No True Permaculture

I do a fair bit of gardening in public or semi-public spaces — sidewalk strips, parking lots, yards of large buildings, rooftops — and over the last couple of years I’ve had a lot of conversations with people passing by about gardening, fruit trees, sustainability, and lots more. One topic that has come up infrequently but consistently with those with a serious interest in gardening is permaculture. Sometimes it’s just a discussion about permaculture, sometimes it’s about the person having done or planning to do a permaculture design course (PDC), sometimes it’s about various techniques that are associated with permaculture (e.g., herb spirals, swales, perennial polyculture, etc.).

But more than all that, I’ve been asked a question a few times that I’m never able to answer: “Do you do permaculture?” I usually go quiet for a moment, think about it, and eventually give a few caveats but answer “No, I don’t do permaculture.” There are a few reasons I answer that way — I’ve never taken a PDC, I don’t specifically try to do permaculture but pick and choose from whatever I find promising, etc. — but none of these are related to my main reason: I don’t know what is and isn’t permaculture. (Sometimes I think this is because I don’t have a lot of years of active gardening under my belt, but sometimes I think it’s deeper, and it’s the latter notion I want to explore.)

I look at what I do in some garden settings, where true sustainability isn’t possible (i.e., a garden that would continue growing for many years without human intervention — rooftops especially), and I wonder how that could ever be called permaculture. But then I see discussion of permaculture roof gardens and the like and get confused. I imagine that if one were to analyze many of these types of unconventional gardens according to the principles of permaculture, they wouldn’t hold up well. When I read about gardens / farms in which people try to get high yields using permaculture-associated techniques, and then see rebuttals that those projects weren’t really permaculture, I’m left to wonder whether the No True Scotsman fallacy applies to permaculture. That is, any project or site that is unsuccessful or undesirable from the perspective of the reviewer can be deemed to not be “true permaculture”. This excellent post gets at a number of concerns and confusions I’ve had, and points out the claim made by some permaculturists that failed or failing projects aren’t permaculture — again, the No True Scotsman fallacy.

I should step back and say that I’ve learned a lot from reading some permaculture gardening books (especially Gaia’s Garden), but that these days I find I’m learning the most by reading and participating in rare fruit growing forums/groups, and have had the most success from simple trial and error. Despite all this, I hope that there is a next wave to come — in the form of new ideas, techniques, principles, or something else entirely — that advances everyone’s thinking about sustainable horticulture beyond the plateau we’ve reached today, whether it’s permaculture or not.

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Responses to “No True Permaculture”

  1. IMHO, if it’s guided by the three ethics – it’s permaculture. Naturally, real world result of each design may be very sustainable or not at all, depending on many factors. That doesn’t really determine whether it’s permaculture or not.

  2. Leon –

    I like that metric. Though I guess the three ethics are themselves fuzzy enough that I’ve seen pretty different interpretations of them, especially the “fair share” part which often has to do with the perspective of the person evaluating the statement. (I’m reminded of Tom Murphy’s citation “Fairness does not always appear to be in your favor”, something people forget from time to time.)

  3. Yep, “fair share” is extremely fuzzy (sometimes I wonder if that’s by design, actually). But there is nothing fuzzy about “return of surplus to the system that produced the yield”, right? Which is what the third ethics is according to the revised Molisson’s definition. If I have a lot of time one day I may try to find out who started this “fair share”nonsense first … something tells me though it’ll be a dude who hasn’t planted a tree in years cause he’s too busy smoking pot and forwarding stuff on Facebook :)

    As for the first two ethics – granted, it’s probably impossible to come up with precise definitions … but the good news is it’s not necessary. Just like even babies understand (feel?) that a dog is closer to us than a chicken, who is closer than a snake, who is closer than a spider, etc. most people do have enough of the inner guidance to make the first 2 ethics work just fine if they try, don’t they?

  4. I agree that return the surplus is less fuzzy sounding, but I think surplus is the key word that makes it fuzzy — how does one define surplus after caring for people? Perhaps this is the source of some disagreements about what is and isn’t permaculture? (To be honest, while I felt there was something worth writing down on this topic, I don’t regularly care or think about whether a project is “true permaculture” or not.)

    There are two issues that kind of stand out, though — in a lot of circumstances, it’s easy to achieve two out of three properties in something, but hard to achieve all three. (For example, there’s an engineering saying that you can’t get all of a) cheap, b) good, and c) fast. Getting two of the three is easy, but adding that third property becomes impossible.) I wonder if this is one of those situations, where the difference between getting two of the three and all three is huge. Because it’s often the case that people disagree about permaculture projects specifically regarding their ability to care for humans — the example I link to is a case in which (from what I can tell) the project cared for the Earth and returned the surplus, but didn’t care for humans because its harvestable yield was very low. That led others to question whether it was permaculture. That brings me to the second issue — aims vs. outcomes. I’m sure that project aimed to achieve all three goals, but only succeeded at two of the three. So is a project’s permaculture-ness determined by its aims or its outcomes?