Measuring Progress: Permaculture Responds

by Ben Falk

Sue Reed’s article, “A Talk of Three Garden Shows: Progress?” oversimplifies an important and complex issue. Since Sue did not attend my talks at the ELA Conference, I will offer some of the perspectives we work from when practicing permaculture. When referring to permaculture she states: “Like all the worst systems of agriculture and horticulture in our past, this new approach still places human wishes and desires (often called “needs”) in the center of the equation.” Actually, permaculture does the opposite of most agricultural systems as it facilitates the development of diverse, highly complex, and resilient ecosystems in which human needs such as food, water, and shelter are provided for locally.

Permaculture fosters complex ecosystems that can provide human needs locally.

In human-inhabited systems, high levels of biodiversity and structural diversity along with productive yields are necessary ingredients in a healthy ecosystem. (Permaculture is not a framework for managing “wild” lands, but it does call for a wild zone – Zone 5 – in any site large enough to accommodate such.) Permaculture, as I understand and practice it, is about enhancing, not just sustaining the health of the ecosystems from which we derive our sustenance on Earth. This is not possible by placing the needs or wishes of one species above the health of the whole system. To that end, permaculture regards humans as participants in their ecosystems – not as tyrants, beneficent kings, or evildoers, but as “natural” as an ant, bear, or beaver, and capable of both beneficial and destructive ecosystem membership.

Permaculture as System Designer

Permaculture focuses on providing for basic human needs in healthy and regenerative ways that don’t depend upon distant destruction of ecosystems to provision ourselves. Permaculture is not the lay-environmentalist approach of sitting back enjoying the view of green hills while forests across the globe are razed to provide for the resource demands of our lifestyle. Permaculture is not armchair environmentalism at all, but gardening that embraces the entirety of a complex, biodiverse, and ever-changing living world. And a world with humans in it. It does not, in general, see plants or other organisms that have been in a place for 10 or 100 or 300 years as fundamentally more “natural” or proper in a place than plants which are recent arrivals. It asks first, “What does a plant do and how does it relate to other plants, the soil and human needs?” Not, “How long has it been here?” It never views a plant, an animal, or another human culture as evil or alien. It works from a perspective of inclusion, rather than exclusion and recognizes that all members of a living system are connected. It sees synergy, not conflict, everywhere.

Permaculture design never seeks to eradicate and simplify any part of a system – just the opposite. It works with ecosystems for what they are – constantly evolving assemblages of species and shifting relationships between all pieces of the ecosystem. It asks us to find ways, the most synergistic ways, to fit into this changing web of relationships. Permaculture also sees a need to adapt to and respond to emerging challenges such as a more rapidly shifting climate, increasing biospheric toxicity, mass-extinctions, social system and human health declines, and other current challenges – challenges that require us to respond to, not retreat from or ignore changes underway.

Food system diversity enhances human health and the health of other systems.

In response to these challenges, permaculture design promotes an exceedingly high level of biodiversity in systems. For instance, permaculture work involving the exchange of seed and plants advances ex-situ conservation goals so that species threatened by climate and other changes in their historic locations can survive in new, more suitable locations. This work also results in continual increases in food, human health, and ecosystem health possibilities found in the increasing diversity of ecosystems and synergies present there.

Permaculture sees human and ecosystem health as mutually dependent. Permaculture, in contrast to conventional “natives-first” gardening, embraces the legacy of food systems diversity we all benefit from during each meal (unless you live on groundnut, hazelnut, venison, bison or certain berries), and it actively expands that diversity to enhance human and other living system health. Permaculture sites become wildlife restoration zones as a matter of course. Much of the food we promote ends up feeding “wild” life due to the sheer diversity of foods present and the “wildness” of the site itself. This is a far less managed approach than most any other codified gardening and farming systems. Additionally, permaculture incorporates earthworks, such as swales, ponds, and terraces, and mixes tree crops with annual crops. This structural diversity actually creates far more opportunities for species of concern, such as songbirds and amphibians, than all other forms of more simplistic gardening and all forms of annual-only organic agriculture. However, this should not be a surprise. Permaculture emerged from direct and participatory observation and engagement with diverse ecosystems across the globe. It is not modeled simply on what an ecosystem happened to look like in a particular year, say 1491.

