Marda is a small Palestinian village about halfway between Nablus and Ramallah, not far from the town of Salfit, nestled in the hills of the central West Bank. It is not atypical of other villages of its size, and though it has the pointed misfortune of laying in the shadow of one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank, its challenges mirror those faced throughout the Occupied Territories.

Images from Google Earth and B\'tselem

It is unique, however, for being the location of an experimental permaculture farm; Palestinian owned and operated, the farm is one of the few agricultural “experiments” in the West Bank (and in the Middle East more generally) that doesn’t depend on foreign aid and a bevy of overpaid foreign specialists. I recently had the opportunity to travel to Marda in order attend a workshop on permaculture, and stumbled upon a fascinating ecological philosophy, which engages provocatively with questions of design, community, sustainability, and ethics.

The earliest seeds of permaculture were sown almost 40 years ago by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who were searching for sustainable and self-sufficient agricultural techniques as a reaction against the rise of large-scale industrial farming and extensive pesticide use. The two realized that the issue was not merely a technical or technological one, but rather a problem that had concomitant social and ethical dimensions. The movement which resulted has sought to synthesize the agricultural and social within one philosophy, and though many permaculture specialists seem content to ignore the political elements of the philosophy, it contains within itself a firm political and moral commitment, which I think is worth exploring.

Permaculture proceeds from a number of dire ecological issues, the foremost being soil loss and the loss of biodiversity. Though commercial farming operates on a perhaps intelligible economic logic, it maintains a jarring distance from the ecological processes which characterize natural ecologies. In the interest of producing an easily marketable and commodifiable crop, commercial farms specialize in the raising of specific monocultures (a particular type of corn, a particular strain of soy bean). However, natural ecosystems are built upon the innumerable connections and energy transactions among numerous and varied life forms in proximity (i.e., biodiversity), and the fertility and productivity of such landscapes emerges directly from the comprehensive and perpetual reinvestment of energy and organism. In the absence of this diversity, fertility and equilibrium vanish; thus, monocultural agriculture must artificially maintain a growing window through the imposition of massive amounts of external “energy” – through tillage (which actually destroys soil fertility), expensive and taxing irrigation, intense fertilizer application, and extensive pesticide use. Without these investments (and often despite them), soil that is deprived of the biodiversity necessary to sustain it essentially dies, its fertility dissipated. In arid regions, desertification results, and in wetter regions, catastrophic erosion follows. According to permaculturalists, this process represents the greatest threat to humanity – the pervasive destruction of our means of sustenance.

Permaculture is primarily a design philosophy, a way of consciously arranging elements to produce a given end. Curiously, its focus on productivity and yield resonate with the driving imperatives of commercial farming, and it has no reservations against speaking of ecosystems in the language of use and utilization. Despite panegyrics to the inherent value of ecosystems, it seems to me that the underlying leitmotiv of permaculture is premeditated intervention in order to meet human needs (which seems to be a pretty standard meaning for “design”). The crucial distinction is that those interventions are inspired by the observation of existing natural systems, a kind of ecological bricolage. We see this ethos in permaculture’s forthright willingness to employ, and consume, animals in whatever configuration is most beneficial for the sustained health of the system (which causes a definite tension in the traditional alliances between animal rights activists and environmentalists), as well as in the mainstream permaculturalist’s willingness to introduce foreign species to fill whatever ecological niches might be lacking in their design. This is not meant as an outright criticism…I am accusing permaculture of anthropocentrism in its considerations, but that is not inherently problematic.

In any case, then, permaculture as a design methodology becomes a way of utilizing and augmenting the potentialities already available in the ecosystem; essentially, to work with nature rather than against it. Design techniques are based on several principles of natural systems:

– Everything is connected to everything else.

– Every function in the system is supplied by many elements (diversification).

– Every element should serve many function (redundancy).

The designer’s task is to maximize the available connections among elements of an ecosystem in order to bring out that system’s fertility. Multiple species of vegetation may be grown in close proximity to maximize certain symbiotic effects. Planting varieties of species, with different shapes, colors, life-cycles, and resistances largely precludes the necessity for pesticides. Large trees offer shade to smaller vegetation, certain types of which improve the tree’s root health. Connections may be nurtured through physical design, wherein area shapes may be molded to maximize “edges,” or opportunities for interface among organisms. Designs also strive to conserve water onsite through careful consideration of erosion patterns and contour details; thus, not only does the site sustain itself with its own rainfall, but soil damage from erosion is avoided. Additionally, the designer applies this design philosophy to architectural design. A dwelling should utilize the assets inherent to the site. Solar power, in combination with orientation, reduces energy needed for climate control. Moreover, the house itself becomes part of the overall landscape design, whereby greywater (and sometimes even blackwater) may be conserved, filtered as necessary, and used for irrigation.

There are aspects of permaculture that I particularly like. I appreciate the ease with which permaculturalists acknowledge and celebrate the historical precedence of and continued ability of mankind to productively interact with his environment (while recognizing the destructiveness of some of the later instantiations of this ability). Mankind is likewise bound to the networks of ecological connections, though with a degree of flexibility, which permaculture tries to mobilize. And, personally, I likewise appreciate the sense in which permaculture design tries to break down the boundaries between the house and the garden, and explore ways in which they can fruitfully interact with each other, such that the house can become inseparable from the garden, and vice versa.

The problem with permaculture (you’ll notice I don’t talk about something unless I have a problem with it), though, emerges when you start to talk in terms of scale. In terms of volume of sellable produce, a permaculture site does not even come close to the yield of a commercial agricultural operation on a commensurate area. Permaculturalists readily admit that permaculture cannot supply the agricultural economy as we know it today. Their response, naturally, is that our economy and society in general is fundamentally flawed, and that true sustainability is not attainable in the current configuration.

This is not a particularly novel argument, and I don’t want to weigh in here on whether or not capitalism is structurally irreconcilable with sustainability (it’s a huge and contentious debate, and I don’t have the time or competence to do it justice right now). But most permaculturalists recognize that permaculture is more than a design ethic or a set of techniques. It is not a technical fix. It is rather the material side of a comprehensive and revolutionary philosophical/political project.

As the workshop progressed, I was struck by the centrality of the motif of the house in permaculture. As Mollison writes in his textbook for permaculture, the “prime directive” of permaculture is to “take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children,” and that “we need to get our house in garden in order so that they feed and shelter us” (italics added). Moreover, the illustrations and design examples in the book overwhelmingly (if not exclusively) depict single family dwellings, surrounded by acres of effectively permaculture-ed landscape, complete with cow pasture, pond, and wind turbines. Even beyond the distressing and culturally limited romanticisation of idyllic homesteads, I think (as I have alluded in a previous post) that the “home,” conceived of as the unassailable seat of morality, liberty, and identity is distinctly problematic, and far less libratory that libertarian models would suggest.

This focus on the home is not accidental…the last chapter of the textbook departs abruptly from the more practical focus of the preceding chapters on trees, soil, and keyline irrigation. Entitled “Strategies for an Alternative Nation” (partial text available here), the chapter details a vision for alternative sociality which appears to consist of autonomous hamlets, bound together by the shared practical and ethical involvement of homesteads in subsistence production. I’m not going to criticize the vision for being a bit far-fetched… David Harvey has written persuasively about the importance of such broad, utopian imagination, and Hollison’s vision is almost faintly reminiscent of the anarchist colony Annares from The Dispossessed which is my very favorite book. But I feel that the terms of the vision, and Hollison’s explanations, demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the histories and cultural practices which give our contemporary social structures meaning and significance, despite their demonstrable and myriad problems.

Firstly, later in the chapter Mollison creates an arbitrary and rather trite set of population thresholds beyond which certain forms of social life are or are not possible. Most maddening is his condemnation of urbanity, expressed in his contention that a social group of more than 10,000 people breeds crime, fear, and anti-social behavior. As someone who has studied urbanism a bit, I find this to be at odds with a substantial battery of urban ethnography that refuses to write off urbanity as a perversion, but rather explores its liberatory potential alongside the malaise. Furthermore, urbanity is not merely a spatial manifestation of late-capitalism, or an engine for lucre and accumulation. Cities existed before capitalism. Archaeology has outlined (though by no means exhausted) the complex interplay among ancient agriculture, economics, and settlement patterns such that the convenient historical narrative of hunter-gathering/egalitarian society to agricultural/hierarchical society becomes little more than a caricature. [This brings me to a particularly pointed criticism I have of the permaculture literature (and much of the environmental literature in general): a few scattered and unsubstantiated stories of romanticized aboriginal ecological sensitivity DOES NOT constitute anthropological proof of anything. The fact the Bill Mollison grew up in Tasmania, where there were once some aborigines, does not entitle him to speak for them, or to mobilize their history (which he doesn’t appear to know beyond anecdotes) for his purposes. This noble savage, paradise lost narrative of indigenous tree-hugging has been criticized by anthropologists for decades. If indigeneity is coupled with environmental sensitivity, it is a political claim to be fought for. It is not self-evident.] And, to return to the present day, urban centers continue to have complex interactions with their hinterlands and with the economic/material regimes that constitute their lifeblood (see Cronon’s magnificent Nature’s Metropolis).

In a similar vein, Mollison contends that the explosive population growth that the world is facing, and which is making issues like soil loss ever more dire, would cease to be an issue in his utopian configuration. He is parroting here the reductive and facile maxim that reproduction rates vary inversely with economic security, which is used as a truism requiring no further elaboration. However, some excellent anthropology would argue that human population growth is not purely a function of resource use and species viability, but is richly framed by cultural and discursive logics of fertility, reproduction, nationhood, etc. Mollison’s Malthusian perspective is not insightful or nuanced enough to really get at this, and consequently I have my doubts as to not only the internal coherence of his vision, but also to its wider applicability.

I also am distressed by the simplistic understanding of politics as perversion of the social order. Let’s look at a quote in a bit more detail:

The world needs a new, non-polarised, and non-contentious politic; one not made possible by those in situations that promote a left-right, black-white, capitalist-communist, believer-infidel thinking. Such systems are, like it or not, promoting antagonism and destroying cooperation and interdependence. Confrontational thinking, operating through political or power systems, has destroyed cultural, intellectual, and material resources that could have been used, in a life-centred ethic, for earth repair.

It is possible to agree with most people, of any race or creed, on the basics of life-centred ethics and commonsense procedures, across all cultural groups; it matters not that one group eats beef, and another regards cows as holy, providing they agree to cooperate in areas which are of concern to them both, and to respect the origins of their differences as a chance of history and evolution, not assessing such differences as due to personal perversity.

It is always possible to use differences creatively, and design to use them, not to eliminate one or other group as infidels. Belief is of itself not so much a difference as a refusal to admit the existence of differences; this easily transposes into the antagonistic attitude of “who is not with me is against me,” itself a coercive and illogical attitude and one likely, in the extreme, to classify all others as enemies, when they are merely living according to their own history and needs.

Mollison makes the same movement that the Archbishop made so many posts ago. In subordinating difference to some cultural garnish to the natural main dish, he refuses to take difference seriously. He doesn’t deny difference; worse, he trivializes it. Cultural difference results merely from the “chance of history and evolution,” and if we all could just understand our shared, biological need for sustenance, we could base an apolitical polity on it, and dispense with the tiresome politics of difference. Of course, permaculture, like other environmental rhetorics, professes an attention to difference, insofar as it frequently and readily utilizes indigenous conservation techniques. Alliances are often forged between environmentalists and indigenous peoples’ movements. I am not accusing them of necessarily being infelicitous or disingenuous, but I think it is something of a marriage of convenience. Permaculture gets to decontextualize and harvest the indigenous technologies of other cultures. Permaculturalists in Jordan can wear kuffiyyas and talk about Nabatean irrigation. But they have allowed themselves to avoid any experience with fundamental alterity.

The demonization of the political (which I am provisionally connecting to a notion of colliding difference) seems to be a substantial element of the permaculture ethic. The workshop was taught by a Canadian couple working on a project in Jordan (which I hope to visit), and while I did not for a moment doubt their technical competence, I was struck by their constant refrain that they were against “politics.” As one of them remarked, “I don’t talk politics.” But as I have tried to demonstrate, by talking about populations, about urbanism, about ethics, about human needs, by trying to bring about profound structural change, you are doing politics. Moreover, as I found in my research in the West Bank, the ability to claim environmental sustainability offers tremendous political purchase in the global community. Interestingly, a common criticism of Israeli settlements is that they use exponentially more water and produce far more waste than the surrounding Palestinian communities. But I have often wondered what would happen if the settlers were to embrace permaculture, and transformed their illegal settlements into paragons of sustainability? Would the already fairly weak international criticism of the settlements be weakened further? Permaculture matters politically, whether or not it realizes or acknowledges it. This ignorance of one’s own politics, of one’s own contingency, blinds one to the limitations and assumptions of one’s vision.

