As I noted in a previous post, I think that while some of the techniques that are presented under the label of permaculture design may have a place in easing some of the difficulties that we’ll encounter as cheap energy sources dry up and the U.S. continues in its decline, I think it’s best to learn those from books and by doing rather than from the permaculture design course. In this post I’ll discuss my reasons for that belief, using the article I critiqued in that post (“Hellstrip Polycultures” by Frank Raymond Cetera in the August 2015 issue of Permaculture Design, abbreviated as PcA/PcD in this post to account for the years it was published under the title of Permaculture Activist before the 2015 name change) and other resources promoted under the permaculture label to look critically at the design course and what seem to be common habits of thought among its graduates and its teachers.
One of the points I raised in the previous post is the lack of understanding of the functions of and constraints upon the tree lawn within the current ecology of the city that the author of the article displayed. Since one of the major goals of a permaculture design course is to raise attendees’ awareness of the patterns of energy and resource flow through the area under design, I wonder how well that objective is met in practice. How could it be that a course which claims to offer a good grounding in and understanding of ecological processes apparently failed to transmit an understanding of the city as an ecological system? It should not be difficult to understand why planting a tree lawn with tall, sprawling, dispersive plants next to a busy street on one side and a narrow sidewalk on the other does not make good ecological sense for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, police, and residents alike. Even if the author of the article was unaware of the functions of and constraints on a tree lawn, the editor of Permaculture Design, who has been working with permaculture design for many years, should have caught the problems and not published the article as it appeared. Why didn’t that happen?
One possibility lies in the history of permaculture. Back in 1974, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed a framework for a sustainable agricultural system based on multiple types of crops, many of them perennials, which are claimed to support each other similarly to the ways that plants in ecosystems like forests, woodlands, and prairies support each other (from the preface to Introduction to Permaculture). They coined the term “permaculture” as a shorthand for “permanent agriculture.” From the beginning, growing food and other useful plants in polycultures in which the plants are supposed to provide for each other’s needs has been a central aspect of permaculture.
However, because much of permaculture design deals with making major modifications to landforms for water and energy harvesting to support large-scale perennial cropping, and because in temperate climates such as most of the U.S. tree crops are the only perennials that are commonly grown for food, permaculture design in the U.S. seems to have focused more on tree crops and perennial plantings for larger semi-rural and rural properties than it has on the different needs and ecologies of cities and suburbs. Mike’s and my one acre lot, because it is located in an inner suburb of a major metropolitan area, has more in common with the 1/8 acre lot we used to own in a nearby inner suburb than it does with the semi-rural to rural properties that Mollison, Holmgren, and many other permaculture teachers and authors live on, have written about, and/or seem to be most familiar with. It doesn’t make much sense to learn about swales as water control and harvesting structures, for instance, if the only bit of land you have control over is your 1/8 to 1/4 acre city or suburban lot. Instead, it could be a lot more useful to learn about how to capture and use water from your roof cheaply and effectively. But you don’t need a permaculture design course to learn about that. Search “rain barrel” or “rain garden” on the web, and you’ll learn everything you need to set up your own rain barrels and rain gardens (including this post). And you don’t need a computer or Internet access at home if your public library provides that.
What if you rent your property? Even if your property has a little land, say 1/8 to 1/4 acre, your landlord may not want you to plant anything on it. Even if that isn’t an issue, you may not want to put much money or time into permanent plantings or the various tools that you would need to plant a garden if you don’t know how long you will live at that location. Many renters live in multi-story buildings without access to anything more than a community garden bed, if that. Under these circumstances, permaculture design for plantings has little to offer. On the other hand, there are many books and websites on growing vegetables in containers or on small pieces of land such as community garden beds and in small backyard spaces. A few hand tools will suffice to work a small vegetable bed or garden or a container planting. Again, no need for a permaculture design course when your local library has or can get for you the books that you’ll need, and websites like this blog as well as state extension services and local gardening organizations have information that can help vegetable growers decide which approach makes sense for them.
