What is permaculture?

S.K. Harrison skh23ca at yahoo.com
Fri Dec 21 18:13:07 EST 2001

> From: Toby Hemenway <hemenway at jeffnet.org>

Hi Toby,
as an exercise, I challenge you to reformulate
the subject line without using any form of 'to
be'. See how many different questions you can
generate and I'd welcome you to post them here.
Perhaps everyone who's interested can do this and
post their results say five days hence--the
comparison of independent results might prove
valuable. Are you into it? (I'm at friday today,
so I'd be posting next Wednesday.)

The e-prime habit (English minus 'to be') can
provide also a solution to Jeff's objection:

"This question "what is permaclture" sometimes
carries with it the assumption that there is one
common definition or a "right" definition."

> David Holmgren has argued that permaculture is
> not a discipline in the way medicine is (or
> biology, or physics). 

To which John replied:
> And I add, "'deity-of-your-choice-or-none-at-
> all' forbid it becomes one!"

John, would you render this in simpler language.
I can't decipher it.

> He said he doesn=B9t want
> to be churning out permaculturists so much as
> he wants, for example, architects with a
> permacultural perspective.

Off at a tangent from your example of
pc-architects, I'd emphasize having *kids* absorb
this perspective. They'd love it. But, to avoid
dogmatizing pc, what would I like to see in
public schools, in a more general sense?
Observation, communication, analysis, synthesis,
application. Sounds like behaviours that take
place in practitioners of 'Permaculture', or even
many conventional disciplines. We'd need only to
clothe that behavioural framework in whatever
problems had been designated or chosen as the
focus for that day: feed the chickens the rotten
hay in the field yonder, test the water for
pollutants, start a letter-writing campaign,
examine the second law of thermodynamics.

> So this brings me to my question:  Why is
> permaculture so hard to classify? Where does it
> fit into our system of knowledge? The problem
> is like the one we face on this list:
> permaculture seems to include about everything
> from gardening to economics to gender ethics,
> so how can we ever say that something lies
> outside permaculture?

Toby, I'd like to hear why these questions
concern you, since it seems like a query that has
emerged from your private deliberations.

If in fact nothing lies outside the domain of
permaculture, it would have as little use as the
word 'spirituality'--it means everything, so it
means nothing. I do not, however, believe this of
our word.

In so far as concerns distinct realms of
knowledge, permaculture overarchs as many realms
as its adherents care to make it overarch. Akin
to what you said, it provides a perspective that
arises out of each individual's application of pc

> To ask the question another way, is
> permaculture an attempt to solve a set of
> problems? Are these problems of the same nature
> as those of, say, biology (like "how can we
> design a guild?") or of those of the less
> tractable, less scientifically testable, social
> sciences ("how do we create a sustainable
> culture?")? If the latter, that would make
> permaculture like, say, economics, which
> contains both mathematically solvable problems
> and nasty problems of politics. But
> permaculture complicates matters further by
> prescribing certain behaviors and condemning
> others. So is it a system of moral beliefs? I
> think not; at least I think it tries to be
> testable, unlike morals.

My goddess, what a grabbag of stuff we have in
pc. I'd describe it like this: we face different
problems in life, for which we generate different
solutions. Some of these solutions have gotten
pretty specialized; as we solve one problem, more
come up that were not present prior to
implementing the solution. Individual people go
through this on a small scale, humans as a
species go through this on a large scale. 

Into this enters permaculture, or
general-semantics, or any of several efficacious
summary prescriptions for actual living, as
opposed to mere talk about living. In a general
sense, they reaffirm the need for individual
people to learn to deal with problems as unique
problems, without recourse to a whole load of
irrelevant specialized data--to observe, reflect
and apply. 

In short, pc doesn't fit into knowledge
structures--it doesn't need to. Rather, it takes
those structures, makes a roughshod summary and
gives it to us for *living as a human on this
planet in the 21st century*. Sometimes pc'ers use
bits from specialized resources: geology for
subsoil data, meteorology for the daily forecast,
ethnology for pattern recognition. But mostly, pc
thumbs its nose at academentia and goes off,
shirt-tails flapping, to muck the pigs.

* * *

One question Toby. Would you specify what you're
talking about when you speak of moral beliefs? 

