Permaculture is a system of intensively designed agriculture intended to mimic the natural processes and arrangement of forests in order to provide a sustainable food source and maintain the biodiversity of our local, regional and global ecologies. The principles of permaculture as designated by Bill Mollinson have a wider application to our social relations, and in many ways mirror the ambitions of anarchism – especially of the green shade. The following explores how his ideas on care for people, the earth and setting limits to consumption can sustain humanity through the coming period known as energy descent.
Mollinson declares the Prime Directive to be that “the only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.” He urges us all to make that decision now. This concept of self-sovereignty should ring true with every anarchist, as it matches the idea that there should be no authority but oneself. Basing his theory on Kropotkin’s ideas of mutual aid, Mollinson urges that cooperation, not competition, is the basis of existing life systems and of future survival. Contrary to the cut-throat scrambling generated by the Darwinian misconception of ‘survival of the fittest’, mutual aid and the cooperation of all living things has much more significance for humanity – without our relationship with natural systems and other living things we cannot survive, no matter how ‘fit’ we are.
The principle of cooperation invites a fundamental shift in our perspective of our relationships. By asking what does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them, we can change the mentality with which we approach problems and opportunities. As he says, “a philosophy of working with rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems and people in all their functions rather than asking one yield of them.” This is most dramatic in the perception of so-called ‘weeds’, namely plants that grow in the garden that were not seeded directly by the farmer. Permaculture invites an equanimitable view of all plants, looking at the relationships between them. Rather than simply uprooting an unwanted plant from the bed we might consider its’ other functions within the system. So long as it is not choking out or shading the desired plant, the ‘weed’ might be considered as another pollinator, a sacrificial plant for pests, or as potentially producing a hormone or scent beneficially to other species around it. Indeed, mixed planting or ‘polycultures’ have been shown to be more resistant to disease and pests than the traditional monocultural plantations.
For anarchists, the idea of a polycultural society is much more advantageous than the almost ‘McDonaldisation’ view of how a post-revolutionary society might look. It is extremely likely that we are now and will be in the future most united by our concept of a diverse multitude of cultures, rather than the Hobbesian Leviathan monoculture proffered by the global power structures.
Having asked the above question on beneficial cooperation, he details the rules of necessitous and conservative use. Firstly, that we should leave any system alone until we are, of strict necessity, forced to use it. Then having found it necessary to use a natural resource, we must insist on every attempt to be accountable for our actions. This takes the form of careful energy accounting to reduce waste and pollution, to replace lost minerals thoroughly, assessing the long-term negative impacts of our actions on biosocial and societal factors, acting to buffer and eliminate these.
This accountability reveres natural systems above all others. Care for the surviving natural assemblies requires us to leave wilderness to heal itself. The rehabilitation of eroded or degraded land using pioneer species and long-term plant assembles to repair the damage we have already caused. Thirdly, the creation of our own complex living environments with as many species as we can save, or have need for, from wherever on earth they come.
Both literally and figuratively, the responsibility is on us to get our own house and garden in order so it supports us, dramatically reducing the area required for agriculture, and increase the area for the sole use of wildlife. He proposes the role of farmer-poets, or philosopher-gardeners, who are distinguished by their sense of wonder and real feeling for the environment – a species of person who creates their own life conditions, rather than being at the mercy of an environment created by others. This is an aim shared by anarchists, who must all recognize the import of William Blake’s lines “I must create my own system, or be enslaved by another man’s.”
In another gem for people engaged in social reorganization, it is our responsibility to relinquish power. Mollinson argues that the role of a beneficial authority is to return function and responsibility to life and its people. If successful, no further authority is needed. With an awareness of the false-flag of vanguardism, the role of successful design is to create a self-managed system. Permaculture champions self-sustaining systems, and a good design should be around 10% maintenance, and 90% creative improvement – the exact inverse of most modern designs for gardens and agriculture. Consider that a healthy forest is entirely self-sustaining, and our model society or social group should aspire to be as well.
Mollinson’s succinct summary of the five design principles, if taken in a broader sociological sense, are sage advice for anyone engaged in social change and activism. They are as follows:
- to work with nature, rather than against it;
- that the problem is the solution;
- to make the least change for the greatest possible effect;
- that the yield of a garden is theoretically unlimited;
- that everything gardens.
In a moment of almost Marxist historical determinism, Mollinson describes the significance of cycles, be that seasons, life cycles, or historical epochs, describing them as “unique niches in time”. Every cyclic event increases the opportunity for yield, and that to increase cycling is to increase yield. As social change agents, we must learn to study these cycles within our history and contemporaneous existence to look for the choice moments to act and instigate. As when sowing seeds, the time and conditions need to be ripe for them to come to fruition.
In the close of his discussion of the principles and ethics of permaculture, he describes the principle of disorder. “In chaos lies the unparalleled opportunity for imposing creative order.” Order and harmony produce energy for other uses, whereas disorder consumes energy for no useful end. Contrary to the traditional view of agriculture, neatness and uniformity signify energy-maintained disorder in natural systems. Compare the trad-gardeners neat rows of relentlessly weeded vegetables with the chaotic interplay of a developed forest. Compare the orderly lines of the riot-police against the mob of looters and ask which one is closer to nature?
Mollinson’s principles of permaculture provide a model not only for the successful and abundant repair and redesign of our food production systems, but also have wider implications for the reorganization and implementation of a sustainable social order – a ‘permanent culture’. His emphasis on thoughtful design over mindless action offers a model for all anarchists to study and learn from in imagining a future society and for implementation in their home, community and garden today – one emphasizing the necessity of harmony and cooperation with our environment to assure surivival.