The emphasis on polycultures in permaculture design has a lot to do with why the author of the article chose the plants that he did, I suspect. This emphasis on polycultures – groupings of plants that are supposed to supply each others’ needs and put each others’ outputs to good use – has been a part of permaculture design from the beginning and continues to have a prominent place in PcA/PcD as well as in books on permaculture design. The best polycultures are supposed to use mostly perennials to supply human foods and other needs as well as the needs of the soil microorganisms, birds, pollinators, and other animals in the area. They are intended to imitate plant communities of a mature ecosystem that would exist in the area without human intervention. The author of the article I critiqued is one in a long line of permaculture designers to design a polyculture for a particular environment, in this case for a tree lawn.
Considering that permaculture has been around for 40 years and that polycultures are one of the aspects of design that has been emphasized for that entire time, I would think that permaculture designers would have a good-sized list of well-understood polycultures appropriate for various ecosystems by now. But such a list doesn’t seem to exist in practice. I’ve not seen it in PcA/PcD, though the Spring 2016 issue advertises a plant database that is claimed to allow designers to build their own polycultures and plant guilds. Many permaculture books describe how to design polycultures to fulfill the goals of the designer. But after 40 years, with tens of thousands of graduates claimed for all the design courses that have been offered, I would expect that at least a few good polycultures that work with temperate climate plants would be well known within the community of permaculture designers, written about in books and discussed in PcA/PcD as examples for others to learn from. John Wages, editor of the May 2014 issue of PcA, seemed to expect the same thing when he called for articles on stacking functions (the jargon permaculture designers use for the interactions among a group of plants that meet each others’ and the designer’s needs) for that issue. In his Editor’s Edge column, Wages wrote, “While we had hoped to see detailed examples of landscape designs that incorporated a high degree of multifunctionality, only a few such articles appeared.” I haven’t seen them in other issues of PcA/PcD, nor in the permaculture books that I’ve read. Why is this?
One possibility is that it’s harder to design polycultures for temperate climates with plants we are used to eating for food and can grow in small urban and suburban spaces than permaculture designers suggest. Dave Jacke’s and Eric Toenmeier’s Top 100 species list as published in volume 1 of Edible Forest Gardens, for example, includes very large trees like pecans and hickories, which are too big for the vast majority of urban and suburban lots and require many years to grow to bearing age. Persimmons and pawpaws, more suitably sized trees, do make the list, but they still require several years to reach bearing age and few people are familiar enough with the fruit to want to grow the trees. Pears also make the list, but most are subject to fireblight, which has ravaged my two pear trees. Hazels are the right size for urban and suburban yards, but squirrels get nearly all of the hazelnuts in my yard. Raspberries, elderberries, and blueberries all make the list, but birds usually outcompete me for the first and third, and the second needs to be cooked or made into wine and is unfamiliar to most people. Groundnut provides an edible tuber, but it’s highly expansive in my yard, the tubers don’t taste as good as a potato, and they leave a nasty latex-like substance coating the sides of the pan they are cooked in which is quite difficult to remove. I wouldn’t care to eat any of the herbaceous plants they list in large quantity, though small amounts of the edible ones are a nice change. It’s worth noting again that the vast majority of the plants I and most people eat are the standard grain, tuber, and vegetable crops, none of which are perennial in St. Louis. I have many of the Top 100 plants in my yard and value them, but more for the diversity they bring to the land and to the other beings here than because they are a big part of my diet. I get a lot more food out of my vegetable garden, filled as it is with annuals and biennials and organized for easy planting and care rather than on interactions among the plants themselves, than I do from the remaining 95% of the yard. Since permaculture designers don’t seem to have lists of polycultures suited to various ecosystems to offer to potential students, once again I encourage people with an interest in this area to read books on the topic (in my opinion, the best one for those of us in the eastern deciduous forest biome of the U. S. is Edible Forest Gardens) and start trying designs of your own. And if you come up with some that work well, share them! Meanwhile, as I’ve documented in numerous posts and will continue to share in future posts, a well-grown vegetable garden combined with any small or tree fruits of interest that you have the space to grow and the inclination to properly care for will provide you with more nutritious food in a shorter period of time and for less cash outlay than will a polyculture built on perennial crops suited to small urban and suburban spaces.
