Friday, May 7, 2010

Paradise Lost

The more exposure I gain to it, the more I’ve started to think that Permaculture has an image problem. It seems the brand suffers from an unclear message among possible adherents, leaving all but the early adopters (to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell) convinced that only those willing to allow their yards to become overgrown compost heaps, or purchase hemp clothing can join the priesthood. When I think permaculture—and I apologize for my shallowness—I think Old Testament, five foot long beards, the Twits (visuals only), and “Brother’s Keeper” the documentary (again visual context only). See this video for a comparison view: The message is ok-good, but the messenger needs a shave.

I know…I’m crass, and subject to first impressions, and probably am hypnotized by agribusiness. (Anyone got a Dorito?) I’m also immature enough to think that it’s remarkable someone hasn’t already done the “Spinal Tap” version of permaculture—or “Permaculture--the reality show”. See this: Can’t you just see Christopher Guest doing this guy?

But the truth is there is much sense in what he’s going on about, and if you’ll allow me to draw it, the link between peak oil and adaptations that human populations will need to make is a remarkable elephant in the living room that almost no one is addressing. I don’t know about you, but I’m scared to death that one day I will wake up and “the revolution will not [have] be(en) televised”—no countdown to zero oil, no alternative fuel vehicle fleet, no Gaia. With a slate of apocalyptic movies recently—“The Road,” “The Valley of Eli,” even “Zombieland”—a construction or near celebration of the dystopian has occurred, and this reflects an arguably collective unconscious concern with uncontrollable change.

Permaculture offers a pleasant, if somewhat gushing, alternative with a utopian vision of humans in balance with nature. But wherever I turn, I see and hear new age, sing-song, Kumbaya-loving versions of it. After taking a few books out of the library (including the definitive—“Permaculture: a designer’s manual”, reading online, and watching various media, I’m still not sure what it means. One guy says permaculture is about “relationship,” another “earth care, people care, fair share”…I’m not sure how I’d explain it to either my seventy year old father, or my twelve year old niece. I’ve heard it referred to as ecological gardening, and one of the most interesting, mind-blowing examples of its practical application can be found at this link:

But what I’m hoping to discover as I begin to read more, and try to educate myself more, is can permaculture be a sustainable solution to agribusiness? Can it stave off starvation for 7 billion people when the oil is all gone? Is it landscape architecture, design ecology, an “informal institution of social ideals”…?

And does it “…go better with Coke”?

Thad Mantaro--SUNY Oswego

(Part one in a series of three).


  1. The concept of Permaculture has been notoriously resistant to apprehend. Perhaps that is since it is not so much a method as it is a philosophy. A system or a lifestyle, if you will. It is a common practice at Permaculture classes - "What's your elevator speech? Here is a zippy little intro with Ethan Roland (one of my instructors) in case you haven't found this one yet in your hunt -
    Feed the world? Absolutely. Teach a man to fish... There is the work of SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education), not so much permaculture by itself but it belongs. Work is being done with perennial grains - Then there is the work with the community itself started by Rob Hopkins -
    I am heartened hearing the term used in discussions, albeit, online conversations rather than much locally, but more and more folks in this country are becoming conscious of it. Just as more and more are being aware of attempts at 'greenwashing.'
    Does it go better with Coke? I would say it could. Personally, I plan on finding out how home canned paw paw juice will taste.

  2. Please forgive the tongue-in-cheek approach, and recognize that I do not mean to malign anyone, including permaculturists, or those I've linked to on YouTube. I do mean to agitate though, for increased awareness...