What I Meant to Say

Wendy Babiak's Visions and Revisions


What is Permaculture, and Why is the Right Choice for a 350 World?

So I haven’t been posting here much of late. I confess I’d fallen into a funk because of the BP Ecocide and the attendant frustration with my government and its seeming unwillingness to protect its people instead of the transnational corporations that are apparently in charge on this planet.

It’s also because, as an antidote to that despair, I registered an action here in Ithaca with 350.org’s 10.10.10 Global Work Party. Tomorrow, in conjunction with over 7,000 other actions in 188 countries, with the help of the Cornell Cooperative Extension and Gardens 4 Humanity, we’re going to be preparing the soil for the area’s first Permaculture Community Garden.

As part of the expo table I’m going to have there about 350 and its significance, I’ve written a flier with the above title. While I’m supposed to be blogging here about poetics, mine is an engaged poetics, entangled with the world and determined to make as much positive change as it can. So here’s what I wrote yesterday:

The word “permaculture” is a fusion of the words “permanent,” “agriculture,” and “culture.” It’s an approach to the design of human settlements and agricultural systems that mimics the relationships found in natural ecologies, in which closed energetic and material systems continually recycle themselves with minimum input from outside those systems. The waste or product of one organism becomes a resource for others within the system. By harnessing rather than fighting against natural forces, the permaculturalist facilitates and manages a landscape that yields food and other useful products with a minimum of labor and without needing to bring in expensive and harmful synthetic (petroleum-based) fertilizers or pesticides.

Using food trees, shrubs and perennial plants that sequester (store) carbon, a permaculture landscape reduces the carbon in the atmosphere, helping us get back to the safety zone of 350ppm, while at the same time providing food locally. Since shipping food around the world is a significant contributor of atmospheric carbon, reducing the amount of food that needs to be shipped will help us get back down to 350. And because permaculture landscapes aren’t managed with carbon-spewing machinery (no tilling, no tractors), they further reduce our carbon footprint. (“Carbon footprint” is the amount of atmospheric carbon our individual existence contributes, and each of us needs to try to make ours as small as we can manage if we’re to have any hope of reversing global warming.) By not tilling the soil, less carbon is released. This will also help us get back to 350ppm, as well as allowing the soil to retain its natural fertility so that the land never becomes “spent.” In industrial agriculture, soil has a limited lifespan. Not so in a permaculture landscape, which actually increases soil fertility by returning waste products to the soil where soil organisms break them down into nutrients for the plants.

An important intersection of climate change and permaculture is water. Because warmer air holds more water, patterns of rainfall are changing, with more severe storms and longer periods without rain. That can mean death to many plants, which have adapted over the eons to a more gentle, more regular rainfall. Therefore designing for water catchment rather than run-off, a significant permaculture principle, is going to be crucial on this warmer Earth; also, the deep roots of established plants in a permaculture landscape are able to withstand hard rains and reach water deep in the soil between rainfalls, whereas young seedlings would be washed away during hard rain or dry out between rainfalls.

So whether you’re working with a community garden, a suburban food plot, or a large parcel of land in the country, permaculture principles can help you ensure food security while you help combat climate change. To learn more about permaculture, check out the Fingerlakes Permaculture Institute at http://fingerlakespermaculture.org or read Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.