Against Permanence

Permaculture was born shortly after the oil shocks of the 1970’s that demonstrated the vulnerability of industrial systems to fossil fuels supply disruptions. This period also saw widespread coverage of “The limits to growth”, a land mark study that predicted that industrial society would peak and decline sometime in the 21st century, right about now as it turns out. Permaculture was in many ways a counter reaction to the many generations of dizzying technological and cultural change that ultimately led to that precarious position on top of a planet spanning pyramid of complexity. The central goal of permaculture was summed up in its name- a portmanteau of permanent and agriculture, later expanded to include all culture. The dream was to develop a society that was in equilibrium with the natural world, allowing it to be sustained indefinitely. In some ways this echoes the philosophy of political scientist Fukuyama, who stated that the world had reached the end of history with the fall of the USSR, leaving capitalism to reign forever in prosperity. Or the fateful statement of economist Irving Fisher who said that the stock market had reached a “permanently high plateau” right on the eve of the great depression.

Humans are predominantly creatures of habit who enjoy safety, routine and predictability with only a smattering of novelty. The early 20th century in particular saw people experience a mind bending explosion of new technologies transforming society, though the pace of innovation and transformation has slowed considerably since the 1970’s. Permaculture as such can be seen as a push back against the changes in recent generations, made more urgent by the limited shelf life of industrial civilisation. Permaculture looked to the past and diverse pre-industrial cultures, along with the more modern understanding of ecology and tried to imagine a system where permanence could finally be achieved. This I believe is the flaw at the heart of permaculture from a philosophical perspective. Time is essentially change. Holding back the flow in a system only ensures a bigger and more dramatic change in the future. Stopping small avalanches only ensures that a larger one will happen later. Putting out spot fires only ensures a massive inferno another day.

One salient example of this phenomenon is the stagnation of millions of years of accumulated solar energy in the form of coal and oil that were suddenly put back into motion by humans with the pulse of activity that was the industrial age. In history political regimes that persisted for hundreds of years were typically dramatically overthrown in a short period of time, such as the Ancien Regime in France. One of the main benefits of a healthy democracy is that it can prevent discontent from building to the point where violent revolution is unavoidable. Even more dramatically ancient cultures such as the Australian aborigines that experienced thousands of years with relatively little cultural change were almost wiped off the map within a generation of contact with the rest of the world. If permaculture were to achieve its dream of permanence would it be setting society up for a similar wrenching dislocation in time?

So what are the alternatives to chasing the dream of permanence? What if instead we appreciated the roles and benefits of transience, much like our human ancestors enjoyed before settled agriculture emerged a mere blink of the eye ago in the history of our species? With the climate on course to change enough to potentially make grain based agriculture too unreliable to support settled civilisation then this may be the best approach. Many of the hunter-gatherer tribes in the Americas were settled agriculturalists before European contact, only reverting to a more resilient mobile mode of living after their apparently permanent societies collapsed. Many of the world’s peoples are still leading nomadic herding lifestyles in regions that are unsuitable for settled agriculture. Would this way of living be more suitable for the vast seasonally arid regions of the Australian interior?

In many ways permaculture as a culture already embraces the spirit of experimentation and play in how we approach the problems of daily living. Permanence in any form will likely always remain just an ever elusive dream in a world tossed from one crisis to another. The foolish man builds his house on shifting sands. Better to keep going until the sand stops or best of all make a tent.

The Roman philosopher Seneca once said “It were some comfort yet to the frailty of mankind, and of human affairs, if things might but decay as slowly as they rise: but they grow by degrees, and they fall to ruin in an instant”.

3 thoughts on “Against Permanence

  1. The thing that gets me about permaculture (and I’ve done a PDC) is that it’s still agriculture, i.e. still providing more food than the environment would do so naturally, which is the essence of hunter-gathering and which kept populations relatively stable. Agriculture generally produces food surpluses and that gets converted to more people, who need more food, and so on ad infinitum. I know one of the principles of permacultue is “apply self-regulation and accept feedback”, but humans have never done this….when populations grew and more food was needed, another ecosystem was wiped out to make way for another monoculture. It doesn’t matter if you convert a natural ecosystem to a monoculture or to thousands of tiny permaculture gardens, the end result is the same. I can’t see people who practice permaculture having a different mindset to the rest of the population and deliberately limiting their numbers.


    1. I don’t think any species can apply self limitation, and humans are the only one to even imagine or try. Game theory shows that if there is an advantage to be won at the cost of others then the party who takes it wins out at least in the short run. The only place this seems to break down is between highly related individuals, like the worker bees in a hive where altruism is the norm (though even there individuals cheat quite often). Humans are unusual in that we are a highly inbred species despite our apparent diversity. This probably set up conditions that allowed modern humans to conduct mostly friendly relations with neighboring tribes, allowing intertribal marriage to be common (counteracting some of the dangers of being so inbred) and allowing long distance trade to occur (allowing critical materials, tools and knowledge to travel long distances as well). It is probably the evolutionary change that allowed us to become a continent spanning superorganism much like fire ant nests that merge with millions of queen ants.

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  2. So much to comment on here. Interesting thoughts are shared here. I like it.

    Firstly definitions – permanence.
    We humans are stupid creatures, constantly seeking to form the fixed in our environment, something unchanging. But to me this concept does to inter-relate to permanence. Natural permanence is an overlapping group of ebb and flow natural cycles. It will change over time (evolve if you want) and by applying a little selection pressure we can attempt to sway the balance to a goal (food, wood, fodder etc).

    Limitation –
    Nature does this everywhere – we have been fighting it (generally a population builds to collapse then restarts). Nature is harsh its usually done through disease or starvation.

    Game theory –
    Also stipulates the best outcome for all is mutual cooperation. Humans developed game theory to understand how to come out on top of the rat race, which is usually why we cant maintain it (greed).

    Permaculture –
    I dislike this movement, similar to a church, it has noble intentions but flawed implementation which seems to be corrupting the core philosophy. The founder is openly hostile to science, the training is standardized, the culture is closed to those who haven’t bought in and success seems reliant on fees from training others.

    Science is a tool, and only a poor tradesmen blames his tools. Science tries to form definitions so we can communicate our findings and replicate them. If you cannot articulate why your system works you cannot train another how to design one.

    Standardized training means the curriculum is largely unchanging. This means nothing new is being taught or learnt. I am also wondering if this is partly to blame for the horrendous fees they try to charge, which immediately makes them hypocritical when restricting this knowledge (fair share for all to help the earth? or only when you can surmount the economic hurdle?)

    It strikes me that if they need to charge so much for training they must need supplementary income, reminds me of the show archer:

    Noah: “Hey, guy, my field’s anthropology.”
    Riley: “Heh heh! Good luck with the job hunt.”
    Archer: “Right?”
    Noah: “Not that it’s any of your business, but I plan to teach.”
    Archer: “Anthropology?”
    Noah: “Wha–? Yes!
    Riley: “To anthropology majors?”
    Noah: “Hey, you know what?”
    Archer: “Thus completing the circle of ‘Why bother?'”

    Check out sepp holzer, did his own farming style by observing nature over 40+ years and seems to have enjoyed great success and he seemingly shares his knowledge openly.


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