Permaculture, as a design lens, can be looked through to apply to all manner of things. Whether it is a piece of land or a social structure at your place of work, your child’s education or your own personal finances, there are ways you can utilise permaculture to help you with your organisation of a diverse range of activities. After all, permaculture is holistic so it makes sense that you can use it for many different things.
Permaculture can even be used in conjunction with choosing what kind of diet you want to have. But does it really make sense to choose one particular diet to follow, regardless of other factors which may be present? And how can permaculture help you to decide?
No meat, no problem
Many permaculture courses recognise that people who are interested in this design system may also be interested in caring for their fellow planetary beings, and so offer vegetarian food as part of the course. In recent months, there also seems to have been a rise of “vegan permaculture” courses (see for example 1, 2, 3), many of which are inspired by Graham Burnett’s 2014 book ‘The Vegan Book of Permaculture’ (4). ‘Vegan’ in this sense is a diet where you do not eat any kind of animal products, from honey to eggs, and where, if you are really strict, you do not use any animal products for any of your other needs either. This includes avoiding woolen clothing and alcohol, such as wine and many types of beer, which are often strained using products from animal, egg and fish derivatives (5).
If we are following the Ethic of ‘Earth Care’ then practicing veganism as part of your permaculture designs, on one level, makes a lot of sense. One way we can care for the Earth is to love, honour and respect all of the living things and to incorporate the flourishing and thriving of many other creatures in your ecosystem as part of your life design. If we are doing this then maybe we do not also wish to devour them. As Helen from Veganic Permaculture puts it,
“I sang to the sealions and they grunted and belched back. I danced on the rising cliffs with mossy tops and the moss felt sacred beneath my floating feet. What else do I need to teach and motivate me to wake up daily with a purpose to be of service to the natural world and all the organisms in it?” (6)
Plugging into the circuitry of the web of life
The thing which Helen seems to be recognising is the inherent connections present between us and the rest of the living, breathing world; the “potentized field of intelligence” which makes up the “animate landscape” as David Abram (7) puts it. Recognising and honouring this “web” is, in my experience, the same as recognising the holistic nature of the systems we are designing and of humans as merely one part of the complexity of energies and structures which abound in this world. Failure to recognise this, again from my experience, results in the system failing on a holistic level even if it appears to succeed on other levels, say for example financial. It is not enough to theoretically agree that humans are a part of the web of life. It is not enough to read a book about it (though reading some books may help). It is about really feeling this connection; not in any mystical or metaphysical sense but as part of your direct sensory experience (for more information on why I think this is important, see my article ‘Language and Permaculture part 1’ (8)).
Once you achieve this sensory connection your reaction will be totally unique to you. Perhaps you decide to go into “vegan permaculture” and design and live in a system which uses no animal products. Last year Permaculture News contributor Jonathan Engels wrote an article on his decision to do this (9), and his ideas about how “plant-based permaculture” can work. The article is well worth a read, even if only to giggle at the included video from PETA, “If Vegans said the Stuff Meat-Eaters Say” (10).
Reconciliation of the horrors of life
What seems crucial about Engels’ article is that he is exploring how to create a successful permaculture project, which can provide much of your dietary needs (he does not specify how much), without using domesticated animals. However, he recognises that many animal products and by-products can be a useful part of any permaculture system, so instead of raising domesticated animals on his land he plans to encourage inhabitation by wild creatures. For example, he admits that one massive benefit of having domestic animals on your land is that they create nutrient-rich manure, the lack of which means that healthy soil takes longer to develop. To try to combat this he includes in his design plans
“Free-running worms…attracted by in-situ composting buckets [and] bats will have bat houses (again with manure harvesting).” (9)
In this, Engels’s system can be seen as more “horticultural” than “agricultural”; in line with numerous societies around the world who have been engaged with successful communication with the natural ecosystem (see for example 8, 11). As Toby Hemenway put it in his talk “how permaculture can save the world, but not civilization” (11), if we are to really make the shift from conventional industrialised farming in a way which will have a meaningful beneficial and regenerative impact on the landscape, then we need to be engaging in such “horticultural” practices.
How does life work?
However, a crucial point which is perhaps not considered by Veganic Permaculture or by Engels is the relationship which these “horticultural” societies had or have with the ecosystem, which is one based on a fundamental aspect of life on this planet. This is that life is sustained by feeding on other life. As Joseph Campbell put it,
“life…lives by the killing and eating of other lives. you don’t kid yourself by eating only vegetables too, for they, too, are alive. So the essence of life is the eating of itself! Life lives on lives, and the reconciliation of the human mind and sensibilities to that fundamental fact” (12)
is one of the prime functions of mythology, or the stories we tell ourselves as a culture, and which all cultures possess, whether we are aware of it or not.
