New Internationalist

Permaculture

For a while now, when asked about the NI magazine topic I’ll be tackling next, I’ve had to say: ‘permaculture.’ Invariably asked what that is, I’ve had to say: ‘I have no idea.’ Extreme hairdressing? The lifestyle of Siberia? So how come I am starting to put together a magazine about permaculture? Here I enter Donald Rumsfeld territory. What induces anyone to learn anything new – before, of course, they know what it is? How to decide between one unknown and the next? Well, in my case the answer is relatively simple. The NI co-op voted for it last summer – quite why you’d have to ask them. When presented with the list of topics for editors to choose from, I knew least about permaculture, and curiosity got the better of me. I’ve now found permaculture popping up everywhere. In a series of what seem like coincidences, I’ve been bumping into it in places as disparate as the middle of London and the Brecon Beacons of Wales.

Meanwhile, I’ve been growing older on a Dutch barge, launching a wayward, low-intensity war on my carbon footprint, discovering that chickens can’t swim, familiarizing myself with solar panels, tides, ducks and mud - and never felt more vulnerable to nature. Divorced as I have been from the land and the source of my food, though well aware of the dangers of industrial agriculture and the ‘green revolution’, I have not been able to rebut the realist orthodoxy that the only other option would be to return to the drudgery of peasant farming, as humanity starved to death.

Permaculture – originally an elision of ‘permanent agriculture’, now of ‘permanent culture’ - asserts otherwise. In fact, it has been doing so for several decades, since first being advanced in Australia. It suggests that I’m not so much vulnerable to nature as a part of it; that small gardens can be three times more productive than industrialized farmland; that you don’t always have to dig; that ‘intelligent design’ can displace agribusiness and its dependence on fossil fuels.

Indeed, with the arrival of ‘peak oil’ – let alone climate change – humanity looks sets to starve in any event, unless there’s a sharp change of direction. Is permaculture a signpost to a preferable future? That’s what I shall be exploring over the next few weeks and months. I am wary of the cultishness that besets bright ideas – particularly with the newly fundamentalist associations of a term like ‘intelligent design’. I’m an atheist when it comes to the worship of ‘business’ that infests so much fresh thinking as it is engulfed by the overflowing mainstream. Above all, I’ll be on the look-out for any evidence that permaculture is more than just another notion dreamt up in the rich world for the edification of the majority world, duly evangelized through aid projects and the like – that permaculture is learning, with all due respect, from the majority world.

So I’ll be grateful to any of you who can enlighten me - and as soon as possible.

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