I’m in love with permaculture. It’s an ethic that completely reflects what I believe in creating a world in which people work with the earth’s ecosystems to create a place that is more wonderful than when they arrived.
How great would that be? Yes, I know we’re a far cry from it, but the ethic is there, and it’s growing.
What is permaculture? Permaculture is variously defined as permanent culture or permanent agriculture. As an agricultural system, it’s agriculture that works like the earth’s systems. Think of a garden that acts like a forest or a grassland, rather than of the long rows of the same crop.
As a teacher of ecology and as a gardener, I strive to understand the connections between plants, animals, water, soil, air and all of the other living and nonliving things that make up the world. This includes people, of course. Human ecology is the study of how people relate to the earth and to each other, as members of their local ecosystem.
People have always used what the earth provides. However, as our species has become more successful, we’ve been able to use more and more without helping the earth grow. The most dominant global cultures now see themselves as apart from the earth’s ecosystems rather than a part of them.
How do we renew our connections to the earth and craft a better relationship – one that renews both people and ecosystems? We do it by thinking as part of the ecosystem. We do it by taking from the ecosystem and by giving back, in equal parts.
Instead of living in a home that takes energy that is made from fossil fuels and uses it in a profligate manner, we begin to create a home that uses very little energy. We harvest this energy from renewable sources like the sun.
Instead of sending our water to the sewage system and then into our oceans, we reuse our grey water in our gardens and grow food with that water. We use composting toilets. We treat what we once discarded as the resource that it is.
Instead of eating food that grows far, far away, we create community gardens in vacant lots and we garden on our decks and in our suburban lots â€“ instead of growing grass as our primary crop. We create a rich ecosystem that hosts a variety of plants that are well-suited to our climate, and we use companion planting to attract beneficial animals to pollinate our plants and eat the animals who eat our vegetables.
What if we were to think as part of the ecosystem in our homes, our businesses, and our communities? What if we thought about how our decisions could enhance our local ecosystems? Instead of trying to mitigate damage caused by our actions that do not mesh with the local ecology, we’d find ourselves asking how we could best improve our communities through our actions.
What if we treated our communities as the ecological groups that they are? What if we treated ourselves as members of those communities, no more or less important than the other plants, animals, rocks, soil, air and water that inhabit that place?
We could end up with communities that are:
Diverse. We would be able to explore, use, and celebrate the richness of the human and ecological communities.
Abundant. We would use what the earth provides in such a way that we would not feel limited, but we would feel joyful in our use and reuse and in what we would give back to the earth.
Resilient, in that ecosystems have ways of making sure that there is a plant or animal to step into a role when another cannot fill it.
Simple and complex. Using sun to make energy is a simple idea. However, the ways that this happens are amazingly complex. We can do it with solar cells, plants do it through photosynthesis. Ecosystems appear to thrive by themselves, yet they are supported by a complex system of interrelationships.
When we go beyond reducing our impacts on the earth and think instead of becoming a positive part of the earth’s systems once again, that is permaculture. That is a life, a community, and a world that I would love to see.