The Environmental Crisis and Permaculture:
"The harmonious integration of landscape and people"

"Centuries were needed to know a part of the laws
of nature. A day is enough for the wise man
to know the duties of man."
--- Voltaire

An Introduction to the Environmental Crisis

Industrial-capitalist society exists under a fragmented, utilitarian world view. The roots of this world view are based in the tenets of the European enlightenment, described in the philosophies of Descartes and Newton.. Both of these philosophers stimulated a shift in thought that through the centuries has become irrevocably incorporated into the modern conception of reality. As Morris Berman states, we do not mean to assume that Descartes and Newton were the only intellects involved in this shift, nonetheless their ideologies encompass many important facets of modern life. Most significantly, the relationship between humanity and the environment has followed the patterns of what we, as Berman, will call "the Cartesian paradigm" (Berman 24).
The "Cartesian paradigm" is defined by a control of nature. Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, lays the logical foundation for this control:

[My discoveries] have satisfied me that it is possible to reach knowledge that will be of much utility in this life . . . knowing the nature and behavior of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all other bodies which surround us . . . we can employ these entities for all the purposes for which they are suited, and so make ourselves masters and possessors of nature. (Berman 25)

In the modern context, both governments and corporations regard natural resources as available strictly for economic and technical needs in the form of capital. For instance, the army corps of engineers, through the construction of dams or dikes, alter the natural flow of waterways and natural energy cycles for the development of human expansion, in the form of power sources and agriculture. As the natural energy cycles are disrupted, both the interconnected geographic and ecological elements of a specific landscape are permanently harmed. In the corporate sector, similar examples can be found. Many corporations enforce practices of short term-high yield agricultural and resource exploitation. Not only does this fit within the confines of the Cartesian dialectic of domination and mechanistic control, but these practices represent the pinnacle of utilitarian achievement.
Carolyn Merchant explains, in regards to the Cartesian paradigm, that knowledge and understanding of being are inherently connected into the structures of machines and that the presuppositions of this paradigm lead analogously to another element of the machine "the possibility of controlling and dominating nature" (228). Following this to its extreme, Merchant concludes that seventeenth century corpuscular and atomic theories process reality into parts, like the parts of machines that are "dead, passive, and inert" (229). Thus, modern rationality within the Cartesian paradigm has demystified nature through this fragmentation and process of control. We believe that this paradigm is the essence of the environmental crisis. Analyzing this crisis in single issues becomes a futile attempt to "change the world" because the present situation necessitates a change in world view and not merely a slight adjustment of consumer or corporate practices.

Nonetheless the situation is not as scary as it seems. To best understand a world view shift, or what a paradigm is, the concept of incommensurability comes into play. A paradigm or world view is a conception of the reality of the inward self and the external world. Such understandings, according to Thomas Kuhn, are based on current values, needs and tastes of a certain time period. Such characteristics are manifested through the definitions and standards used within that specific time period. Because of this, we can not compare or place judgment and merit on one paradigm over another. The stark differences between paradigms leads us to Kuhn's concept of incommersurablity, and thus to relativity of science ( Kuhn148). Aristotle is no better than Eienstein and 20th century industrial capitalism is not the height of intellectual, social and scientific development. Yet this disruption of the recent world view should not be feared or avoided. We should embrace our current state of economic and ecological crises as crucial "turning point" period of change and renewal. Fritjof Capra emphasizes the importance of the period of change as "not to be opposed but on the contrary, welcomed as the only escape from agony, collapse, or mummification." ( Capra 33). Such changes have occurred in many pervious cycles of human history, marking our change as not super-ordinary. This transition is of a planetary dimensions, effecting individuals, society, civilization and ecology. As stated in the book I Ching, " The movement is natural, arising spontaneously. For this reason the transformation of the old becomes easy. The old is a discarded and the new is introduced. Both measures accord with the time; therefore no harm results" (34). .

Permaculture --- a viable alternative

Due to the inefficiencies and structural problems of our current understanding of nature and its relationship to human society, we must look to new methods of existence. The philosophy and methodology of permaculture presents humans with a viable solution to our current state. Permaculture (Permanent Agriculture) as defined and popularized by Bill Mollison, is the

conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscapes and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way (Mollison, ix).

However, the implications of permaculture are much more extensive. By embracing permaculture, humanity undergoes a complete restructuring centered around new values of social community, food production and consumption. Our modern, post-enlightenment conception of the natural world is transcended through the incorporation of an organic, ecologically interconnected paradigm. The permaculture paradigm is based on the idea of emulating physical patterns of nature. Permaculture recognizes the cyclical character of energy storage within the global ecosystem.. Living organisms flourish not as individuals but as elements in a flow, not as masters but as life sustaining components of a greater system (Bell, 63).

