Wednesday, July 30, 2014


"Permaculture" is a neologism from "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture" which describes a system of methodology and philosophy intended to produce a sustainable, productive, efficient and ecologically sound alternative to modern culture, building techniques and industrial farming. Modern permaculture is based on the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka, Ruth Stout, Sepp Holzer, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren amongst others, and includes many topics ranging from advanced organic farming techniques to sustainable building, sometimes including traditional and even ancient techniques whenever they are found to be useful.

While there is no single standard that constitutes "permaculture", there are many themes which are consistent between different practitioners and sects, including the philosophy of working with nature rather than against it, the use of polycultures, and the ethic of producing no "waste". Some of the best examples have produced relative agricultural miracles and even demonstrated commercial-scale production and good profitability. However, there are also a number of false or dubious ideas which are propagated as justifications for permaculture, and which only serve to harm the credibility of the field and hinder its acceptance. This has bothered me for a while, and it is because I respect the value that permaculture has to offer that I find it necessary to expose the junk that doesn't qualify.

Early Humans Were Egalitarian

The claim that all hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian is ironically often stated along with the idea that tribe leaders were absolute rulers. While both claims are false, it is at least true that all hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian to some extent. Since the productivity of each person was so low in those societies, and since the hunt depended on a group, the survival of tribes depended on the sharing of what little excess each person could produce. There was also some trade between groups, but prior to agriculture this was very limited. In reality, social structures and customs varied considerably between different tribes, as it does today between isolated 'traditional' tribal societies. This argument has also been used against money and capitalism in general, but only demonstrates complete ignorance of how economics works and what it does for a society.

Tribe Leaders Micromanaged Their Tribes

The way I often hear this stated goes something like this: the tribe leader was the male who happened to be the best at hunting, he would lead every hunt, and the leader's instructions were absolute such that when he said 'jump' everyone jumped without question. Dead wrong. Tribal societies were never organized like a modern military, nor did the tribe leader's primary duties even have anything to do with micro decisions like hunting behavior. While the tribe leader usually was indeed a good hunter as well, early humans eating natural diets were far more intelligent than most people are today, and could easily outsmart our out-tech their prey, not to mention all but the most inexperienced of hunters would know how to cooperate with only minimal communication or leadership. In reality, the decisions the tribe leader would make would involve whether to stay in an area or whether to migrate, and if he determined that migration was necessary, he would also have to decide where they would go in search of better food sources. Undoubtedly there would be some variety in who these decisions were assigned to, but the basic structure would not differ between tribes. This was also the most important decision concerning the tribe, if the decision to migrate was not made (or made too late) and a drought (or whatever) caused the food to dry up, it could easily mean starvation and death for everyone, which necessitated a leader with good judgement.

Hunter-Gatherers Had More Free Time

The idea that hunter-gatherers had more free time than their agricultural contemporaries is dubious at best. It is true that the first agriculturalists, due to the lack of crop variety, suffered from poorer health and were shorter than their ancestors. It is also true that the first agriculturalists spent a great deal of time doing scoliosis-inducing labor grinding grain manually with a grindstone. However, it was only the agriculturalists who had the free time and excess production to create diversification of labor, philosophy, science, architecture, industry and everything else which has made humans successful as a species and which provides the quality and security of living that the developed world enjoys today. Hunter-gatherers never could have accomplished any of that, since in addition to being obligate nomads they also had to make their own clothes, bows and arrows, knives, axes, teepees and so on as well as hunt and gather. It is unlikely they even had a concept for 'free time'.

Agriculture Caused Dictatorships and War

This argument states that, with the excess production of agriculture came the need to defend the tribe's produce from enemies, and with it the rise of the warrior class and consequently a conversion from egalitarianism to dictatorships, which led to wars. Parts of this are true at least. Agriculture did indeed necessitate defense, especially since agriculturalists were sedentary as opposed to their nomadic ancestors, however humans have been killing each other and stealing each other's stuff since long before agriculture was invented. Agriculture also did lead to some dictatorships, however agriculture allowed for greater cultural diversity in general, including the development of democracies, republics and even free-trade states. Trade, rather than war, was far more common after agriculture than it was before it, if not simply because of the support for diversification of labor beyond what is possible in hunter-gatherer societies.

Hunting and Gathering is the Only Sustainable Lifestyle

This is a variation on "native americans were all perfect egalitarians and we should only be so wise as to live like they did". Supposedly, if we all just ran around in  nature hunting and gathering and threw our waste seeds around then pretty soon everything would be food and we'd have no need for supermarkets. Of course, the same people would have us believe that we should eliminate most of our population in order to support this lifestyle, although they never explain just how we should do that (russian roulette anyone?). More realistically, they're mostly covering for their own failure to produce results, since the ability to scale to commercial level production sustainably has already been demonstrated.

