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Environment/Science Last Updated: Mar 28, 2022 - 12:08:15 PM

Permaculture & Sustainable & Resilient Communities
By Simon Dale
Mar 3, 2009 - 6:27:00 AM

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Permaculture is a set of design principles for human scale, sustainable systems. It is based on the three ethics of 'people care, earth care and fair shares'. It provides an approach that is most frequently applied to small scale agriculture, but can equally be applied to buildings, domestic systems or community interactions to name a few. The permaculture vision is quite well described by the picture outlined above.

Permaculture has played a key role in Cuba's 'special period' after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Oil imports were cut in half, and food by eighty percent. The island "quickly transitioned from a highly mechanised, industrial agricultural system to one using organic methods of farming and local, urban gardens" . This kind of transition is what we can choose to meaningfully curtail our contributions to climate change and what we may well soon face without choice in the face of peaked oil and economic instability. The Cubans' response largely based on permaculture and community agriculture was highly successful. Vegetables were planted on rooftops and abandoned car parks. Havana now produces 60% of its food from urban land within the city itself.

Another inspirational example of permaculture is Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer. His farm is between 1000 and 1500 meters above sea level with average annual temperatures of 4.2°C. Outdoors here he grows kiwi, lemons, peaches, figs, wheat and more . His success is due to careful observation and intelligent design, following permaculture principles.

A Force for Change

There is significant and rapidly growing energy at the grass roots for permaculture type solutions and the intentional move towards relocalisation and energy decent. Organisations such as the Transition Towns Network and the Soil Association are part of the gathering momentum in this direction. Their message is clear, that the time has come to make the move now. The fact that such a move is essentially contrary to the growth paradigm means that the call to energy decent is never going to come from the corporate or political arenas. It is coming now from the grass roots, with rapidly increasing numbers of people unwilling to remain on the sinking ship of consumption and growth waiting blindly for the techno-fix lifeboat.

The enthusiasm for these kinds of changes come not only from intellectual concern about the issues involved but also from a much more powerful heartfelt attractive force. It is not without reason that this kind of life is often referred to as 'the good life' and 'a place in the country' is a perennial retirement goal. We have an evolutionary history and expectation of living close to nature.

The scale and power of this enthusiasm became clear to me after our family's experience of building a simple low-impact home in a Welsh woodland where we lived whilst helping with woodland management, small scale animal husbandry and setting up a forest garden. Part of our motivation was to show others that this kind of living was possible. I put a few photographs of our home on a simple web page to show half a dozen friends who had helped us with the construction. Within a few weeks, it had been passed on and started to appear on a few blogs. Since then this website has been receiving up to 50,000 unique visits a day and has been looked at by 2 million people. I have had thousands of emails from excited and inspired people. Some with tears, some with plans, some with their own stories and every single one with enthusiasm and encouragement. This has been a humbling but also eye opening experience. People are attracted to the house and the way of life. Very little explanation is needed and virtually all have an immediate and clear understanding of the philosophy and way of life. This experience amongst others has made it very clear to me that a significantly large number are keen to make the move to an energy decent and a simple land based life.

It is also clear to me from this experience that as people move in this direction they experience a positive feedback cycle of learning as illustrated below.

The combination of this feedback cycle with the enthusiasm and innate appeal of this route makes this a powerful movement, and one that is capable of making effective change at every small step. The major obstacles holding it back are availability of land and peoples time. These again are economic issues. The sort of work required to begin to make the transition to an energy decent is inherently uneconomic and shall remain so until the point at which there are no longer any other options. It is both crucial and appealing that before this time comes we do whatever we can to build local resilience. Whilst large numbers of people are pursuing this kind of work in their leisure time, it is impossible for most to follow it as a full time vocation at the same time as paying for housing and the land they are working.

Sustainable and Resilient Communities

In order to be sustainable, a system or community must be self reliant in all the resources it requires. The greater the number of independent subsystems that can provide for the functions and required resources, the greater the resilience of the system. Whilst our global society still contains many different subsystems, they are not independent, being linked by shared fossil fuel dependency, trans-national ownership and the globalised economy. Where we can replace this with independent self sufficiency at the smallest scales, we will have sustainable and resilient local communities. This will give the most resilience and sustainability to our macroscopic society without precluding inter community interactions and co-operation.

Small scale land stewardship is also important to reduce energy inputs and allow greater intimacy between stewards and their ecosystems. It is though this intimacy that they will be able to go beyond being a simple steward to the required roles of nurse and then teacher.

Firstly we need to heal the infertility that is the legacy of ecological degradation and intensive farming. This starts with repairing the soil and crucial mycorrhizal fungi populations. Above ground we can replace monocultural deserts with interplanted systems using the principles and patterns of the natural world. In this way we can build a healthy and productive ecosystems where different species of plants and animals enjoy complex complimentary relationships. With this kind of intimate knowledge and management we will be able to actively manage our ecosystems to survive the unpredictable climatic changes that are to come.

Naturally the restoration of soil fertility will take time, as will the establishment of gardens, orchards and complex agroforestry systems. The same is even more true for forestry, Whilst highly productive firewood coppices can be established in a few years, the restoration of traditional coppice woodlands takes decades as does the establishment of productive new woodlands and regeneration of conifer plantations.

All of these forms of land based production require supporting infrastructure and processing facilities. These also need to be localised and provided in ways suitable for a post carbon future. Simple, low-impact homes can be built where they are needed, with natural materials and accessible methods. These buildings can easily provide high levels of comfort and efficiency at a tiny fraction of the cost of their conventional equivalents. Effective and reliable systems for water, sewage, heating, refrigeration and even modest electricity can be simply made in low-tech ways with reused and natural materials.

There will always be benefits and pleasures of community co-operation and facilities. There are a number of essential supporting facilities which also need relocalisation such as mills, forges, tanneries, lime-kilns and carpenters workshops. These communities should also have their own independent councils, markets, and local events. Local trading systems or currencies add to community resilience by strengthening the local economy and protecting against global financial instability.

Alongside the required infrastructure comes the need for many sets of skills. A lot of these are traditional skills to be revived, some will be derivative of the contemporary world, others will be a synthesis of the two. All take time to learn, develop and share.

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