A Permaculture Perspective — The Production of Our Choices

By Bridget O’Brien

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”
― Bill Mollison

Is it important to you that your daily life reflects choices that care for the Earth, its people, and our future? If yes, then you are already one step closer to deeply living in the ways of an ecological culture design science called Permaculture.

Central to permaculture design is the understanding that nature provides for itself through a closed loop system full of patterns that we can observe and mimic. We observe how a forest provides all of its inhabitants’ food, medicine, and shelter. These observations identified principles at work in nature that we can replicate as we set up the systems to provide our own food, shelter, and livelihood. For example, one of these principles is called “stacking functions” – the ability of one component of a system to yield many benefits at once. A tree can provide shade, filter runoff, prevent erosion, yield food and fuel, slow harmful winds, improve air quality, reduce noise, provide homes for wildlife, create privacy, and the list goes on. 

Applied to land use problems, stacking functions allows the designer to gain as many of these yields as possible through careful selection and placement of the tree, keeping in mind the climate, prevailing winds, land contours, proximity of buildings, and other features. However, “stacking functions” has applications that extend into all areas of life. It’s used by the schoolteacher who creates a lesson that meets many different instructional objectives at once. It’s used by the interior designer whose shelves and cupboards also improve acoustics and help to define work areas. 

This broad applicability is also true of the other permaculture design principles, such as “integrate rather than segregate,” “creatively respond to change,” and “produce no waste.”  Each of these can guide us toward the methods, strategies, and techniques needed to solve problems in many fields of endeavor. As the permaculture design process is learned, we evolve into systems thinkers who can apply pattern language to every aspect of our lives. 

At the heart of all these principles, however, we find the basic permaculture ethics of Care for Earth, Care for People, and Care for the Future. Rooted in the cultural heritage and spiritual beliefs of many resilient societies throughout history, these core ethical mandates align with permaculture’s design principles and guide their application. The basic understanding is that because every part of the closed loop system ultimately depends upon the successful functioning of the others, the design process must take into account all of these larger spheres of consequence. Thus, the activities on one farm or factory can affect a whole neighborhood or watershed, for better or for worse. 

This understanding makes the practice of permaculture inherently holistic. It is now being applied to everything from self-care to business models. However, while permaculture can and must embrace all aspects of life, agriculture and food production remain the foundation of our culture’s traditions and community connections. Permaculture practitioners recognize this critical connection: What does our current food system say about our culture? How can improvements in that system help to create a better and more sustainable world?  Because food is so central to how we interact with and impact our world, how our life fuel is produced and the culture surrounding it are central among the many problems permaculture is addressing.

As Permaculturists, we strive for solutions and abundance in the understanding that while much effort and many resources will be needed in the development of the solution’s systems, over time the inputs will be reduced to almost none while the abundance is harvested for generations to come. We have some of the tools, and more are being developed each day, to solve the problems we are facing in our food, water, and economic systems. The best thing we can do is to continue to educate ourselves on the actual effect of our choices, and work towards becoming producers. It is my hope that with each horrific crisis and disaster more of us begin to realize that ignorance is poison, not bliss. And we, ourselves, are the only ones who can make a difference with each step we take, each choice we make.

We have a theory in permaculture that goes like this: Healthy habits, choices, and productive systems that add value and resilience to the Earth and its inhabitants take us on a spiral to abundance. On the other hand, habits, choices, and systems that are unhealthy depleting the Earth and its inhabitants lead us on a spiral of erosion. We can see it, feeling this second spiral each time we turn on the news, and each time we get ridiculed for taking care of personal needs that are not reflected in social norms. To travel the spiral to abundance we need a collective awareness that although the system is broken and our culture is in dire need of repair, permaculture can provide the conceptual framework needed to fix it. 

We are not powerless in our efforts to climb up the spiral of abundance. The most valuable steps we can take are how we chose to live each day, where we chose to spend our time, how we chose to spend our dollars, and how we meet our basic needs. We have the resources to educate ourselves, ask questions, and to find and create better options. Change is possible, as we see with the growth of the holistic, quality-driven markets such as local organic food, alternative healthcare, and more business models that care for planet, people, and profit. And, as reflected in nature, we don’t have to do it alone. Each part of the system has its own set of products or skills. It’s up to us to recognize the skills, utilize them, and support others in their production, keeping the system loop closed.  

Our dollars vote, folks. Stores, restaurants, and corporations will continue to produce and market what we consume as long as we are willing buy it. Many of us are aware of the life we want to be living, the community that we want our children to grow up in, and the desperate conditions consumerism has created within human societies and the larger biosphere. Please stand up, do the work, and speak up for your truth and for the ones without a voice. Let’s all start living in spirals of abundance. As we shift from a consumer to a producer mindset and take an active role in creating the world we want to live in, we will then find new ways to provide for our basic needs that care for the Earth, its people, and our future. And that is Permaculture.

To dig in deeper and learn more about Permaculture in our region visit: RootedLoveFund.org; Abundant Michigan Permaculture, Ypsilanti at abundantmichigan.wordpress.com; or the University of Michigan Permaculture Design Team at: https://www.facebook.com/UMpermaculture. For a national reference, PermacultureDesignMagizine.com is a wonderful collective. 
Bridget O’Brien is a Certified Permaculture Designer and Educator and Founder of RootedLoveFund.org. She is also Designer and contributor of ‘Adventure to Abundance’ – a Permaculture Design Process Teaching Tool Game, and Steering Committee Member for Abundant Michigan Permaculture, Ypsilanti. She is Marketing Coordinator for the People’s Food Co-op of Ann Arbor. She can be reached at: botanicaldesign@gmail.com or at 734-829-2645. Cliff Scholz also provided editorial input for this column.

Posted on April 29, 2016 .