Critiquing Permaculture

Ben Green at the Barracks asked for a response to his critique of Permaculture, and because his critique helps us understand many critiques of Permaculture, I thought I’d take the opportunity for a quick response. Ben’s article does help identify one key failing of Permaculture. That failing is that it is often unclear what Permaculture is to people.

Which helps us start to define what Permaculture is. Permaculture, at its best, is a formalized system of design we can use to create things like gardens or farms, but also things like houses, neighborhoods, businesses and organizations.

This design system always starts by considering our own values and goals on a deep level and getting really clear about what we want to accomplish. To do that, we consider a set of ethics (earth care, people care, and fair share) and sets of principles. Then, we start to look for “patterns” to meet our goals. A pattern is any idea we can share, like “no-till gardening,” and “raised beds,” and “water barrels,” and “biointensive,” and so on. With each pattern, we consider whether it helps meet our goals and meets the ethics and principles.

That will get more clear as we dig into Ben’s critique.

His first critique is based on composting, stating that Permaculturists prefer intensive hot composting. Maybe. It all depends on your goals! For example, if you want high quality weed-free compost for starting seeds, then hot composting is the way to go. But if your goal is to do less work, and you don’t need weed free compost then cold composting systems are cool. The Permaculture approach to composting is to search out all the different patterns for composting we can, then use them where they make the most sense. For example, my composting system at Lillie House, profiled in Beauty in Abundance, uses 7 different composting methods in different places, so I can do the least possible work, while getting the best compost for each part of the garden.

Next Ben mentions being self-contained. That’s a great goal. My own Permaculture system was self-contained because of my own goals. But if you live in an area with waste streams, we may want to take advantage of cycling those waste streams back into the ecosystem. In this way, we’re actually helping to create a closed loop community by importing things. So, it all depends on our goals. The “permaculture” part is figuring out which approach fits your goals in a considered way.

The next part about capitalism and dominating the land and unsustainability I think is a bit unfair, but contains a bit of truth. Again, it’s all about our own goals and designing to meet them in a sustainable way.

According to Permaculture Founder Bill Mollison, “permaculture” requires an energy audit. Meaning, we sit down on paper and decide if the thing is actually sustainable. This is very different than conventional approaches to sustainability. The intention is to be farm more rigorous in our approach and really hold ourselves accountable to being truly sustainable. My system at Lillie House is one that had a formal energy audit, like many Permaculture systems. It required no imported resources, and produced more energy than it consumed, making it on paper, fully sustainable.

But Ben is correct that not all Permaculturists do this. He is correct that you can find examples of people prioritizing profit over sustainability and calling that “permaculture.” My contention is that it is not very good Permaculture, and that Permaculturists need to be better in this regard. So, here at Transformative Adventures we’ve put together the Transformative Landscape Criteria to help us hold ourselves accountable for being truly beyond-sustainable.

Finally, on the issue of no-till, this again depends on our own goals. In Permaculture, our approach to no-till is to first start with our values and goals, then assemble different patterns for making and maintaining gardens, and see which best meets our goals. That may be to till or it may be no-till. It does strike me as completely unproven to say “not tilling makes you a worse gardener in every way.” You can switch from a conventional dug garden to a 100% no-till garden and improve your garden in every measurable way: better produce, higher yield, better water infiltration, better soil health, less work, etc. But there’s nothing in Permaculture that says you HAVE to not till. At Lillie House I had two small beds I always dug because it grew better radishes that way. Radishes were my goal, and digging a couple small beds was the “pattern” to get there.

It’s perfectly possible to create a system that meets 100% of your household food needs, grows amazing lush produce of a far higher quality than you can get at the store or even most farmers markets, and sustainably produces a surplus for sale on just a few hours of work per week. That’s a benchmark that gardeners have been meeting around the world for as long as humans have been gardening. It doesn’t have to be the hard work that Ben seems to think his garden is. And good, thoughtful design is the way to get there.

So, while I appreciate Ben’s critique of some high profile permaculture projects that aren’t very good permaculture, most of his critiques are based on a misunderstanding of what Permaculture is. In the end, it’s just a tool, like a shovel, which can be put to good or bad use.

If you want to work hard because that’s part of what you value, then that’s fine, too! It’s all about your goals. But if you’d like to have your easiest, most productive garden ever, then a permaculture process of looking for all the best patterns to meet that goal is a very useful tool.

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