Permaculture, according to Mollison, is founded upon three ethical beliefs. In the absence of any universal moral guidelines regarding the environment in the modern world, this alternative approach provides a compelling correlation between ethics and the welfare of the environment. The constructs that Mollison suggests seem obvious, nonetheless, they are often disregarded or misinterpreted in the industrial capitalist world. The three ethical guidelines are a follows:

1. Care of the Earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.
2. Care of People: Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence. 3. Setting Limits to Population and Consumption: By governing our own needs we can set resources aside to further the above principles. (Mollison 2)

From each of these principles flows innumerable ethical applications, but the foundation remains the same.
Permaculture is a growing phenomenon. Many horticulturists and home gardeners are exploring the uses of permaculture in their daily lives. The viability of this practice within the modern world is promising because although it requires a paradigm shift, the elements of our modern world view are not discarded. Rather, with the fundamental change, elements of the economy, technology, and science can still be employed, albeit in different means. This can bee seen in the figure to the right from Mollison's book Introduction to Permaculture. Each of the separate and equal categories link together to create the "harmonious integration of landscape and people" (2).

These basic beliefs can be incorporated into many different styles of permaculture. In fact, every permaculture garden is going to be specific to the exact location in which it operates. Likewise, there are many different philosophies, such as those of Masanobu Fukuoka, Graham Bell, and Robert Hart, regarding permaculture, although the basic tenets remain the same.

Masanobu Fukuoka--Reuniting Man and Nature
Through Natural Farming

In Masanobu Fukuoka's book One Straw Revolution the issues of man's separation from nature and the failures of modern agriculture serve as the foundation for his arguement supporting natural farming. Although Fukuoka is not by Mollison's definition a permaculturist, he incorporated many of the ethical foundations of permaculture into his farming. By utilizing the natural tendencies of plants and the functioning food chain, Fukuoka created a farm which produced more than industrial farms while replenishing the soil's vitality (168).

As a former scientist, the role of science in agriculture is a predominant theme in his writing. Fukuoka believed that science has proven that humans understand little about the true workings of nature. In his words, "The irony is that science has served only to show how small human knowledge is" (29). By this he means that we attempt to define and categorize all of the particulars in nature without seeing the whole picture. Many times he describes researchers visiting his fields to ponder how his gardens produce so much without any of the modern machinery and chemicals. In one such scene Fukuoka sets out one of the major problems with the scientific perspective on nature:

This professor often comes to my field, digs down a few feet to check the soil, brings students along to measure the angle of sunlight and shade and whatnot, and takes plant specimens back to the lab for analysis. I often ask him "When you go back, are you going to try non-cultivation, direct seeding?" He laughingly answers, "No I'll leave the applications to you. I'm going to stick to research" (75).

The problem is that there is a disjunction between what is done in the lab with what is done in the fields. But there is also a problem with what the scientist sees in the fields. In an attempt to better understand the natural relationships and workings within an agricultural system, the specialists see only what they are knowledgeable in. As Fukuoka explains "Specialists in various fields gather together and observe a stalk of rice. The insect disease specialist sees only insect damage, the specialist in plant nutrition considers only the plant's vigor. This is unavoidable as things are now" (26). Science serves to move agriculture and people away from nature, which he calls the "unmoving and unchanging center of agricultural development" (20).

The role of a farmer, in Fukuoka's mind, is an observer, not an intervener, of the natural order in his/her particular landscape. Knowledge of the ecosystem does not come overnight and it does not come from books. Rather, he/she must try to observe the changing nature of the ecosystem so that nature may cope with the obstacles of farming. Some of the strategies that Fukuoka explains are the laying down of rice straw instead of compost, direct seeding to retain the nutrients in the soil, sowing clover to combat weeds, maintaining a healthy balance of predators and prey, etc (33-52). To do these things a farmer must be in touch with the distinct natural system in his area. However, Fukuoka lays out what he calls the "four principles of natural farming" as guidelines for any one who wants to try to create a natural garden. These are :

1. No cultivation. This means no plowing or turning the soil. The earth cultivates itself naturally.
2. No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost. These practices drain the soil of its natural nutrients and increase human interference in the natural cycle.
3.No weeding by tillage or herbicides. Weeds are an important part of building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community. As a fundamental principle weeds should be controlled, not eliminated.
4.No dependence on chemicals. Weak plants develop from such unnatural practices which increases their vulnerability to disease and insects (33-34).

