I recently, admittedly late, came across the concept of permaculture. Can this concept help us think the world?
When we are discussing human development today, we find ourself caught up in a contradicition: Decency demands that all human beings live on a similar living standard, and that your standard of living does not depend on where you are born. Ufortunately the world's resources are way to small to keep more than a minority on a western living standard.
So when ecologists point out our way of living is not sustainable, they are often accused of social indifference. I think Lomborg is a good example of that, or the debate about DDT and malaria.
Too often, on both sides of this debate, we build up a dicotomy between the scientist - who transforms nature, and the substinence farmer - who lives in fear of an eternal nature's whims. Maybe permaculture can allow for both accepantance of nature, and human intelligence and creativity.
Permaculture is a concept that wat coined in the seventies, by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren . It is founded on three pillars . ecological values, social values and economical values. By considering all these aspects when interacting with nature, humans can create a way of living that keeps us warm and safe without ruining our children's chances.
An interestinc point with permaculture is that we can even improve the earth we hand over to our children, if we make the right design choices. It is all about thinking before you act, and designing our actions. In a gardening context, it can be about using plants that can serve many purpouses, or about arranging plants according to a 'key hole' pattern, to use space in the most efficient way. The important thing is that you know why you are doing what you are doing. In education it can mean learning in the reality, in stead of learning about reality in the classroom. It is not a short cut - it is simply smart, creating more value and less problems.
Isn't this what ecology is all about? Yes and no. Permaculture is both a smaller and a bigger concept. It is smaller, since it is a fashion concept that could easily be replaced with a different word that means the same, much like the same kind of food is sometimes called ecological, biodynamical or organical.
Permaculture is also a bigger concept, since it brings in soft issues like social and economical relations into the hard ecological reality. It realizes that these issues are just as important to humans as our material substinence. We need both bread and roses.
In the permaculture theories, humanity is not really a life form on par with other's. We have a responsibility for maintaining and improving the earth, and we can not do this by ignoring it. In stead we must get out there, get to know the flows of water and energy, the other life forms and how they interact, in order to arrange our way of living in a way that is beneficial for everyone.
In permaculture, the symbol of humanity's wisdom is not the scientist in the lab, but the gardener. A gardener who sometimes experiments with novel species, but alwaus is well aware about the natural conditions.
Can this help the developing world? Of course there is a place for permaculture in local agriculture, a sector that must be strenghtened. It can also arm local environmentalists with a host of arguments against multinationals exploiting natural resources, like Shell in the Niger delta.
In a predominantly agricultural environment, permaculture might seem like a good idea, but hardly very inovative. Good farmers have always been smart designers.
The potential impact is maybe bigger in the overconsuming west - it can help us think about how to live with less resources. That will give space for other's to develop, and is probably the single biggest favour we can do the developing world.