This point was driven home for me in the last day of the workshop, in which the reins were handed to guest lecturer Jan Bang, an aging Nordic hippie with decades of experience founding and working on eco-villages throughout the world. In our last session, we were given the opportunity to set the topics to be addressed. One of the Palestinians in attendance, having sat though days of design techniques and practical considerations of permaculture asked a simple but crucial question: How is this economically viable? Jan launched into a detailed explanation of the LETS (Local Exchange Trading System), in which existing permaculture hamlets might trade via local, currency-free exchange networks, supplementing existing currency systems. As interesting as such a system may be (and frankly, it’s not really interesting at all), it completely misses the point of the question, and fails to answer or even address it. My research into and experience with the imbrications of water and Palestinian nationalism suggested to me that agriculture figures quite large in Palestinian imaginings of nationhood, and food production is a fundamental marker of national sovereignty. I imagine that Mollison and Bang would argue that the paradigm of the nation-state is fundamentally flawed, and inherently supports environmental abuse. However, I find this to be out of touch not only with the complexities of the nation-state, but also with the realm of possibilities open to Palestinians. If permaculture does not persuade, it is not because the listener is somehow infantile, unimaginative, and unready for change, but rather because permaculture is unable to meet the needs of the world as it functions. In that respect, I feel that permaculture often entails a peculiar reclusion from the outside world.

It is important to realize that permaculture is by no means a monolithic and stable movement, but has experienced a degree of fission and friction. I only had access to Mollison’s textbook, though I’m told that David Holmgren has written about urban permaculture at some length (and, honestly, from what I have heard, Mollison isn’t exactly the brains of the pair). I also do find the practical logic of permaculture to be engaging and enlightening. It is also a robust criticism of commercial agriculture. But the movement to human sociality is far from straightforward.

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[Incidentally, this is not about Jordan. Not even a little.]

I came upon a call for a design competition entitled “One Good Chair.” You can check out the details yourself if you like (or enter the competition, if you’re a tool, er, up for it), but I’ll sum it up.

The competition is to design a “new kind of eco-chair” (as opposed to the old kind, I suppose), one that focuses on form, first and foremost. What shapes can minimize resources while maximizing comfort and enjoyment? How can design integrate ecology and ergonomics?

This is something I’ve been thinking about on and off for a while now; whether or not designs inherently possess certain characteristics. A more specific question would be, are technologies, in and of themselves, political? The question is not whether certain technologies can be used for political ends, which is fairly clear. Rather, do certain technologies, by their mechanics and physical configurations, necessarily entail or presuppose, or perhaps are just “strongly compatible with,” certain political configurations? This is a question pondered by Langdon Winner in his 1986 book The Whale and the Reactor, and while the age of the book precludes a discussion of the internet, which is arguably more germane to the question of political technology than the issue of nuclear power which seems to be the main thrust of the book, it is still a fantastic attempt at developing something like a philosophy of technology.

As Winner relates, Engels, in one of his rebuttals of anarchism, cites the inevitable authoritarianism that arises from the material conditions of our production, even after the revolution (Marxist materialism’s hard-line towards technology also interestingly popped up in Soviet perspectives on environmentalism…I’ve found some nifty sources for that, and I hope to post on it some time soon). This is an echo of the much older argument in Plato’s Republic that ships, by their nature, demand the steady hand of a captain as well as the concerted and coordinated labors of a subordinate and hierarchical crew. Of course, these arguments beg the question of the naturalness or inevitability of these configurations, and, at least to me, suggest a certain poverty of imagination of how alternative technics might operate. I seem to remember David Graeber reflecting on anthropology’s extensive documentation of a staggering variety of cultural responses to subsistence, from the starkly egalitarian to the rigidly hierarchical, often within close geographical proximity.

In any case, it seems that we get caught up in the dialectic between an argument for objective realism (the physical reality of the technology is self-evident and we react to it as to an objective fact) and an argument for social determinism (technology lacks any inherent meaning apart from that which we socially impart to it… if we don’t see the tree fall, it doesn’t exist). Winner perceives both as problematic, though I think the latter is perhaps less so than he assumes. Anthropologists work a lot with artifacts – our fancy word for any kind of stuff that gets worked on/constituted by culture, which, um, I guess is, um, everything (I am already leaning toward the social determinism with that one) – and are quite keen on this dialectic. I will admit that there is a certain facile seduction in the postmodern notion that the world of things has no real existence outside of our perception and social categorization of those things (of course if you tell that one to someone in one of the “hard sciences,” they might spit on you). And I will also admit that, as Winner points out, such a perspective can easily lead to the dismissal of the artifact (be it an adze, a ship, a chair, a nuclear reactor, or the internet) as epiphenomenal to the “real,” social stuff going on. Consequently, it is easy to overlook the ways in which technologies not only are constituted by the social, but turn around and do some constitutin’ too. But I think the key point is that this re-constitution, this creative spark that an artifact can set off in a social tinder box, is not predictable, constant, or uncontested.

