Saturday, October 2, 2010

Permaculture: An antidote for Eco-Cynicism?

For some time now I've suffered from a terrible and debilitating syndrome. Okay, not really. But it's a supremely dramatic start to a blog post if you ask me. Anyway, after much thought I finally gave the syndrome a name. Eco-Cynicism Syndrome.

Though it has only been within the past few years that ECS has really taken hold, there were two major factors in my life that made me vulnerable to it to begin with. My passion for the natural world was the first, and my education in Wildlife and Fisheries Science was the second. A little bit of knowledge and a lot of love for our precious natural world can be a dangerous thing in times like these.

I realized I had ECS when I simultaneously reached my midlife crisis, realized my education only served to remove the veil of blissful ignorance that obfuscated the damage our planet was suffering, and reached the end of my  "hope rope" that the human race would ever turn from its soulless doctrine of greed that has overtaken it in favor of a truly sustainable existence based on cooperation and community rather than exclusion, isolation and mindless consumption. In short, I was dangerously close to giving up on us as a species entirely. There didn't seem to be any point to living with sustainability and conservation in mind if there would soon be nothing left to conserve.  My resulting emotional state was one of general malaise, hopelessness and cynicism towards the ability or interest of my fellow humans (with a few exceptions of course) to make any effort towards real and lasting changes that could mitigate the consequences of global climate change, or to accept any responsibility for it.

I spent the last several years trapped in a vicious cycle from the depths of ECS to an overwhelming compulsion to be as environmentally and socially conscious as I possibly could in a frantic effort to somehow "make up for" those who did nothing. Lately however, there was a rapid slide towards hopelessness and the temptation to go off grid not only in the sustainable living sense but also in the complete hermit sense. I was almost ready to shut the gates to our farm and start hoarding seeds and food in preparation for the inevitable societal collapse once the population at large realizes that Peak Oil is no longer a theory, but has in fact already occurred.

Needless to say, my head has been a gloomy place to live in. I kept an optimistic face on as often as I could around others while this inner nihilism ate away at my spirit. When a friend of mine at Oak Hill Farms brought up his interest in permaculture, I nodded politely and thought no more of it. I was too emotionally drained to hear yet one more way I needed to change my lifestyle to be more green when I still have to choke through the haze of my neighbors' burning household garbage, industrial pesticides and herbicides. Fortunately for me though, the curiosity eventually took hold and I stumbled across a few podcasts discussing permaculture that included some of the most influential figures in the movement. Who would have thought it would turn out to be the tonic I so desperately needed.

In learning more about permaculture and its code of ethics (care of the earth, care of people, and limiting your use of resources and sharing of surplus), I came to a drastic realization that may very well change the way I view the natural world and my role in it.  I realize now that though the philosophy of conservation may seem on its surface as the only way to approach natural resource management, it is not. In fact, it could very well be completely misguided at best, and completely ineffective at worst. The conservation model is at its heart a cynical one, seated in a primary philosophy of "not enough." We must have Resource A to survive, yet we teeter on the brink of permanently losing Resource A forever due to misuse, overuse or simply running out. Therefore, the conservation ethic tells us we must do all we can to slow this degradation and permanent loss as long as possible. This leaves a tickle in the back of the mind that our efforts, however noble, will at best postpone the impending crash of Resource A followed by the inevitable domino crashes of Resources B, C, D, E etc., until the entire system collapses in upon itself, leaving behind a dried up husk for a planet. 

How cheerful! No wonder I was felt like I was in a rut. Fortunately permaculture offers up an entirely different world view, one of restoration rather than conservation. Yes, when it comes to natural resources, permaculture operates under the belief that we can fix it, and we can make more.

It's a concept so simple that I can't believe it's not on the tip of every human tongue. Everyone's harping on about organic this and that, and that's all well and good, but how many people realize that organic is now big business, and as an industrialized monoculture it is just as harmful as any other factory farm?  How many people understand that organic certification movement has resulted in a lower quality of life for some farm animals (due to refusal to treat sick or injured animals for fear of losing certification)? Permaculture works solely on the principles of doing what is right for every component of the natural system from soil and seed to knife and fork. Organic is just one tiny part of the bigger permaculture picture. The bigger picture is one of an entire ecosystem working in a natural way to not only preserve our natural resources, but to actually make them healthier and add to them. When was the last time you heard something so optimistic about our environment?

As I read and learn all that I can and slowly make the conversion of our farm to a full scale permaculture farm, I hope I'll be sharing a few success stories amidst the frustrations and failures that are an inevitable part of trying something new. So stay tuned!


  1. great writing Claire, although I did have to open the dictionary several times in order to understand it. I'm totally getting your frustration. Really looking forward to more on this permaculture project.

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth! I've not been this optimistic as a whole in a long long time. There are some absolutely amazing success stories out there. Just a few land management changes can make huge differences. But the real beauty is that ANYONE can adopt this lifestyle, regardless of if they have land. It could be as simple as how you organize your potted plants on the balcony of your apartment, or as complicated as using water catchments around your 1000 acre estate.

    The hard part is keeping in mind that this is a life long process, not a project that will be "done" next spring. Time to learn to slow down and enjoy the journey!

    And with that...I gotta get off this puter and get back into the greenhouse! Thanks so much for reading, and posting a comment. Tickles me every time!

  3. Hi Claire,

    This is a great post (sorry I'm late to read it). Keep your ideas and progress coming so I can learn from you. We are working to incorporate a lot of permaculture into our farm renovation.

  4. Many thanks, Angie. I'm so glad to hear others are taking these methods into consideration. It's the first time in a long time I've had much optimism as far as our ecology goes. Since I blogged this article I've been pursuing the idea of getting my PDC (Permaculture Design Certificate) in hopes that maybe I can pass whatever know-how gets into my peabrain on to anyone who'll listen.

    Now that the weather is cold enough for me to sit still for a few minutes at a time, there will be lots more videos and photos coming out. Today I'm uploading some information on sheet mulching, which you might find really helpful if you have a soil problem like most of us do.