Guest Article by Samantha Langlois
Program Coordinator, Organic Life Guru
The Permaculture movement has a well-educated and passionate following of dedicated practitioners. It also is terribly misunderstood by mainstream modern culture. The term ‘permaculture’ may indeed be one of the most misunderstood terms thrown around by well-meaning environmentalists. I think it is fair to say that most people lump permaculture with organic gardening and sustainable agriculture but they don’t truly understand what Permaculture is or is capable of.
Even among self-described ‘permaculturalists’, the practitioner and the philosopher may have differing understandings of permaculture. To the practitioner, permaculture is action and object – swales, hugelkultur, grey-water systems, water-conservation, soil building, renewable energy, compost, and design. To the philosopher, permaculture is about ethic and principle – care for earth, care for people, fair share, diversity, redundancy, resiliency, integration and observation. This dichotomy creates two very different ways to experience permaculture – thus reaching more people – but at the same time leads to the general confusion felt among the masses – “yes, I’ve heard of permaculture but I don’t really know what it is”; or “yes, I love permaculture but I don’t really know how to describe it”; or “yes, I know what permaculture is but I can’t really explain it to you”. David Holmgren gets rightful credit for being a brilliant and passionate ecologist, but I think his real strength is his ability to merge the big picture (the philosophy) and the little picture (the application) in a way that most people cannot.
My own experience of permaculture is from the perspective of an ecologist, a conservation biologist, and a gardener. I don’t have a permaculture design certificate. I have probably studied permaculture more than I have applied it. I understand the ecological principles and can honestly answer that “sure, I can tell you about permaculture”. So I guess I fall somewhere between the philosopher and the practitioner. From my perspective, I see a point of neglect that I suspect leads to some of the confusion regarding permaculture.
The second ethic of permaculture, “Care of People”, sounds simple; self-explanatory even. Sure, do no harm to those around you. Makes perfect sense. Let’s move on, right? I think it is common to gloss over this ethic without really exploring its meaning and possibility. I read a great exploration of this ethic at Deep Green Permaculture (http://deepgreenpermaculture.com/permaculture/permaculture-ethics/) written by Angelo Eliades. Angelo wrote:
““Care of People” importantly has to begin with the person closest to us, our self! It’s hard to care for others when we can’t care for ourselves, and there’s no point in caring for others while neglecting oneself. Such martyrdom is unconstructive, because if we are interested in helping others, then it is in our best interests that we are in an optimum state to be helpful to others.”
We often apply the second ethic outwardly, towards the people around us, and neglect to apply it inward, to ourselves. Yes, care for other people, but don’t forget to care for yourself. When we first apply permaculture to ourselves and our immediate relationships, we experience a personal permaculture that inherently makes sense and we are better able to apply it to the world around us. Why are we so neglectful of ourselves? If we don’t care for ourselves first, can we truly understand the compassion and empathy it takes to care for other people and the world at large? When we are in an ‘optimum state’ as Angelo puts it, we are capable of so much more! With a healthy body and mind, we can exist in regenerative marriages (cause who wants to settle for a sustainable one as Toby Hemenway poignantly asks us), live in interconnected families, bask in well-rounded friendships, work in productive climates and contribute to wholly connected communities. That is how effective, long-lasting, positive change happens. That is permaculture.
Permaculture has a foundation in ecology and ecology teaches us that we are connected to each other, to the earth, and to all the creatures and plants that live here; we are interconnected. Many of us come to permaculture from a love of nature and concern for the environment. After all, it is often easier to love nature than people; people are complicated. A complete application of permaculture though includes people and for each of us, ultimately that journey begins with ourselves. As we apply permaculture to ourselves we can’t help but walk more softly in our own bodies, in our relationships and in our world.