Most of our BIG problems–on the personal level and the planetary one–are caused by the way we try to meet our needs. I used to feel discouraged from doing anything about them because all these various problems are so big and often our attempts to intervene in them only make things worse. On top of that, I felt trapped in the system, unable to escape from contributing to the problems myself, like a cog in some destructive machine. Then I discovered a way I could get out of trap and do something positve about all these “problems.” Permaculture is a system for designing human habitats to meet our needs and create beautiful, rich lives without screwing everything up, by starting first with 3 ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Respecting Limits. (Different folks have different ways of wording that last one, but that’s the version most relevant to our approach.) It’s methods are based on emulating and working with nature, instead of against it.
There’s an ancient Taoist story that demonstrates the value of this approach, from the philosopher Chuang Tsu (which I’ll paraphrase) about a carpenter and his apprentice walking through the country side when the apprentice stops to stare at a tree. The master whacks the apprentice on the head: “come on! We haven’t got all day!”
“But master, this is the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen! How can you not even notice it?”
“Baw!” the carpenter says, “that tree’s useless! The branches are gnarled and twisted and the wood too old and brittle to make anything out of!”
But that night, the tree appears to the carpenter in his dreams, and says:
“Who are you to judge me? It’s only because of my “uselessness” that I avoided being cut down long ago. And so my branches remain to give shade to the animals, my fruit feeds the squirrels and the fish in the stream, which in turn feed larger animals, and my leaves feed the silkworms that in turn feed the birds. And so, without doing anything “useful” I care for all the beings around me.”
The ancients well understood concepts like ecosystems, trophic levels and keystone species.
Of course, that tree can feed us, too. In fact, for all of our evolutionary history up until 100 years ago, almost all the beings on this planet, including humans, met all of their needs–food, clean water, waste management, shelter, clothing, and even spirituality–through ecosystem services.
But that implies that we live within the limits of what the tree can provide.
If not, we have to do that work ourselves. First, we’ll have replace the tree with some other system, so we cut down the tree. Then we’ll need to till the soil. So we’ll need tools, resources, and workers, which requires us to cut down some more trees. You see how this gets complicated pretty quickly. Once our crops are growing, they’ll need clean, healthy water, but since we destroyed the ecosystem that used to clean our water for us, we have to build a water treatment plant and an irrigation system and so on. And once the crops are growing we’ll need fertilizer, and herbicides and pesticides, which come with their own cascade of problems. Once we harvest the crops we need storage and distribution systems, and warriors to defend our store. And we’ll need social heirarchy and oppression, because we’ll need to get people to maintain all these roles and carry all these new burdens. You see that inequity is a built-in prerequisite of this way of meeting our needs. And then we’ll need landfills, and sewage systems… And that’s just the start. Next we’ll need a whole new layer of “solutions” to address all the problems we just caused!
You know the song: “She swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly. I hope she lives in a country with a good health care system!”
And before we cut down the trees, all these services were provided by ecosystem functions, without the cascade of unintended consequences. You start to see why archeologists and anthropologists say our hunter-gatherer ancestors only worked 10 hours a week, while OUR burden grows larger each year.
When we attempt to address all the symptoms created by the way we meet our needs without fixing the problem, it’s difficult not to just make things worse and create more problems. Or worse–violently pass our problems off on others while patting ourselves on the back. We need solutions that are more “radical,” which means getting to the center of the wheel, getting to the cause and not the symptoms. That’s what Permaculture provides: ways we can meet our needs that naturally enrich life for all the beings around us, instead of causing harm.
It’s about emulating the tree.