Sunday, July 5, 2009

Permaculture: A very non-definitive reflection

Yesterday merited a wow for overwhelming new ideas. Permaculture, which before hanging out at this weekend's Northeast Permaculture Convergence, I would have been hard pressed to define, it turns out, is a vast field incorporating a complex of other fields. Generally it deals with the building of structures, landscapes and systems. But the critical facet, the perm-, reflects the long-sightedness of the movement. So instead of gardening for perennials alone, you might plant nut trees that will bring higher food yields over years, with less maintenance. Then you get some pigs to graze under the trees, and eventually you've developed lower maintenance systems that have higher productivity and diversity without creating toxic side-effects. Some ideas that seem central: mimicking natural ecosystems to create diversity (so more stable systems,) self-sustaining systems (less input, more output), and productive (so that people can survive and thrive on it. Not much is really ruled out in permaculture except environmentally detrimental substances and processes and hopefully, eventually the use of fossil fuels.

So walking around the Convergence, from conversation to conversation and workshop to workshop the topics ranged from super-insulated houses, to zoning regulations, to the question of owning/renting/squatting land, to getting along with your neighbors, to hardy nut-tree varieties, to energy-footprint assessments, and so on. One workshop was led by Ben Falk, who owns Whole Systems Design a company that offers permaculture-informed designs for land development projects. His slideshow graphics gave a hint of what people are shooting for. One graphic showed an imagined development called Warren Commons, which would be situated in the central Vermont town. The plan included nut-producing trees, fuel trees (fire wood,) animal grazing, composting centers, wind mills, water collections areas, vegetable gardens, and numerous other pieces I can't recall. All were carefully oriented and integrated within the landscape, and scaled for the needs of the immediate community.

Everyone at the Gathering, both perticipants and speakers, seemed to have some piece of the puzzle. But it is a huge puzzle, and some moments i thought I detected the siren hum of Utopic dreaminess. In fact, because of the compexity of the projects, the cost of actually undertaking one on a large scale, and the amount of time (decades at least) for many of the systems to take root, there are very few places where you could see a successful, functioning project. There are fragmentary project scattered all over the world, but much of permaculture it seems to me is in the speculation phase. But it struck me that what may make the permaculture movement different from Utopian visions of previous generations, are two main things: first, contemporary urgencies (global warming, fossil fuel costs/dependencies, major flaws in the monoculture-based agricultural system, down-sides of globalization) and secondly, the accumulation of knowledge and technology in relevant fields (agriculture, engineering, alternative energy etc.) allowing greater capability to address the problems with cutting edge solutions.

A final thought: the convention was based in Vermont, a very rural state full of open land, low population density and abundant natural resources, and not surprisingly, most of the workshops and speakers struck me as very rural-centric. Having lived for years in Washington DC, I found myself wondering about the applications of permaculture's ideas in an urban setting, where the majority of the world's population lives. Even if permaculture can foster sustainable landscapes for a few rural homesteaders, what good is that for the billions who don't have the luxury of several acres per person to work with? I think that there are or could be many urban applications, and my guess is that that work is probably underway, and well it should be, and yeah, I'm in.

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