These are the practical foundations of natural farming. In and of themselves they are revolutionary with regard to modern farming. However, he also believes that the environmental problem will not be solved until humans change their entire view of nature. In the area of consumption, people need to reunite themselves with the natural way of eating. He states that people "have lost their clear instinct and consequently have become unable to gather and enjoy the seven herbs of spring (watercress, shepherd's purse, wild turnip, cottonweed, chickweed, wild radish, and bee nettle). They go out seeking a variety of flavors. Their diet becomes disordered, the gap between likes and dislikes widens, and their instinct becomes more and more bewildered" (136). Fukuoka argues for what he called the "non-discriminating diet" this means that we leave all notions of human knowledge about food behind and let nature provide for us. He said that there can be no rules or proportions for this diet because it "defines itself according to the local environment, and the various needs and the body constitution of each person" (143). In order for farmers to go back to the natural process of food cultivation, consumers need to return to the natural flavors and textures of the earth. We need to stop, as Fukuoka says, "eating with our minds" (137).

The separation between humans and nature has more heavy consequences than a poor diet. Fukuoka maintains that if we do not see the error in our ways soon, human society will crumble. It is his view that "culture always originates in the partnership of man and nature. When the union of human society and nature is realized, culture takes shape of itself...Something born from human pride and the quest for pleasure can not be considered true culture. True culture is born within nature and is simple, humble, and pure. Lacking true culture, humanity will perish"(138). If this is true, humans will need to realize that we can not survive using the current system of monoculture and lust for the perfect looking, chemical-dependent food.
Environmentally, Fukuoka points to our separation from nature as the origin of the current crisis. The more we separate ourselves from nature, the more obscure the solution becomes. He talks about the reactionary tendencies of modern environmental organizations and how this is a failure to see the entire problem. If Earth First fights to save a section of old growth forest, it is "no matter how commendable, not moving towards a genuine solution if it is carried out solely as a reaction to the overdevelopment of the present age"(21). These specific environmental problems are symptoms of the larger problem of the disjunction between man and nature. To fight the symptoms does not cope with the problem itself. Until, "the consciousness of everyone is fundamentally transformed, pollution will not cease" (82). The farmer needs to "first be a philosopher. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create" (74). The solution lies in a shift of world view which incorporates the human as an integral part in the larger system of nature.

Fukuoka presents an economically sound, low impact agricultural practice as a method for dealing with our distance from nature. All of the horrible symptoms which are caused when humans leave nature to try to control it would be cured if everyone prescribed to the natural way of agriculture and living. In the perfect state, according to Fukuoka, everyone would farm according to the tenets of natural farming. The land being divided up equally, everyone could produce enough to live on. If the people were practicing natural farming, this would leave plenty of time for family, community and leisure time. According to Fukuoka, "this is the most direct path toward making this country a happy, pleasant land" (109). Fukuoka has given us a new system to work with which is economical for the farmer as well as sustainable for our environment.

Graham Bell and the Practical Way

Graham Bell states that Permaculture is not a technique, but a mind-set and world view. Permaculture exists within how things are placed together. In order to place natural components together properly, the patterns of the earth need to be recognized. A recognition of quite logical and simple relationships of phenomena, yet crucial towards efficient and sustainable food production. Core Model is a template representing natural shapes. One may a understand the Core Model by slicing an apple core from top to bottom. At one angle you can see concentric circles, at another angle you see a parabola, at another angle you see spirals ( Bell, 63). Such shapes represent the forms of objects, energy and fluid movement. By working with these shapes and incorporating them into your growing plan, you can maximize productivity and lessen impact on the environment while increasing yield and plant health.

The Wind and Water pattern is an important fundamental in which to incorporate into the planning of growing sites. The Macro-movement of Wind and Water is described best through climates and weather zones. Climate and weather are variant, depending on the position on land. If you are growing in-land, you should expect colder winters and hotter summers. If you grow along the ocean, climate changes are more moderate between hot and cold. Rotation of the earth effects the wind course specific to hemisphere, Northern hemisphere( South -westerly winds), Southern Hemisphere (North-easterly winds), in addition to this, West coasts are relatively wet and East coasts are relatively dry. When planning a growing time-table it is crucial to understand ones local climate changes and seasonal weather history (64). Local mountains and valleys divert air flow, causing moisture to collect and fall on specific areas, while other areas are neglected. Knowledge of the location of a growing site effects plant productivity. Micro-movements of wind and water patterns are understood through the physical movement of wind and water at increased or decreased speeds. When wind and water travel through a landscape at a low velocity they flow around obstruction, but when traveling at a high velocity they create eddies which are "cast" into stream flows, creating turbulent patterns. Such patterns can be harmful to plants if not forecasted (66).

