Peak Oil and Permaculture: Ecotopian Fantasy or Effective Strategy for Survival?
The Spring 2006 issue of the magazine Permaculture Activist is going to be devoted to peak oil. But in the meantime, debate is already raging about its value. Ran Prieur wrote:
On one level, "permaculture" is a racket, a copyrighted word for an exclusive system that you're not allowed to teach unless you've been through a bunch of classes that only rich westerners can afford, and then you make money by charging the same rates to more rich westerners. I think it's homicidal and ultimately suicidal that anyone with this kind of knowledge is holding it back. But in practice, outside the pyramid, there are a lot of people using the word "permaculture" for a whole mess of super-efficient food-growing techniques that are freely exchanged. Some of these techniques are revivals or reinventions of practices of indigenous people, some of them are improvements, and some are totally new. It's as if thousands of cultures from throughout history are now getting together and sharing their knowledge and figuring out how to grow food with the least energy and in the least space. The result is that we now have the knowledge to feed everyone in the world, even without oil. Growing your own food is a much more realistic survival strategy than foraging/hunting, because that requires a healthy ecosystem with lots of edible wild plants and animals. The more nature is depleted, the less we can survive by foraging/hunting, and the more we must survive by building up the soil and water locally, making our own tiny ecosystems and growing our own food.But at Anthropik.com, Jason Godesky responded:
In practice, of course, there's going to be a dieoff, but the number of survivors will depend on the breadth and depth of our knowledge of "permaculture," and your chance to survive will depend on the density of that knowledge in your local area.
Permaculture is another ecotopian dream that shows a lot of promise at first blush. Its principles, and most of its techniques, are the same as tribal cultivators operating below the point of diminishing returns: horticulturalists. Ran repeats a common claim, that permaculture could feed the world's current population, even without oil, but that's not a view shared by David Holmgren, the man who innovated the modern incarnation of permaculture that claims to be so revolutionary and different from the horticulturalists it so closely resembles. In an interview with Adam Fenderson, Holmgren said:
The expectation that we can actually maintain industrial levels of agricultural activity—well, yes, it is possible in intensive gardening to produce more food per hectare than the most intensive industrial systems. But we're looking at mostly garden agriculture, where there's a net input of resources, compost materials, and it's very labor intensive. And most of that is actually in urban areas where people live. So garden agriculture can yield more per hectare than the industrial equivalent form, but with broad-acre agriculture systems you definitely need many more people and you need the infrastructure for people to be able to live on farms.
Permaculture--like all horticulture--faces certain limitations. Seedballs do not work everywhere. Terracing requires hillsides or mountainsides. Some techniques require rivers or streams nearby. Marvin Harris calculated horticulture to be, calorie-for-calorie, the most efficient mode of sustenance humans have ever tried, and I have no doubt that permaculture shares that trait. However, we cannot simply multiply the per-acre yield of a permacultural garden by the land mass of the earth to find how many people permaculture can support. Like horticulture, permaculture cannot be practiced everywhere. Moreover, it will likely still require a good bit of supplementing. For horticulturalists, that supplementing came from foraging.
The idea of permaculture as a means of rewilding, and repairing the damage done by agriculture, particularly interests me. But, what is good for me and mine may not translate well as a society-wide strategy. Where permaculture is possible, I have no doubt it will play a role. But that role is unlikely to be an easy swap-in replacement for monocropping agriculture. There is a ruthless efficiency to that practice that yields an absolute number of calories no sustainable practice could ever match. The idea that permaculture can support our current population is simply absurd, as Holmgren himself wrote in "Energy and Permaculture":
The most productive sustainable systems imaginable may be able to provide for the needs of five or even 10 billion people. However they would never sustain large-scale cities, a global economy, and Western material affluence even if all the conventional energy conservation strategies were to be adopted. This is a bitter pill to swallow for Westerners raised on the notion of material progress.
Not all areas are suitable for permaculture. It would be difficult to eke out a permacultural living in a desert, for example. Foragers do rely on a healthy ecosystem, but healthy ecosystems flourish all around us without our notice. The Kalahari is a flourishing ecosystem that sustained the !Kung and the Hadza, though to our eyes it looks desolate, dead, unforgiving and uninhabitable. Foragers can survive almost anywhere on earth, and however much a threat collapse may be to human populations, we are still at least a century from significantly threatening the survival of life on earth.
Permaculture is promising, but it is not a panacea. It won't work everywhere, and it will never support the billions of people who live by monocropped agriculture today. Ran suggested that only America would face mass starvation and cannibalism, but much of the world today is fed by America. Permaculture will no doubt save many who might otherwise have died, but to exaggerate its impact seems to be buying into the same ecotopian dreams that drove Brazil's disastrous experiment with ethanol, or Cornucopian responses to Peak Oil about economic substitutes and alternative energy.
Belittling foraging for its dependence on a healthy ecology forgets that permaculture also depends on a healthy ecology. Moreover, permaculture relies on a much more specific kind of healthy ecology than foraging. Growing your own food has always been a far more risky business than simply living like the lilies of the field or the birds of the sky. Permaculture's most promising possibility is as a companion to foraging, not an alternative to it. And while foraging will be possible in all those same places where people will be able to practice permaculture, there will no doubt be many other areas--most of the earth, I would venture--where permaculture will not be possible, but foraging still offers a life of ease and plenty.
phew! and there's more: the debate continues at village blog