living entities have a niche. Evolution is the scenario, as evolution shapes behaviour of species. Finally, nature is what results of all these different things, under our eyes. It is the performance of the play, or more precisely, a multitude of performances of a local play according to actors and decors available.
So to cooperate with nature is to let the show go on, but it does not imply doing nothing, as in a “pristine” vision of nature. One can compose his/her own performance, by changing actors or decors. What is really important is the script and roles, as it is the result of selection (a millions of years guarantee). So to devise performances that work, one has to observe what is playing in his region and in the regions of others (the results of the evolution) and to study ecology (patterns of evolution, a kind of “theatre play for dummies”). Permaculturists design plays that better suit their needs by changing decors (even with a bulldozer if necessary) and hiring some foreign actors (the famous Tagasaste for example). But they adapt the scenario to include these changes without modifying its “nature”, for example by conserving patterns of time, space and interactions.
With a completely opposite approach, monocrop agricultural ‘systems’ have tried for 10,000 years to get rid of this scenario. Farmers try to kill “weeds”, important players that prepare the round for other actors to come, and constantly plough the soil meaning they always restart Act 1 of the play, when things become too complex to grasp.
In conclusion, the show must go on, but it can be tuned to our needs!