What relevance does it have for our community?
How can it benefit us as a whole?
What exactly is permaculture?
These are some of the questions we have been asked while promoting our Permaculture Design Course happening in Columbia, SC this spring.
Permaculture is the conscious design of landscapes that mimic natural patterns and relationships while yielding abundantly for the provision of local need. It’s a contraction of permanent and agriculture and was originally articulated by ecologists in the 1970’s as a response to growing global energy and environmental crises.
Agriculture is the basis of civilization. A permanent agriculture partners with nature, is locally and appropriately adapted, can be sustained for the long term, and regenerates rather than degrades ecosystems. Ethics of earth care, people care and fair share guide permaculture design. Well designed systems approach the resilience and self-regulation of wild ecosystems. But they’re made of recombinant groups of species (sort of like mutual aid networks of native and exotic useful plants, animals and fungi) as well as soil building and water and energy absorbing patterns. These are all chosen for their relevance to the needs of people. Permaculture envisions a world in which wild ecosystems can be allowed to regenerate as our damaged urban, suburban and rural landscapes are restored to abundance.
But permaculture is more than natural farming, as it’s scope expands to include settlement patterns, transport, energy production and waste cycling, structures, economy and the innovation of culture itself. It asserts that the way forward for our world lies not in top down policies, corporate control of resources and technological fixes, but in local solutions for trade, food and energy production, use of appropriate technologies, and entirely new approaches to land and resource use. Small localized solutions can have vast impacts. 40 million acres of America, for example, are growing lawns that guzzle water and petrochemicals while yielding grass no one can eat. Meanwhile grass-eating livestock are fed corn in concrete stalls. Food for people is grown distantly, often abroad, and shipped to a population who have transformed in less than two generations from producers to exclusively consumers. If we changed our vision of human habitat, if even a portion of our ornamental landscapes were planted in low maintenance resilient and edible species, the ripples from these changes affect energy, economics and environment on a global scale. Impeding crises on each of these three fronts suggest changes in the way we live, like the example above, will soon be necessary strategies rather than just options.
With the disappearance of most indigenous cultures and the growing alienation from nature and each other inherent in modern consumer culture, those engaging in holistic thinking and design are actively developing a cultural alternative to current disconnected and destructive patterns. When households, communities, regions or nations engage in it, global dynamics begin to shift. Human conflicts are generally built on the denial of access to basic needs. When people’s ability to provide for themselves cooperatively on a local scale is disrupted, whether to encourage a helpless consumer class, or to part existing cultures from their resources to feed the needs and desires of distant consumers, wars are often the result. History abounds with military interventions in the affairs of other nations to ensure that resources continue to flow to industrialized societies cheaply. Beyond treaties and disarmament, we have to address the root causes of conflict. We need intentional design that shrinks the impacts of consumers in the “developed” world and returns some abundance and therefore autonomy to the “developing” world. Because of the unique way permaculture design can affect these kinds of global dynamics starting on local scales, it’s been called “a revolution disguised as gardening.” Permaculture is a thinking and doing framework, an evolving blueprint, and it’s tool box is varied and wide.
I’ve been spreading the word about permaculture in Columbia since I was introduced to it in 2004, and after apprenticing with my teachers, have designed yards and farms and taught intro classes for several years. I want to collaborate with my wife Emily, our lead teacher Nick Tittle and with local permaculturist Mari Stuart in bringing the first full Permaculture Design course (PDC) to Columbia because I think it takes many minds, hearts and hands to turn things around, in any region.
Columbia needs permaculture thinking. When I returned to Columbia from my PDC training there was no community here engaged in this approach, only a handful of maverick souls working quietly with the concept in their lives. Since then interest has been growing and I want to see it continue to build. Columbia needs active designers, teachers, growers, builders, tinkerers, and others to innovate and re-frame how things are done here. The more the merrier. While no one needs a certificate to practice permaculture in their lives, a certificate course is useful in that it gives students a thorough and connected background in design, and builds a community within each class of local innovators for the exchange of support, ideas and knowledge. It also enables students to go on to earn a livelihood as designers while spreading these ideas through living examples in the landscape. I teach permaculture because I’ve encountered few other concepts with it’s level of integrity. I don’t know if it can help save the world, but I know it can change it for the better, because it already is. I’m doing this for my grandchildren, so that life on Earth might still be worth living many years from now. We have to start somewhere, even if it’s just in our own backyards. We have to dream a different future, and permaculture is a valuable tool for bringing that future to life.