Sustainability through Massive abundance.

Episode 20: Fixing Permaculture

In which I call out what is wrong or missing in Permaculture and suggest changes so we can build something that actually can end the mass extinction, reverse climate change and provide abundantly for humanity.

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What's wrong with permaculture?

Recall from the last episode that permaculture is a design science that uses ecology to meet our needs while healing rather than harming the world. That makes it the paramount design system of future survival.

Without permaculture, I would have absolutely no hope for the future. Without permaculture, there would be no Edenicity. That's why I cannot let permaculture's many fatal flaws stand in the way of it becoming what it needs to become.

INTRO [music]

Cities designed like modern Edens for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.

Welcome to Episode 20, where I'll discuss what's wrong with permaculture and how Edenicity fixes it.

Bitter Medicine

This episode is a massive dose of bitter medicine. The more you care about the environment, the more you're into permaculture, the sicker this episode is going to make you. Chances are you're going to have trouble listening to it all the way to the end.

So take a moment now to write this down. Got something to write with? Okay, write this:

"Without truth, there can be no justice."

While you're writing that down, let me point out that this means no criminal justice, no social justice, no environmental justice. Think of the thousands of people who were executed and later turned out to be innocent. We need to know the truth to have justice.

All right, underneath that, please, write: "I want justice, so I vow to face the truth."

Once you've got that, sign it.

Now let's talk about truth for just a moment. Maybe you know of some counter examples to what I'm saying today. And that's actually wonderful. My point is that what I'm saying is sadly true much more often than it is false, especially in the United States. So though what I'm saying today is much, much more true than it's false, I'm hoping that someday, every single criticism that I have for permaculture proves false in the long term.

The good

All right, let's start with the good. This is what permaculture does right. And I refer you to Permaculture in One Page, which you can download from the program notes.

So what I like about permaculture are:

And there's all kinds of stuff that I haven't had time to discuss. There's the co-founder of permaculture Bill Mollison's five design principles from the Designers Manual, page 35. There are Mollison's four rules of natural resource use from page 34. There are the various strategies to extend yields over time and details of earthworks construction, and so much detail about how to design in different climates (although I do cover some of this in Episode 11). And so much more. I mean, permaculture really is a wonderful basis to do the work of saving the world and increasing human abundance at the same time.

The bad

That said, let's talk about the bad.

1. Car Dependence

First up, permaculture bakes car dependence in to most of its strategies, both in writing and as applied on the ground. Most of the examples in permaculture courses and permaculture books are rural, and so they are car dependent. Permaculture, as it's taught in the United States, appeals mainly to homesteaders who move to the country and buy a pickup. But here's the problem. Cars are the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide and the biggest cause of climate change. Roads destroy and fragment natural habitats. So you would think that permaculture would specifically address transportation? It doesn't. You'll be hard pressed to see any mention of transportation planning in any of the major books on permaculture. And that's a problem.

I argue that for most of us, you would do more good for the planet, living in a city, getting around by bike and public transit and eating organic produce than you would in a permaculture homestead with your pickup. No matter how much restoration work you do. No matter how organically you farm, no matter how little electricity you use, that car will negate all of those advantages.

2. Single Family Dwellings

Item two: permaculture as it's practiced, and as it is taught, generally presumes single family dwellings. In his massive online Permaculture Design Certificate course, Geoff Lawton, of the Permaculture Research Institute, urges his students to get your own property in order and then help others. So the basic idea is you first demonstrate your knowledge of permaculture by creating your own little permaculture oasis on your property. And then you use that as kind of a showcase to interest clients and spread permaculture in your region. The problem is, what if you rent? What if you're an apartment dweller? Should you move to the country?

Even my crummy old townhouse which was built in 70s with almost no attention to energy efficiency is four to six times more energy efficient than any detached house I've ever lived in. As I showed in episode 9, apartments require 90% less insulation and 67% less energy for climate control, then detached houses with the same floor space. You can take some of those savings and reinvest them in efficient technologies, such as thicker insulation and heat pumps, to get at least 20 times better energy performance. I visited eco villages such as The Farm in Tennessee, and honestly, these are freaking suburbs, with detached houses littered all over the landscape.

What's wrong with the suburbs? Well, first of all, of course, the car dependence. Second of all, they're very energy inefficient. And third, homesteads require a lot of redundant tools. If you're on a separate homestead or a detached lot in an eco village, chances are you're not sharing tools with very many neighbors. And that's a problem.

When you look to indigenous cultures going back into antiquity, many, many people lived in long houses, or joined up cliff dwellings, or very small, portable or temporary dwellings such as teepees, yurts igloos, or even just hammocks. They didn't need 200 square meters for loads of personal gear, plus a vast yard with the necessity of having a motorized mower.

