Fw: Pc slammed in Whole Earth Review

Graham Burnett gb0063551 at cableinet.co.uk
Sat Jan 5 15:35:19 EST 2002

Pc slammed in Whole Earth ReviewI wondered if anybody here (Permaculture UK) could help Toby with this?

What about john comben & sue ferguson's reports on Cool Temperate PC (ie UK) that have recently been made available (still waiting for my copy from the Assoc) ? are these online? If not Micah, stop slacking! (only joking mate!)

My own take (from my recent article that was published in Permaculture Magazine (UK)) http://pages.unisonfree.net/gburnett/essay/allotment1.htm :

 "The question "does permaculture work?" is a tautological question- Permaculture is BY DEFINITION about was DOES work and what it is sustainable for future generations in your locality; and is also about what suits you where you are in life..."

IOW Permaculture is about ethics, principles & design, not specific techniques as Greg seems to be saying...


Graham Burnett
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----- Original Message ----- 
From: Toby Hemenway 
To: permaculture 
Sent: Saturday, January 05, 2002 8:06 PM
Subject: Pc slammed in Whole Earth Review

Those of you who can get Whole Earth Review may want to look at the new Winter 2001 issue. WER sent a copy of Gaia's Garden for review to Greg Williams, a one-time agroforestry guy who publishes the HortIdeas newsletter. Turns out Williams absolutely hates permaculture, thinks its mostly bull (he took one of the first American courses from Bill). Williams didn't focus too much on my book, but spent a couple thousand words blasting permaculture, very persuasively. Whole Earth was kind enough to let me reply in print, and I did my best to address his gripes, but he raised a couple of very good points (both Greg's piece and mine were cut about 30% by the editors; the tone of Greg's was originally very nasty and sarcastic, but the editors removed most of that).

He used some pretty strong language: "The fundamentally misguided ideas of some permaculturists . . . show signs of polluting the larger culture." It's unpleasant to see this in a widely respected and influential magazine. 

One of Greg's less cogent arguments was that Pc's whole idea of mimicking mature ecosystems was stupid because immature ecosystems are more productive than mature ones. This was easy to dispose of, since he missed the difference between fully mature (senescent, ancient, less productive) forests and maturing forests (5-200 years old, which Pc seeks to mimic), which are 2-10 times more productive than meadows or farms. 

But his most damning points were about the absence of data, testing, and experiments with controls to support any of permaculture's claims of being a superior system to conventional agriculture or gardening. He wrote that he has never seen "any convincing evidence that temperate zone forest gardens can do better than meadow gardens at providing useful products." If anyone ever did measure, he says, the yields of conventional gardens should dwarf those of forest gardens.

Permaculturists, he writes, "have neglected the scientific approach to determining the worth of their ideas . . . and instead have argued for and against particular gardening techniques on the basis of (at best) incomplete theoretical notions and (at worst) pure intuition. This is worse than glossing over the details; it is misconstruing the details. . . . It is completely unacceptable when their claims are made to the general public, who stand to waste huge amounts of time and money on a (much) less-than-optimal approach to boosting garden output."

The problem is, it's hard to find data to refute his claims (I did my best, but to an insider, there may be a faint whiff of the barnyard about some of my reply). We just don't collect data. What do we answer when a farmer asks, "How much more money or produce, or less erosion, will your system get me?" That we just know it works better? Does anyone have any numbers? I've looked at a lot of Pc sites in North America, and I haven't seen one where people are measuring yields. 

So are we justified in saying that this stuff works? Or is permaculture just for those, as Williams says, "who do not require optimal solutions to pressing agricultural and ecological problems"? 

If anyone's got any hard numbers, or other reputable data, please share them. If not, it points to a huge lack in permaculture, and we should get busy setting up trials and getting reliable data instead of just banking on Bill's wild claims. Without data, more folks like Williams will erode permaculture's credibility.

I've also had inquiries from a researcher who wants yield data from permaculture farms for a thesis. If anyone has these, let me know.

For a look at my new book on ecological gardening,
Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, visit

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