October 22, 2020

Damaris Zehner: Ponderings on Permaculture


It’s almost spring, and I’m reading about gardening.  It’s my yearly ritual to keep hope alive over the winter.  This winter I’ve focused on permaculture.   I like permaculture because it deals with growing things in a sustainable and sane way, but it has also led me to three related thoughts.

Permaculture, I’ve learned, is not a method but a philosophy, one that emphasizes the relationships between all the elements of the environment rather than its individual parts in isolation.  The opposite is big-farm monoculture.  In monoculture, corn or soybeans are removed finally and completely from the environment where they were raised, leaving behind a barren field.  In order to grow the corn or soybeans next year, external inputs of seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, and petroleum-powered machines are necessary.  So things are brought from outside; they spend a short time where they are put and (seemingly, at least) interact with only one environmental element (the corn); then the result they bring about (the harvest) is removed leaving (seemingly) nothing behind.

The goal in permaculture, however, is to have an almost perfectly closed system that reaches a natural maturity and sustains itself there.  Once properly established, a permaculture system fertilizes its own soil through nurturing a mix of deep-rooted plants that bring up nutrients and aerate the soil, nitrogen-fixing plants, plants that drop leaves as mulch, and animals that plow, fertilize, and control the plant populations.  This system receives water from outside, of course, but it stores huge amounts of that water in its soil and loses very little to run-off.  Because more of the plants are perennial, as opposed to monoculture’s annuals, plant populations remain in place and in balance – an ever-shifting balance, but a sustainable one – for decades.

Mandala2011It seems to me that one test of the validity of a philosophy is how universally it applies.  Since I started studying permaculture, I’ve found that everything I read about it makes sense of a different aspect of the world.  That leads me to the three thoughts I mentioned earlier.

First, the contrast between agri-business’s commodity monoculture and permaculture parallels the contrast in economic models currently – well, I wish I could say currently battling each other, but I’m afraid that one model has won.  The economic monoculture, like the agricultural one, treats its place as a barren field over which profit-creating commodities are shuffled.  Chain stores that can externalize their costs move to a town and undersell the local businesses.  The goods that pass through those stores come from outside the town, and the money that residents exchange for the goods leaves the town to go to sweatshops in Asia or corporate offices in Arkansas.  The jobs producing those goods used to be local but are shifted to somewhere more profitable for the stockholders of the multinational corporation.  This whole process is called progress, and the measurement of its success is called growth.  It might not be inaccurate, however, to perceive ongoing growth as metastasis and the long-term result as death, not health.

An economic environment that models permaculture would look very different.  Once such a system is established, the majority of its inputs – raw materials, labor, and knowledge – would be produced locally and continue to cycle around without leaving.  So a local farmer raises a cow, for example, and takes it to the nearby slaughterhouse to process.  She pays the butcher for the processing and gets meat to eat and to sell to her neighbors.  The cow’s skin and bones, instead of being waste products that are externalized somewhere else, are processed by local manufacturing into leather goods and fertilizer.  The money the butcher makes from processing and the farmer makes from selling stays within the region when they shop from local businesses; their neighbors who work there buy from each other and pay each other to teach their children, treat their illnesses, and repair their houses.  Externalities – those secondary effects of economic activity that are ignored as long as they can be shifted elsewhere, like pollution or exploitation of workers – are minimized because the processes stay close to home.  It’s hard to hide a heap of fetid cowhides when it’s leaching into the water source of the same people who raised the cow and will eat the beef.  The town, like the garden, becomes largely self-perpetuating; the goal is stability, not growth or progress as ends in themselves.

I realize that in both nature and economies, stability is an abstract concept and is really only seen on the largest of scales.  Local environments are always changing.  A tree falls down in a mature forest, and new life surges into the clearing to compete for the sunshine and soil; a business fails, or a new idea or invention is introduced, and economic activity boils up to take advantage of changed conditions.  But on a planetary scale, healthy environments recover even after changes and settle back into the fragile but enduring stability of balance.  I don’t see our current economic system expressing either stability or balance, however, and I wonder what changes – to our thinking, our actions, and our environment – will be necessary before it does.

The relationship between the permaculture garden and the economy was the first idea that came to mind as I was reading.  The second applied to us more personally.

Permaculturists point out that our lawns and farms require such big inputs of time, money, and energy because we are trying to keep them immature.  Nature strives for maturity, and in much of the temperate zone, that maturity means forest.  Every dandelion, chicory, and mulberry – every weed – is a scout going ahead to prepare the ground for the ultimate forest.  If left alone, the weeds will surrender to the red cedars, maples, hickories, beeches, or pines that follow them.  (You’ll never see a dandelion in a mature forest.)  But we mow, dig out, till, or poison the scouts in an endless attempt to arrest the natural growth of our environment, to reduce the complexity and richness that would result if we left it alone.  The result is topsoil degradation, pollution, changes in the water cycle, and a loss in biodiversity that affects everything from honeybees to planetary climate.

photodune-4167778-vegetable-garden-s-704x468In this aspect as well I wondered if the permaculture philosophy had wider application.  Are there any other areas where we spend unreasonable amounts of time, money, and energy trying to maintain an artificial immaturity?

Well, yes . . .  My grandfather, though sublimely attuned to children, was scornful of so-called adults who dressed like children, ate children’s food, and played children’s games long after they should have been responsible adults.  I’m not sure if he was always right about wearing shorts or eating ice cream cones, but I still mull over what he said as I look around at all the hair dye, cosmetic surgery, implants, make-up, toupees, push-up bras, depiliation, air-brushing, and photoshopping.  We spend hugely on leisure activities such as college and professional sports that are only possible or relevant to a few young people who will shortly have to quit – many of them as damaged as a leached field after monoculture farming.  The use of artificial birth control and abortion is a prime way we subvert the natural processes that we are subject to.   So are child abuse and neglect, generational segregation, and the Winnebagos with bumper stickers that say “I’m spending my grandchildren’s inheritance.”

My third thought is what spiritual applications the permaculture mindset has – because it has to have some spiritual truth as well as practical truth in order to be a compelling philosophy.  If I make two columns on a piece of paper, and in the one labeled Permaculture I write sustainability, balance, stability, and maturity, what do I write in the one labeled Spiritual Life?  Is my spiritual life a monoculture that constantly consumes inputs and leaves waste behind, or is it an abiding source of richness and life?  Am I struggling to maintain an unnatural immaturity by selfish sensation-seeking, or are the economy and ecology of my life with God and neighbors healthy, balanced, and sustainable for eternity?

The answer to those last two questions, I’m sorry to say, is A, not B. Perhaps if I spent as much time on prayer, fasting, and charity as I spend on economic speculation or gardening catalogues, I’d be better off.  But I find I’m as damaged by the culture of unsustainable and artificial profit-seeking as the surrounding depressed towns and eroded farmland are.  I can’t fix myself or the world around me.  I need a ruler to institute justice for my ruined society and a gardener to restore life to my barren fields.  I sit in the mud and litter that the winter has left behind, surrounded by photoshopped pictures of abundance, and long for resurrection, healing, and life.


  1. “And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    When the tongues of flame are in-folded
    Into the crowned knot of fire
    And the fire and the rose are one.”

    T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Little Gidding, conclusion

  2. I’ve run across the “monoculture” concept several times now, and I think it captures a key flaw in modern industrial society, and why it ultimately can’t last. The ultimate question, of course, is when it will stop lasting…

  3. I’ve been studying permaculture for the last several years as well. Sepp Holzer’s book is on my desk in front of me at the moment and I have been gradually implementing permaculture principles into my work here. If I were to pick the best representative for permaculture as a way of life, I’d recommend someone like Joel Salatin or Alan Savory. To be honest, Wendell Berry is probably the best to read from a philosophical standpoint.

    I wish you had taken the approach of Paul Wheaton who’s “dailyish” e-mail advertises itself as “…making a better world through learning good things rather than being angry at bad guys.” If you view his site, permies dot com, you’ll see that he spends very little time decrying modern agriculture. Gene Logsdon does a good bit of that in his blog, The Contrary Farmer, but that’s his nature as an Ohio farmer.

    I believe the world is a big enough place for both modern agriculture and permaculture. I don’t think we need to take an antagonistic approach. There are some benefits to large scale modern farming, but the cost is petroleum. The benefits to permaculture have their costs in labor and lack of variety. I can’t get citrus apart from a global transport system in Ohio. So, instead of complaining about how bad large scale farming is in Florida, Texas, and California, I raise apples in Ohio and import oranges, lemons, limes, and kiwis. There is room for both/and.

    • @Rick….I think you might want to re-read this incredible article. You are spot-on regarding the agricultural model, but you seem to have missed the other insights and implications in this wonderful analogy/parable!

      Damaris, as always, it will take me three or four more re-readings to find the richness in your words. You have shared so many levels of spirit and truth in so few paragraphs. My initial reading here was a taste….I will have to come back to get my fill….

      • @Pattie, thank you for reading my comments. I didn’t miss the insights, poignant as always and one of the reasons I delight in reading Damaris. I simply didn’t want to stray too far from this single point I was making, i.e., there are costs and benefits to both models. I am sipping coffee due to globalism, so I’m not ready to abandon modern agriculture. Yes, I can grow chicory locally, but have you tasted it? There is a lot to learn from permaculture, and Big Ag needs to pay attention, but I’m not ready to demonize them all.

        • Chicory and coffee should never cross paths….those who mix the two should be brought up on charges of crimes against humanity at the Hague.

    • I like all the writers you mention, Rick. I’ve just finished a book by Toby Hemenway and find both his advice and writing style excellent. I also appreciate your reminder not to be too negative — it’s certainly something I can do. However, the more I research and talk to people in agriculture and horticulture, the more negative my attitude towards conventional farming becomes. It’s a stance I’ve come to recently on the basis of what I’ve learned. That isn’t to say that I’m negative towards conventional farmers. They’re my neighbors, and I like and respect them for their hard work in difficult conditions.

    • Rick, I’m with you on permaculture in our modern world. We once HAD permaculture and it is called The Middle Ages! Maybe this type of philosophy harkens back to a longing for George Bailey’s Bedford Falls, or as represented in one of the numerous “Good Ol’ Days” magazines that my wife likes to look at.

      The benefits of today’s culture are more free time, better health (generally, that is), longer life span, better education, etc. If we were to go back to permaculture we would spend every waking hour searching for food, making the essentials of life by hand, and with materials we would have to scratch out of the surrounding environment ourselves, all of which would mean lives lived in relative isolation, only to die at 40-50 years of age, worn out and tired.

      Despite Damaris’ well written piece, AND the good thoughts behind it, the philosophy of permaculture carried out to more than agriculture just doesn’t wash with me.

      • Oscar, permaculture is largely a new philosophy and is very different from agriculture as practiced in the Middle Ages (and I am a Medievalist by training). It is not hunting and gathering but is conscious, human-controlled agriculture. I had some of the same reactions you have when I first decided to look into permaculture, especially after my horticulturist daughter describe the unwashed, unshaven, cheerful nudists who attended a conference she helped to organize! I’ve become more convinced it is a sane approach as I’ve learned more.

        And Rick, coffee is an ideal crop to raise as part of a permaculture planting rather than a monoculture. The use of petroleum to transport food is another topic and one that cuts close to my banana/chocolate/tea habits. I wrestle with the morality of much of our lifestyle; when I can’t decide what to do, I console myself by remembering that the issues will likely be decided for me by the limitations of nature.

      • Oscar, I get your point, but I’d take issue with some of your wording and with the general conclusions you draw.

        For example, “more free time”: First off, I’m not sure that’s even true. The permaculture practictioners I know seem to have at least as much free time as me, but with the advantage that they get to spend it when they want, for the most part. Secondly, when your work is providing for your own sustenance in rhythm with the cycles of nature, constantly learning about the the world in general and the particular details of your own space, it’s hard to separate which time is “free” and which isn’t.

        Another example, “better health . . . longer lifespan”: Again, I’m not sure this is true. Yes, we live longer than primitive farmers of the Middle Ages, but a wholesale return to the Middle Ages is not what permaculture is about. And is a longer life preferable to a fuller life? That’s not a no-brainer, for me at least. And when you examine the whole picture, including modern diseases that are largely or at least in part driven by monoculture (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.) and also including mental health issues, I’m not sure monoculture has brought better health (in general).

        And are we “better educated” or just differently educated? I don’t know a fraction of what my grandfather knew that could really sustain me, absent the industrial/post-industrial machinery that drip-feeds me my living. I have specialized training that allows me to be a cog in one particular part of the big machine and, as long as the controllers of the machine allow it, I will continue to be able to survive on what they give me. But if I lose my job, I will be hard-pressed to even keep my acre of land from the bank, let alone sustain myself on it. My grandpa would have had no such trouble. Nor would my hippie neighbors who have been practicing permaculture for a couple of decades. They have a wealth of knowledge I have discounted entirely to focus on learning things that only matter because I’ve surrendered responsibility for my own survival to a complex economy I have no control over.

        I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m saying the permaculture vs. monoculture judgement isn’t as cut-and-dried as what you are portraying. I’m also not sure you understand what permaculture is.

        • What we in the modern “West” certainly have that our forbears didn’t is greater social mobility and portability, by which I mean that we are not as dependent on kinship and local bonds for our place in the socio-economic world. We don’t spend most or all of our lives within 50 miles of the place we were born, and when the community into which we we born is dysfunctional and/or pathological (and we have good reason to believe that many of them were in the past, as many are today), we have a far greater opportunity to move out of them into new locales with our skins more or less intact, and to make a new start.

          The price for the kind of security that your grandfather had, and all our forbears had, is that they were trapped in their social and geographical locations when things were bad, with no way out, and no recognition by the wider society that there should be a way out. There are certainly negative aspects to our easy societal mobility, and it may be that ultimately it is globally unsustainable, but I think most of us have no idea how hellish life can be in a village that doesn’t need iron walls to keep its inhabitants hermetically sealed inside. Monoculture has been the vehicle that delivered us from this historical situation.

          In addition, monoculture, and the medical research it supported, has delivered billions of people from deaths caused by childhood diseases. I would most likely have died from the pneumonia I had in fifth grade, if I had been born a 100 years before I was. And the same is true of many of us commenting here at iMonk today. Now, there is no doubt that my life leaves a wide, environmentally destructive wake. Earth Firsters might think it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I, along with many of my generational peers, had died in infancy or childhood; they might say that such death would promote a situation in which the natural biodiversity of the planet would be less likely to be arrested. They might point to the enormous, unbalancing burden that so many people place on the ecosystem, and say that this is the result of not letting death balance things out. Not only might they say these things, I have heard them say these things. And they point to what we are calling “monoculture” as the culprit responsible for our situation.

          There’s a philosophical argument to had here, but I’m not willing to join it. My mind is made up. Whenever human beings do their best to save the weak and the vulnerable from the depredations of disease and death, we are likely contributing to the imbalance of our biosphere. We are working against natural selection, and against the biodiversity that emerges from the natural matrix; in a word, we are promoting monoculture. What else should we do? How else can be live and remain human, how else can we work to be humane?

          • You’re using “monoculture” in a much broader sense than I am, Robert. Strictly, monoculture means only the planting of a single crop over a large area. Since it is a risky and unnatural way of farming, monoculture needs added fertilizers and pesticides and historically has resulted in soil depletion and local civic collapse. Agriculture as a whole has led to many of the things you’ve mentioned, but civilization would not end if we planted in strips of alternating annual and perennial crops, maintained hedgerows for biological variety, and treated the soil as more than a table to put fertilizer on.

            I’m not against growing wheat or using a variety of technologies; I’m looking for ways to improve the longterm efficiency of agriculture because I agree with you that it has allowed for many good things. The recent thinking of permaculturists (which I encourage everyone to read directly, since it may not be what you assume) offers hope for more sustainable and healthy ways to farm.

            I am concerned with the pervasive man vs nature attitude hinted at in your comment and expressed in many forums — not because I’m sentimental about bunnies but because we rely on nature and need it to live. There could come a point when the “imbalance of the biosphere” would prevent our living at all and the debate about whether hip replacements, vaccinations, or stem cell research should be funded would be moot.

          • I don’t think you understand the principles of permaculture. Permaculture is not turning back the clock and ignoring all we’ve learned through the industrial era. It’s planning for a sustainable future, which monoculture definitely isn’t.

        • You really think our forbears had greater mental health than we do? You think they wouldn’t happily accept the danger of obesity and other diseases that availability of inexpensive food affords in lieu of there own situation of threat to life due to food scarcity?

          • If you read my post carefully, you will notice that I said “*I’m not sure* monoculture has brought better health (in general).”

            You may very well think that living 70 high stress years and dying hooked up to a life-support machine is preferable to living 50 years in rhythm with nature and dependence on God and dying simply when your time has come. You are certainly welcome to that preference. I’m not so sure I’d agree.

        • scrapiron, I get your point. But you have an advantage over me since I haven’t even HEARD of permaculture before today, and the impression I get is that it is not something that can be accomplished on a scale of the size we are living in today. Perhaps on an individual basis, or maybe even on a small community scale, but sustaining a 300 million person population? I don’t think so.

          It all just seems to be a niche philosophy that, in theory, sounds appealing, and may even make sense, but in the larger scale would never work. At least in the world as it is today (At this point queue up Lennon’s “Imagine”). 😉

          • Not only is permaculture scalable, it will have to scale, now that we are beyond peak oil.

            The physical reality that makes our modern industrial society possible is the ability to expend energy at a far greater rate than it is being replenished. Promoters of permaculture recognize this and urge people and communities to begin planning now for the decline from energy abundance, so we don’t face widespread famine and death by keeping our heads in the sand until it’s too late.

            If you want to know more, I recommend reading the original permaculture manual by David Holmgren and Bill Molison.

            If you don’t want to know more, then I guess just go ahead and pass judgement on something ten minutes after you hear about it for the first time.

  4. If you talk to an old farmer, one like my late grandfather who saw the better part of a century of change, you can begin to glimps the unresolved contradictions they experience right down to their marrow. Men like my grandfather brought modern technology into farming (automatic milkers, in his case.) It didn’t take the work out of farming — far from it — but it certainly allowed a single farmer to do ever more. Monoculture and technology brought unquestionable gains.

    Fast forward to today. Wabash County, Illinois now now has exactly ONE dairy farmer as far as I know. The very productivities that the technologies enabled ensure that bigger farms in Wisconsin and California just do it that much better. Some farmers, like my uncle, are doing very well on their 5,000 acre spreads of soybeans, corn, and wheat. But that just means that there are fewer of them. It’s in increasingly lonely life out on the farm. “Sustainable” is not the first word that comes to mind, socially as much as environmentally.

    My grandfather saw this all unfold, and I could always tell that he felt torn about it.

  5. Damaris, you might be interested in following an organization called Foundations for Farming (a.k.a. Farming God’s Way). I’d post a link here but I don’t want to get thrown into moderation. It started in Zimbabwe but is now in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Haiti and recently branched into the US. It trains people in sustainable farming practices and ties it into Christian life.

    • I’d hope by now we’d be smarter with farming techniques than what’s included in the Bible.

      …actually, that could apply to many fields, not just farming…

      But tying it all together into some holistic christian life is a good goal.

    • Thanks, Deb. I’ll look into that.

  6. Damaris, the picture at the top of the page could be my back yard in twenty-five years if I had twenty-five years left and the energy of a twenty-five year old. I moved here less than a year ago. The woman I bought it from sold it reluctantly because she was too old to maintain it any longer, and she is two months older than me. I just set the picture as my desktop computer background. What’s missing are chickens, a bird feeder, a dog, and around here a six foot fence to keep the deer out, possibly all beyond the borders of the picture.

    Seems to me that the picture and what you speak of are pretty much what the Garden of Eden was all about. I think in terms of returning to that as part of what it means to inhabit the Kingdom of God now, not after we “die”. I believe that just as the curtain in the Temple was rent in two when Jesus died, the cherubim and flaming sword guarding the Garden and Tree of Life were taken off duty. And the agribusiness model you speak of as modern certainly goes back to that first generation and the first city and the World System we live with today.

    I believe that just as we can live in the midst of the secular world as children of the Creator, we can practice our little piece of the Garden in the midst of the World without beating our heads to a pulp trying to fight the World. Maybe just a few pots of Life set out on the balcony of a city apartment. Every little bit helps. It would take a catastrophic world-wide event to end the World System, and we might find we had lost as much as we gained, at least in the short run.

    I would hope over the course of today that there will be recommendations on the best books to start with in learning permaculture. I consider this subject of major importance in 21st century living, and I’m behind the curve on this one. Thanks for doing this, Damaris.

    • I agree, Charles. This spring, as soon as the ground dries out, I’m going to rework my perennial flower garden to include more sustainable plantings. I don’t have the energy I used to, but I have daughters and their strapping boyfriends who are often willing to work for food.

      The most readable book I’ve found so far is “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway.

      • Sustainable gardening in Southern California these days is easy: Stop watering and plant cactus and some hardy succulents. No worry about weeds these days. Not enough water. And forget about food crops, they all require irrigation that is not natural to this climate. And come to think of it, we should depopulate the state by at least 90%, THEN the land might support us.

        I guess that would solve the traffic and housing problems too!

  7. You know what’s funny? I just saw an article the other day talking about marijuana farms in my dad’s old Colorado hometown’s rival’s town. When I visited grandparents often growing up, it was all traditional farms, traditional farmers, traditional men (so to speak). Now, based on the pictures…dreadlocks, plaid, mixed races…like an entirely different world, and I imagine that town is going to see a ton of growth.

    I wonder what effect marijuana fields will have on America and on farming in general once we see them become legalized in more places.

    • More hemp based clothing and a run on fast food.

    • Hate to be That Guy (aw heck, that’s a lie: I LOVE being That Guy) but:

      1.) George Washington grew quite a bit of hemp (well, his slaves grew it anyway…)

      2.) The first law ever passed in the North American colonies regarding hemp was a legal requirement that all farmers grow some of it (1619 in Virginia); hemp was needed but not particularly valuable, and hence nobody wanted to grow it of their own volition. If only they knew . . .

  8. Ok, memory aside, looking at the post…

    I agree and disagree. The way you lay it out for economy and farming…absolutely. Endless growth is unsustainable. The concept of “share holders” is probably where a lot of the corruption started. Reminds me of that “if you don’t work you don’t eat” concept, and how that should or shouldn’t apply to someone who inherited a seat at the table and works by sitting on a phone call for an hour each month. And yet I know I’d take that position if it was offered.

    But this right here is where you start to lose me:

    Are there any other areas where we spend unreasonable amounts of time, money, and energy trying to maintain an artificial immaturity?

    Are there? Absolutely. I won’t nitpick through the next section, but hasn’t the goal of every generation been to improve the following generation? And not keep them stuck in the “old paths”, but to give them better opportunities? We plant a tree so our grandchildren can have a tire swing. We donate a set of books so our grandchildren can go to a library. etc

    We’ve been uniquely blessed in this current generation to have an increasingly longer adolescence and adulthood. Lives are being extended. We’re having more opportunities to pursue careers and higher education, and this blog and others rightly so lambaste those alternative, often Christian, viewpoints that prevent that (complementarianism, quiverfull, antiintellectualism…etc). Our time is not consumed by mere survival. There’s a difference between someone who knows how to cook and someone who is a chef. We’re able to create and make art because we have the time and ability. We’re busy regularly going to a gym and staying in shape beyond standing on our feet 12 hours a day 6 days a week just to collapse from exhaustion, and as a result, we pay someone else to change our oil and rotate our tires, tasks we are perfectly capable of doing if we have to.

    How are these not blessings? We’ve taken God’s commands to subdue and rule this earth and obeyed. We study this creation and know more about agriculture than the ancient Israelites ever did. We study the human body and can deduce what healthy diets are, what proteins and fats and carbs are, and how we all should be Paleo (lol). We even know our own biological processes, and can create and prevent life.

    All with God’s blessing.

    So…permaculture is great. As you describe it, I’m a big supporter. But only within narrow fields to where it is best suited.

    To misquote HUG, when every problem looks like a weed, every tool is a spade. Or something, lol.

    Hello coffee my old friend, I come to sip with you again…

    • Right on, especially with the birth control stuff. Only the most bass-ackwards reading of society and history supports the notion that birth control is some sort of social problem.

      • Yes, I find the statement about birth control troubling fro many reasons. Womens’ overall health – especially in countries where there is little/no health care available – is better when birth control is used, as repeated pregnancies really take a oll on the body and mind.

        ONe only has to look at Quiverfull advocates to see the devastation in the lives of the women and multiple children, who are just too much for one person to handle and who often end up raising each other. Not to mention all the health problems those women go through due to mutiple pregnancies, extended periods of breastfeeding, etc.

        I could never be in such a marriage. A lot of those guys treat their wives as if they were cattle (breeding stock) rather than fully human, so there’s the whole abuse issue as well…

    • Makes sense to me. I feel blessed to buy my permaculture garden supplies while my oil is being changed.

    • Good points, StuartB. As I said in a comment above that is hung up in moderation, monoculture is why we in the modern “West” are not as trapped in our social identities as our forbears were. We can get our of town if we need to, when escape is the only way out. We are alienated, yes, though I suspect many of our ancestors were, too, though they had no language to articulate it; but we are empowered to re-locate, when necessary, in a way that they could never even imagine.

  9. There are too many human beings on this planet. Now I have no desire to depart nor do I encourage others to depart but we have to face up to this issue. Population either causes our environmental problems or makes existing problems worse. Conditions that are sustainable with 10,000 people become difficult with 10 million and impossible with 10 billion.

    We have to make some decisions while we have the luxury to make those decisions. Down the road we may not have that luxury and nature will make those decisions for us. And nature shows no inclination to consider our wants and desires in her appalling deliberations. She sows and she reaps…and she culls. 98% of all the species that have ever existed on this planet are extinct. There have been at least five mass extinction events, one of which resulted in the disappearance of around 90% of all sea life present on the planet.

    I won’t get into the theological ramifications of all this. We have some opportunities that our grandchildren may not have. In the meantime there are some really bad ideas floating around. Examples?

    1.Our actions don’t really have consequences.

    2. Freedom is defined as not having to pay attention to consequences rather than taking responsibility for our actions.

    3. Even if we admit these problems exist they can only be addressed individually rather than collectively or systemically.

    4. The solution is to retreat to some imagined earlier or simpler way of being.

    5. Someone is going to swoop down and save us from our foolishness.

    • Okay.

      But if you’re talking about Earth First style creative destruction for the sake of biodiversity, don’t you know that you can count me out.

      If it’s true that what matters most is quality, not quantity, of life (as we are endlessly reminded these days), then that is just as true for the life of the planet as for the life of an individual human being. If reducing the number of human beings for the sake of ecological sustainability involves withholding life saving technology from one child in need, I’m against it. Feed the poor, save the children, give medicine to the dying, even if their lives contribute to ecological catastrophe. It’s how we live, and how we live out our humanity, that matters, not how long we or our planet survive for the sake of survival.

    • When you say,”We have to make some decisions while we have the luxury to make those decisions,” who do you have in mind? Most of the time such decisions involve a few deciding for a great number of others.
      Who will be the deciders?

      • Robert,

        I can see why some eco-catastrophists might cause us all to bristle at their proferred “solutions,” but fortunately the deciders are all around us in their billions: women.

        To achieve a stable population, or to start to reduce it gradually, all one really needs is for women to have two or fewer kids apiece *on average.” Fortunately, when given access to birth control, women almost always embrace such smaller families. We don’t need to withold food or medicine from the needy, and we certainly don’t need to go the horrible eugenics route that was so popular a century ago. We just need access to birth control of the sort we take for granted today.

        In fact, as most people know, in East Asia or Russia, it’s gone to an extreme — birth rates are so far below replacement that population implosions are liable to cause far greater social harm than any ecological disasters ever will. How quickly one problem can turn into another!

        • I can get on board for that. Smaller families equal more liberty for women, liberty from oppressive male traditions and restrictive societal expectations. Smaller families make women’s lives more mobile, so they can get out when things are too bad to endure.

        • The quick flip-flopping of problems is a very worrisome aspect of the modern world.

      • The few deciding for the many is already happening. Large corporate farmers have decided which varieties of crops will be produced and huge multinational food manufacturers have decided what “foods” are going to be produced with them. And these decisions, while they have been made by the Sacred and Most Holy MARKET, have not always been the ones that most consumers would have wanted.

        For example, go to a good hippie farmers market and buy an organic heirloom tomato picked ripe that morning, then go get a tomato off the shelf at the supermarket. Then take a bite of each one and ask yourself which tomato you would choose to grow, if it was up to you. But guess which tomato you get to buy in the supermarket? The one that tastes like cardboard but picks well mechanically and travels and stores well. A small number of people made that decision. They just didn’t make it based on what’s best for your health, your pleasure in eating or the health of the soil. They made it based on what was best for profit.

    • The world population has been shrinking and we are feeding more with less. The most important logistic is population distribution. Because of supply and demand issues human clump together where distribution is most likely. The problem is in the distribution, and that means corruption on the human scale. If we eliminate the humans then no problem!

      • “The world population has been shrinking and we are feeding more with less.”

        If you would be so kind, please provide evidence that these two statements are true.

        I have been presented with much evidence to the contrary and frankly I’d feel a lot more comfortable knowing that your version is right.

  10. 5. Someone is going to swoop down and save us from our foolishness.


