As it was in Charles Dickens’ famous novel A Tale of Two Cities, we can say that we’re now living in the best of times and in the worst of times. While there are many advantages that living in the modern world affords many of us, such as life saving medicines, we are also facing unprecedented challenges in our world such as worldwide deforestation, the pollution of our air, land, and water, natural resource scarcity, political and societal conflicts, and climate change.
Permaculture offers practical solutions that can help us meet many of these challenges and transition toward a better future for all of humanity. To do so, we must choose as a society to embrace the opportunities that we have available to work for positive solutions starting today.
We already possess many of the tools that we need right now that will empower ourselves to move forward in a direction of abundance instead of scarcity. That is very encouraging for many of us who can often be overwhelmed by all of the “bad news” that we encounter on an almost daily basis.
The following are just a few examples of how permaculture principles and design might help us to meet the challenges of some of the most vexing problems of our modern society. While these complex problems will likely require applying a number of solutions to “fix” them, permaculture can make significant positive impacts, and possibly even turn many things around for the better.
1. Drought: Drought is becoming increasingly common throughout the world as our Earth’s climate changes, the soil quality has significantly deteriorated in many regions, water is wasted in industrial and agricultural practices, and many of our Earth’s forests are being cut down for agriculture, logging, natural resource extraction, and subsistence.
Permaculture techniques such as building swales on contour, keyline design, the construction of ponds and wetlands, and the planting of perennials such as trees and shrubs will help to hold water high on the landscape, recharge aquifers, and will increase moisture in soils. Other water-saving practices such as rainwater collection, mulching, grey water recycling, and drip irrigation are also excellent elements to add to a permaculture landscape that help to conserve water.
2. Pollution and waste: In nature, there is no “away,” and what is “waste” for something is essentially “food” for something else. When viewed in this way, the problems of pollution and waste are really a matter of producing things that are not being used as a resource by something else.
Designed well, an efficient permaculture system reuses as much on site as possible, so that there is very little “waste” exiting the system. Some examples where permaculture applies this concept are composting food waste, using “waste” woody debris in hugelkultur beds, and using composted horse and cow manure to enrich soils.
Our society must learn this concept of recycling as well, and redesign everything that we produce to create a “cradle-to-cradle” production system. We should also never make anything that would pollute or cause harm to the environment or to human health. For existing problems of pollution, there are many innovative people working on discovering more environmentally-friendly ways to make things and even to clean up after ourselves, such as using mushrooms to produce biodegradable shipping materials and using them to clean up oil spills in soils.
3. World Hunger and Poverty: Permaculture is especially useful in helping to combat world hunger because it equips people with knowledge regarding how to produce abundant food using existing resources. For instance, in Lesotho, the nonprofit organization Send a Cow has taught communities how to make raised keyhole bed gardens to enable them to grow food in areas that typically receive very little rain throughout the year.
Permaculture also works wonderfully to restore landscapes and to make them productive in previously degraded areas, allowing people to grow abundant food where it was very difficult to do so before. A great example of this is Geoff Lawton’s work in Jordan on the Greening the Desert project.
Poverty in developing nations often develops as a result of natural resource scarcity or a loss of traditional ways of life when the depleted land can no longer sustain the local people. Poverty can also lead to political instability, and violent conflict can erupt out of desperation.
Permaculture can be used to restore landscapes so that the needs of local people are being met and to demonstrate how to make a living off of the land in a sustainable way. This helps to protect the land as well as to give people a way to provide for their families. Community land rights must also be protected to ensure that the land remains in the hands of the people into the future.
4. Soil depletion, erosion, and runoff: In contrast to conventional agriculture techniques that till, compact, and deplete the soil of nutrients and life, permaculture builds soil, holds it in place to eliminate runoff and erosion through perennial plantings, and restores the healthy and natural ecological balance of the soil.
5. Habitat fragmentation and wildlife extinction: Because much of modern agriculture focuses on large tracts of cultivated monocrops, there is significantly reduced biodiversity on most farmland compared to a permaculture food production system such as in a mature food forest.
Permaculture systems can also exist on a continuum within natural landscapes, greatly reducing habitat fragmentation and promoting biodiversity, and since there are no toxic agriculture chemicals being used for food production, all forms of life thrive, including plants, animals, birds, fungi, insects, and soil life.
6. Illnesses and health problems: While health issues are often complex and require a variety of approaches for healing, it is generally agreed upon by most health experts that our lifestyles and what we eat really have a big impact on our health and the development of disease.
What permaculture offers is an opportunity to produce much of one’s own nutrient-dense whole food to support vibrant health, and to have an active lifestyle by engaging in activities such taking care of livestock and other animals, planting, digging, hauling, and walking around on your property. Goodbye, health club memberships!
One could grow herbs or forage for local plants to make your own herbal remedies, and make your own fermented foods and beverages for some healthy (and easy!) homemade probiotics. We also get connected to nature by being outside regularly and getting plenty of sunshine exposure by “doing permaculture.” All of these things are very healthy for you!
7. Energy crises: We are now facing a crossroads of history that we absolutely must make sustainable choices about. Not only are fossil fuel resources getting much more scarce to find and more dangerous to extract, they are a large threat to human health and the health of our global environment.
Fortunately, permaculture demonstrates to us that there are many ways to live much more lightly on the planet requiring much less energy, and how to get the energy that we do need much more sustainably.
8. Unsustainable agricultural practices: Much of modern agriculture works in direct conflict with nature using toxic chemicals, decimating the soil ecology, growing a lot of one single plant variety at a time, a focus on “killing” bad organisms, and attempting to arm wrestle nature to bend to our every whim by believing that humans are ultimately smarter than nature. Not only is this very presumptuous of us, but it is poisoning ourselves and our planet, driving many organisms to the brink of extinction, and leaving us very vulnerable because we are eliminating large swaths of the biodiversity present in the plants that we depend on for food.
In contrast, permaculture seeks to work with nature, not against it. Practicing permaculture renews the land, soil, and water, favors biodiversity and life, produces abundance, fosters community, and admits that there is a lot that we still don’t know about nature. We who practice permaculture know that by listening to nature’s wisdom, we heal the land and ourselves.
9. Pollinator populations in crisis around the world: Due to many of the toxic agricultural chemicals that are being used today and massive loss of natural habitat, many of our pollinator populations are being threatened. The fact is that without them, we as humans would not thrive for very long.
Permaculture food production systems do not use the harmful chemicals that threaten our pollinators because permaculture design works with nature and encourage beneficial insects. Permaculture systems also provide habitat and food for our pollinators, serving as an “oasis” in a surrounding landscape that is more threatening to them.
10. Climate change: Perhaps the greatest threat to our Earth and to ourselves, climate change is already threatening to completely change our lives and the very planet that we live on. By applying permaculture principles and practices, not only will we be more prepared for some of these changes and increase the resiliency of our lives during these uncertain times, we can also help to decrease our demand on the planet’s resources and to help the Earth heal.
One major role that we as permaculturists can play in this process is to teach others how to restore the ecology of the soil, since healthy soil is a major carbon sequestration resource. Restoring native habitats and planting edible landscapes can also go a long way in helping to restore the Earth’s carbon cycle back toward a healthier balance.
With the many challenges that we are currently facing, the world needs permaculture now more than ever before. The potential for a sustainable future is in our hands, but is our society ready to embrace it? How can we as permaculturists lead the way and effectively educate others about how permaculture can help to meet these challenges?