“How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but Not Civilization”

I just watched this excellent lecture by Toby Hemenway, a consultant and lecturer on permaculture and ecological design.

I decided to share the lecture with a family member who is not of the same mindset as me, but to their credit, they watched it. They wrote back:

“It does sound kind of like an idyllic lifestyle he’s promoting. … I considered just moving back to a small little Indiana community … a place like where I grew up.  I quickly came to the conclusion I would go mad.  

“I love hearing these guys talk about all the problems and showing examples of how things should be different.  But, no one has yet to provide a sustainable system that would work in our society–or even for this planet. Possibly for tiny individual communities. But that’s all.   How could you develop a permaculture society for a city like Indianapolis, London, etc.? …

“So John, tell what how did this podcast make you feel?  How can we use this information to our advantage, security, and happiness?  I don’t have an answer for myself.”

I think to some extent my family member missed the point of the lecture. The question they keep coming back to (in this an other conversations) is basically “How to we scale up sustainable ‘solutions’ so we can keep living the way we are?” The answer is, “We don’t.”

Here’s what I wrote back:

There are ways to make cities more sustainable, but cities will never be completely sustainable. That’s what the first half of his presentation was all about, why civilization (i.e., cities) are not sustainable. 

Part of the problem is population growth. The answer to the question, “How do you feed almost eight billion people on the earth?” is “You don’t.” Because eight billion has a way of turning into nine billion ad infinitum. (As you probably know, that number has almost doubled in my lifetime and more than tripled in yours.)

The other side of the problem is consumption. We live in an economic system predicated on growth, but we are living on a finite planet. One has to give, and nature (i.e., the laws of physics) always wins in the end.

For a variety of reasons, I believe be are headed toward an inevitable civilizational collapse—albeit probably a slow and staggered one over the next century or two. In fact, I think it’s already started and we’ve been in decline since the 70s. The reasons include peak oil, the low energy-return-on-investment (EROI) of alternatives energy sources (including nuclear), climate change, and, yes, our industrial agricultural system. The speaker didn’t go into it, but we have depleted the topsoil almost everywhere. The whole system is being propped up by cheap oil (which will stop being cheap soon) to produce fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and to transport all the food large distances. Not to mention the impact of Big Ag on climate change.

So if collapse is inevitable, the question becomes “Do we collapse consciously on terms that we can somewhat choose or do we let it happen to us on terms which are dictated by the physical constraints of our planet?” I don’t think 8 billion people is sustainable. At least not living by Western standards. I don’t know what number is, but some number is. (I’ve heard 2 billion. I’ve heard less.) Unless people voluntarily limit reproduction—not likely—there’s going to start being massive die-offs. Pandemics is one of the ways nature starts returning things to an equilibrium.

If you accept that we live in on a finite planet, then it’s just a matter of physics that we have to find a way to return as much to the earth as we take out of it. Anything else is be definition not sustainable. That’s basically the definition of permaculture: put back what you take out. And anything else is a form of species suicide. (Now folks are talking about “regenerative agriculture”—actually putting back more than we take out.)

To start with, we need an agricultural system in which most people are growing a significant portion of their own food in home and local gardens. That’s is not a fantasy.  Right now something like 40-60% of the food eaten by Russians is grown in home gardens and dachas (summer country homes). There’s no reason we can’t do that. And we need to do it without all the artificial fertilizers etc. (which we won’t always have access to) which kill the microorganisms which make soil fertile. The question isn’t whether it’s feasible, but whether we will choose to do it before everything collapses or be forced to do it after everything collapses. 

Fortunately, I don’t think I’ll be around to see most of this. But I think we can start planting the seeds—metaphorically and literally. Some of the (metaphorical) seeds of a sustainable/regenerative culture are permaculture design, small-is-beautiful economics, local direct democracy, anarchist politics, eco-centric religion and culture, etc. The lecture made me hopeful that there are ways to start transforming our system, one person at a time, one yard at a time. I’m not hopeful this will save the planet (which doesn’t need us to save it) or save civilization (which can’t be saved), but I do hope to start planting seeds, both the metaphorical and the literal varieties.

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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