If you're not in a joined up dwelling, you're living in a suburban dream that has been sold to you by car companies, lawn care companies, appliance companies, and dozens of other companies that are all atomizing your social relationships and commoditizing your life. They've been spending billions of dollars convincing you your parents before you and everybody you know that this is reality. If you're mad at me for bringing you this message, it's because I don't have billions of dollars to spend convincing you the way these massive industries have. So if you're not living in a joined up dwelling, or at the very least in a large Co Op house with maybe a dozen or two dozen people, you need to wake up and face reality: living in homesteads and single family dwellings is part of the problem that's killing the world.

That said, it's really hard not to, isn't it? You know, just try not to live that way. In many towns and cities, there's not many other housing options. I get it, and that's why we're doing Edenicity.

3. Species introductions

OK, item three is that permaculture is cavalier about introducing non native species. In Sepp Holzer's permaculture book on page 93, he sings the praises of multiflora rose for holding the soils. Well, I'm here to tell you that in Southeast Ohio, it's a menace and it should never have been introduced. Co founder of permaculture Bill Mollison, on page 7 from the Designers Manual, urges us to create our "own complex living environment with as many species as we can save, or have need for, from wherever on earth they come." So basically, he's asking us to create a personal arboretum, and I get that plants and animals move, and with climate change, some may have to be moved just to save them. But this needs to be done with great care and a large scale monitoring and coordination. Think of kudzu, Japanese arrowroot, which according to Wikipedia, was introduced from Japan into the United States at the Japanese pavilion in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Kudzu is a vine that is spread through the southeast United States, smothering entire native forests.

Species introductions are responsible for up to 15% of mass extinctions. Again, this is not a decision for individuals. It has regional and global repercussions, so it needs to be handled with utmost care rather than glib disdain.

4. Deliberate disorganization.

Item Four: deliberate disorganization. First of all, I've noticed that permaculturist are largely anti corporate. And I understand why. I mean, Delaware corporations, for example, are required to return shareholder value above all other concerns, and that can be really bad for the environment.

But bear in mind that Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and many other worthy organizations are corporations. And there's a large class of social purpose corporations that includes over 3000 so called B corporations in 71 countries. According to their website, "Certified B corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment. This is a community of leaders driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good."

The focus on homesteads and single families in permaculture guarantees not only that people are dependent on cars, but in many cases that they're labor limited and knowledge limited. If you've ever actually done this, you know exactly what I'm talking about. One of the most ingenious young homesteading couples that I ever met constantly fretted about the things that they didn't know when they started.

The fact is that no one person or very small group of people knows enough to do this right, unless they have the benefit of generations of knowledge passed down through their childhood. I'm thinking about Sepp Holzer, for example, who inherited his family farm of many generations, and to some extent, Bill Mollison.

And as part of this disorganization theme in permaculture, you often see messiness for its own sake because it appears more natural. I've fallen victim to that way of thinking many times! Thank goodness for Geoff Lawton, who in his massive online course clarified that only tropical gardens should be allowed to be messy, just because they're so rampant in their growth. Temperate climate gardening has to be tidy and organized to get everything done in the limited growing season.

5. Emphasis on manual labor

Item five: permaculture in the United States tends to emphasize manual labor to an inappropriate degree. I think maybe this is a legacy of permaculture's noble history of aid work throughout the world. Many examples that you see in permaculture texts and courses were perfected in very poor places where labor is cheap, and nobody can afford any machinery. Again, this was something that I did just because it was part of the permaculture culture that I learned as part of my first course and also my activities in the permaculture guild in Bloomington, Indiana. Now, of course, it's not like that everywhere in the world. In the Permaculture Research Institute in New South Wales, Australia, Geoff Lawton makes heavy use of heavy machinery to do large scale earthworks and relatively large scale permaculture installations.

6. Demonization of Science

Item six: a demonization of Science and Technology. Now this again is mainly a problem in the United States. And I think it's mainly in response to the way that big agriculture dresses up its sales pieces in scientific language, some would say scientifistic language, and the general ignorance of ecology and biology on the part of many people who work in hard technology (Elon Musk, I'm talking to you!).

Again, thank goodness for Geoff Lawton, who clarifies that permaculture is positivist. I had to look that one up. It means that it embraces science, logic, math and reason instead of metaphysics.

7. Hatred of cities

Item seven is a hatred of cities. From Bill Mollison's book Permaculture, a Designers Manual, page 531: "Cities: mainly disorganized on every level. Effective anarchy and crime and social isolation in many areas."

Ironically Edenicity's chunked to Mollison's recommendations from the same chapter. The key is not just to jam 100,000 people together. Instead, Edenicity has one to three families sharing a row house or apartment floor, maybe 20 families sharing a row of houses. A block might have 80 families, or about 250 people, and 24 blocks makes up a village. The political structure follows this, too.

The point is, cities are not to be revealed as inherently disorganized, which is the prevailing and dismissive attitude on the part of most permaculturists I've ever met. Instead, we should view cities as as just candidates for better design.

8. Idolizing Perennials

Item eight: idolizing perennial food systems. Now, there's been a lot of talk about the Lazy Gardener. That's something you can Google. And it was a phrase that Bill Mollison coined. And there's food forests: the idea here being that you put a lot of attention and energy into getting them established and then basically live a foraging lifestyle from there on. I've seen this on the ground and it's wonderful in places like Village Homes. You really can snack your way through the landscape.

