After reading some texts on permaculture and finding the topic quite fascinating, I decided to learn “all” about it and read the permaculture “Bible”, Bill Mollison’s Permaculture – A Designers’ Manual. This huge book is the textbook for the Permaculture Designer Certificate course; now also taught by e.g. RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) as a part of their Masters of Wellness-program as a 12 credit point post-grad course. I would love to get a Permaculture Design Certificate someday but until I get around to that, I thought self-studying the material would be the next best thing.
Permaculture ethics is about care of the earth (caring for the soil, forests and water), care of people (looking after self, kin and community), and fair share (setting limits to consumption and redistributing surplus) – as an umbrella, those are the themes under which the contents of the book falls. As Permaculture is a synthesis of different disciplines, the book covers an absolutely huge range of topics and has an incredible amount of information. There’s no way I remember most of it after first reading, so the book makes an excellent reference text and there’s clearly no room to cover anything but a tiny fraction of points worth mentioning in a review such as this. Permaculture is not necessarily new information as such and the introduction of the book has a thought-provoking suggestion; “Perhaps we should do nothing else for the next century but apply our knowledge. We already know how to build, maintain and inhabit sustainable systems, but in everyday life of people this is hardly apparent.”
There is a profound truth in that; too often we seek only new information, new solutions, over-analyze things, research the most trivial details and publish the results of countless useless studies just so there is something novel – all the while forgetting to apply the knowledge we have accumulated. This applies in corporate world as well as for the society as a whole; implementation is often the weakest link. We know a lot of solutions to many problems, but fail to act. All too often the academic fallacy of “I think, therefore I have acted” is apparent. And I readily admit that I, too, am guilty of that.
Mollison vocally criticizes the destruction of ecosystems, and rightly so. He points out that as we have destroyed energy-producing ecosystems and replaced them with our own energy-consuming “improvements”; “We have assumed the role of the creator, and destroyed the creation to do so.”. But 100% healthy, balanced vegetarianism in northern countries such as Finland is a tall order to achieve sustainably when fresh vegetables are imported for half the year or grown in very energy-intensive greenhouses.
There is also an interesting point made about vegetarianism;
“Only in home gardens is most of the vegetation edible for people; much of the earth is occupied by inedible vegetation. Deer, rabbits, sheep and herbivorous fish are very useful to us, in that they convert this otherwise unusable herbage to acceptable human food. Animals represent a valid method of storing inedible vegetation as food.”
Mollison doesn’t argue against vegetarianism as such, and notes it is very efficient but only under specific circumstances (locally grown easily processed food with wastes returned to the soil where the vegetables were grown). I would imagine it’s a fairly tall order to eat a sustainable, healthy, balanced, all-vegetarian diet in places like Finland where fresh veggies and fruit are imported or grown in extremely energy-intensive greenhouses for half the year.
Another interesting points also hits close to Finland; that burning peat is evil. Peat can be used for making more precious topsoil, as a great growing medium in nurseries, or as an insulator in buildings. It should, Mollison notes, only “in desperation” be used as fuel. Finland, however, produces as much as 8% of it’s electricity by burning peat – and the European Union classifies peat as a “slowly renewing” biomass fuel. The “slow” is indeed slow, with a peat bog taking 1,000-5,000 years to regrow. Additional dose of evil comes from the fact that burning peat produces even more CO2 than coal.
There is far too much practical advice in the book than one can narrate here; there are solutions from water purification to water conservation, from productive system design in various climates to strategies to increasing yields. Soil structure and improving it are given lots of coverage, up to and including how different soil types affect buildings. There’s loads of fascinating information about trees and forests – and there’s also quite a bit on different designs & theories, including an interesting chapter on patterns.
The last chapter of the book deals with reorganizing societies and nations along more sustainable lines. Considering the breadth of all this, the chapter is necessarily brief overview but even as such, it is much more detailed than discussion in the mainstream where no such alternatives are even considered (yet). A lot of facets are covered; investment, alternative monetary systems, local currencies, village development, societal structure and support structures, decision making strategies etc.
Obviously there are downsides to such a massive book as well. One is length and depth; it’s not an easy book to read. Some drawbacks stem from the fact that the text is now over 20 years old (it was published in 1988). While this may lead some to assume the content is outdated, I was quite surprised how up-to-date it all was; for example, there was a statement that there is “no longer any doubt” about anthropogenic climate change, way before climate change made it to the headlines. Anyhow, one of the downsides that I assume comes with the age of the book are illustrations; they are mostly black-and-white hand drawings – while impressive, some of the more complex pictures and diagrams can be difficult to decipher and aren’t all that pretty.
Another problem – or rather, limitation – stems from the fact that many solutions and designs presented require a lot of space. This is understandable considering the origins of permaculture, but obviously not everyone has – or even can have – the land required for many of the solutions described. Applying permaculture principles to urban areas has received more attention recently so some of this information is available elsewhere better adapted to environments where most of us live today (see, for example, the upcoming Urban Permaculture DVD)
One of the major issues not touched by almost any permaculture work is quantifying the yields. Another well-known permaculture “guru” Geoff Lawton has made some pretty outrageous claims that are relatively easy to disprove. While Mollison does give some yield guidance figures for things like aquaculture, he also mentions that yields “have no known limits” and for the most part does not give even approximate yield expectations based on current best practices. While it’s true yield limits are not known, there certainly are limits to sustainable yields and I believe they can not be orders of magnitude more than achieved with e.g. organic agriculture. Quantification of achievable sustainable yields is something more attention needs to be paid to, and something I hope to return to later as well. The reluctance for quantifying yields in the permaculture movement is curious considering one of the most influential sources of inspiration of the permaculture concept, natural farming innovator Masanobu Fukuoka, published very precise yields for his fields. It’s time for permaculturalists to do the same.
Permaculture – A Designers’ Manual is not an easy read. It does, however, give so much food for thought as well as a plethora of practical tools to improve things that it’s a remarkably important book. The solutions and practices described are not given at a high, abstract level, but instead you could easily implement most with the help of just this book. Having said that, it’s also not a book many people are willing to read, if only because of its heft. The topic however is critically important. If you’re not quite up to devouring this much at once, consider reading a brief, free e-book “Essence of Permaculture” [PDF] – it’s only 23 pages written by the other permaculture concept co-originator, David Holmgren.