Permaculture designers might retort that they have much to offer beyond land design. If so, I wish they would discuss and document more of it, in more detail, than I’ve seen in PcA/PcD or in the permaculture books I’ve read. For instance, given how much housing stock exists that desperately needs cheap energy-efficient retrofitting, I would think that after 40 years permaculturists would have developed well-tested plans for such retrofitting and published the results in books, PcA/PcD and other magazines, and on blogs for themselves and others to implement. With very few exceptions, however, I haven’t seen anything like this. Bob Waldrop recognizes the importance of the issue, to his credit, and discusses his and his housemates’ retrofit of their Oklahoma City house in his e-book iPermie. Unfortunately, you have to slog through 416 pages of bloated, overheated, inelegant prose before you get to the chapter with this information, and even then he doesn’t offer enough details to make it easy to reproduce what he did, nor does he offer documentation on how much energy he and his housemates used before and after the work was done.
A quick scan through the last two years of PcA/PcD reveals just one article on home energy use, by Peter Bane in the Winter 2014-15 issue. While he does give a description of how he and his partner make use of a combination of fossil fuel and solar energy sources along with conservation to deal with fluctuations in energy flows during the year in their Indiana home, again he provides almost no data on how much energy they used before and after making some of the changes he describes, nor does he tell us how to make similar changes.
One of the few issues of PcA to deal with appropriate technology is the Winter 2013-14 issue. While it does describe some interesting technologies, there are no articles about using demand reduction (like changing thermostat settings and dressing properly for them) or retrofitting (sealing, adding insulation, and so forth) to reduce energy consumption in existing buildings, a hot topic, for good reason, in the appropriate technology resources from the 1970s. These are among the most effective changes that most of us can make, yet permaculture designers almost completely ignore them, preferring to discuss cool but un-permitted (in most cities) technologies like rocket mass heaters and building new eco-houses out of cob, straw bales, and the like in the exurbs or rural areas. But it’s almost certainly the case that changing to more energy-conserving habits plus a good energy retrofit of existing housing will end up saving more energy than even the most energy-efficient new construction when the energy embodied in the materials from which the new house is made (even a cob or straw-bale house includes plenty of high-energy industrial materials) are taken into account. While John Wages pays lip service to the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s in his Editor’s Edge column of this issue of PcA, it appears that most permaculture designers have little use for this body of cheap, practical, and tested knowledge on how to live a low-cost, low-energy life.
This brings me to what I think is most problematic in the article by Cetera that I critiqued in part 1 and about the writers in PcA/PcD in general: their employment of the left-wing version of the Rescue Game. As John Michael Greer notes, to play the Rescue Game we must fill three roles: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer. The victim, in Cetera’s case the people in the neighborhood for whom Cetera claimed to create the garden, suffer by being deprived of space and other resources in and by which to grow their traditional foods. (I’m not arguing this isn’t the case; instead, Cetera will use this fact in a way that won’t solve the problem but rather perpetuate it.) The persecutors are the City of Syracuse code enforcement officers, and more generally the city power structure and corporate capitalism, although unsympathetic passersby and those who are unwilling to volunteer to help him in his game also fill the role at times. The rescuer is Cetera himself, though he also considers himself a victim, as when the code cops crack down on his overgrown front yard. The article reads like a classic of the genre as Greer describes it. Cetera’s sympathy for the victim does not flow in the direction of growing or helping them to grow the food and other plants they want in a safe and appropriate location. That would stop the game. Instead, he used his survey as a ruse to get what he wanted all along: a polyculture of his own design in a highly visible location, created with financial and labor help from others rather than paying for it and doing the work himself. It’s no surprise that he didn’t win election to the Syracuse city council: if he had, he’d have to play the role of Persecutor.
