[Permaculture] "Forward" and "Back"/ Discussing Solutions

eric + michiko emstorm at metro.net
Thu Jul 1 01:38:03 EDT 1999

This ended up long and rambling, but I think it goes somewhere - not
necessarily where I had intended, but . . .  : )

Greg wrote:
> Many utopian systems I've read about speak of essentially throwing
> away most if not all technology and basically shifting back to "the
> simpler times" of agriarian societies from hundreds of years ago. I
> believe this is dead wrong, and completely pointless, given the
> current state and size of the human population. We need to move
> forward, not go back. This means continuing to support and develop
> and embrace new technologies of all kinds to solve some of the
> problems we have created for ourselves in this current mess,

I do agree that some (many?) utopian visions are too quick to throw out
everything we have learned and done since the turn of the century or the
industrial revolution.  This is an overreaction to the problems we have:
"Things are bad, so let's start all over."  It also assumes that things
were "better" at the specific time they want to go back to; this is usually
overly romantic and often inaccurate.  I think it is possible and desirable
to take from all past and current societies those things that are good and
will help do what we are trying to do.  We aren't clear enough on what we
are trying to do to know which things are "good".

Greg, you used the phrase "given the current state and size of the human
population" to explain (one reason?) why you thought this was not a good
approach.  Then you said, "We need to move forward, not go back." without
explaining why _this_ approach is better.  Our current uses of technology
have not done well (I'm thinking specifically about the environment and
population).  Since I assume that you are not just seeing it as an "either
/ or" question, you must have chosen your ideas over some of the other
possible approaches.  Could you go into more detail about how you made that

The you said that going forward leads to, "continuing to support and
develop and embrace new technologies of all kinds".  If "forward" refers to
time, why would it lead to technological solutions?  I am making a large
assumption here; I assume that by "technology" you are referring to things
like computers, fuel efficient cars, solar wind and micro hydro power,
machines, industry, genetic engineering, space programs, etc.   

If "forward" means forward in time, we have no choice but to go forward.
"Back" could really only refer to some time or place we have been before,
so I guess it best refers to giving up more recent things and starting
again from a set of technologies and beliefs of an earlier time.  This use
of the word forward has little relevance, so I'd rather use it to mean, at
best, improvement, or, at least, stumbling along in a general direction.
Since we do not really know that what we will try next is an improvement,
it would seem impossible to purposefully move forward, and only possible to
attempt to move forward, if forward means improvement.  At best we could
chose a direction to head in that we believe to be better than where we are
or have been.  In the end we'll go where ever the combined tugs and pulls
of all forces take us.  This all leads me to think that "forward" and
"back" really aren't that useful for discussing these ideas, but they do
seem to hold some kind of idea because they do appear frequently in these
kinds of discussions.

John wrote:
> Quite a few wise folks have pointed out that it is unlikely that more of our
> "technology" (whatever that is) can save us from the messes we've made with
> our technology.

This reminded me of something I read recently.  It went something like this:

Without much forethought, a man drilled a hole in the bottom of his boat.
As the water rushed in threatening to sink the boat he had the brilliant
idea of drilling more holes to let the water drain out. Needless to say the
boat sank while he continued to drill holes.

John continued:
> . . .It's what we do with "technology," not what it "is," that
> matters - and the underlying manner in which we use it does not necessarily
> change with the creation of "new" technologies (it certainly hasn't
> lately...).  

I don't think it is that easy to write off the "what it is" part. Yes,
_how_ we use a technology is very important as well as to what purposes we
put it.  But the type of technology is also important.  With the _possible_
exception of a well thought out use over a short period to achieve a
specific goal when no other option is available, unsustainable technologies
are harmful and unfair and should be avoided.  Nuclear power / weapons and
genetic engineering come to mind as good examples of technologies that
should be avoided in general.  I can't see such technologies being put to
any good large enough to justify their negative effects.  I suppose this is
another way to look at _how_ a technology is used, since if we can't find a
good way of using them we shouldn't use them at all.  Perhaps these are
just two sides of the same coin.

John again:
> This is a challenge permaculture faces...a big one, I think...how to avoid
> becoming another bundle of technologies, methods, and techniques without
> adequate attention to *how* they are being applied (underlying cultural
> habits - the "culture" in permaculture?) and the consequences thereof.

I think this gets at what John was saying (correct me if I'm wrong!).
There need to be ethical guidelines to help guide a society's actions.
Without them many seemingly harmless technologies or activities can become
meaningless or even harmful.  I always had some trouble with the idea of
using large machinery to get a Permaculture system up and going quickly
with the rational that over the lifetime of the system it would be worth
it.  I see such a system starting out with an "environmental mortgage" to
pay off before the real benefits can be counted.  It seems to have the same
problems and root causes as the house mortgage and credit card overuse.  Or
another example I heard last night, "There might be 5000 square foot
environmentally friendly homes, but not 5000 square foot socially
responsible homes."  These kinds of "mistakes" come from shallow thinking.
We need to learn to be more deeply consistent and consistently deep.

In our society we have become afraid of ethics because of fundamentalists'
abuse of them.  But this is an overreaction.  We _need_ ethics to make
sense of what we do.  We don't have to agree on a lot of details, but as a
society, we do have to agree (or at least keep an open debate going) on
some basic ideas.  Without some form of guidelines, a society will drift in
the direction of the most powerful, which in our society that means
wealthy.  I was glad to see that Bill Mollison included ethics in
Permaculture, but I do not see them consistently applied or even considered.

(Warning - short tirade ahead!)

Too many people take the easy (seductive but harmful, in my opinion) route
by adopting the ethical relativism that says, "What I believe to be right,
is right for me; You may have a different belief, and so what is right for
you may be different".  It sounds very diplomatic, democratic and tolerant,
but look deeper at it.  It's basically saying that nothing is "right", and
we can do what ever we want.  Some will generously add, "as long as it
doesn't hurt anyone else", but this is often not followed through very far,
ending up "as long as I don't do anything worse than what others are
doing".  If nothing is right in a general sense, then how do I decide what
is right for myself?  Doesn't it just lead to some other definition of
"right" and lead to an avoidance of discussion about what is right because
we might not agree?  This seems like a childish way of avoiding something
because it is difficult.  I recognize the difficulty of agreeing on what is
right, but the nice thing is we don't have to agree on everything.  By
avoiding such discussions we weaken our abilities to think about ethics,
which certainly does not lead in a very good direction - as I think our
current society proves.

(End of tirade)

So where am I going with all of this?  It's not a question of going forward
or back.  Instead we need to begin an open on going discussion in our
society (homes, communities, schools, offices, clubs, churches, political
campaigns, media, etc.)about what is right, what direction we'd like to
head toward, what is important, what do we value, how we will go about
making the changes we feel we need to make, etc.  Once we clarify some
basic guidelines, or at least get a sense of the general direction and
values, the steps become clear and more importantly the motivation to move
in a given direction becomes stronger.  Along the way we should keep the
dialog, and our minds, open as we see what happens, so that we can react
and adapt and further clarify what we are trying to do.  We'll still end up
where ever the combined tugs and pulls of all forces take us, but the tugs
and pulls will reflect our values and intentions.

I better stop here!

Live, Learn, Laugh, Love!

Eric Storm

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