Not seeing the woods from the trees

Whole Earth Review (winter issue 2001) published a scathing commentary on Permaculture by Greg Williams. This vituperation came through Williamís review of a book by Toby Hemenway called "Gaia's Garden: A guide to homescale Permaculture". Toby was given the opportunity to reply to the review, and clearly felt annoyed and frustrated that someone of the obvious intelligence of Williams could so badly misunderstand Permaculture, especially since it is known that Williams took a Permaculture Design course with its originator, Bill Mollison.

The most telling criticism in the book review centres on the absence of data, testing and experiments on yields in Permacultural systems compared to say mainstream agriculture or other homegarden production systems.

I think we have been here many, many times before (witness the aggrieved attack against Permaculture from Bob Flowerdew in Gardenerís World magazine) but Williamís critiscisms do not hold major concerns for me. I have myself been critical of Permaculture in the past. I was once castigated for making an unfavourable comparison between the relative merits of a kitchen garden and a forest garden. It was a useful comparison at that time (1996) as there was still a reluctance in neophyte Permaculturists to work from their own experience, instead of just replacing it wholesale with the then southern-hemispheric outlook of Permaculture. My point was that we all should have recognised the inherent benefits in each system, be open to discussion, and the good designer then comes up with a combination of the two rather than so easily taking on the sacred cows of Permaculture.

It would be easy to shrug off Williams complaints about yields in Permaculture systems as sour grapes. I suspect he sees himself as a significant mentor to people who seek out certain aspects of self-reliance. His HortIdeas newsletter is probably fallen on avidly for tips on how to deal with the mundane (such as controlling slugs) much as organic gardeners in the UK revere the simplistic emissions of the likes of HDRA or Bob Flowerdew. The recipients of the advice aren't necessarily encouraged to think for themselves, to see how their actions fit into a bigger picture, or even devise their own ideas. I see it as being the difference between just having your information added to, or having your insights developed so that you arrive at information for yourself. Is Toby's book a challenge to the former and an encouragement for the latter? Isn't Permaculture?

I would be unfair if I accused Williams of not thinking himself. He is obviously grappling with his own demons and with his reluctance (resistance) to accommodate Permacultural thinking with his own world view. Ok, I can empathise with that. What I can't do is go back to his anthropocentric view that nature's yields should be based primarily on their success in serving humankind alone. His statement that successional wooded landscapes would eventually only produce food for deers - along with his views on the merits of "meadow" gardening - show a callous disregard for the multiple yields that are supportive of ALL earth users. It is the key to why his world view is destined to be overtaken. And it is of the same mentality of the people who persecute badgers, foxes and red kites (only just being reintroduced) because they fear any slight reduction in agricultural productivity.

In response to Greg William's criticism, we need to recognise that, often, early enthusiasts for Permaculture unfortunately played the game of using orthodox scalar attributes to describe Permaculture systems. This was a hostage to fortune and prone to embellishment. Perhaps we will have difficulty applying orthodox measurement to something that is still evolving. Moreover, Permaculture systems often have a highly personal and location-specific element to them, and which seek to take yields in many ways. It is not that Permaculturists should fear evaluation, its just that we need to define and decide on what basis the evaluation will take place - and then explain it carefully to sceptics.

Secondly, we should have realised by now that there is no such thing as Permaculture farming or Permaculture gardening per se, as it would diminish Permaculture to the stature of a series of techniques or processes. If taken to that conclusion, Permaculture would end up an inflexible, thoughtless but regulated and regimented no-brainer system as exemplified by certified organic systems in the UK. We have the angels on our side in this since at least Permaculture recognises that organised food production of any sort doesn't come without ecological consequence.

A review of Toby's book in Permaculture Magazine made a distinction by suggesting that there are two approaches to Permaculture. The first aims to copy ecosystems in a literal way (and see my last point on ecological consequence). The second places more emphasis on creating beneficial relationships between people, plants and structures. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. The reviewer suggests that Toby's book is an excellent description of the first approach. And it this that gives me my third point.

Opportunistic foraging and hunting maintained an early hominid population in amongst a mostly un-degrading, self-regulatory natural eco-system. The development and dispersal of agriculture in Neolithic times allowed the hominids to break free from that self-regulating system and become a dominant but destabilising influence. Thousands of years later, it has taken the exposition of Permaculture and other land and people-based interdisciplinary thought and design systems to start to re-integrate to varying degrees the hominid population back into a self-regulating natural eco-system. Permaculture just happens to chuck in an ethical framework as well, which kind of marks it out from those other interdisciplinary systems.

If we are serious about the goals for society that are inherent in Permaculture, then we should resist having to fight narrow-topic battles that seek to define us more in keeping with other's image. There is a wealth of philosophical, conceptual and contextual information out there in the world (and from many disciplines and interdisciplines) that shows Permaculture to embody rational, connected and eminently realisable constructs. We should thank Bill Mollison for getting many of us to the point where we can appreciate this, but it is now our task to take it on from one man's revelations, and show that it could be mainstream in the endeavours of the peoples of the world.

What is disturbing in this conflict in Whole Earth between Williams and Hemenway is the personalisation of the issues in both pieces around the character of Bill Mollison, and it is inevitably thus. I am never happy raising individuals onto a pedestal of regard (but I still have a very soft spot for the late Geoff Hamilton). Permaculture always runs a risk from this, and it is not helpful that there are continuing rumbles that Mollison is becoming somewhat heavy handed. This throws the future development of Permaculture into discussion for me.

I am struck by the examples of open access computer software that gains strength by its users modifying and developing it, and freely distributing the revisions - all with the blessing of its originator. I am also highly delighted when I find diverse sources that are supportive or confirmatory of things that I am interested in - and this is particularly so of my interest in Permaculture (perhaps there is nothing new under the sun?). Mollison is not ungenerous of the influences on himself, citing a body of references in his books such as the Designers Manual (12 years out of date now and desperately needing revision). But we need to keep doing this, to seek out the ideas and philosophies that build on Permaculture and signal its worth. And I don't want to have to wait until Mollison dies before we get on with this.

Here are two examples that hint at a co-mingling of thought:

Rather than argue about where to put our wastes, who will pay for it, and how long it will be before toxins leak into the groundwater, we should be trying to design systems that are elegantly imitative of climax ecosystems found in nature

from The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, Paul Hawken, Harper & Row, 1993

Öwe are living in a time when both the earth and the human species seem to be crying out for a radical readjustment in the scale of our political thought. Is it possible that in this sense the personal and the planetary are pointing the way towards some new basis for sustainable and emotional life, a society of good environmental citizenship that can ally the intimately emotional and the vastly biospheric?

from Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, Theodore Roszak, Sierra Club Books, 1995

So here is our challenge - what are we to make of the future of Permaculture? Is it fated to remain in monolithic obscurity, or can it break out into the consciousness of all those who seek a future for our world beyond our own lives?

Mark Fisher, 21 January 2002