The four ethical precepts of pc?
The unexamined pc-canonical underpinnings of each
choice we make for a given permaculture?

> Permaculture is called a design system. Does
> that set it in a different category from
> disciplines like architecture or biology?
> I've argued elsewhere that permaculture is
> a "meta-discipline" that organizes other
> disciplines, a toolbox that organizes tools
> such as agroforestry, organic gardening, solar
> technology, etc, and tells us when and how to
> apply them. But doesn=B9t geology or
> evolutionary biology do the same thing, calling
> upon physics or genetics for techniques and
> theoretical buttressing? We would call geology
> and evolutionary biology "disciplines," so why
> not permaculture?

One major difference between pc and conventional
inter/disciplines can be observed in the
accessibility of pc. Without training and with
only a modicum of resources, one can achieve
excellence in pc and its variants through a
patient process of observation; but in the
academics, excellence demands strong familiarity
with prior techniques and specialized verbal

> I'm puzzled as to where permaculture fits
> into our system of knowledge. It doesn=B9t seem
> to fit very neatly, and that may be why it
> makes such few inroads into the mainstream. Or
> are the difficulties more because permaculture
> is badly organized (the way its many principles
> are a hodge-podge of statements of different
> logical types) and a jumble of mismatched
> theories, principles, assessments, and data?
> Sorting this out may help us explain
> permaculture better to others, and to locate
> the problems most worth solving.

Are you referring to academia when you use
'mainstream'? The entire local population? Some
other recognizable majority?

> Well, I didn=B9t intend to raise quite so many
> questions when I started this.

I stay with the questions like a meditator keeps
to his breath. Keep it coming.


> From: John Schinnerer <eco_living at yahoo.com>

> > To ask the question another way, is
> > permaculture an attempt to solve a set of
> > problems? 
> I would say (philosophically speaking) that
> it's (hopefully) broader than that - that it's
> a system for designing what we want.  This
> avoids some of the traps of "problem solving"
> as our culture often practices it.

Let me see if I get you--you're drawing out the
intentionality of pc, in contrast with a mere
lurching from problem to problem without catching

Also, I believe north american society uses this
intentionality in businesses large and small, so
could you refine "our culture" to something more

> In my early attempts to describe my degree
> program, I often resorted to the idea "inter-
> disciplinary," partly because more people could

> latch onto that idea.  Eventually I understood
> that it was not "inter-disciplinary," because
> it was not "discipline-based" at all but rather
> design-based.  So if PC is design-based (that's
> my understanding), it is "done differently"
> than what we call "disciplines."

Instead of 'interdisciplinary' I describe pc with
'transdisciplinary', cf. transnational,
transpersonal, transcendental, etc.

As a *trans*disciplinary field, I observe that
practitioners draw on many other disciplines or
approaches or attitudes, including, but not
limited to design, and not necessarily using any
of them--a simple learning from what you've got
in front of you: perhaps a dog, a patch of dirt,
some seeds and seedlings. Have you read Fukuoka?

(As an aside, I recall a couple of submissions to
the Int'l PC Journal, mid-80s. One article was
written by Jude Gregory, the other, a letter, had
'Weeds' in the title and spoke about Fukuoka's
attitude toward design. I recall them as both
pertinent to this thread. Anyone know what the
hell I'm talking about? Anyone got back issues?)

> > I¹m puzzled as to where permaculture fits
> > into our system of knowledge. It doesn¹t seem
> > to fit very neatly, and that may be why it
> > makes such few inroads into the mainstream. 
> How about we just let it lie there and flop
> around vigorously, not fitting in.  That can
> draw quite a crowd sometimes...

ROTFLMAO! I like that solution. I'd like to know
details. Many more strategies can be generated
also, including such sobriety as marketing
schemes (sans ads), documentaries (a la global
gardener), college radio shows, etc.


> From: jeff owens <jko at bctonline.com>

> What is an ecopath?

An environmental psychopath.

cf. Earth First!, ALF, Deep Ecology, etc.

Forgive my dark levity, I like what I've read
about your discussion list--seems most pertinent
to this thread--but "psychopath" jumped into my
head before I had a chance to read the
description. What's more, I kinda like them
ecopaths. ;)


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