These days it seems like everyone is either a prepper or a denier. Either someone has a stockpile of refried beans and ammo or they are on spring break in Florida as the Coronavirus sweeps across the land.
As a certified permaculture designer, I’ve been studying and working in the field of Permaculture for the past 20 years and I can tell you there is a middle way that can lead us toward a sustainable and much more secure future than we have right now.
It is a middle way because it recognizes that community plays an expansive and important role in human life, and the kind of isolation that a prepper might espouse necessitates the absence of that integral part of our humanity, while the denier assumes the community will be there without any work to create and nurture it.
Permaculture (a portmanteau of “permanent agriculture”)is an integrated system of ecological and environmental design. Permaculture has three ethics: Care for the Planet, Care for the People, and Redistributing Resources.
Before I go on I want to acknowledge that there are many other ways to practice similar ethics within different methodologies, and they all have validity. I am by no means saying this is the only way — just that permaculture has been tested across the globe for 40 plus years and is very effective in real life situations that require immediate action for substantial change.
Over the last 40 years that Permaculture has existed, it has developed a foundation of experienced practitioners and designers who have a good understanding of the underlying principles that focus its methods.
Let’s look at those for a moment and see how they relate to our present circumstances:
Principle One— Observe & Interact.
As much as we all want to proclaim that we know everything, right now is a great time to observe what is really happening around us instead, and to interact with our actual environments.
The problem with social media of course is that it is a virtual environment, one that we should respect and be concerned about, but we also have this physical reality all around us that we need to be aware of. We have always had this physical environment, but sometimes it takes a pandemic for us to open our eyes and take a real good look.
We’re very much caught up in our day to day schedules and the rituals and patterns that we have created that allow us to feel good. When a crisis hits, all of these patterns tend to go out the window. What we have to do now in order to reorient ourselves to the new reality around us is to begin to observe and interact in the real world, our actual home and homestead, and the natural world which surrounds us all.
Principle Two — Catch & Store Energy
This principle has an obvious relevance right now to all of us— we all feel the scarcity mindset when it comes to toilet paper and other goods. All of a sudden, many of us are very aware how tenuous the supply chains are, and how they shift when there is a massive change in perception within the public mindset.
But in reality the supply chains are the same, the grocery store shelves will probably be restocked soon, and yet with this change in public mindset perhaps the way people take this for granted will ultimately change to some unknown degree.
What we need to do, now and always, is to catch and store energy in many different ways. Maybe this crisis reminds us that perhaps it is a good idea to have a month long supply of toilet paper or diapers, canned goods, or potable water. There is wisdom in those elders who have gone through the Depression era — now we don’t think they are so crazy, hoarding all that canned corn, when we can’t get our Fruity Loops.
But on the flip side hoarding isn’t a complete or even healthy answer to this issue of scarcity. We must begin to understand that in order to create a resilient and dependable supply chain we must support and nurture small local businesses. And we must begin to increase our skills so that we can provide more for ourselves.
In our households we can begin to take an audit of the energy we use every day, including all the externalized energy that we take for granted in the packaging of our goods, our cheap clothing, and all those throwaway cleaning supplies.
Perhaps there are better ways to live our day to day lives that don’t involve so much casual waste of energy.
Principle Three — Obtain A Yield
We waste much time and energy on a daily basis when we are feeling flush with resources. When resources become more scarce we realize that every moment of our days becomes much more valuable.
Obtaining a yield can mean that we need to focus on those things that have a positive outcome, whether that be physical, like gardening, or social, like visiting elders. We need to focus our energies on Obtaining Yields for our efforts in order to maximize our limited resources.
Principle Four — Self-regulate & Accept Feedback
While we are going through a crisis, or even a small life change, we can start to feel overwhelmed and begin to attack those close to us when their viewpoints don’t align with our own. Attacking others doesn’t align with the three Ethics, nor does it align with the first three principles of permaculture. Instead, we can sit back for a moment and try to understand the point of view of others and accept their feedback.
On a purely practical level, we should be careful with our stores of energy and observe our efforts to obtain a yield. We can always improve our methods and techniques, but only if we are open to feedback.
Principle Five — Use & Value Renewables
Currently we live in a wasteful throwaway culture, where we can drive up to the coffee shop takeout window and throw away our coffee cup after thirty minutes of sipping on our chai latte. This of course is an incredibly harmful and idiotic way to live — we create pointless pollution and garbage, all the while weakening our bodies and minds by not working for or or caring about the products that we are consuming.
When we can finally understand that resources are limited, we realize that any renewable resource is ultimately far superior than a single use resource.
A renewable resource is a resource that can be regenerated through processes that produce no waste.
Principle Six — Produce No Waste
Halfway through the twelve principles we find what appears to be a simple concept but it is actually more complex than it seems.
Not producing garbage is a worthy goal, but creating a system where there is no garbage that is produced is the real objective. In nature, there is no garbage. Everything is renewable, and everything recycles everything else to create more resources.
