I hold a permaculture design certificate. I did a couple of months’ work on projects in Vietnam with one of my tutors, Geoff Lawton. He's one of the top names in the discipline. But I don’t believe permaculture and regenerative agriculture are “solutions” to our predicament.
The truth is, they are more like what people will be forced to do when all else fails. For most, it represents the lifestyle we’re all working so hard to avoid.
There’s an important reason I am pointing this out. A lot of what some environmentalists consider denial or ignorance is really people knowing their options only too well. They have decided that they rather like their affluent industrialised lifestyles. They’re not going ‘back to the land’ until they are forced to by poverty or at the point of a gun, as has already been test-run by autocrats throughout history.
Permaculture and regenerative agriculture’s core insight is pretty simple. We can grow a lot of organic food if we all become non-mechanised, semi-subsistence farmers. But we knew that already.
That’s what most of us were doing for the last 10,000 years, until the last 250. And most of us had a terrible time. We built colonies, industrialised civilisation and modern dentistry to get away from all that.
Permaculture enthusiasts argue that the ‘systems’ thought up by a couple of Australian academics in the 70s somehow magically revealed ways of farming vastly more efficient than anything handed down through hundreds of generations of lifelong farmers whose lives depended on it. The same goes for the sudden enthusiasm for ‘regenerative agriculture’.
This strikes me as wishful thinking at best. It’s more likely just startlingly arrogant. It even smells a bit like cultural colonisation. Yet again things are ‘discovered’ by white men from the dominant culture as if they never existed before.
Farming without pesticides and machines doesn’t take us all the way to a stunning new future of abundance for eight billion people. It is much more likely to take us back to the 18th century, when we were only poorly feeding an eighth of that population.
Some people who get into permaculture find they like a bit of hobby farming, or a veggie patch. But that’s usually as far as it goes. In Vietnam I worked on permaculture projects where rural people reverted to doing things in much the same way as their grandparents did. But now they had snazzy new names and diagrams. Back home ‘urban regenerative farmers’ are growing food in cities, where there wasn’t much before for really good reasons. Tower blocks make crap farms. Hydroponics needs power we can’t spare for lettuces and microgreens. And the idea of pointing elaborate lights at plants rather than just letting the Sun get on with it is bonkers.
In industrialised countries most permaculture practitioners are cotton-wooled inside the affluence of their technological societies. Most of the top permaculturists keep going by running courses, speaking at conferences and convincing acolytes like me to work for free. It’s remarkably like some kind of hippie pyramid sales scheme in the mud.
I have permaculture friends who have been living in everything from buses in South America to woods in South Wales. All of them enjoy international flights, hospital visits and inherited money. All of that would be impossible if everyone lived completely in the style permaculture suggests. None of them actually produce enough food for their household, let alone beyond it.
Others of them suffer from what I call ‘Premature Lifeboat Syndrome’. Let’s take a real example. A couple I know spent two decades on 10 acres of land in an eco-village in rural New Zealand. They built up their smallholding as a haven of simplicity and sustainability. When I met them in their 50s they were knackered. They physically couldn’t carry on. The volunteers they hosted would never do all the work. They had nobody to pass the property on to, as their kids weren’t interested. Disheartened, they sold and went to live in the burbs, where a lot of these people end up.
It’s like they jumped into a lifeboat on the Titanic, with all the privations of those small rowboats, only to pull the cover up once in a while and find the big ship still skimming the waves with the restaurants open. It would be hard not to feel cheated.
This illustrates the calculation that almost everyone in the industrialised western world is making. Basically, we are all wondering whether we can get away with our excesses for our lifetimes, and maybe our kids’ lifetimes, or when the hammer is going to fall and we have to go dig turnips in the rain.
Get it wrong one way and we live in self-imposed poverty, while everyone else scoffs the remaining luxuries. Get it wrong the other way and our shit might hit the fan, and we won’t be ready. Most of us want the goodies today, and are prepared to go on risking it. And we have a load of immediate hassles to deal with that keep us distracted.
So it should not be surprising to the environmental movement that although people know where the lifeboats are, they aren’t rushing to climb into them. With things like careers and property prices, they know there’s little hope of hopping back out again successfully if they go too early.
Crucially, people are not being evil or stupid. They're just being practical and pragmatic. They're trying to enjoy their lives as best they can, given that they are extremely unlikely to change the entire world around them.
A lot of people in the environmental movement seem either ignorant or suspicious of this. This is despite the fact that practical, pragmatic people are exactly the sort of people we are going to need if we stand any chance of avoiding a complete meltdown of human society.
Deep down most ordinary folk don’t think of returning to the land as the ‘Good Life’. They think of it as the ‘Shit Life’ of failure.
I worked as a forester and gardener throughout my teens and into my late 20s. I know exactly how unromantic that can be late in the afternoon in the grey midwinter. I happened to like it, but not all the time. I didn’t think about supporting a family or my old age and I still had the choice to do something else. The fact is for most people in most places gardening sucks. Enforced gardening sucks worse. Especially if you compare it to say, surfing, getting wasted or holidaying in exotic places.
I gave it up when I realised I was unlikely to encounter a buxom maiden wandering the woodlands in search of a male smelling like a goat with a collection of axes. Even the most ‘liberated’ girls I know take this kind of lifestyle as far as a festival or two and no further.
One of my closest friends was among the most successful festival pull artists I’ve ever seen, with a new girl perpetually on one arm, and a didgeridoo in the other. He has since struggled for years to settle into a long lasting relationship, largely because he lives a rugged existence in a forest. For most, permaculture is just like the aid work I have previously written about. It’s a lovely self-righteous place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
And that’s before we even consider the kind of primitive politics, if not outright anarchy, that is likely to predominate if we all go ‘back to the land’ as modern day serfs. History may not repeat, but it does rhyme. This is something this movement studiously avoids talking about. It tends to assume manual labour somehow inevitably creates social harmony. I've tried to set up home in at least half a dozen permaculture based eco-communities in New Zealand and the UK. One of the main reasons I never did was because their inhabitants generally displayed all the harmony and practical usefulness of an octopus playing bagpipes in a tank full of custard.
I’m not saying that permaculture and regenerative agriculture are a waste of time. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t do it if they want to. Or that they shouldn’t apply its thinking, along with other concepts, to specific problems. It’s just healthy to acknowledge when we’re in a minority, and that we’re not going to solve all the world’s problems with companion planting.
So, what, you may well be thinking, should we do? Am I saying we should just give up?
The truth is I think that we are going to end up with some sort of slowly collapsing fusion of social, economic and spiritual operating systems. Some of our ideas will be good, some bad, some indifferent and some downright evil. That’s what’s happened throughout history. It’s called life. My key point is that once we stop grasping for illusory ‘solutions’ we will get better at getting on with reality, with all its complexities and mess.