Why Study Permaculture as a Philosophy of Design?


How can we make our individual and corporate lives environmentally sustainable and reduce our greenhouse gas use to levels that are in keeping with the health of the biosphere?

There is no reasonable way to compartmentalize or put off until later the issue of fossil fuel use leading to global climactic and ecological change – no way to separate it from the rest of our lives or our spiritual dynamic; it touches everything: the quality of the water we drink, the air we breathe, the health of oceans, the extremity and danger of weather, our material, moral and political culture, our houses, our transportation and perhaps most of all our children and the future generations who will live with the consequences of the behavior that overburdens the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

This year Bennington Friends gathered for most of the day at McWaters Park Beside the Walloomsac River in North Bennington with Avery Wood to learn more about the practice of permaculture as it's being put into practice toward creating an edible forest garden. One of the most important parts of HER talk was a revisiting of the philosophy underpinning permaculture design, which aims to build productive perennial food sources that, in contrast to dominant farming practices, nourish our soil, air, water and landscape – as well as nourish us. Permaculture demonstrates the paradox of the complexity of what seems initially a simplifying gardening practice; yet in its practice it draws both on the deep detail of the science of plants and soil as well as a focused observation and cultivation of a local environment.

One of the principal and even foundational testimonies and aspirations of Friends is summarized in the word simplicity. Why? What is sought and what is being eschewed in this term? The term makes historic sense and points to a fundamental practical and moral issue, but it can also be confusing and hard to reconcile with the complex realities of God's creation and human technologies. The testimony of "plainness: or "simplicity" originates with Friends' attempt to address the personal vanity that leads an individual to dress, style and ornament their persons and houses to attract attention to themselves and their status rather than to devote this effort and wealth to what is in keeping with the sharing and caring of a life of compassion and the building of a Peaceable Kingdom in which the welfare of the whole community is the defining quality and wisdom. The push for wealth and power and dominion is a driving force in the tragedy of war, slavery and in the destruction of nature's abundance and damages our earth and subverts spiritual aspirations. This lust for power and glory also becomes a systemic design force which is adopted at every level. These designs permeate entire civilizations, often making them unsustainable and dooming them to failure.

The thing about nature, about cell and species interactions, about chemical and atmospheric realities, about Newtonian and subatomic physics, about evolution and formal adaptations, about modern houses and transportation is that none of them can be called simple. Complex, layered, interactive, we can say that many of our technological and ecological problems are a result of over simplification and a failure to honor the balance and inter-relatedness of all life. But early Friends were, as we deeply intuit, on to something important. They perceived that the uncontrolled ego is destructive, and that there is a peaceful and egalitarian humility at the core of Jesus' teachings which must guide us. Whether we call it simplicity or sustainability or permaculture, that it is this aspiration of combining practical design wisdom with a holy compassion that can offer humans a better way, a sustainable way and even a harmonious way to live, and that Friends are being called to model this new way as the age of fossil fuel moves toward a long-needed transition.

Design philosophy of sustainability

How can we make our individual and corporate lives environmentally sustainable and reduce our greenhouse use to levels that are in keeping with the health of the biosphere?

Permaculture is a design philosophy of sustainability that tries to look at whole systems; that is, how food, shelter, transport fit into the larger ecosystem of a neighborhood or bio-region. Focusing on renewal and replenishment instead of extraction of resources, it pursues building and interactive abundance in which all members, whether plants, humans, water etc, thrive and live balanced limits. This note is sounded with the idea of stewardship in the Bible and the cultivated vitality and permanent harmony with local life forms which is often found among those following traditional husbandry practices. One of the key features of permaculture is a reverence for-- and wisdom about—water: how to retain and increase it, make it accessible, turn it into food for local life forms and ourselves. Perhaps water best exemplifies the complexity of simplicity at the center of living systems and together with the light is central to human wisdom. Water can be retained or guided by streams, by various combinations of plants, by swales and ponds, by shade trees, by plumbing, by collection tanks etc. To use water wisely and with respect for local life forms becomes a central design premise. The difference between the best examples of a permaculture approach to water use as opposed to the current planetary water crisis provides a night and day distinction bet ween fossil fuel based design and pemaculture design. Similarly, healthy soils are part of complex systems and knowledge, work and skill to nurture.

The needed global transition to a permaculture approach to community design means lifestyle changes that fit with the Quaker testimony of simplicity in its relatedness to bio-regional realities. As an extreme example of the shifts needed: Golf was invented in Scotland on turf covered hills and makes no sense in water-scarce Arizona. This is perhaps the least of the kinds of changes called for but is helpful in showing how decisions must respect regional ecology and will inevitably require changes in design and use. Will Friends be relevant to the coming transition? Aren't the challenges as real for Friends ways of living as for the culture as a whole? Despite our talk of simplicity, and many heroic efforts of individual Friends and Friends institutions, we are, mostly because of fossil fuel consumption, collectively, a net drain on global resources. Studying such topics as permaculture and holding the implications of the past failure of industrial, extractive fossil fuel civilization up to the unsparing light of Friends, and our principled commitment to simplicity, is critical if Friends are to have real meaning today.

We are called to make concrete steps, to open our eyes, and hearts, our minds and our practices.

This article was submitted by Thelma (Timmy) Bullock, clerk of the Bennington Friends (Quakers) Meeting


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