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Finding hope in permaculture

Several weeks ago, Carolyn Baker wrote "The End of the World As We Know It: Hope vs. Mindset", a piece offering her reasons for denigrating  the notion of hope in the face of collapse and why she prefers to focus on the birth/death/rebirth mindset.  Such a mindset, she says, requires courage and perseverance and will be scary and painful.

On August 26, 2007, I completed a permaculture design certificate course in New York City, and through that experience I've learned to appreciate Carolyn's words about hope from a new perspective.

Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living in which the designer takes a 360-degree view of all natural systems in the desired setting and creates a self-sustaining, nourishing and productive environment.  Permaculture views the problem as the solution.  You can't have a solution if you don't have a problem.  So what's the problem?  Well Carolyn enumerates it clearly.  Our warped sense of hope stems from our "perception of ourselves as consumers who are entitled to be comfortable and stress-free with access to the latest technological toys which make our lives fun, exciting and painless."  That kind of hope has lulled us to sleep, a "Night of the Living Dead" sleep in which we are blinded by empire, obedient to government and "trust in economic, social, and political systems."

Hey, the problem is the solution, right?  But, how do we solve this?

Turns out it's not so easy to solve.  But there is some hope to be found, not a hope that lets us pass Go and Collect $200, i.e. a comfortable, stress-free life, but rather to a new life where we are the architects of our own survival.

I'll use my own circumstances to illustrate.  My grandfather was a farmer and shortly after my parents married they lived with my uncle and his family on my grandparent's farm.  I guess those arrangements didn't suit my parents because they soon moved to the city so my father could work and go to school.  They never looked back, and consequently, I was brought up in the suburbs with a suburban disdain for farm life and farmers.  But at least I've had a taste of farm life through visits to my relatives; my partner, Phil, has lived in NYC his entire life and has had little exposure to farm life.  So you can imagine our need to learn as many farm skills as possible. 

Both of us came to permaculture through Peak Oil.  Phil only had to read the first few pages of Mike Ruppert's "Crossing the Rubicon" to realize that U.S. involvement in Iraq and the motivation for 9/11 was about oil.  Soon after, we joined a newly formed Peak Oil Meetup in NYC and found many others who shared our concern about Peak Oil.  Discussions of the potential economic crisis caused by Peak Oil led us to seek out ways to ride out such a crisis.   If energy and oil were to become scarce commodities, we would need to radically change our lifestyle: basically we needed to figure out how to live like people did before electricity.

That may seem like a giant leap on the surface, but when you think about it, don't we have ample evidence that we should expect very little help from our government in a crisis?  Just look at New Orleans after Katrina. 

The prospect of figuring out how to live a self-sustaining lifestyle was daunting and overwhelming to us, and at first we didn't know where to turn.  I wanted to curse out my parents for passing up the opportunity to live on the land.  But that would have created more ill-will than anything.  Instead, Phil and I went searching high and low for opportunities to learn old style life skills.  In the 3 years we've been looking and learning we've attended conferences and workshops and institutes all over the Northeast and we've learned how to work with wood without power tools; keep a family cow; butcher a chicken; make soap and lotion; find food by wildcrafting; make cheese, butter and ice cream; make lacto-fermented sauerkraut and pickles, and much more. 

But just how practical is all this from our vantage point in our fourth floor apartment in Queens?  I don't mean to sound callous because we've met many good folks along the way who have invited us to come visit and help them out on their farm, but these visits are fleeting and the skills learned are tenuous at best when one spends the bulk of their time tethered to a desk and computer instead of working and refining those skills on a daily basis. 

Needless to say, Phil and I felt a little incomplete.  We weren't able to completely immerse ourselves in learning the skills we would need to be self-reliant without picking up and leaving the city.  Then we found permaculture.  At the time, Phil was helping out the organizers of the Petrocollapse conference that took place in NYC in 2005.  A member of Green Phoenix called to find out if they could distribute flyers at the event, and after a discussion about permaculture, Phil was hooked.  Phil completed his design certification course in November 2006 and went on to co-organize the course I took this past summer.

So now I need to take you back to that notion of hope.  Permaculture gives Phil and me hope.  Why?  Because permaculture provides the tools we will need to be self-reliant whether we're on a piece of land or not.  Permaculture offers a perspective of nature that cancels out our capitalist view of how land should be used.  Instead of rows and rows of crops, permaculture encourages a diverse array of plants grown compatibly with other plants in ways that nourish the soil and provide an abundance.  Learning skills is important, but learning how to work with nature is just as important and both Phil and I feel more prepared and hopeful that we will be able to weather an economic crisis and provide for ourselves and others.  We're not out of the city yet, but neither do we feel as overwhelmed at having to learn farming at middle age.  So on a practical level, permaculture can offer hope to many people in circumstances like ours.  But permaculture is not a magic bullet, so don't expect to find within it the solution to your personal or community problems.  A good place to start with permaculture is an introductory text like:  Introduction to Permaculture, by Reny Slay and Bill Mollison; or Earth User's Guide to Permaculture, by Rosemary Morrow.  You can also find out more on the web; many websites offer in-depth information about permaculture and design certificate courses.  Just search your favorite search engine for permaculture

Tom Nielsen is a librarian by training, currently working for a library consortium in New York City, but dreaming of the good life anywhere outside the city. He and his partner Phil co-produced the Local Energy Solutions Conference in NYC, 2006. Coming soon: a permanent Local Energy Solutions website.

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