For the Permaculture Nerds

Allison and I are admittedly nerds in many ways. When we get interested in something we'll read at least 5 books about it. So having our librarian friend find scholarly articles on Permaculture for us is definitely more exciting than it should be. She sent us an article called Permaculture for Agroecology: Design, Movement, Practice and Worldview by Rafter Sass Ferguson & Sarah Taylor Lovell, published in 2012. It was unusual in that it was an academic article written by people outside the Permaculture world looking, mostly, at what Permaculture might have to offer the transition to Agroecology. 

Agroecology is, in many ways a parallel discipline to Permaculture with many of the same aims. It's proponents, similar to Permaculture, believe that our food system is in desperate need of a transition to ecologically driven production systems.

It was refreshing to read people from outside the permaculture framework, trying to look objectively at what it has to offer, rather than rejecting it out of hand. The authors conclude that proponents of Agroecology, who often look askance at the very grassroots and unrefined permaculturists, could learn something from what those farm rebels have figured out. The authors, drawing from the permaculture literature written in English, summarized (accurately I think) the thesis of Permaculture this way: 

With systematic site design, emphasizing diversity at multiple scales, integrated water managment, and access to global germplasm, we can increase the productivity demonstrated by heritage agroecosystems-especially labor productivity-while maintaining their most desirable attributes of sustainability and multifuntionality.”

I think this is actually a great restating of some of the aims of permaculture. It is, of course missing the ethical drive and social dynamic that has led to the development of the movement. Restating it outside it's social and ethical context makes it feel more utilitarian and strips it of some of what makes it so effective. The authors do, however, acknowledge that the ability of Permaculture to impart a whole worldview, is one of the things that makes it so "potentially" valuable.

Along those lines I was struck while reading the article with the idea that maybe the largest contribution that Permaculture has to the transition to Agroecology is that it's a movement. They point out that it has been able to do what those in the Agroecology vein have said we need to do, but haven't: namely, transmit a worldview that produces widespread change. Permaculture has been able to do that to a more significant degree. That's because built into the DNA of Permaculture is the desire not just to do it, but to equip others to do the same at a popular level. People don't go to the university to learn farming and come out the other-side as Permaculturists. But the discovery of permaculture, as it did for us, actually works to create farmers out of non-farmers. And if there is anything the Agroecology movement needs, it is more people that are actually doing it. Because if we are looking to a transition toward smaller scale, localized food systems, we need many times the number of food producers we currently have. We need a movement. Permaculture has the built-in structure to help make that happen.

The authors also note that Permaculture offers certainly a compliment and in some ways an extension of what Agroecology is trying to accomplish. They don't go into a lot of detail about what they think that is, except to talk about permaculture's emphasis on earthworks to reshape landscape into more productive and integrated systems and the focus on designing the relationship between elements.  A LOT could be said on these points, but they mostly just imply that these are potential areas for further inquiry. 

The article also looks at the limitations of permaculture. They had some good points on this score, while also seeming to make the mistake of evaluating Permaculture with measures that are foreign to it. But, here are a couple points that were good: if permaculture suffers from anything, it's isolation from other agricultural disciplines (Agroecology, Agroforestry, Ecological Engineering), which are complimentary to Permaculture's aims. This has been noted by others within the permaculture community already, but bears repeating. We all have much to learn and the permaculture framework has always (as the author aptly points out) been more of an ethical and philosophical filter for identifying the right practices and the right relationship between practices. Therefore, we can learn something from just about anything as long as we hold to the ethical and philosophical filters that make Permaculture such a potent and effective system. 

The authors also believe that we in Permaculture oversimplify complex issues. This was one area where I felt the authors missed the magic that makes Permaculture work. I believe the problem 9 times out of 10 is that things are presented as way too complex, not too simple. But it's also one of Permaculture's greatest strengths. In our PDC with Geoff Lawton, we constantly felt like we could actually do this. It wasn't just for professionals with masters in horticulture, the big wigs of agribusiness or the generational family farmer. It was for us. We knew it wouldn't be easy and we would encounter serious obstacles at times, but we have been taught to see problems as solutions in disguise. Geoff taught us that "the problem is the solution," so we don't get bogged down with all the reasons something is way too hard to do, or just not as easy as we thought. The authors do also recognize this as a strength of Permaculture. 

There is a lot more to be said about the article. They include some fascinating graphs and statistics related to the distribution of the types of Permaculture literature, some astute summaries of the approach, the nature of it's presence worldwide, the demographics of it's adherents and the origins of it's form. 

Anybody that has more than a passing interest in Permaculture, should read the article here, it's absolutely worth your time.