Permaculture, Forever Sustainability

by Bill Chameides | February 18th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

Representing the ~1,000,000 years of human existence with a ball of string, Toby Hemenway unraveled the notion of agriculture’s dominance. With only the last foot or so signifying its presence on the scene, he argued for better ways to produce food.

The guru of the permaculture movement came to Duke last week.

To hear him tell it, Toby Hemenway is an ordinary guy. To see him in person, you get the sense nothing could be further from the truth. The 300+ people that crowded into Love Auditorium underscored that with a standing ovation for his talk on “How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth but Not Civilization.“ The lecture was jam-packed with information ranging from human evolution to gardening — and delivered by a far-from-ordinary guy.

Hemenway sketched in his background at dinner following the lecture. Starting out as a biologist working in genetics, he eventually found himself on a management track moving away from science. He wondered what he was doing with his life.

Then serendipity or inspiration or both hit. As he prepared to move to a rural setting, visions of tending a lush garden directed him to the library to learn how. There he stumbled upon the concept of permaculture and became hooked.

Today, fresh on the heels of publishing the second edition of Gaia’s Garden, Hemenway is one of the world’s leading proponents of permaculture — a modern application of horticulture in which “edible landscaping meets wildlife gardening,” as his book puts it, where the landscape “provides for people as well as the rest of nature.”

Permaculture 101

So what’s this movement all about? Here are some main points from his talk:

  • Regeneration: Hemenway rejects the notion of sustainable development, defined by the United Nations as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” His two problems with it:
    • The malleability of the definition of “need.” One might say he needs a skim soy latte or a big car to tote around his children. But are those real needs?
    • Sustaining is simply too middle-of-the-road, blah; Hemenway prefers regeneration.
  • The oxymoron of sustainable agriculture: Agriculture, which Hemenway decribes as the “conversion of ecosystems to people,” is destructive and unsustainable. It leads to overpopulation, replaces polycultures with monocultures, and inevitably converts arable land to wasteland, as evidenced by the fate of regions like Western Asia’s Fertile Crescent, Greece, and America’s Dust Bowl.
  • Green Revolution is food from oil: Energy from fossil fuels (which has allowed us, for one, to produce copious amounts of fertilizers) has kept agriculture alive, but that fuel supply will eventually run out.
  • Unhealthy by-products: Agriculture lowers life spans; leads to degenerative diseases, zoonosic epidemics, and cyclical famines.
  • Gardeners not farmers: Unlike agriculture, horticulture, a word from the Latin for garden, is regenerative. Hemenway cites Hopewell and Oaxaca as examples of horticultural societies that sustained themselves over millennia. (The Oaxaca eventually moved away from horticulture, becoming early developers of agricultural practices. See here and here.)
  • Horticulture‘s advantages include the promotion of:
    • polyculture over monoculture,
    • succession instead of plowing and replanting,
    • ecosystem function,
    • a belief in “earth spirits instead of sky spirits” (replacing the notion of human “dominion over the earth”),
    • egalitarian as opposed to hierarchical societies,
    • time for leisure, human interaction, and cultural pursuits (resulting from less work).
  • Permaculture to the rescue: Defining permaculture as a post-industrial application of horticulture, Hemenway sees the movement as not about “going back” but “moving into.” It’s a design system based on observing and replicating nature. By intelligently tweaking wilderness — much like a gardener tinkering with her garden — one can catch and store energy in its myriad forms, making small changes for big effects. If properly applied and adapted to specific locations and conditions, it can provide an abundance of food.

Hemenway sees Gaia’s Garden (and the principles of permaculture) as a manual or guide for living. Judging by the enthusiasm of the SRO audience who braved a North Carolina snowstorm to see Hemenway last Friday night, I’d say it’s a guide that’s provided both material and spiritual sustenance to many.

The Personal or Expansive Goal of Permaculture?

But is the guide primarily for a personal gardening experience or the survival of humanity? I suspect Hemenway and many other permaculturists believe it’s the latter. I’m not so sure. 

While Hemenway maintains that permaculture is about moving forward instead of going back, a world sustained by horticulture seems to me to be a lot like the Garden of Eden. Is such a way of life possible without biting into the metaphorical apple that makes us human?

During the Q&A following the talk, Hemenway was asked whether permaculture as a system of food production could provide an adequate food supply for all humanity. 

Hemenway answered yes … provided we shrink our population to about two billion. We haven’t much choice in the matter, he argued, because two billion is the maximum number of people that earth can sustain. (A similar idea was advanced by Roderick Nash when he visited Duke last year.)  

But how do we get from today’s world of roughly seven billion to one with just two billion? That’s easy, says Hemenway; we just need to limit ourselves to about 1.5 children per couple and we’d be there in a few generations.

The mathematics is right, but is it realistic? Even Adam and Eve had more than 1.5 kids. Darn, if only they’d not bitten into that apple, we’d all be gardeners raising 1.5 children. In the meantime, I’ve got my copy of Gaia’s Garden; maybe it will help me figure out how to get my grapevines to bear fruit.

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  1. Peter G
    Feb 19, 2010

    I’ve a feeling the “scaling back” is going to happen, but by what process, and at what cost? I don’t see evidence of any system of governance that can produce the kind of consensus followed by action that would be necessary. So we’re probably left with “Gaia” doing it for us.

  2. Jim
    Feb 19, 2010

    What do you do for food in the winter? Would you ship it from other gardens? We have been using a lot of locally grown veggies, but we don’t really have the land to grow a full garden. What about those that live in townhomes or apartments? Even though I believe we need to scale back the population, how are you going to do it? It simply won’t happen with education and contraceptives. You might be able to get the population to stabablize at some point, but it will probably still be way too many people. Good luck to passing legislation limiting how many kids people can have. That won’t even happen when there’s mass starvation and wars. It will only happen with a toltalitarian government, like in China. Maybe there’s still some hope, but darned if I can find it.

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