Monday, January 21, 2008

Permaculture: = permanent oil-dearth culture.

The term "permaculture" is a portmanteau word that may be considered to arise from permanent agriculture or permanent culture. It involves an essential earth-centred philosophy/culture that aims to preserve the environment, living in harmony with our use of its resources, but without causing destruction of habitat on a local or planetary level. This at least, is my interpretation and such principles fit well with a set of actions that do not require more energy than can be sustainably provided to allow them to be done; thus local ecologies and the planetary ecosystem is not stressed beyond breaking point and maintaining life within its clear limits becomes both possible and desirable. As might be expected, whether such an aim can be fulfilled or not depends both acutely and chronically on those methods of agriculture that are adopted to support both collective and individual communities.

I am avoiding the term "peak oil", which has rather lost its impact. Ironically, now that it is spoken of widely in the media, the shock value it had for me certainly, has become blunted. I prefer then the more explicit phrase, "Oil Dearth Era", which offers clearly the premise that a shortage (dearth) of cheap oil is inevitable on passing the maximum output of oil production (peak oil), and that the event will not be a one-off "flash-in-the-pan" but an "era" of considerable length, probably permanent. We could adapt the expected conditions into the phrase, "permanent oil-dearth culture" which also accords to the label permaculture.

The principles of permaculture might be identified as follows:

(1) Work with nature, not against it: use it as a teacher.
(2) Everything in nature "gardens" - for example, deer in a forest cultivate edible shoots by grazing/pruning them back.
(3) Minimum effort for maximum output - perfected, apparently, by a "do-nothing" farmer in Japan.
(4) The problem is the solution - e.g. thistles on grazing land which livestock don't eat, aid the fertility and condition of the soil.
(5) There's no theoretical limit to yield - only the imagination of the designer.
(6) Multiple elements and multiple functions - something as simple as a greenhouse is useful not just for propagating plants: it extends the growing season, collects rain from the roof, collects sunlight etc.

Indeed, the latter principle might be adapted to all buildings, which become and integrated part of the enterprise, feeding back water and energy to promote growth and husbandry. Point (4) reminds me of the "Dymaxion" principle espoused by Buckminster Fuller, which seems to accord with a state of permaculture.

Permaculture can be considered in terms of "zone sectors", which can be identified approximately, according to the relationship between human energy expended and the land itself:

(1) Zone 0 is your house.
(2) Zone I is your garden or immediate external space.
(3) Zone II is orchards or "allotments" as we call them over here.
(4) Zone III is farmland.
(5) Zone IV is rough grazing and woodland.
(6) Zone V is wilderness.

Both permaculture and the dymaxion principles can be thought of as a kind of "intelligent design", which makes the greatest use of human energy, while minimising serfdom and drudgery, as we associate with peasant or feudal labour.

It is debatable how much of our total current energy we will be left with as oil prices rocket sky-high, and there are actual shortages of fuel, which amounts to about one third of all the primary energy used in the U.K. Even if much of overall energy could be maintained e.g. by nuclear power, coal, remaining gas and any other means, a way to substitute for transportation fuel has not been clearly identified, beyond pie-in-the-sky shouts of "hydrogen", solar" and so on, with no mention or consideration of what would be needed to fashion an infrastructure of production, supply and end-use, of sufficient and realistic dimension to do the particular job. I see no clear solution ready to be installed within 10 years, say, by when the Oil Dearth Era will be well and truly with us, and suddenly, relatively immobile populations will amount, who will need to survive by obtaining their necessities within quite near localities. Now, this could be called permaculture, couldn't it?

Related Reading.
[1] New Internationalist, July 2007.

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