We have a long way to go to get to that scenario in terms of production of goods, but if we become far more aware of the impact that each of our decisions has on the ecosystem, we will get there eventually. Sometimes it takes a crisis to reset our minds.
Principle Seven — Design From Patterns to Details
As we get into the latter half of the Principles, we move from basic algorithms that make up building blocks of permaculture to the overarching forms that those building blocks should take. Now, as we begin to design our permaculture systems, we need to take our cue from the natural world and create our day to day environments using the natural patterns that foster renewables and no waste.
In our design methodology, we begin with a pattern to replicate and place each element and function within that pattern so that they follow the permaculture methods, which are covered in the books that I will reference at the end of this article.
Principle Eight — Integrate
Instead of planning our home and work environments with preconceived concepts about what each component should look like, we should start with the pattern language of how it will flow within the context of the our specific situation, and begin to integrate the components of the work or home into the environment so that it is an integrated whole instead of jumble of parts that don’t work together.
We would never design a bicycle with a wheel on top of the handlebars, so why do we design a home without south facing windows?
Principle Nine — Use Small & Slow Solutions
When in doubt, go local. When in doubt, walk slowly. Humans tend to create chaos and waste when we strive for large solutions, and go as fast as we can to get there.
Right now the virus is spreading through our communities, mostly unseen, in largepart because of our transportation system, which is why it is being shut down in many different ways across the planet. Our modern transportation system is an amazing creation, and gives us tremendous abilities to travel across the world and see many different environments, but of course it comes with a price tag, which is pandemics like this one. There are many other aspects of our modern transportation system that can also carry disease and illness quickly across the globe.
We can reduce large scale problems with small local solutions, increasing the strength and health of our local economies and local networks in order to reduce the amount of global issues that plague the planet.
Obviously people will continue to travel for many reasons, but perhaps we should be taking the health of the local systems more seriously.
Principle Ten — Use and Value Diversity
The health of any natural ecosystem has a direct correlation to its diversity. The more diverse a patch of wildflowers is, the healthier it will be.
Diversity within an ecosystem is created by gradual introduction and elimination of species in a small and slow manner. When a species is introduced into a closed system in large quantities abruptly, such as a novel worm into a forest, then a large scale collapse of certain species becomes likely.
As humans we have the ability to use artificial means to work against that collapse, and so we can survive many different species being introduced into our forests.
But we can also survive without these artificial means in many cases by strengthening our immune systems through experiencing a diversity of environments and developing a healthy host defense.
As it is right now, the vast majority of people spend their lives indoors in semi sterile environments, not moving, not eating whole foods, and watching screens for long periods of time. This is a recipe for a weakened immune system on a large scale.
The answer to this problem is simple: Start to create a lifestyle based on permaculture.
Principle Eleven — Use Edges, Value the Marginal
The edges, the margins, of any system are often the most diverse, and thus they are a good indicator of the health of the system.
As humans we flock toward coastal regions, lakeshores, and riverways, and this is where the vast majority of humanity lives.These are the edges and margins that connect the ecosystems of the planet as well, as water is life for all living beings.
What we are seeing now, as folks stay socially distant in places like Venice, is that the health of riverways, even after only a week or two, is getting better. The clarity of the water is increasing. The air is cleaner. The less we move around extraneously, the less we pollute our most valuable and sensitive areas, the edges of water and the air that we breathe.
Sometimes, even in a crisis, there are silver linings.
Principle Twelve — Creatively Use & Respond to Change
Ultimately we come to the the final principle which continues systematically back into the first principle. All natural systems change and in this change we either react with fear and shut down, or we react creatively and respond with positive change.
Essentially what we are talking about here is the idea of evolving or dying. One main issue with humans is that much of the time, when we are flush with resources of some sort, we don’t have to evolve or die, and we can simply hold onto our old beliefs far past their initial inception. This tends to create widely unbalanced systems that end up creating situations like we find ourselves now.
The main reason we are worried and panicking at this moment is because we haven’t already created permaculture systems that are based on nature, on ecological design, and we are relying on outdated modes of business as usual to save us from ourselves.
But now, as Democrat and Republican both worry about the future of the stock market and the lifestyles of many citizens, including themselves, now we find ourselves at a tipping point where the grocery store employees, farmers, and health care professionals are finally understood to be the essential workforce that they are, and the stock traders, the wealthy, and many corporations are viscerally understood to be the parasitical vampires that they truly are.
But now is not the time to debate politics so much as it is a time to create real change and positively impact our lives. I hope some of these principles may have inspired ideas within your mind, and feel free to reach out to me with any thoughts or questions that you may have in the comments.
I’ll be working steadily to increase the resiliency of my own homestead, my surrounding community, and many clients who are in need of designs for resiliency right now. This is the year!
Below is the a limited reading list of the most comprehensive books on permaculture that I have studied:
Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual, by Bill Mollison
Permaculture — Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, by David Holmgren
Edible Forest Gardens, Vol 1 & 2, by Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier
A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa & Murray Silverstein
Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture, by Sepp Holzer
Restoration Agriculture, by Mark Shepard
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