Implementing a permaculture design is much more than building a garden. It’s also more than a house that utilizes passive solar energy or barrels to catch rooftop runoff. While these things often are incorporated into permaculture plans, the practice itself is getting at something much deeper. It’s redesigning the way we live.
Growing at least some of our own food is a step in a different direction from the mass agriculture, processed meals, and supermarket system. Designing our homes with attention to harmonizing with natural energy features is the beginning of moving away from our crippling dependence on fossil fuels. And, the list goes on.
We don’t design this way to meet any trendy environmental tableaus or even to save money but because, as permaculturalists, we are in search of that which is efficient and sustainable, those practices that might put back us into better harmony with the planet. To do that, more than any garden we grow, most of us have to seriously change the way we live.
Adopting a new lifestyle is a major part of the design.
Why Are We Growing Food?
We should be growing food because the way we produce it, as a society, doesn’t work for us or for the planet, and if we don’t fundamentally change this approach to supplying our needs, the results may be the end of us. Processed and packaged versions of just a few crops isn’t providing the nutrients we need, and that’s not taking care of ourselves (People Care). Monocultures, feedlots, and felled forests are scarring the planet with chemicals and destructive concentrations of waste, and that’s not taking care of the world (Earth Care). Then, we continually degrade new swaths of land once we’ve exhausted the ones we are using, and that’s taking more than is necessary (Return of Surplus).
This is without even getting into the notion of resources used to ship food around the world or the exploitation of both land and people that happens due to corporations treating food as a commodity first, as opposed to something required to continue on with humanity. The reasons are plenty, which is why the point of that garden in our permaculture designs is much grander in its purpose than simply supplying our food. It’s changing the destructive lifestyle to which we are accustomed. We must come to look at eating differently, and that begins by striving to doing it ethically.
Why Are We “Reducing Our Footprints”?
At the heart of changing our food culture, amongst many other aspect of permaculture design, is the somewhat popular notion of reducing our footprint. From a capitalistic standpoint, this has meant new niche markets—light bulbs, biodegradable plastic bottles, organic clothing—are bringing in a bundle. But, a permaculture design ideally goes a little beyond these marketable products—not to say these “greener” versions are all bad—and into a lifestyle that addresses these issues in a more basic way: Perhaps we are using too many plastic bottles or too often changing with each new seasonal fashion.
The notion of reducing one’s footprint has gained such popularity that it now garners shelves of products in any supermarket, shopping mall, or hardware store. The problem is that, if all we are doing is replacing one obvious consumptive problem with the next one, we aren’t buying into a real solution. In permaculture, we design so that it changes the way we address the habits that require and inspire too many light bulbs and plastic bottles, whatever they are made from. We think about how to adjust the way we are causing damage rather than ways to make it okay to continue doing it.
Why Are We Going Renewable?
Renewable energy takes up the torch of how greener products might help us reduce our footprints, and honestly, in a world so dependent on electricity, solar, wind, and water power seem much more sustainable means of moving forward than do fossil fuels. Not only are these renewable sources of energy potentially limitless, but they also don’t cause the same pollution and environmental problems that our current energy sources do, including the new “clean” energy poster child natural gas.
However, part of the problem we must acknowledge is that many of us go about using energy somewhat thoughtlessly. We pay a bill, perhaps monitor the thermostat to keep it low, but we rarely sacrifice comfort or curb our reliance on appliances because energy appears in nearly limitless supply. Instead, when our energy comes from renewable sources, when we play some hand in producing it ourselves, be it chopping wood for heat or maintaining battery blocks for electricity, we have greater awareness of its value and appreciation for its impact.
Why Are We Catching Water?
As relevant as renewable energy, conserving our resources, too, is important. Within permaculture design, water harvesting plays a central role and with sound reason: All life, plant and animal, requires water to keep on ticking. Even a desert cactus can’t survive indefinitely without it. However, as our fresh water supplies—something that is limited—dwindles, we continue to treat it as if never-ending, such as with toilets, dishwashers, and inefficient irrigation systems.
Permaculture designs work to preserve and revitalize water and other resources. Instead of having sprinklers on timers, we replace lawns with food-producing gardens, hydrate the landscape with water catchments, and catch rainwater from rooftops. We develop ways to minimize our clean water consumption and cycle what water we do use. Again, because water simply comes from the faucet in most places, it can be easy to mindlessly (and literally) flush it away. When we recognize its worth, as with forests or soil or animals, we protect it.
Why Are We Designing Efficiency?
And, in essence, addressing these issues (and, undoubtedly, many more) is at the crux of how we design. It isn’t a step back to the dark ages but rather a recognition that perhaps that glint for technology has been a card sometimes overplayed. Efficiency and convenience are not the same thing, and in fact, by and large, our pursuit of convenience items—fast food, private transportation, electric heaters—have produced devastatingly inefficient results on the grand scale. Efficient design reduces human effort and lessens energy consumption, and often this comes from harmonizing with nature and rethinking the way we’ve come to arrange things.
We are catching and soaking rainwater rather than draining it away and irrigating with municipal water. We are using passive solar energy for heating and lighting as opposed to assuming the power company will ceaselessly supply all our needs. We put gardens outside the kitchen door instead of in the back corners of yards, and we grow perennial food sources instead of laboring over huge annual vegetable patches all the time. We change the way we do things, as much as how we garden, because it makes our lives easier, helps the planet stay clean and bountiful, and balances our inputs and outputs to something sustainable.
In other words, the garden is but a small piece of what we are doing, and far beyond what type of fruit trees might grow in the area, designing a lifestyle conducive to permaculture ethics and principles is really at the heart of what needs to be done. We should eat well, but we also must live well.