I love brainstorming for solutions. That’s why I started this blog. I wanted to ponder answers to some of the questions I was asking myself after my first son was born, like how can my husband and I create a healthy, happy, sustainable family life? How can societies redesign communities for health and happiness? Four years later I’m still here brainstorming.
Often I come back to a movement that may hold some of the answers: permaculture.
Permaculture is a gardening movement that originated in the 1970s in Australia. Its “father” Bill Mollison defines it as “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”
Sound confusing? I haven’t even gotten into the three tenets or twelve design principles. Honestly, I don’t wholly understand permaculture, which may be why I’ve yet to transform my yard into a food forest.
But I find it to be an incredibly refreshing and hopeful philosophy, because it re-frames a tired conversation about our role in nature.
Most of us are well-versed on humans’ criminal performance as stewards of the natural world. Nearly all my earth science lessons from first grade through college ended with discussion of humans’ destruction: a hole in the ozone layer, acid rain, rampant pollution, global climate change. After my dad died, I saw a photo of a polluted landscape and immediately recognized the emotion I’d been feeling during all of these environmental lessons: grief. I’m sure I’m not alone in that emotion.
The environmental movement often espouses footprint reduction as the solution to the devastation. In An Inconvenient Truth, we saw a list of the same solutions I heard in elementary science classes: turn off the lights, drive less, buy energy efficient appliances.
As you know, I’m all for finding joy in simpler lives. But I’m not convinced it’s the answer to our environmental problems.
Derrick Jensen makes a good point in his 2009 critique of simple living “Forget Shorter Showers”: “The logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. . . . we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.” Jensen is trying to provoke political action in his essay, but he captures how psychologically depressing and even destructive it is to think the way we can best serve the world is to disappear.
If our presence itself is the problem, how can we be the solution?
Perhaps that’s why when I first read about permaculture, I felt a rush of relief. The movement is not about shrinking, shriveling, or getting smaller. The ultimate goal isn’t disappearing. It’s about doing something productive that makes the world a better place. It’s about improving the environment through our actions.
In their memoir Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates describe how they built a permaculture food forest that transformed their barren urban lot into a high yield food-producing habitat for fish, snails, frogs, salamanders, raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, bugs, and worms. “Imagine what would happen,” Toensmeier writes, “if we as a species paid similar attention to all the degraded and abandoned lands of the world.”
Permaculture is incredibly powerful, because it inspires us to become the solution. It shows us that we can create systems of abundance where everybody wins.
What if we apply the same mindset to other seemingly entrenched problems? We’d probably be able to re-frame all kinds of tired conversations and focus on what we can design and create to affect the world for the better.
It’s the mindset that inspired Seattle to create Beacon Food Forest, seven acres of fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs and vegetables that will be open to the public for foraging, that helped Judy Wicks build a successful business while creating a thriving local economy in Philadelphia, and that helped a Spanish biologist build a fish farm in Southwest Spain that reversed the ecological destruction of the Guadalquiver River valley.
If you haven’t seen Dan Barber’s TED Talk about that Spanish fish farm, it’s an incredible reminder of what can happen when we become the solution.
Check out these resources for more inspiration: