scaling on-the-ground solutions to slow climate change
In the essay below I lay out ideas I had about the formation of a field called Climate Permaculture, a field that I think that could have an impact on climate change.
Also, Nik Bertulis, a permaculture educator and water innovator, and I will be teaching a Climate Permaculture zoom seminar Sat Sept 17th 11am-1pm. For more info and to register see https://www.eventbrite.com/e/413136320857
Permaculture is a land management methodology that helps align with our natural ecosystems. Can this methodology hold keys to how we can help deal with one of the defining and existential issues of our time - climate change? Can there be a Climate Permaculture?
To answer this question let us look at what permaculture is, and how it has evolved, and whether a natural evolution of permaculture, would be to include a design philosophy and practice of how to deal with climate change.
Permaculture was birthed through Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.
In the late 1950s Bill Mollison, was working in doing wildlife surveys for an Australian governmental science organization, watching the marsupials in the Tasmanian rainforest, and “inspired and awed by the life-giving abundance and rich interconnectedness of this eco-system……I believe that we could build systems that would function as well as this one does.” He was also frustrated with only protests in the environmental movement, and felt there also had to positive work the movement was doing. He began developing in the late 1960s an agricultural system that would help deal with the problems industrial agriculture was generating, like that of soil degradation.
In 1974-1975, Bill Mollison, who was then a senior tutor at the University of Tasmania, and David Holmgren, who was then a student at an environmental design school came together. Mollison commented that they “jointly evolved a framework for a sustainable agricultural system based on a multi-crop of perennial trees, shrubs, herbs..., fungi, and root systems, for which I coined the word ‘permaculture.”
As permaculture evolved it became more than just an agricultural and gardening method, it also began to look at homesteading, how our communities live on the land, and human society relates to the land. It began to adopt also a design oriented perspective, which allowed it to generalize to more domains.
Warren Brush, a permaculture teacher out of the Quail Spring Permaculture center, describes permaculture as “Design science for regenerative human settlement that mimic natural processes in how it implements on the ground to support how humans live in the landscape ”
To get at a definition of climate permaculture, we can adapt this definition to “Design science for regenerative human settlement that mimic natural processes, including climatic processes, in how it implements on the ground to support how humans live in the landscape and its associated climate”
With permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren were trying to figure out how to human civilization can better emulate nature’s systems. One of nature’s system is the land-atmosphere processes that influences our climate. Climate permaculture design can focus on how we can bring back our land-atmospheric processes into balance through local restorative actions.
Our climate depends on how i) carbon and ii) water, moves between land and atmosphere.
In regards to i) carbon, plants intake carbon dioxide, and their decomposition helps bring that carbon into the soil. If we help facilitate this process we can have less carbon in the atmosphere, less greenhouse gases and less global warming.
In regards to ii) water, there are many processes that affect drought, heat, fires, and floods. (I will talk here about the water cycle a lot more than the carbon cycle because it is a lot less understood.) Evapotranspiration shifts heat from the surface of the earth into high up in the atmosphere. Evapotranspiration can also add to the water vapor blowing in from the ocean to help create rain. Absorption of rainfall into the land affects how much water is in the landscape to hydrate it, how much groundwater is replenished, how long into the dry season the rivers can run, and affects, as a second-order effect how much evapotranspiration and rain there is then into the dry season.
There is currently a drought-fire-flood cycle that is hitting many places in the world - Australia, Greece, California, Brazil, South Africa etc… When the water flows out of the continent, because of too much tile drainage from agricultural farms, too much urban storwater drains that go to ocean rather than to gardens, too many incised rivers, not enough organic matter in the soil to absorb the rainfall, not enough vegetation to slow down the rainfall, then what happens there is less evapotranspiration and more drought. With the land drier there will be more fires. With overly hot fires, waxy substances form on the surface of the soil that stop it from absorbing the rainfall. In addition roots and vegetation that could stop large rainfall from creating rainfalls and floods are burnt up. So often a year or two after the fires there will be large floods. And then the large floods take out vegetation and topsoil, so rainfall cannot infiltrate the land as well, leading to more drought and heat.
Working with the land, by building swales, check dams, terraces, improving soil quality, bringing mycelia into the land, using hugelkultur can help the rain infiltrate the land and help lessen this drought-fire-flood cycle.
This drought-fire-flood cycle is not that well known in the permaculture field (or in general) ; Zach Weiss, who mentored under legendary permaculturist Sepp Holzer, is one of the few people broadcasting this message out more.
Climate change is a complex field. Timothy Morton calls climate change a hyperobject. Hyperobjects are non-local, massively distributed throughout time and space, and they depend on the relationships of all its components. Its hard to comprehend because there are so many factors affecting it, and so many different ways it can manifest. When you look, you are just seeing one manifestation out of many possible ways it can manifest.
How does the permaculture paradigm we want to use to engage with the hyperobject of climate change?
A paradigm is a set of universally recognized principles, methodological processes and cultural concepts, as outlined by philosopher Thomas Kuhn, the proponent of that view that science and society evolve their understanding of the world through a set of paradigm shifts.
The permaculture principles are based on the idea that there is a systems theory way of seeing the world as interrelationship of parts, and that system works well when it functions like nature. It also contains what are called the three ethics of permaculture. And it contains 12 principles elucidated by Holmgren that help us engage with the world through a permacultural and systems thinking.
Permaculture also has various principles : i) multifunctionality, ii) waste=food, iii) usage of ecological succession, and many others. These principles can be applied to climate change. For instance i) multifunctionality : a tree is multifunctional, as it brings down carbon, it helps slow rainfall, its roots stop landslides, its roots can bring up water from the aquifers and spread it around the soil in a process called hydraulic redistribution, its leaves can evapotranspire water that lessens heat and helps create rain, and its bacteria can float up into the sky to see rain in a process called bioprecipitation. We can apply ii) waste=food to many climatic processes. For instance some farmers see evapotranspiration as a waste, as a loss of their water, but if we see that it can help seed rainfall inland, then we can see that evapotranspiration as food.
In addition permaculture has its 12 principles, as developed by David Holmgren. These can be applied to climate change. eg. principle 9. use small and slow solutions. A swale is a small solution that many people can do. If in a neighborhood many neighbors build swales to capture the rainfall, it can help replenish the groundwater, which can hydrate the landscape into the dry season, which can then help prevent wildfires. The more hydrated landscapes can then support more vegetation, which will evapotranspire more heat into the atmosphere, thus cooling that area. The evapotranspiration also helps to seed rain further inland. Swales outside of urban areas can also help slow floodwaters flowing there. So swales can influence the climate, and also influence many of the effects we attribute to climate change like fires and floods.
The permaculture paradigm also has its 3 ethics : earth care, people care, and fair share. These help orient its worldview, and is kept in mind during its design process. We can see how earth care can naturally lead to also caring about its climate.
The permaculture methodology is one of watching and observing, and seeing how parts interact and create emergence. It also draws from many indigenous and traditional forms of knowledge. At times permaculture will also use science, for instance some permaculturists integrate soil science into its teachings.
Because climate change is so vast, it requires a lot of watching and observing across bioregions. Permaculture needs to collate many different people’s observations and and historical stories. It’s collectively seeing how changing the vegetation, changing the soil, putting in of roads, houses and dams may have affected the rains. Of looking at how heat patterns are affected by human society’s impact. Permaculture can then integrate these observations with both traditional indigenous knowledge and with scientific data and climate models.
Water vapor transpires from the landscape in many ways, wetlands, soil, forests, grasslands, rivers. Understanding how the distribution of this water vapor is blown about in the sky to create different distributions of clouds and rains, requires a lot of on the ground observation, traditional wisdom, and also some understanding the atmospheric science of wind patterns, jet streams, cold and warm fronts, cloud formation etc. There are ways the moisture from one watershed ‘moisture hops’ to other watersheds through the atmosphere. Climate Permaculture can consider looking at the work of climatologists from Antonio Nobre, Francina Dominguez, Hubert Savenije, Van der Ent, Dirmeyer, and other scientists and water experts like Jan Pokorny and Michal Kravick.