While Cetera’s article is a particularly clear example of the left-wing version of the Rescue Game, PcA/PcD writers as a whole are no stranger to the game. It underlies the magazine and the permaculture “movement,” as they like to call it, the way soil underlies my vegetable garden (hence the many years the magazine used the word Activist in its title).
Most of the permaculture designers who write for PcA/PcD are trying to support themselves, in part or in whole, by offering design services to the general public and/or by teaching classes in permaculture design. However, the members of the public who can afford to pay for the services of a permaculture designer are, for the most part, members of the salary class. As a group, they fit into the Persecutor category of the left-wing Rescue Game. If they know of permaculture at all, I suspect they realize they are being cast as Persecutors. Why would they want to pay money to people who clearly don’t like them, even if they do recognize that their high-consumption lifestyle has no future and want to make the kind of changes that permaculture design at its best has to offer? Similarly, the people who can afford to pay for the permaculture design course, and to take off two weeks from work and to travel to and from the course location, are most likely to be salary-class folks rather than the people most permaculture writers claim they want to help the most. The contradiction between designers’ stated ideals and the reality of the situation likely plays a large role in the lack of inroads that permaculture design has made in the culture at large.
That leads to a more subtle point: that permaculture designers of today, in their attempt to market themselves and their knowledge base to the salary class, have to turn themselves into believers in the Religion of Progress, if they aren’t already. This is why they spend more time on talking up things like straw-bale and cob houses than they do about lessening overall energy consumption by simple measures like changing thermostat settings, dressing for using less energy, and caulking and weatherstripping existing housing. This is why Peter Bane, in his otherwise decent article on his household’s energy usage patterns in the Winter 2014-15 issue of PcA, makes the mistake of claiming that a hybrid car would be more energy efficient and a better use of his limited capital than a solar water heater. A hybrid car, after all, is new and technologically cool (even if it’s used) than a solar water heater. A hybrid car looks more like the renewable-energy version of the shiny new future that’s waiting for us if only we can get the powerful on board with it than does a solar hot water heater, with its smell of the miseries of the 1970s energy crisis and the economic contraction that followed. But note that the hybrid car requires ongoing and repeated public spending on energy and materials to keep up a road system for its use, not just one private spending on the car itself (actually, more than one, since the batteries only last a few years). The solar hot water system does have an embedded energy cost (much less than the car, however), but once it’s up and functioning, it costs very little further to use or maintain. This is why permaculture designers ignore the appropriate technology movement for the most part: it challenges a core belief system, the Religion of Progress, held by them and by the people who they want to teach and to purchase their services. And it’s why I think that the decline may not be permacultured: unless permaculture designers get this and work to change it, their principles and practices might not survive the grind of relentless decline.
That doesn’t mean that the design process or melange of techniques that come under the names of permaculture design and practice are useless. If those who promoted them spent most of their time on practicing them and telling us what they learned, rather than trying to get the rest of us to hire them to design our properties or to take courses from them so we can then try to get others to hire us or buy from us, I think we’d know a lot more about what works well and what doesn’t. Those who do practice and write about what they learn, like Chris at Fernglade Farm, have a lot of great stuff to say about what actually does work and what does not. I suggest that the best way to find out what is of value from permaculture design and practice is to try it ourselves, with the help of a few good books and blogs. Besides Jacke’s Edible Forest Gardens, I suggest Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables, Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, and Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook for readers in the eastern U. S. Holmgren’s book has broad applicability and Jacke’s is the best for the design process itself, but readers in arid, subtropical, tropical, and northern climates will want to supplement these with books specific to their climates. But unless you have plenty of time, money, and curiosity and you are comfortable with the left-wing political agenda, or you want to make a partial living from being a permaculture designer or teacher yourself, I suggest steering clear of permaculture design courses. In this field, doing it yourself is the best way to learn and to preserve what works against the pressures of decline.