(Monarda in our home food forest garden)
As “a system for designing human habitats to meet our needs,” Permaculture can be used to improve the function of ANY “structure” we “inhabit,” including invisible structures like economies.
Its basic method is to emulate the processes in nature that make natural systems accumulate life-enhancing energies such as water, fertlility and energy, rather than constantly declining the way most man-made things do.
(A “Forest garden” modelled after a natural ecosystem, to grow more fertile over time.)
Those same principles can be used to design our home economies so that our families can grow “wealthier” over time naturally and effortlessly.
Here, I use the word wealth to mean something more than money, which is a poor measure of “wealth” for most people. I’ve written about what I would consider to be true wealth here: http://lilliehouse.blogspot.com/2014/11/paths-to-alternative-wealth.html
“Wealth” might mean different things to different people, but since most of us never define what we’re actually after, the pursuit of money often leads us astray, getting in the way of accumulating the things that would truly make us feel wealthy.
But once we know what we’re after, a little thoughtful design can help us achieve it.
One tool from the early Permaculture movement that has been very helpful to us in designing our own home “microeconomy” is the idea of classifying one’s assets into three categories:
Degenerative Assets are those which break down and decline quickly, requiring regular upkeep and maintenance. This could include cars, conventional landscaping, cell-phones or poorly contructed houses. These days, many of our consumer goods are actually designed to break faster in order to stave off economic decline. This is called Planned Obsolescence. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these items, but each one we own extracts an ongoing price from us in order to keep it going. If we have more of these than we can “pay for” with our self-reliant lifestyle, then we will need an outside income to keep them going. And If we have too many of these, that price becomes more than we can afford, putting us in a position of where we have to let some of our possessions convert into “chaos” or waste.
Generative Assets on the other hand, are “durable assets” that help us become producers instead of consumers. Cider mills, garden tools, sewing machines, carpentry equipment all help us create something useful, saving us time and money, and generating value that can help us grow wealthier. Garden plants and kitchen tools help us generate delicious meals.
Procreative Assets are those that can self-replicate, truly growing “wealth.” These are usually natural systems. Fruit trees are a procreative asset that both generates value for us in the form of fruit and generates more fruit trees, creating a positive feedback loop in our life. A “food forest” is a procreative asset that meets a wide variety of our needs while generating the plant material for new food forests. But it’s important to note that you can have too much of a good thing. Once you have more fruit than you can harvest and more trees than you can tend, these systems can actually create a burden for you. Energy streams that can’t be harvested into productivity convert into chaos in our lives, creating weedy food forests, angry neighbors, many fruit pests, etc.
One caveat I add to this idea is that these systems are only TRULY “generative” or “procreative” if they function and can be maintained with a POSITIVE return on investment. Any system or possession that costs us more to maintain than we get out of it is just as big a burden as any degenerative asset. Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison explained this using Permaculture’s ethic of “people care,” saying that a “solution” or “purchase” that adds to someone’s work load rather than decreasing it is not “caring for people” and hence, not Permaculture.
And a second caveat is that not everything fits neatly into one category. But even if it isn’t a perfect system, considering these three asset classes each time we make a purchase helps us put our home economy in order. And it’s an entry point for visualizing the “balance” of our purchases. It helps us understand that if we’re not careful, we will not “own” our possessions, but become slaves to them, as Thoreau warned.
This leads us to buy items that are durable and well-made, understanding that each poorly-made item adds to our burden, our upkeep costs and maintenance time. And if we can find a ballance where we have enough procreative and generative assets that they naturally “pay” for the upkeep on our “degenerative” assets, plus produce a small surplus to reinvest, then we have positioned ourselves to grow wealthy and become independent and self-reliant over time in the way an ecosystem does.
This same thinking can be used to create wealthy neighborhoods, families, blocks, cities and even wealthy countries….