Agriculture Does Not Make Us Human

This argument states that while humans as a species have been around for about two million years, we've only been farming for ten-thousand years or so, and thus agriculture is not what makes us human. This argument is downright absurd, as the exact same things could be said of writing, history, art, music, architecture, science, philosophy, economics, medicine and everything else humans have ever done besides hunting and gathering. If you want to get technical, the only thing that makes humans humans is our genetic compatibility (ability to breed) with other humans, nothing more and nothing less. Of course, the line they're trying to draw is that "permaculture isn't agriculture at all", and although permaculture isn't just agriculture, by any common definition it definitely includes agricultural activities.

All Civilizations Collapse Due to Agricultural Failures

This is easy to disclaim historically. Civilizations collapse for a variety of reasons, including desertification from unsustainable agricultural practices. The Phoenicians, for example, were probably the first to widely employ contour farming and had a free-market society with immigrants from around the Mediterranean. They were felled, not by destruction of land, but by foreign invaders. Greece fell not because their agriculture failed, but because their democracy degraded into an ochlocracy and their army was in an ill trained and ill equipped state of degeneracy when the Romans invaded. Rome fell for similar reasons, after degrading from a republic to an ochlocracy, then further degrading to an imperial republic which slowly decayed into totalitarianism and eventually religious totalitarianism with various civil wars and economic destruction. The land the Romans occupied continues to be used for agriculture even today. The Soviet Union fell because their economic system was strictly unrealistic, and it fell with plenty of state vs citizen violence every step of the way. The Soviets were certainly responsible for plenty of ecological disasters, but as a direct result of their corruption and incompetence, and that was not the reason the Union fell. Of course, I'm not trying to suggest that the ecological destruction caused by modern agriculture is unimportant, just that civilizations more often fall for other reasons (like where the modern developed world is headed today).

With 'X' Technique(s), the Desert can be 'Greened'

Talk of 'greening the desert' is more dubious than false, but it depends on a number of factors. There was some talk not long ago about taking on the hyper-arid (it only rains once every couple years) areas of sub-saharan Africa, where the only greenery is tiny patches of grass that grow in the few places where water collects at the surface when it rains. With some intelligently directed work, it might be possible to turn those tiny patches of grass into larger patches of grass, but saharan Africa can never be turned into a forest that way. More realistically, it would be better to start with a regular-arid or sub-arid region nearby, where dryland techniques could achieve profound results, but of course the peoples in those areas could care less about improving their water usage since it's "good enough" for them already. Other deserts, like the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, could very possibly support a large number of desert plants with only minor modification, and might be significantly 'greened' if surrounding sub-arid areas were improved. In general, though, it makes better sense to start with land that has more potential than to start in the middle of the desert and try to 'green it'. The advantage of permaculture is that 'marginal' land can be easily made into 'prime' land, pushing the boundary into areas that are unattractive to conventional farmers, but 'subprime' land (using financial terminology) still presents severe limitations to what can be done with it.

A Forest is the Most Productive Ecosystem

It is often claimed that a closed-canopy forest is the most productive ecosystem, and that it produces X times the amount that a monocrop field produces. Technically, plants are only able to use about 10% of full intensity sunlight, so a large portion of sunlight is wasted in single-layer single-crop systems. However, in terms of light usage and in terms of producing staple crops, a closed-canopy forest is strictly inferior to a savanna. In a closed-canopy system, trees have to compete with one another for light, and understory vegetation is scarce due to low light availability and high leaf cover. In a savanna system, trees provide wind protection and partial shade, which reduces water stress, while allowing the trees to spread out in more productive forms and leaving plenty of light for the understory vegetation. Savanna systems are also much more animal-friendly, and to date the most productive permaculture systems have been savannacultures rather than 'food forests'.

Horticulture of the United States of Pocahontas (HUSP)

HUSP is a concept which is intended to serve as a guide for permaculture design. The basic idea is to imagine what agriculture would be like if the Native Americans had maintained sovereignty of all of North America and had developed an agricultural system that respected the land and nature and everything was basically perfect, and then make your farm like that. As a design method, however, this is virtually useless. Simply figuring out what techniques and overall management is 'best' for working with and reinforcing nature is a non-trivial task that requires solving specific problems and finding solutions with solve multiple problems at once. Furthermore, in reality a large amount of land has been severely damaged by irresponsible construction practices, farming practices, chemical dumping, lead contamination and other things. Since it is impossible to reverse time and undo all of that damage, it is instead necessary to figure out how to work with damaged land as a starting point, which is far more challenging than merely imagining that everything was perfect.


As with every other field of study, permaculture is not without its share of unsubstantiated nonsense. Luckily, none of the above arguments are actually required to be true in order for permaculture to work, but when considering the structure of something like a sustainable community these kinds of broader arguments do arise and are very important. Over the next few articles, I hope to cover permaculture topics in more depth and demonstrate how permaculture can work really well for making organic farming both sustainable and profitable.

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