But, I’m Not Using My Physics In My House

One problem with our media-heavy life is that good things come and go unnoticed because 1) they are buried amongst an avalanche of junk, and 2) we are always going on to something new.

But in order to make something our own we have to sit with it a while, chew it over some, set it aside, and then come back to it again with new eyes.

In that spirit, I’d like to revisit an Alan AtKisson interview with Bill Mollison published in In Context magazine in 1991. (There is a lot on this site that is worthwhile, and still relevant — check it out at:  http://www.context.org/

Back then Bill was always being asked  to define permaculture, and always struggling to do so. Part of his genius was that his mind was forever shooting off in a hundred different directions at once. So it was easy for him to see endless possibilities, but hard to catch and hold down one simple formulation that would satisfy inquirers. But by 1991 he was saying quite clearly that permaculture is a design system — a “Design for Living” (which is the title of the interview).

“Why is it,” Bill asked, “that we don’t build human settlements that will feed themselves, and fuel themselves, and catch their own water, when any human settlement could do that easily? When it’s a trivial thing to do?”

We (in Western cultures) need to change the way we see things, change the way we think, change the way we separate our knowledge from the way we live our lives.

Take physics professors, for example: “they may teach sophisticated physics at the university. But they go home to a domestic environment which can only be described as demented in its use of energy. They can’t [even] see that.”

“Once you’ve said to yourself, ‘But I’m not using my physics in my house.’ or ‘I’m not using my ecology in my garden — I’ve never applied what I know to how I live!’” the changes begin to “unroll like a carpet” in front of you.

So — permaculture is a design system and “One of the great rules of design is ‘do something basic right’. Then everything [following] gets much more right by itself. But if you do something basic wrong (a Type I error) you can get nothing else right.”

He also takes time to warn us against excess ‘individualism’. Permaculture, he says, means ‘complete cooperation’ with people and all of nature. “You can’t cooperate by knocking something about or bossing it or forcing it to do things. You won’t get cooperation out of a hierarchical system. You get enforced direction from the top and nothing I know of can run [well] like that.”

Why Should We Live With Problems We Can Solve?

Thanks to the mass media we are all aware of the Nobel Prize, awarded every year in six categories: chemistry, physics, medicine, economics, literature, and peace. 89% go to candidates from the ‘global North’ (North America and Europe) and 95% go to men. The first four categories recognize individual technological innovation and the latter two are heavily skewed by politics.

In the 1970s Jakob von Uexkull approached the Nobel Foundation to suggest two new awards, one for ecology and one for work aiding the poor majority of the world’s population. He offered to contribute financially, but the idea was turned down. So he sold his stamp collection for about $1 million, and in 1980 began the Right Livelihood Awards.  see http://www.rightlivelihood.org

The Right Livelihood Award presentation takes place in December in the Swedish Parliament on the evening before the Nobel Prize ceremony. The RLA has a completely open nomination process and no categories. Rather than searching the world for yet more technological innovation, the RLA jury screens the nominees with the question in mind, “Why should we live with problems we can solve?” The other criterion is that the recipients must be addressing the roots of global problems, not merely symptoms.

As a side note for those not familiar with the term, right livelihood is an ancient concept. It reflects a belief that a person should “follow an occupation consistent with the principles of honest living, treating with respect other people and the natural world. It means taking responsibility for one’s actions and living lightly in the world.”

Many wonderful people and groups have been Right Livelihood Award recipients. Some you may have heard of include Plenty International (USA), Leopold Kohr (Austria), the Self-Employed Women’s Association (India), Wangari Maathai (20 years before she got the Nobel Peace Prize), the Seikatsu Club Consumer’s Cooperative (Japan), Mary and Carrie Dann of the Western Shoshone Nation (USA), Ken Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria), the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP of India), Wes Jackson (USA) Amy Goodman (USA 2008 for developing a model of independent journalism), and of course, Bill Mollison (1981 Australia) co-founder of permaculture.

Permaculture Design Principle #5 is Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

David Holmgren’s Permaculture Design Principle #5 is Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services.

As you probably already know, a renewable resource is something that provides us with direct yields that can be replenished by nature over a reasonable period of time without needing major non-renewable inputs.

Less familiar is the idea of renewable services: benefits we gain from plants, animals, living soil and water without consuming them.

For example, using a tree for lumber or firewood is using it as a renewable resource. Using the same tree as shade, as a carbon-sink, or as an oxygen-producer, as wildlife habitat, and/or as a pleasure to be around is using it as a renewable service.

Historically, the human use of domesticated animals provides clear examples of both renewable resources and renewable services. Horses helped plow and reap, pulled things around in wagons, took people to town, and provided terrific fertilizer for the garden, for example. Chickens ate insects and laid eggs, and eventually provided meat, and so on.

One of Bill Mollison’s key insights occurred when he was taken through tropical jungle tribal territory by some native hunter-gatherers. When he began the trip, what he saw was “the jungle” or “the wilderness”. But as his hosts pointed out the gathering grounds of plant after plant he slowly realized that to these people the area was not a “wilderness” at all. They knew exactly where and when each useful food or medicine plant was to be found. To them, this “wilderness” was an enormous garden. They did “intervene” by deliberately encouraging the spread of useful plants and discouraging harmful ones. He understood that these people carefully maintained their garden territory by using an excellent balance of renewable services and resources.

This insight has been formulated into the permaculture rule of thumb: use renewable services first, renewable resources second, and only use judicious amounts of non-renewable resources where needed to restore degraded systems (for example to move toward reproducing the natural garden).

The proverb: “Let nature take its course.” reminds us that we can only succeed in permaculture by working with nature, not by trying to fight it. Everywhere we have tried to fight nature, nature has become degraded, and we lose.

Ethical Compass, or the Rules of the Game

Permaculture: applied ecology. A set of design principles that direct your decisions and actions toward producing a more permanent (sustainable) culture.

When I come across a new subject one of the first questions I ask myself is: “Is this something I can get behind?”

In other words, will spending time and energy on it repay me with interesting and useful information, and will it line up with my values? You too?

With permaculture this question is easy to answer because permaculture plainly states its set of ethics and a (slightly longer) set of design principles. So in quite a short time we can make a clear decision whether to get into it more deeply.

First, the ethics.

These are in no way exclusive. Co-creator Bill Mollison deliberately looked for the broadest and most inclusive set of ethics possible. So permaculture shares these ethics with many other belief systems, worldviews, and even religions. They function like a compass, guiding us in our journey toward right livelihood.

The underlying basic principle of permaculture acknowledges the intrinsic worth of everything from volcanoes to clams to dirt, even if it presents no commercial value to humans. Each thing is doing its own part in nature. The three ethical principles are:

  • Care of the Earth: — which includes all things, from stones to seawater to air
  • Care of People: — which includes promoting means for both self-reliance and community responsibility
  • Setting Limits to Population and Consumption: — which includes giving away our surplus, whether time, labor, stuff, money, or information

Now these aren’t some heavy set of “thou shalt not’s”. Angus Souter suggests we think of permaculture ethics as the ‘ground rules’ or the ‘rules of the game’. You may choose not to ‘play the game’ with us, but if you do want to join in, these ethics help make clear what the game is, and how we play it.