But there's nothing lazy about it. In Village Homes, Davis, California, when I was there, people were working in their yards all the time. Also, gathering is inefficient. Curtis Stone writes about this in Medium and he points out that it doesn't scale to commercial production. As a former market gardener, I can certainly vouch for that.

The other thing is: the reality of food systems is that there will be weeds. There will be plants that will find open niches in your system and take over. Now I've actually found a middle ground there. I've learned to love certain weeds. I especially liked lambs quarters, which is a type of quinoa that grows all over the place in Southeast Ohio. And it was edible through great swaths of the summer. But it wasn't something that I could bring to market. The point here is that perennial food systems are a very promising area of growth and learning, especially in the United States from first nations who practice active landscape management. But this is a multi generation research project, not a great way to get a yield in the modern world.

Others such as Stone have criticized swales and mulching, but I won't. People report cases where these aren't the best solutions, but I'm not saying that those cases are in anything close to the majority. My Ohio property for example, had some areas where in theory increasing soakage could have caused landslides, but it never actually happened despite a 55 centimeter rain event. I think if you're a permaculture designer, you need to know about swales and mulching as these are some of your basic tools. Just be sure to study the soil maps and talk to the county Extension agents.

The missing

Okay, so much for what's bad. Let's talk about what's missing in permaculture.

1. Rigorous assessments

First, rigorous assessments. Mollisons rules for natural resource use include bio-social impact assessments and careful energy accounting. But I've actually never seen a bio-social impact assessment in a permaculture student project or plan and it really should be a required basic element. And as far as careful energy accounting goes, well, if your homestead is 20 miles from town, how much driving will you actually have to do in practice compared to living in town? Will your other activities on the homestead really offset all that extra CO2?

2. Lack of city design

Item two: strategies for end-to-end green design for apartments, cities,s industry and commerce. Even in Toby Hemingway's book, The Permaculture City, apartments appear mainly as an afterthought. The problem is, he's applying design at the scale of families, not cities. Maybe that's what's wrong with permaculture as a whole.

I will note one delightful exception: Sepp Holzer's permaculture has drawings of really nice apartment permaculture designs. This is the one exception that I'm aware of. And even then it's a retrofit and not a clean sheet design.

3. Transportation Strategies

And third: permaculture is missing rigorous transportation strategies. Edenicity has the only transportation system to seriously stack functions: sheltered bike paths provide half the solar energy for the city, as well as emergency vehicle access to every village. The Loop transit system involves 10 to 20 killograms of machinery per resident, not the thousands that cars require, let alone the tons and tons per person of surface streets. The bottom line is that permaculture as most people practice it is a poor fit to affluent countries and to the trend of urbanization.

What can you do now?

Well, what can you do about it? I have six recommendations.

First of all, champion high density champion connected-up housing. In Columbus developers can't build high density because neighborhood associations oppose it. Don't let that anti-apartment sentiment go unchallenged. Apartments done right are good for the earth, good for the economy and good for the neighborhood. Say you go house-hunting with someone. Make it a townhouse or an apartment instead of a standalone. And if your sweetie says that a neighborhood is bad because it has apartments, sing the praises of high density.

Number two: champion green urban renewal. Nuff said about that.

Three: kill the car. If you are inclined to be politically active, one thing you can do is fight any road or highway or parking expansions or any proposals of any kind that involve putting more motorized vehicles on the ground. If activism isn't for you, believe me I get that. What you can do is ride a bike and oppose helmet laws which discourage female riders.

Fourth item: fight for sheltered traffic protected bike paths so you can ride in any weather. Yeah, I know they don't exist, but they should.

Item five: don't flee the city to start a homestead or eco village. I'll explain why in episodes 28 and 29.

And item six, spread the word about Edenicity. Go to, snag the URL of your favorite episode, and post it to social media. And if you're really motivated, check out our store and new membership site. Edenicity is not a small vision. We're talking about building entire cities or rebuilding big portions of existing cities.

Bill Mollison was prejudiced against cities, and he didn't address transportation at all. But he was no fool. Edenicity incorporates many of his strategies for community design and physical design for that matter.

Close [music]

Now, I hope it's clear from the passion I brought to today's episode that I love permaculture. It's our best hope for a long future. But permaculture has fatal flaws. As practiced today, it perpetuates cars, roadways, suburban sprawl, species introductions, isolation and poverty. That's a recipe for more extinctions and more human misery. And that's why I'm starting Edenicity, a large scale urban permaculture development company that addresses all of the issues identified today, and measures them rigorously against the three ethics of permaculture.

If Episode 20 woke you up, you owe it to yourself and the planet to subscribe so you don't miss out on what's next. If you haven't already done so, please visit the link in the program notes to download a copy of the reference design. And be sure to join me next time when I'll discuss the key to urban permaculture: expanding the commons. I’m Kev Polk and this has been Edenicity


Edenicity 20: Fixing Permaculture

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