Other elements leading to the sustain success of food production are sun-sectors, the moon, and the important Edge Effect.
Sun-sectors are the area in which optimal light exposure is received on present and future time periods. Measurements of the movement of the sun provides a location that will best endure the elapse of time. Working with the moon is also a crucial factor when planning planting and harvesting. By timing harvest with a full moon you will get a higher and fuller yield. The reasoning behind this lies with the correlation of the level of water content in relation to the cycle of the moon (67). This theory is part of permaculture's emphasis on taping into earthly and celestial energy. The Edge Effect, also known as Eco-tone, is based on the area of overlap between two different ecosystems. It is the most productive and highest in nutrients. A strategy for sustained maximization is to plant in a spiral format or create spiral ponds in which to grow around (69). The spiral shape has the most edge effect, hence one can increase productivity by just going with a natural pattern flow instead of manipulating soil or using pesticides. The Edge Effect also carries on-to understanding niches of plant and animal species. Permaculture recognizes that all plant an animals have specific niches of time, space and behavior. Within these niches exists a delicate interaction and balance between animal and plant. We must work within the specific Niches.

Permaculture supports the idea of "the Spiral of Intervention". This concept addresses the theme that nature should run its course and that minimal human intervention is best course of action. Bell offers the example of losing sheep to hungry foxes. The ideal course of action is to do nothing and lose five sheep a year. If yield is impaired beyond acceptable limits, begin on a step by step approach of intervention, each level an increasing effect on the environment (71). The first step is to increase sheep herd to compensate for lost sheep (increased output). The second step is to introduce a guard dog (biological intervention). The second step is to introduce wire traps on the fox runs (mechanical intervention). The last step is to poison the fox holes (chemical intervention). By following this method, and not advancing from one step to next unless completely necessary, a great deal of unneeded damage and alteration of the natural world takes place (72). This methodology continues on to also gardening and orchard practices. Bell supports not digging the land if plants can be grown without it. Trees should not be pruned if yield is sustained without it. Human intervention drains and alters energy flows of ecosystems. Do nothing if possible, minimal intervention if necessary (76).

This philosophy extends to the idea of "minimum effort, more effect". Western-industrial society is caught with the mind-set that the more physical work and control over environment that the worker undertakes, the more efficient and productive that work will be. Permaculture contests that idea. The mono-culture practice of industrial farm work and energy is disproportionate to the amount of yield harvested. Stacking provides a practice of producing similar level of yield but using less land. Stacking incorporates seldom used vertical space. Stacking is the inter-planting of trees and low level plant life. Individual species yield is lowered, but combined yield is increased, providing a healthy alternative to the dangers of mono-culture. Stacking allows for important plant diversity, provides resistance to disease, healthy soil and wildlife habitat (77). Most of all this method of planting allows more local inputs to be achieved, saved energy and increased local community self-reliance.

Slope management and erosion resistance are underlying factors important to all food production. It is important to recognize that slopes more that 30 degrees should not be cultivated. Such slopes should be left permanent pasture or woodlands. When ploughing a slope, erosion can be minimized by driving a tractor at right angles to the slope, either on or off the contour. Erosion can also be halted by introducing pioneer plants on to the slope. Such plants will grow quickly, retain nutrients and settle soil. Geotextiles are also used to prevent soil erosion. Woven materials are applied to a hill and plants are gown within it in an interlocked fashion. The mesh system provides retentive root structures (118).

The previously described practices are a small cross section of the many methods of permaculture. The common themes within these practices that exist within all of the permaculture "way", are the incorporation and understanding of natural patterns and movement toward planning and growing, and the minimalist approach of human intervention on an ecosystem. These themes taken within a variety of contexts of world view and food production, will inevitably lead to a more sustainable and efficient manner of existence.

Forest gardening and the art of imitation

Forest gardening, as defined by Robert Hart, is a permaculture design that attempts to achieve an economy of space, labor, and resources by imitating the natural processes of the forest (xiv). The forests of the world have obviously survived for millennia without the guidance of human-made pesticides and irrigation. Nonetheless, modern monoculture farming methods seem to deny the existence of natural yield, fighting against processes in order to produce "high yield" crops. The result of this fight against nature are such absurdities as crops that have a limited amount of vitamins and minerals due to depletions within the soil, for instance most corporate-made bread must be fortified chemically because of the poor quality of monoculture wheat.
Permaculturists, looking at methods of alternative and "traditional" farmers, have "discovered" the forest garden as an important asset to the world of agriculture. Robert Hart, in his book Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape, writes, "The forest garden is far more than a system for supplying mankind's material needs. It is a way of life and it also supplies people's spiritual needs by its beauty and the wealth of wildlife that it creates" (xvi). Hart practices forest gardening, or agroforestry, on his farm in Shorpshire, England. Here, he explores the many benefits and methods of this type of permaculture.

