“Traditional agriculture was labour intensive, industrial agriculture is energy intensive, and permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive.”
The European Permaculture Community announces its 2023 EUPC Forum, the second edition and successor of a long tradition of IRL Permaculture Convergences since 1992.
The theme of this second online Europe-wide meeting is “Let’s Talk About Food!”.
David Holmgren’s quote from his 2002 book “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability“, on the landing page of this event, suggests that Permaculture-designed system have something (new?) to offer that will provide viable solutions to current issues in the human food supply system.
Shall we have a closer look at this?
EUPC Forum’s invitation opens with (https://forum.eupc.community ):
Let’s shape the future with respect for planet earth!
Join us if …
– You are concerned about climate change
– You have had enough negative news
– You want to hear more about permaculture
– You want to improve your local food system
– You want to connect with like minded people
– You want to hear inspiring stories from experts
– You want to support an active community in Europe
– You want a healthy, happy planet
And how does this relate to Holmgren’s quote?
OK. First: I do not doubt the integrity or intent of Holmgren. I much identify with him 🙂 Like many idealists in the late 1960’s early 1970’s, I was under the illusion that the planet needed saving (from human domination and disrespectful abuse) and that changing the food systems could be a fruitful leverage point.
You can recognise this line of thinking in Holmgren’s quote. He enumerates characteristics of traditional – implied is: pre-industrial – agriculture, industrial agriculture, and permaculture-designed agriculture. Suggested is that each is a stage in the sequential evolution of food systems, where each modality dominates a certain era in a kind of exclusive competition. Also implied is that the characteristics of one modality of food production system replace the characteristics of the others.
Finally the call for this online gathering implies that (only?) permaculture-designed agriculture represents “respect for the planet” while the other modalities do not. And of course that it is our call to “shape the future”.
As the current global existential multi-crisis is the result of what came before, including the generations of activism and indeed permaculture-designed food systems and permaculture-design based livelihoods in teaching, designing and media authoring, it does not follow quite so clearly that permaculture has changed the course of mainstream civilisation. On balance it did not really do anything much for the respect that humanity collectively has for the planet, even though it did produce some fierce champions of its biosphere. Did anyone really change their mind? Were systems changed in such a way that respecting the planet became the function of those systems?
Is there a difference?
D. Holmgren, 2002 in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability”
- “Traditional agriculture was labour intensive, industrial agriculture is energy intensive, and permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive.”
Indeed, pre-industrial agriculture was labour intensive – the global population was still below 1 billion humans (around 1800), relatively even fewer domestic animals and a lot more biodiversity among domesticated species then today. Given that pre-industrial agriculture is still widespread around the world, it still is a current situation in many places. But so (labour intensive) is industrial agriculture. The difference here is that much of the labour is hidden out of sight. Places of labour involved in the global supply chain are beyond each other’s horizon, hidden in the fossil fuel. And end-consumers in particular have no clue as to how much labour has gone into the food on their plate. Industrial agriculture is based on fossil fuel. Cheap fossil fuel. And so it is indeed fossil energy intensive. A lot of that fossil energy goes into transportation and manufacture of things like fertilisers and pesticides, in ‘normalising’ soil substrates. All replacing processes that nature provides organically of its own accord, when it is healthy and given a chance to do its thing.
The implied suggestion that permaculture-designed agriculture does not require intensive labour or intensive energy is misleading, nor – in the everyday practice of working permaculture-designed food systems – is it evident that they are rigorously information and design based. In fact the lack of information and thoughtful design is one of the most common issues in permaculture projects.
A key characteristic of all these modalities of food system is that they are all enclaves encapsulated by and separated from the wild and self-directed biosphere, yet impacting it dramatically with its dominance of species diversity, its spatial displacement of wild species, its depletion and pollution of natural resources. The key issue is agriculture itself, the perception of superiority and entitlement of humans over the planet. That can hardly be construed as ‘respect for the planet’. Can it?
Holmgren does provide good philosophical principles, like “observe and interact”. But hardly any permaculture designer or practitioner, practices these principles. They may be briefly acknowledged and mentioned – in a PDC or diploma project context, or even in real-life designs for clients. The application of such principles though, should rarely lead to homesteading in usually arbitrary locations, to be occupied permanently and still manage to evolve harmoniously with the dynamics of the natural environment. They need to be maintained as they are against the natural evolution of places and people, the weather , migration of species, extinction of species, ongoing conflict between ever growing populations of people and their ever increasing demands of consumption, and irrational behaviours. Which takes oodles of energy 😉
The challenge of living in harmony with nature starts with changing your mind and indeed observing and interacting, with care, attention and humility.
And transcending systems, any system.
Perhaps that is a pathway beyond sustainability?