In a society which condones the placing of other living beings into tiny boxes for the duration of their lives in order for them to be killed impersonally by a machine and sold as nameless packaged products to indifferent consumers, or more often than seems possible to condone, simply disposed of as waste (see for example 13), it seems we have to wonder whether or not this reconciliation of the fundamental brutality of life has become somewhat unbalanced. And it seems also that a logical step towards addressing this imbalance would be to stop eating animals and their products, to eat least discourage factory farming and all of the ecological detriment it entails.
A question of balance
However, when looking at the balance we have to also consider what other products we are eating. Many advocates of the vegan diet insist that you can get all of the nutrients you need without eating animal products. This can be seen to be true by the fact that many healthy vegans appear to be still alive. However, the products which they choose to replace animal products with may also be the cause of ecological unbalance. Take for example the recommended menu from the Vegetarian Resource Group (14). To get enough protein for one day, the menu includes soybeans, “wholewheat bread”, “bagels”, “crackers” and brown rice (14). These foods come from three of the most industrially farmed plants in the world; soya, wheat and rice (15). Wheat production alone occupies 17 percent of the world’s total cultivated land area (16), while the majority of the world’s soya is grown in Brazil, in what used to be part of the Amazon rainforest or the Cerrado grasslands (17). While it is possible to obtain these plants when grown in a non-intensively farmed way, that does not mean that it is easy or financially viable for everyone to do so.
Where do you fit in?
Quite apart from the question of getting enough nutrition for yourself, and ensuring that it comes from a regenerative or at least sustainable source, there is the question of your own part in the ecosystem itself. Maddy Harland from Permanent Publications addresses this in her excellent article about why her company decided to publish Burnett’s book, ‘The Vegan Book of Permaculture’. She also quotes Joseph Campbell to illustrate the perhaps sometimes paradoxical-seeming nature of living in a way which respects and honours all living things, yet which is also not averse to killing and eating them. In discussing her decision to publish Burnett’s book she asserts that
“We in the developed world eat far too much meat”, (18)
And she encourages readers to make their own choice about their diets and explore the possibilities available to them. However, she also points out that if you are recognising yourself as being a part of an ecosystem, perhaps you also have to participate in the ecosystem in order to maintain balance. This does not mean necessarily that you create an ecosystem by bringing in chickens from elsewhere into your garden and then killing them occasionally to keep the population down (although it might, if this is what you decide is the most appropriate action for you). But it does mean that even if, like Burnett and Engels, you plan to have zero domesticated animals in your permaculture design, you can recognise and take responsibility for your role as one of the ‘wild animals’ present within your ecosystem. For example, if you create an environment which may attract certain forms of wildlife and cause an abudnance of this type of wildlife which then creates an imbalance in the ecosystem, what are you going to do? Harland describes how
“I am not saying I particularly enjoy skinning and gutting a rabbit but I am not keen on them debarking the trees in my forest garden and I believe that if you kill an animal, you shouldn’t just discard it but respect its life (even sacrifice) by eating and using as much of it as you can.” (18)
For many people, adopting a lifestyle which is in tune with the wilderness, in which you become aware of the rhythms of the natural patterns around you and engage with the plants, animals and landscape of your environment in a direct sensory way, is one way in which we can encourage the healing not only of the environment but of our own previously disconnected psyches (see for example 7, 19, 20). In order to truly accept this connection, however, it seems we also have to accept our own part in the wilderness, and the possibility that we may be called upon to directly engage with the cycle of life and death that, after all, makes up our world. To this end Harland echoes my own sentiments in ‘The Meat Industry and Ideas for what we can do about it’ (21) when she says
“If you are going to eat meat, you should be prepared to kill and butcher it yourself…When we hunt and then take the animal into our bodies as food, we become more closely in relationship with our ecosystem” (18).
Finding your own path through the wilderness
This article is not condoning veganism or meat-eating, it is simply an exploration of different aspects of diet when considering it alongside permaculture. Every individual’s situation is different and some may require more of the nutrients which are found in meat than others (see for example 22).
I was not going to make any conclusions as I would like this article to generate considered discussion; however, I will say one thing as an end note. This is that until you have tried something out – even if it is only theoretically, by taking it into consideration – you cannot necessarily condemn or condone it. Creating an animal-free permaculture system may be the way you wish to go or you may have more success and happiness with domesticated animals. The choice is yours to make, and we are all always learning and exploring.
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