A good friend of mine relocated to South America this year. He went to join a revolution. Not a local revolution, like some might picture when they think of South America. No one is sitting around a campfire with their cuerno de chivo (AK-47) slung over their shoulder, singing ABBA’s ‘Fernando’ as they drink tequila. The revolution my friend went to join is a global revolution – a revolt against the perceived rise of a global corporate dictatorship. He got tired of complaining about companies like Monsanto and GE raking in multi-billion dollar profits while the planet and the majority of the people on it were poisoned and pillaged, so he decided to try to be part of the solution.
He has settled, for the moment, near Bogota, Colombia. He has made a wide berth in his travels, even going into the jungles of Peru to take a week-long trip on Ayahuasca. Now he is getting involved in volunteer work in the area, living on a commune with some other intrepid revolutionaries, and hoping to turn the experience into a short documentary film. It may sound almost Utopian to anyone who is fed up with the current system of corrupt global governments and their greedy corporate owners.
Is it Utopian, though? How are these communes surviving? What are they doing to make the world a better place? The answer to these questions can be found in one word: Permaculture.
Thank you for reading. Good night!
What’s that? You don’t know what permaculture is? Well, then, read on and I will explain what little I know.
Permaculture was originally a contraction of the words “permanent agriculture,” a term that originated as the subtitle for a book published in 1929: Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture by Joseph Russell Smith. In the book, Smith discussed his experiments with an integrated style of farming, using the surplus of different types of crops as animal feed that would then be recycled as fertilizer and other helpful elements of sustainable farming. The book was a hit, and its methods soon spread around the world, most notably to Japan through the efforts of Toyohiko Kagawa, who introduced the idea of forest farming to the Japanese culture in the 1930s.
The idea that permanent agriculture could be sustained indefinitely was further expanded in another book called Water for Every Farm, which was written by an Australian named P.A. Yeomans and published in 1973. This book introduced an observational approach to farming, which launched an organization called Keyline Designs. The book’s insights can be studied at their website. A slew of other advocates of permanent agriculture popped up around the world, each adding their own experiments and results to the mosaic that was expanding beyond simple farming. Influences included the works of Stewart Brand, Ruth Stout and Esther Deans, and Masanobu Fukuoka, who advocated no-till orchards and natural farming techniques. The first systematic use of the concepts of Permaculture are attributed to an Austrian farmer by the name of Sepp Holzer, who began developing the idea as a holistic approach toward farming in the 1960s.
Since then, Permaculture has grown into a social movement. The term has come to simply mean “permanent culture” – a self-sustaining way of life. It is about ethics, design, balance, ecology, economy… pretty much every important aspect of life. According to The Permaculture Association’s website, Permaculture combines three key aspects: An ethical framework, an understanding of how nature works, and a design approach. It goes on to say:
“[Permaculture] is about living lightly on the planet, and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature. Permanence is not about everything staying the same. It’s about stability, about deepening soils and cleaner water, thriving communities in self-reliant regions, biodiverse agriculture and social justice, peace and abundance.”
Sounds pretty hippie-dippy communal Utopia, doesn’t it? The difference is, this system actually works, if done properly. For more detailed information on the ethics, principles, design, and practical solutions of Permaculture, I suggest you visit their website. For the short-hand version, keep reading.
The core tenets of Permaculture are caring for the earth, caring for the people, and returning any surplus back into the self-sustaining system – whether it be surplus crops, water, or waste (even poop!). Caring for the earth entails allowing provisions for all life to continue and multiply, leaving room for everything, because everything has a place in the system. Caring for the people means allowing everyone access to necessary resources – exactly the opposite of what corporations like Nestle are doing when they privatize the Earth’s water supplies. In Permaculture, everyone gets what they need to live – even medicines. On a Permaculture commune, the local pharmacy is right outside your door, growing in the gardens or in the forest around your communal village. These gardens grow traditional remedies that have been known for centuries and yet have been hidden, buried, or outright destroyed by big pharmaceutical companies who would prefer you pay them outrageous fees for synthetic variations of these same remedies rather than just grow your own. Lastly, the return of surplus means exactly what it sounds like: Recycling everything.
There are twelve design principles at work in Permaculture societies, and you can read all of them here. For a brief overview, let’s look at some specific principles. The first principle is ‘Observe and Interact.’ This means simply spending time in nature, getting to know its methods and observing how it works as one system, and then taking what you have learned from studying and observing the natural world and using it to your community’s advantage. And to think, there are some people who believe sitting in a quiet glen, watching wild flowers grow, is a waste of time! When you live in a self-sustaining community, that’s time well spent. You are no longer going to a 9 to 5 (or worse) job every day to earn credits to purchase items you need from faceless corporations that would prefer to see you dead by the time you retire. Rather, you are growing and producing those items yourself, and the more you learn about their organic nature, the more successful you will be at growing them. Think of all of the tremendous strides of human achievement that have come from people engaging in that very pastime. Aristotle and biology, Galileo and Newton with physics, Washington and his hemp, Franklin and his electricity, Darwin and his… species.