Permaculture has tended to keep its focus on the small farm, and homesteads. If it extended its domain of focus to a larger scale, it can then see more easily how those processes play into the climate. Permaculture with its nature and systems perspective, is more positioned to see the problem that artificial dams and levees have on our water system, and how their removal, can lead to a more natural flowing and overflowing of our rivers into adjacent wetlands, which then evapotranspires to affect the geographical distribution of rain and heat. Permaculturists can also craft a decentralized water strategy, with bioregional permaculture designs that, for example bring back river-adjacent wetlands, which can work as buffer design strategy to floods.
Permaculture has developed a whole toolbox of solutions for water, growing plants, and for energy descent. With water there are greywater, blackwater, and stormwater solutions, and there are numerous earthworks solutions like swales, check dams and terraces. There are many design principles around how to slow, spread, and sink rainwater in the landscape. And its toolbox of solutions for growing plants also help with improving the ability of the soil to absorb the rainwater. The permacultural emphasis on using perennials, and not just annuals in agriculture is key, as the chopping down of perennials, especially in the form of forests, to make way for industrial agriculture has had a deleterious effect on the water cycle between land and atmosphere.
All these water solutions have been applied in permaculture to many issues on the ground and in the ecosystem, what is not recognized as much is that these solutions are also solutions to help balance the water cycle in the atmosphere. The groundwater, land water, and atmospheric water are in a symbiotic dance with each other. Affecting any one of these, will affect the other two.
Permaculture’s toolbox of solutions for water and growing plants is also very beneficial for the carbon cycle between land and atmosphere. In the growing plant toolbox are solutions like mulching, polycropping, cover crops, companion planting, no-tilling, compost teas, mycelial innoculation, hugelkulture, chop and drop, humanure etc… They solutions applied to the landscape help plants to bring down carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in soil and wood, thus lessening global warming.
Sociology of permaculture and climate permaculture
In the environmental and climate crisis one of the most common responses is protest, and this is much needed. However we also need concrete actions we can do, and permaculture provides people with a toolbox of methodologies. It provides something to positively work towards. In talking about climate change we can frame the situation in a way that is solutionary. We can point people in the right direction, giving ideas, and projects so people feel empowered.
Alberto Melucci was a sociologist who studied the sociology of movements. He wrote “the visible action of contemporary movements depends upon their production of new cultural codes within submerged networks”. He says they need cultural laboratories.
Permaculture does this, it has created a code of behavior that involves us living closer to the land, and or working together collectively socially and economically. Permaculture has created a educational system called the Permaculture Design Course which trains many people each year in its ways.
Changing the way behave is important if humanity wants to slow climate change. The permaculture movement offers a way to shift societal behavior.
“The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, is a book about movements. The starfish doesn’t have a central brain, so if you cut off a part of it, it will regrow. A spider does have a central brain, if you cut off its head, it dies. The book talks about how starfish can be a model for successful movements that do not have a central head. The permaculture movement resembles the starfish. There are many permaculture teachers, but no one central authority. There are multiple lineages of permaculture teachings. There are convergences in bioregions, and guilds that meet in local areas, that help focalize local permaculture projects. Millions of people practicing permaculture are self-organizing themselves around the globe to shift our civilizational relationship to nature.
The permaculture movement has taken its inspiration from many sources, one being the critical pedagogy frameworks of Paulo Freire, frameworks that help people shift out of the dominant cultural paradigm. The dominant paradigm in this case being that of an industrial agriculture and industrial based lifestyle. Permaculture offers a path of liberation, through methodologies, culture, and communities that show how to escape our civilizationally environmental destructive ways. Climate Permaculture can also offer us a path our industrial climate changing ways
If the permaculture movement can clarify how its actions can impact climate in a positive way, then that will help the permaculture movement intersect with the climate movement, and help create large scale change. If hundreds of millions of people are funnelled into learning about permaculture and implementing its practices that will be instrumental for humanity in dealing with global warming and extreme weather.
The growth and evolution of different branches of permaculture
Fields can expand. Take for instance yoga, which has expanded to paddleboard yoga (yoga done on paddleboards which emphasise good balance), acroyoga (partner based balancing yoga), and many other subcultural forms. Or take the idea of square root in mathematics. At first you could only take square roots of positive numbers. Then the idea occured to expand it to negative numbers, and from that the idea of complex numbers was birthed, where the number i is the square root of -1.
Permaculture itself has expanded. Its birthed social permaculture, financial permaculture, and Transition Towns. Understanding these evolutions can help us understand the possibility of evolving a climate permaculture. Social permaculture, financial permaculture, and Transition Towns can also be key parts of the climate permaculture movement.
Looby McNamara, author of the influential 2012 social permaculture book, “People and Permaculture” wrote that
Permaculture originated from the observation of nature and, as it is easiest to replicate nature’s systems in the garden most of the attention has been doing just that. Growing food is one of the most powerful and tangible ways in which we can connect with the Earth and its cycles, and make a step towards living a healthier life. The main body of knowledge and experience therefore currently resides in land-based systems. However there is a growing realization that, while enough skills, resources and techniques for widespread planet care and repair currently exist, there are other stumbling blocks that we have yet to overcome. What has been noted time and again is the ability of people themselves to stand in the way of positive action, right through from a personal to a global level. We can observe with individual, community and larger scale projects that it is our dynamics as human beings that ultimately dictates success or stalling, well-meaning projects can come to a stand still if people aren’t attended to. Permaculture has evolved from being purely land based, to involving people in land based systems, to thinking about the invisible structures within community groups. The next evolution has begun to take permaculture into the heart of all our people based systems permaculture people and communities can be productive, healthy, vibrant, dynamic and able to meet their own needs.
Social permaculture came out of a need that in order to accomplish permaculture projects, the people component had to be taken into account. And permaculture had as one of its ethical axioms of “Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share”. The people care though had not been fully worked out.
Matt Powers, a permaculture teacher, spoke:
When I first realized Permaculture didn’t have principles for People Care I was a little surprised. David Holmgren’s approach has a holistic edge that gives it traction in this area, but I’ve never seen any principles anywhere….
Permaculture is a path of service and a process of healing. It is all about CARE. We have to lead with CARING. So I created a proposed list to start the conversation around what principles we should have and how they should be worded.
I did the same exact thing with Permaculture Education Standards – we didn’t have them, so I made them public for comment, edited them, and have them released in my book, The Advanced Permaculture Student Teacher’s Guide. I hope we can see the standards adopted everywhere in time. I want the Social Permaculture principles, as well, to evolve and go out into the world.
Social Permaculture is People Care in Action, the design, planning, and action of People Care, and the lynchpin for successful projects and cultures. At this time of social change especially, we need to double down on people care, working together with earth care, with our eyes on future care – that overlap is Permaculture.
Social permaculture was a natural evolution of permaculture
Financial permaculture also came out of a need, to design a financial part of the human equation that allowed it to live in synergy with nature.
Bill Mollison recognized this, as permaculture grew:
That is, what I’m trying to tell you, it’s no good any longer just being an organic gardener or farmer, we have to be effective financial and political units. Just as it was very hard for us to learn to garden, then hard for us to learn to collect seeds, once the multinationals took over the open-pollinated seed market; we had to become seed growers. Now it’s very difficult, we have to become bankers. There’s no good trying to pretend we don’t have to. We can run away to the bush, build a mud hut and grow ducks in the garden, it’s not gonna do it. The coals will still be burnt, the land will still be eroded, and the forests will still be cleared for newsprint if we run away to the bush. So, there’s no escape, we’ve just gotta stop running away, stay where we are and start to face up and fight.
In 2005 a small group of permacultural leaders came together to discuss the intersection of economics and permaculture, and came up with the term financial permaculture, and birthed the Financial Permaculture Institute.
One of that group Jennifer Moran writes :
Financial Permaculture may be applied as a model for systems thinking that takes a whole ecosystem approach to economics. Financial Permaculture strives towards holistically optimized economic returns. Financial Permaculture is appropriate information technology. Appropriate refers to applying efficient designs that generate the least amount of waste for the highest yield. It takes into account the actual social and ecological costs within a local economy. The principles of Financial Permaculture are a template for finding solutions specific to the needs and circumstances of the system designed. It is not a top-down, or a one size fits all approach. Each design is customized to be appropriate to the locale.
Financial Permaculture has become an ever more present concept and sub-field within Permaculture. As an example of how Financial Permaculture is applied, in 2008 five colleagues and I founded the Financial Permaculture Institute. From 2008–2014 we combined forces with experts in the fields of Permaculture, Finance, Business, and the worldwide Transition Initiative to host Financial Permaculture Summits in multiple locations in the USA. We developed a participatory style of engagement in which we would consult with the local community before, during and after design events. We targeted the following sectors: local business owners, the creation of quality employment, and community networking opportunities, to achieve an increase in sustainable economic and community development.
Ethan Roland and Gregory Landua wrote a paper in 2011 on the 8 forms of capital that form financial permaculture. Money is just one form of the capital we have. If we recognize other forms of wealth, it expands our vision of what an economy is, and how we can evolve it.
Gregory Landua then went on to launch the Regen Network, which funds many regenerative projects around the world through cryptocurrency.
The financial permaculture paradigm helped expand out the fair share part of the core permaculture ethics.
The Transition Town movement was an attempt to help manifest the permacultural vision at a town wide scale. Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher, set his student the task of applying the permaculture principles to peak oil and climate change. They presented their ideas to their UK Kinsale town board, ideas which were about about economy, agriculture, energy production, and education. They launched projects of local currencies, food forests, permaculture blitzes, local free swaps etc. Out of this came Transition Town Kinsale, and since then thousands of other transition towns have birthed around the world.
We can see in these examples there is almost a natural progression of permaculture. One can see how these subcultures help elaborate on the 3 ethics of permaculture. Social permaculture helped clarify the people share ethic. Financial permaculture helped clarify the fair share ethic. And Transitions Town helped elaborate further strategies involving on all 3 ethics.
Climate permaculture can be seen as a natural extension of the idea of Earth Care. Permaculture has focused on the land aspect mainly so far, but it can expand its scope more fully to the atmosphere, as well as larger climate induced change patterns. Earth Care can include the aspect of global warming, droughts, extreme rain, floods, and fires.
Climate permaculture can also integrate Transition Towns and social permaculture into its model. Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel winning economist for her political economy work with the commons, wrote that the key to dealing with climate change is collective action at the local level. The town and bioregional scale are key to getting projects implemented.
Social permaculture will hold the keys to how people can collaborate effectively at this town and bioergional scale. Social permaculture can guide how environmentalists, permaculturists, business people, local government officials, engineers can work together to enact change.
Climate permaculture will also need to bring in financial permaculture into its model. Fixing climate change will require the design of new finanical forms our economic system can evolve to. There are feedback loops in our current economic system that currently incentivizes the destruction of nature, and the keeps us trapped in these cycles. Untangling these negative loops is something financial permaculture can help us figure out.
The climate movement is now a huge movement, but is lacking effecive solutions at the local and bioregional scale. Creating a climate permaculture movement, that clarifies the effect permacultural actions have on climate, that funnels millions of people into learning permaculture, that enacts a plethora of local permaculture designs, that organizes people into bioregional groups to coordinate, and that amplifies slow and small solutions, can help us, on a large scale deal with heat, drought, fires, and floods.