Humans in the Equation

It seems Sue Reed has a particular bias for the North American ecosystem as it was assembled just before European contact. Indeed, seeing “natives” as fundamentally more beneficial to an ecosystem depends on this notion. At what point was this ecosystem ideal in her mind? Was it before “native” societies cultivated the Three Sisters from Mesoamerica? Was it only after the ice sheet retreated from New England and the last version of hardwood forest blanketed this region? Was it before “native” peoples promoted vast forests of chestnut and oak and managed landscapes extensively with fire, or before those “artificial” disturbances? Does her vision of an ideal ecosystem include seven billion human beings or other emerging conditions? And if so, where and how should they derive their sustenance?

Permaculturists are answering this challenge to Earth’s ecosystems by cultivating systems which produce as much food, energy, materials, medicine, energy, wildlife habitat, water purification, carbon sequestration, pollination, and other ecosystem services as possible in the smallest amount of space possible for the longest amount of time possible. Doing this requires that we engage the continuous forces of change and partner with other species and whole ecosystems to promote resilience. Permaculture both acknowledges and works with the process of change, whereas, surprisingly, many forms of “conservation” seem to be focused primarily on maintaining specific species and ecosystem arrangements as they were at one idealized time in the past. These attempts to maintain (with great frustration) an unchanging romantic notion of species assemblage are currently retarding real progress toward enhancing the health of living systems on planet Earth. It is time we looked at these systems for what they are and are not.

Defining “Native”

In contrast to many native-plant fundamentalist statements made over the years consider the following facts about ecology and ecosystem dynamics along with some of the ways in which reality simply does not mesh with the many implicit assumptions made in Sue’s article and in the Nativistic War-on-Alien-Invader ideology at large:

• Humans are now an active influence in most, if not all, ecosystems on the planet and have been so for many thousands of years. During this time, humans have been moving plants and animals both for daily survival and trade. Most of the diversity of our current “local” food system is a direct result of this: e.g. the potato from South America, corn, beans and squash from Mesoamerica, the honeybee and earthworm from Europe, and the apple from southwestern Asia to name a few. When using the term “native,” what year do we use to determine whether a plant is “from here” or “an alien”? If we choose European contact, we ignore a multiple thousand-year history of anthropogenic plant dispersal that was highly active before Europeans began to settle the “New” (actually very old) World.

• No plant community is permanent: not knotweed, not barberry, not white pine, goldenrod or any other dominating plant. Plant succession and ecosystem change are wholly “natural.” Why, when it involves human activities is it automatically “unnatural”? The goal of a truly sustaining and regenerative working land use is to promote a high biodiversity ecosystem that offers large yields of biomass while cycling fertility on site, while slowing, spreading and sinking water, and while performing other key ecosystem services, such as soil building. To do this we need to look at what functions the plants provide, not only if they have been located in a place for 100 or 500 years. That’s an important factor, but only one of many criteria as to whether a plant should be promoted or discouraged in an ecosystem.

• Any plant, whether it has been in a region for ten years or 10,000 years, has the capacity to influence a site to the point that other species are reduced in abundance: witness “native” white pine and goldenrod, both of which force out numerous species across New England due their ability to compete in abused sites, their generalist nature, and their fast growth. Is that not a destructive pattern? Is this destructiveness negated simply because these plants have been here for five or ten thousand years?

• Dispersion, growth, and decline of individuals and species are basic phenomena of all ecologies in all places. The idea that it is “unnatural” when a plant or animal moves from one region to another because of humans is rooted in an ideology that sees humans as separate from the rest of the living world. Why is it natural if a bird or an ocean current moves a plant, but not a human? Does Sue think that humans are fundamentally bad or destructive? In a constantly changing world of land-use shifts and climate changes how will species survive if they are supposed to “stay where they are from?” Movement of organisms is crucial to keep pace with global changes, if biodiversity is an aim. This does not mean that we fling seeds of various plants wildly across the globe without analysis of what would be helpful where. Instead, it means that we evaluate how to feed seven billion humans while honoring and also feeding the thousand trillion other lives that exist in the land community. Feeding one’s self from a monoculture in Iowa or Mexico while devoting time to spraying Japanese knotweed with toxic chemicals will not get us where we need to be.

