Review: Permaculture – Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

Still continuing with the book reviews; I promise to post something more original after this bout of upskilling. Anyhow, after starting to learn more about permaculture from the rather “light” and gardening-focused introduction to permaculture (see previous post), I now finished reading the more authoritative and comprehensive guide “Permaculture – Principles and pathways beyond sustainability” by David Holmgren, the co-creator of the permaculture concept. Permaculture as a concept is by no means limited to gardening (though it’s most often applied there), and this book provides a more comprehensive review of all the twelve principles, what they mean and how they can be applied in a number of fields, not just gardening/agriculture.

One of the key background elements in permaculture – and one reason I was attracted to the concept in the first place – is that it draws much of its inspiration from dealing with the coming energy descent. While this means permaculture is related to the concept sustainability, its important to note that practically none of the so-called “sustainable” solutions, products, practices etc that are increasingly used even in marketing today, are really sustainable. While much is simply greenwashing, Holmgren argues that there is in fact no way of the current generation to achieve a truly sustainable lifestyle, an argument that John Michael Greer agreed with in his book The Ecotechnic Future. Specifically, Holmgren states:

In articulating Permaculture as the Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, I am suggesting that we need to get over our naive and simplistic notions of sustainability as a likely reality for ourselves or even our grandchildren and instead accept that our task is to use our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent.

The book covers a great depth and breadth of topics in taking a deep-dive into the principles. Even ethical issues play an important role and there is one particularly insightful paragraph that I think captures well some fundamental societal problems:

Most philosophers acknowledge that ideas and values are never free of their ecological, economic and cultural context. However, few seem to be prepared to accept the degree to which energetically novel conditions of recent centuries are primary factors in the creation and spread of much of what we hold precious in human thinking and culture. In particular, we need to be suspicious of seeing the philosophy of individualism as the source, rather than outcome, of material well-being. Further, we should expect that the beliefs and values that have developed with a rising energy base are likely to be dysfunctional – even destructive – in a world of limited and declining energy.

Almost by definition – in that permaculture ought to be an integral part of designing our future during the energy descent – David Holmgren is highly critical of many aspects of modern society, from energy use to industrial agriculture and culture. He brings up many extremely valid points, including the one quoted above, that should give any reader a pause.

As is probably clear to the reader by now, permaculture is a very holistic concept and one that intimately deals with systems design and systems thinking, appealing to my interests in those areas. It has its drawbacks, however, one of which includes at times skeptic stance from the heavily “siloed” academia; the other founder of the concept, Bill Mollison, once commented that when introducing the concept of permaculture to academia, “The professional community was outraged because we were combining architecture with biology, agriculture with forestry and forestry with animal husbandry, so that almost everybody considered themselves to be a specialist felt a bit offended.” Permaculture itself, however, was conceived in academia and many more favorable comments have been made – as well as offering postgraduate-level courses on permaculture.

If you’re interested in the concept more widely than just when applied to gardening, I can highly recommend the book as a great and thought-provoking, introduction to the topic. Holmgren writes in a warm manner, includes “big picture” examples as well as his personal experiences from implementing the difference principles. Even the at times heavy criticism is delivered in a manner that is not offensive; as Holmgren puts it himself, “.. it is not necessary to denigrate what our parents, grandparents or ancestors did as ignorant, shortsighted or anti-nature”, but instead we can focus on more positive developments and preparing for the future.

If you’re wondering whether you should be interested in it, I offer you one quote from the book to end that captures the target audience rather well:

Permaculture is for those who already understand or sense the reality of transition and descent and want to give practical and integrated expression to that reality, whether the rest of the society is ready or not to do so.

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