“Permaculture: Where the designer becomes the recliner!”
~Bill Mollison, while lazing around in his hammock.
In the early days of the Permaculture movement, founder Bill Mollison used to wow audiences with stories of tropical and sub-tropical horticultural “forest gardening” societies where folks are documented to meet all their needs and make their livelihoods on just a few hours a week of “work,” mostly bumming around the garden and casual harvesting.
While our modern myth is that life without advanced energy technology used to be all work and no play, academic studies of the Kandyan forest garden culture, for just one example, find that they really do spend just a few hours a week doing anything that we’d call work. They spend the rest of their time LIVING, doing life-enhancing, fullfilling activities (Kandyan Forest Farmers, etc. Douglas McConnell, et al.)
These typically sustainable, egalitarian and peaceful cultures of small-scale forest gardens and home production came to represent an ideal within the early movement, as opposed to a centralized system of manufactured food scaricity and for-profit farming.
But as Permaculture came to America, we yanks, with our famous “American work ethic” brought a certain balance to the movement. It’s somewhat rare these days to hear about this “lazy” kind of Permaculture in the States. More often, I hear the “big name” Permaculturists stressing the value of long hours of grueling hard work, and a decade of “paying dues,” living in a shack, sacrificing and struggling to achieve the future reward of a successful farm or Permaculture business.
Only natural. Our early American contributors to Permaculture often made their reputation by distinguishing themselves from Lazy Bill, working to “adapt Permaculture” both to temperate climates and to American culture. Part of this just seemed natural to a colder climate where each year brought a new “hungry season” to “prep” for and “winter is coming,” always. Hard work means a secure future and “preppers” became a key constituency for Permaculture.
Many of Mollison’s claims were dismissed as unrealistic in our climate, if not anywhere with an expectation of a “modern” life and the demands of a “modern” economy.
And finally, peek oil, climate change, soil depletion and ecosystem collapse caught up with us. That original vision of ease and natural abundance was tempered with a “roll-up-our-sleaves” practicality that shook itself out of Mollison’s hammock, picked up a shovel and got down to work saving the planet. There was, after all, a whole lot of work to be done and no time to waste.
With all those factors, modern American Permaculturists tend to focus much more on ramping up overall productivity, designing to create the maximum possible yield per acre, and trying our darndest to kick Industrial Ag in the pants. High output became the common goal, so long as the inputs were sustainable. “Profitability” became key. (A somewhat ironic sidenote is that Mollison’s famous laziness didn’t stop him from creating what was probably one of the most profitable and impactful Permaculture businesses of all time.)
But even the Permaculture movement follows the “back and forth” sin wave pattern that most social trends follow. Though we share much, we’re far from the monolithic single-minded community that often gets portrayed to the public. These days that earlier, lazier vision of a more human-pace of life is making a return. I’m personally aware of several sub-movements of Permaculture have started to even “name and claim” this more relaxed territory:
– Feral Permaculture
– The Human Habitat Movement
– Rewiliding Permaculture
– Wild Permaculture
Personally, I’ve been very inspired by both sides of this “debate,” though I’m probably much closer to the “wild” or “feral” side than the center of gravity of the modern American movement.
(The creators of this Shikagami forest garden in this video call their very low-input approach “Feral Permaculture.” Though our urban garden has an ornamental component, I aspire to garden very much like this.)
But what I’ve come to recognize is that Permaculture is simply a system of design, a tool, and that tool can be used to support our values and reach our goals, whether that’s more time in the hammock, a healthier lifestyle, more security, more time with family, financial “success,” or more “wealth,” however you define that.
For many of us, this “debate” mirrors one of the great debates of our lives: work/life balance. It also follows one of our great “spiritual” questions, the balance between “equanimity,” letting go and enjoying life and on the other side, having the “fierceness” to set fulfilling goals and strive to achieve them.
To me, the great insight here, is that Permaculture can be used to support us on those challenging questions, to help us find “the middle road.”
From that perspective the BEST designs are not those that are optimized to be the most productive, OR those that are optimized to require the least work, but those that can be flexibly adapted between the two, to meet us where we’re at in life and support the goals that are important to us at the moment. I call that “Flexible Adaptability of Input/Output Ratio.”
I’m pretty terrible at naming things.
If we find ourselves busy with the activities of life, my ideal Permaculture system can be quickly be configured to save us time and energy, provide us with a relaxing environment and still produce a great yield, without overburdening us with an overabundance of apples and zucchini to force on our neighbors. But if we find ourselves in a place of needing more income or a higher yield, it can quickly be revved up to reward our extra work with even greater returns and potential profitability.
So both sides are “right,” depending on the circumstances. And Permaculture becomes about picking the tools that are going to best meet your needs and help you create the kind of life you’re dreaming of, even if you haven’t quite figured that out yet.