Modern food systems rely on many "non-native" species.

Human beings have been on planet Earth in current form for roughly 50,000 years. Our ability to remain here well into the future depends greatly upon our ability to participate within the living world in which we are part and parcel. Being a non-participating observer attempting to maintain the world around us in a static condition is simply not an option. Sue’s article ends: “Humans are no good at predicting anything about the natural world.” So, what is she suggesting? What is the Nativist approach for engaging the world in a sustaining and regenerative manner such that we can provide for ourselves and those that might come after us while allowing the full flourishing of the rest of the living world? Is she suggesting that we live on and from an economy based on ecological communities as they were for a period of time in the mid part of the 2nd millennium A.D.? If so, how does she see a hunter-gatherer culture reemerging that operates a functional food system without honeybees, earthworms, apples, potatoes, pears, cherries, kale, cabbage, carrots, onions, garlic, sheep, cows, beans, wheat, and other annual grains? In her vision of a “native” world, would she like to see all but the first (indigenous) peoples removed from the ecosystem in which they have artificially been introduced – including us Europeans in North America? Perhaps people as a whole are not part of the vision, since obviously there are few “native” people on this planet today. Ultimately, people are not part of the native fundamentalism Sue’s view conveys; at its core that view is as anti-people as it is anti-alien. If she has a solid plan for this vision in action I’d enjoy seeing it. I also invite Sue to my own homestead where I am carrying out a regenerative plan using permaculture in action. We are witnessing the rapid increase in both biodiversity and biomass on this formerly abused and abandoned Vermont hill farm which, without human-assisted healing, would continue to be far lower in diversity, soil health, and wildlife value than it would if left fallow in continued abandonment. Human presence can be regenerative, not just less bad. That’s the good news and powerful leverage which permaculture harnesses.

Defining Systems that Unite

Sue, I am sorry to use you as an example, but an example is sorely needed. At its basis, the native plant ideology you represent is predicated on more than the simple misconception that biological communities are static or that they have been in “ideal” states at some point in the past, only recently “disturbed” by human beings. It is also built upon a fear of nature (“taking over, invading”), the desire to control its evolution, and nostalgic, deeply emotional beliefs that stem from a paradigm which sees humans as fundamentally separate from the rest of the living world. Such a paradigm is counter productive in a time of urgent ecological and social issues that require unified and integrated solutions. After all, Earth is a whole and interconnected system – it must be regarded as such if we are to find a synergistic way to fit within the patterns of the system we call home. Divided and fragmented approaches including wars on specific plants (and cultures) have rarely, if ever, worked. It’s time to focus squarely on integrated strategies and lay aside the emotional baggage and the unscientific, unhelpful mental habits of the “nativist” approach.

Fortunately, the results of ecosystem regeneration in such participatory fields as permaculture and agroforestry are emerging and stunning. In contrast, “species eradication” and other such fear-based, hyper-controlling, and divisive efforts are failing as reliably as they line the pockets of Monsanto executives, pollute soils and groundwater and further alienate us from the living world in which we are a part. It is time to replace eradication with transformation. Killing one part of the system without addressing the entire structure of the system is a doomed approach from the start – a failure of design much like today’s “health” care system. It is surprising what’s possible when we work from an angle of inclusion and partnership in human-ecosystem relationships, rather than domination. When we treat all life forms with respect – waging war on none – we begin to gain deep understanding that only comes through reverence and partnership. Only then will there be prospects for dwelling in beneficial relationship with the rest of nature. Humanity’s prospects for developing a positive presence on Earth depend on inclusion, rather than exclusion, synergy rather than simplification. There are no evil plants, just dysfunctional human designs.

About the Author

Ben Falk, M.A.L.D. developed Whole Systems Design, LLC (WSD) as a land-based response to biological and cultural extinction and the increasing separation between people and elemental things. At the Whole Systems Research Farm in Vermont, WSD is developing land production and ecological restoration methods aimed at increasing living system resilience in the face of peak oil, climate change, the human health decline, and other shifts. Ben’s integrative approach to developing landscapes and buildings is continually informed by his life as a designer, builder, part time tree-tender and shepherd, instructor, and backcountry traveler.

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