Let’s get back to Franklin’s electricity for a moment. Living on a commune does not mean you must forego all of the creature comforts of modern life. The second design principle of Permaculture is ‘Catch and Store Energy.’ Permaculture communes use electricity from such innovations as solar panels, and wind and water turbines that produce just enough power for their community. Smaller needs, smaller devices, less pollution. They are entirely off the grid. Granted, you will not spend the bulk of your free time on a couch, stuffing your face with processed foods as you watch hour after hour of reality T.V. – but ideally, you won’t want to. You will get much more satisfaction out of spending your time contributing to your community’s shared lifestyle, which means a lot more time outdoors, being healthy. After you do your share of the chores – feeding the animals or weeding the gardens – you can sit back and watch nature and society. This is the seventh design principle: ‘Design from Patterns to Details.’ This helps you find new and innovative ideas to improve the way your self-sustaining system works, giving you more time to spend growing your vineyard for a celebratory batch of wine or other herbal rewards.
The idea is to not divide and conquer the Earth but to combine it as it was meant to be – one living organism for your benefit, and thereby benefiting the whole planet. It is about finding how nature works together, not separating it into different plots, ‘Integrate rather than Segregate’ – the eighth design principle. Putting certain crops or resources together, you develop a relationship between those things that can benefit the whole. For example, keeping chickens next to annual beds that need occasional tilling or pest control. Sometimes you may need to bring in a Terminix expert to help with any structural issues, though. Droppings of pigs and other animals can be shoveled into underground containment barrels to produce usable methane gas for more energy. As The Permaculture Association’s website puts it, “A healthy vibrant ecosystem is a mass of connections and relationships. That’s what we are trying to create with a permaculture system.”
Again, you can read and watch a video about all twelve of the Permaculture design principles here, and you can get more details about the Permaculture lifestyle from the Permaculture Association website. You can also find all sorts of educational videos about this “Quiet Revolution” online, like this one:
And while you’re at it, check out this video on sustainable housing:
As the world moves closer to whatever cataclysm, real or imagined, that people may or may not expect – be it all-out Armageddon or just greedy corporations trying to take ownership of and sell you things that should, by right, be yours for free – Permaculture offers an option, a choice if you care to choose it. It really does mean giving up the lifestyle you may have grown accustomed to: Driving to the grocery store to pick up a pint of ice cream to eat as you sit on the couch watching Downton Abbey or whatever the devil it is you’re into, texting and tweeting pictures of yourself to all of your friends who are doing the exact same thing… but imagine, just for a moment, the peace and serenity that may come with waking up in a little apartment in a self-sustained building on a communal farm where your schedule consists of playing with some baby goats as you contemplate the way the leaves on a nearby bush collect rainwater. Or shoveling a bunch of poop into a smelly hole (hey, Utopias don’t just happen).
Utopian? Perhaps. Necessary? Well, if current reports of impending food shortages, drought, and dwindling fuel supplies are to be believed, YES. The world is changing. How it changes may be up to us. The United Nations has been aware of this since 1992. Perhaps it is about time we took the initiative to break the cycle of destruction and constant pollution that results in an ocean full of plastic trash and an irreparably damaged food chain. Either that, or let the corporations mandate who gets to eat what and for how long. And why not? Haven’t they done a bang-up job of taking care of us and the Earth since they came into power?
Permaculture. It’s a thought. I was just chatting with my friend in Colombia, and he is very happy there. He feels he is doing what he is supposed to be doing. Sure, there is a slew of old hippies, horticulturalists and humanitarians down there doing this, but there is also a steadily growing number of young people who have just reached a point in their lives where they want to tell Monsanto and the corporate toadies in government to suck it. Similar revolutions are cropping up in other countries, in Canada and around Europe. My friend keeps encouraging me to take that step off the grid and, dammit, the more I think about it… it is a thought.
“Be not a cancer on the Earth — leave room for nature — leave room for nature.” — Tenet #10, Georgia Guidestones.
I am an American expat that has been living overseas since 2007. Most of that time has been spent in East Asia as I lived in Korea until 2012. Currently I reside in the Sultanate of Oman. I enjoy traveling, and I always bring a towel, but ultimately I hope to return home to Pittsburgh. So if you hear of any jobs...
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