    • Mmm, wouldn’t grace technically be ‘someone is going to swoop down and *forgive us* for our foolishness’.

      The actual reckoning-with-the-worldly-consequences-of-our-foolishness (or even just random chance and accidents) is still pretty much on our shoulders.

      I’m betting that no matter how fierce your belief in grace, you buckle your seatbelt when driving, right?

  11. Really FASCINATING post Damaris. Thanks for posting.

  12. A really good, thought-provoking post, Damaris! I guess the short answer lies in individuals doing what we can where we are with what we have. The long answers lie in a sea-change of attitudes, and I don’t know how possible that is. In my lifetime of 70+ years, I’ve seen changes in American attitudes toward, say, race and sex discrimination, to name two big ones. In “smaller” areas of American life like drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco, again there have been attitude changes. But no changes have come without pushback and a hard fight by a core group committed to change (like NOW or MADD). I don’t see any strong group committed to ecological balance and non-destructive agriculture. Yet.

    • The hungry and disaffected don’t care about ecology or agriculture. They just want to get by…

  13. OldProphet says

    This has been a truly interesting topic today. Too bad it will not help me with this years crop of tumbleweeds. They kind of have a mind of their own. Ya know, you put all that time and energy into them and then they grow up and run away!

  14. Is permaculture capable of producing as much food as agri-business monoculture does?

    • More, actually. At least on a per-acre basis. The problem is that it is labor-intensive and not suited to modern equipment.

      • I suppose that means it would cost more at market?

        • The idea of producing primarily for market is not a permaculture idea. While there will be surplus and that surplus could be traded, the idea of permaculture is mostly about widespread distribution of energy storage, meaning most everybody produces most of what they need. With less specialization, there is less of a need for reliance on a market.

          • If the yield of permaculture is distributed by the grower herself through informal networks, rather than “at market,” what protects the consumer from defective and harmful products? How is permaculture regulated to protect consumers?

          • Disregard the above question: a second reading of your response answers my question.

            Other questions: do individuals and families have the time to invest in permaculture production for their own needs? What of those who are unable to do the hard physical work involved in such production? How do they acquire what they need? And to recast the above question, does permaculture provide for the regulation of surplus to protect consumers of that surplus?

  15. It’s my understanding that fresh produce is very difficult to find and purchase in poor urban neighborhoods; while there may be a McDonald’s and Taco Bell on every corner, supermarkets stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables are sparse. Would permaculture contribute to a solution to this serious problem in American cities? Would the regionalism of permaculture embrace the poor urban neighborhoods in a region?

  16. Christiane Smith says

    DAMARIS, thank you for this post . . . I am not familiar with the term ‘permaculture’, but your post reminds me a bit of my father who kept a large compost heap and nourished his soil before planting and kept an organic garden for us when we were young. That he did this while working three jobs still amazes me, as also the fact that he took us to Mass every Sunday morning and cooked us hot breakfasts before he went to work.
    Pop brought us up to place all peelings and egg shells into the compost so that none of the nutrients in them would be wasted. Once, he showed us the heat that was generated through the decomposition process by placing our hands inside the pile . . . only afterwards, did he turn over a portion of it and we saw the earthworms at work therein. My father, in his kind wisdom, even salvaged daddy-long-legs spiders that had got into the house and gently placed them outside so they could go about their work.
    Pop chose not to waste, I think, because he had been an immigrant to this country and he had known deprivation when he was very young.
    I think your post reminds me of the way my father had of conserving and stewarding what still had good left in it; and in doing this, he taught us to be thankful.

  17. Concerning all the “poly” unions/marriages/whatever… I’m not too worried or afraid. So what if it’s a “real” slippery slope. The logistics, costs, hassles, and chaos that will naturally arise from such unions will probably deter most people from trying it… Sooner or later some natural laws will have their say, just like they’ve always had and keep this to the fringe. Oh, my mid-life self can be tempted for a bit to fantasize about the few perks of such an arrangement, but my common sense and rationality (besides morality) kicks in pretty quick and laughingly derides such a silly idea.
    I can’t imagine most of Solomon’s subjects were imitating his harem – I kind of suspect he was the only one or one of few – and that’s because he could afford it…

  18. Sorry, meant to post that in the Ramblings…

  19. Ever read Pratchett’s (and Neal Gaiman’s) “Good Omens?” Hitchhiker’s Guide meets the Antichrist and the Apocalypse.