The permaculture movement began as a response to the perceived damage that the industrial system of agriculture was causing.
The term permaculture was coined in the mid-1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Permaculture is a contraction of permanent and agriculture and reflects concerns the co-foudners shared about the impacts of industrial agriculture. Since then, permaculture has spread around the world.
What are present day permaculture designers doing? I interviewed Douglas JE Barnes to find out. Barnes is a permaculture designer who is creating sustainable solutions to supply line needs for everywhere from India and China to his own backyard.
BE: Please define permaculture design?
DB: Permaculture is a system of sustainable design for meeting human needs, so the real trick is to give a meaningful definition of sustainable. A sustainable system is one that captures and stores more energy over its lifetime than is required for its creation and maintenance. In practice, that means designing action around energy instead of energy around action.
To give an example of what I mean by that, consider designing and installing a vegetable garden. I see many gardens tucked away at the far end of people’s backyards. In the spring they go out and run a rototiller over the ground and transplant a bunch of seedlings or plant seeds. Then they regularly go out to the back end of their yards to water and weed the garden (or at least until weeding is so hard that they let the weeds go). There is little or no concern for energy use in this method. The creation of the rototiller takes a tremendous amount of energy. Its operation requires fossil fuel inputs. And in the end, its effect is to reduce populations of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria, and earthworms, while creating a niche for weeds. If the rototiller were only used once, the calories provided by the produce of the garden would, after a few decades, pay off the energy that went into the creation and operation of the rototiller. But we would still have the energy expenditures from weeding, extra watering, and the extra energy needed to walk all the way out to the end of the backyard where the garden is located.
A permaculture approach would be to locate the garden as close as practically possible to where the food is needed, which is the kitchen. Already we’re designing with energy in mind, as it will take less energy to walk out to the garden if it is closer. Next, rather than tilling the soil, we sheet mulch it with layers of amendments, compost and mulch.. This removes niches for weeds, retains soil moisture, reducing the need for watering, and helps to feed the soil, improving the soil tilth.
But I don’t want to give the impression that permaculture is a system of gardening. I am currently building a house that I designed using permaculture principles. And I’ve used it to design water catchment systems, energy systems, and waste systems.
BE: What motivated you to study permaculture design?
DB: I first heard of permaculture in 1998 while I was living in Japan. I saw a brief story about it on the Discovery Channel and bought the Permaculture Designers’ Manual. Confronted with this large, information-packed text book, my reaction was to say “Cool!” and put it on the shelf for “someday maybe.”
Then in 2004, a serious illness left me in hospital for 10 days. Ten days of the staring at a hospital room ceiling interspersed with moments of the spectre of a potentially terminal illness led me to examine what I was doing with my time here. I knew it was my dream to do some kind of environmental repair, so I pulled the Designers’ Manual off of the shelf. That led me to take a design course with Geoff Lawton in 2004, and another with Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison in 2005. I haven’t looked back since.
BE: Why is permaculture relevant today?
DB: I think more and more people today are realizing that the current industrialist-consumerist game is up. It is obvious to anyone who stops to look that we are burning through the earth’s capital in a way that will end in a very ugly manner in the not-too-distant future. We are currently in what is a serious economic crisis under our current economic model. World leaders are struggling to try to get us back to 2% growth, or thereabouts. Well, that means an economic doubling in 35 years. Now, doubling the economy requires the consumption of all of the resources used throughout history up until the time of the moment you are doubling from (i.e. all the resources used throughout history until now). Anyone who doesn’t recognize that this is a catastrophic disaster in the waiting is someone who is not willing to face the facts – and that is of very dangerous thing to do because reality always gets the last punch.
Less than 3 per cent of the water on earth is freshwater and most of that is unavailable to us. Yet we keep polluting it and wasting it. Where are all 6.5 going on 7 billion of us going to get our water? Conventional farming is burning through topsoil faster than at any other time in history. Where are we going to get our food if we keep destroying the soil it needs to grow in? Oil production has been pretty flat over the past half decade. It appears as though we hit a global peak in oil production. Our entire way of life in the developed and developing world depends on cheap oil. What are we going to do when it becomes too expensive to use?
I believe permaculture is relevant because it can address these questions. But it requires the will to act, which, collectively, we appear to lack.
Incidentally, it’s a really curious thing that we know both from scientific inquiry and personal anecdotes that the pursuit of material goods that is the heart and soul of the consumerist lifestyle brings neither meaning nor lasting happiness to our lives. Yet, we keep trying to make that lifestyle work. That’s really strange if you think about it.
But our lifestyle is exciting, making it addictive. Perhaps this explains things like denying global warming or buying SUVs despite knowing what they do to the planet (and sometimes buying them out of spite for environmentalists). You try taking an addict's drug away from them and see how they behave. It's neither rational nor pretty. The thing is, it's not environmentalists that are going to take the drug away, it's reality that's going to do it. It's a little frightening to think about how the addicts will react when that happens.
BE: What benefits does a community garden offer. a) the community and b) the gardeners?
DB: I’ve seen a couple of different models of community garden in different places. In Australia and in Japan, I’ve seen city farms where residents each have their own small allotment in the garden. This allows them to reduce their food bills and get fresher and tastier produce than they would otherwise be able to get half the market. Of the city farms I’ve seen, the Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane, Australia is the most impressive. It was designed by permaculturists, and the allotments are provided to residents as long as they adhere to certain practices, such as no-dig, no pesticides, no synthetic fertilisers, and seasonal application of mulch. Every Saturday, there is a lively farmers market, where people can sell what they’ve grown if they wish. The farm is also the center for many community groups to meet.
I just finished the designs for half-acre community garden in Brampton, Ontario. This one will not be providing allotments to residents, however. The garden will be run by volunteers, and the fresh produce will go to local food banks.
While there is a lot of satisfaction in growing fresh, healthy food for oneself and others, there is something else that makes gardeners an happy lot. Soils contain a species of bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. Well, research at Bristol University in England has found that this bacteria boosts serotonin levels, making people (or pigs, or mice) happier. This is yet another reason to get out in the dirt and grow. And it’s another reason to do everything to improve soil life by avoiding tilling, biocides and synthetic fertilisers.
BE: How does permaculture design apply to a community garden site?
DB: In the case of the gardens in Brampton, there were a few goals in mind. One was to minimise the amount of maintenance required. We wanted to make the work as easy on the volunteers as possible. We also tried to minimize the amount of inputs the garden will require over time. So, by using the principle of designing action around energy, we hope to build a very low-maintenance garden.
Sustainability is really a core of everything. In the long run, the garden should give more than it gets. If it is unsustainable, then by definition you can’t continue to do it in definitely. The conventional way of doing things delivers one calorie of food at the expense of an average of 10 calories of input. Simple mathematics shows that this method cannot be continued. By first observing a site, we can then develop an appropriate site plan to create a resilient system mimicking a natural ecosystem that delivers a sustainable yield.