Like Mollison's diagram in the beginning of this paper, Hart does not attempt to revert back to a time prior to the industrial age, rather he attempts to create a method of farming for the future that employs refined elements of technology, such as solar power. To live with the forest is to reap the rewards of the forest the medical, economical, and personal. In the modern Cartesian paradigm this seems shortsighted and uneconomical; however, the forest and forest gardening can provide a high yield sustainable system of agriculture that is equivalent or greater than the current large-scale monoculture that has ravaged the environment. Benjamin Watson, in the "Foreword" to Hart's book, gives the example of a family in the United Kingdom farming a 400 square foot area that only required four hours a week of labor. Remarkably, their farm yielded the equivalent of fifteen tons per acre (Hart x).

Forest Gardening is based on a seven tiered system that mimics the natural tiers of the forest, creating a self-sustaining environment. The diagram to the left represents this system. The tallest layer of growth is the canopy, which contains standard or dwarfed fruit trees. These trees help to "self-water" the entire garden because their deep roots reach far into the earth and tap the spring veins, pumping the water from these depths up towards the roots of the smaller plants. With these deep roots similarly come the capacity to naturally fertilize this agricultural system due to the roots' ability to pull minerals from the subsoil to its neighboring plants. These trees should also be compatible in order for them to successfully pollinate, thus, further eliminating human intervention in the garden. The second layer is the "low tree layer" consisting of fruit and nut trees on dwarf root stocks, which allows for an economy of space and light. The third layer is the shrub layer for fruit producing bushes, which again maximizes the use of space and the availability of light, at the same time producing valuable and enjoyable produce. Providing several valuable elements to the garden is the fourth tier, the herbaceous level. Here, various edible herbs and vegetables aid in the prevention of pests and disease. Harmful Insects and other intruders are repelled by the aroma of this herbaceous level. The fifth layer, again for the economy of space and in imitation of the natural world, is the vertical layer, consisting of vines and other climbing plants. These plants trained over trellis fences also help to create a barrier guarding against any large animals that might want to enter the garden. By helping to prevent encroachment of weeds, the sixth layer of groundcover, such as mint, helps to create an efficient mulch for the forest garden. Finally, the layer closest to the ground is the "rhizosphere," consisting of shade tolerant plants (Hart 51-2). Most importantly, besides the economy of space, these tiers provide two valuable elements that are found in the natural world, but absent from the modern agricultural systems. Because the forest garden contains mostly perennial plants, the garden is "self-perpetuating." Thus it supports "the no till agriculture," which is central to the practice of permaculture. Mollison, in obvious support of Hart's theories, writes, "(Permaculture) is the working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating elements as a single-product system" (Introduction to Permaculture 1).

Imitating the natural processes and working with nature, forest gardening is a promising alternative to industrial farming. Clearly, the modern consumer and agriculturist needs to re-evaluate their role in the destruction of the environment. If people began to question their current practices, the success of alternatives, such as forest gardening, could truly be judged. The testing of alternative methods of farming should be a priority to every consumer because of the possbility of high quality produce that does not harm the environment.


We have reached a point in human development in which we must analyze our current structures of value and production methods. It is imperative that we consider a new practical framework for food production and relationship with nature. At the current rate we will exhaust all resources and space, causing irrevocable damage to our ecosystems and societies. We must infuse a sense of environmental responsibilty and soical morality within science and technology. Contemporary science and technology engage nature in an agressive and exploitative manner. The direct results of this world view will be inhospitable living conditions and food barren of nutrients. This hazardous path can be altered by recognizing the impermanance of our world view and agricultural practices. We are at a point in which it is still possible to exit our current mode of existence and enter a new direction of sensibility and sustainablity. Permaculture offers a gateway to such a direction. The switching of paradigms is a huge step, one that will require both macro and micro adjustments of lifestyle. We believe that by understanding the basic principles of permaculture embodied in the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, Graham Bell, Bill Mollison and Robert Hart, this movement can become feasible in the minds of policy makers and individual citizens. Permaculture can begin tomorrow, but it takes time for the full the reversal to complete. In time permaculture will help to be able to restructure capitalist industrialism, and the world market system, by providing for a viable methodology and world view of sustainability.

Go works cited and suggested reading list

A brief look at Masanobu Fukuoka
A brief look at Bill Mollison
A brief look at Robert Hart
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