There is perhaps a parallel in the study of the human body which, according to the Cartesian mind/body dualism, is something of an artifact in itself. Students of gender like Judith Butler have sought to decouple the logical homology between (biological) sex and gender, suggesting that the social construction of gender, of masculinity and femininity, are not determined by biological sex, but rather are built and sustained through social discourses and practices of gender. The point is not to deny the importance of the body, or to trivialize biological difference. Rather, I think it is important to see the body, and the material in general, as something of a garden of differences-in-waiting…the human body does indeed boast sexual dimorphism, but the terms of that difference, and its significance for human-being, must be developed, indeed, sustained through unremitting discursive and practical interaction. And crucially, the terms of that difference are not contained within or prefigured by the material.

Talking about the body allows us to start returning to the question of design, since architectural design, for example, must (unless it is entirely textual and absurd) at some point acknowledge the physicality of the human form that will (hopefully) ambulate through its created space. Many architects, in my experience, love to ground their work in the eternal, universal human form. The design of spaces, then, becomes the search for spatial vocabularies that in some quasi-mystical (and generally, poorly-explicated) way resonate with the unchanging human form. Exeter Library, Louis KahnLouis Kahn, for one, expressed this sentiment in his notion of “monumentality:” a spiritual quality in a building conveying a sense of eternity, of timelessness and of unchanging perfection. Though this quality remains enigmatic, it seems to reside in a certain spatial vocabulary: “the basic forms of the vault, the dome, and the arch continue to reappear,” throughout architectural history, but with added powers of contemporary technology and engineering. In willful rebellion against the International Style prevalent at the time, Kahn emphasized his appreciation for architectural history…well…Italian architectural history, which he confused for universal human history. The lessons he learned from that history are radically different than the lessons I would take from such an experience. As Kahn wrote, “History is that which reveals the nature of man. What is has always been. What was has always been, what will be has always been.” I proceed a bit differently. One of my favorite quotations is from L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This perhaps explains the methodological and theoretical affinity between anthropologists and historians – the work of understanding the past is similar to the work of understanding foreign cultures. Anyway, if a spatial vocabulary (namely that of imperial Rome) recurs through architectural history, I find it a bit of a stretch to assume that is because that vocabulary contains within it a natural affinity with the human form, or with some universal human experience of space. Maybe we should think about the potential for the expression of the symbolic power of empire through classical forms. Think of architectural vocabularies as embedded within bounded fields (in the Bourdieuian sense) of value. I’m getting away from myself here, but the point is that architectural forms, I think, do not possess an inherent timelessness, or unqualified affinity with some external universal. Architecture is a garden of difference-in-waiting.

Much in the same way, I am unable to countenance the idea that architectural forms are inherently political. They can be used politically to invoke authority, or in projects of nation-building, but such a use is dependent upon memory, and discourses of what is natural, what is modern, etc. And most importantly, it is a slippery and dangerous use, which requires constant and active upkeep to sustain it against challenge and subversion.

Chinese people learning about freedom.Given this, the remarks of a pair of rather heavily-esteemed and lauded architects become a bit absurd. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (who in 2001 won the Pritzker award, which is sort of like the Nobel Prize for architecture) recently spoke about the potential for their Olympic stadium design in China to…um…free the Chinese by giving them multiple entrances, I guess: “The very architecture – an open basket or ‘bird’s nest’ of girders in which visitors can choose their own, random paths, is pointedly designed. ‘We wanted to do something not hierarchical, to make not a big gesture as you’d expect in a political system like that,’ de Meuron says, ‘but [something that for] 100,000 people [is still] on a human scale, without being oppressive.’” I have no doubt that the two are acting in good faith, and very well may believe that their architecture has the power to spread democracy (I suppose a bit like how a poor hospital design can spread tuberculosis). But their explanation hinges upon the assumption that a design can be inherently democratic, which, as I have endeavored to show, is nothing more than an unfortunate assumption. Moreover, it demonstrates a startling inability to understand the ways in which people produce and consume (social) space.

And so we can now return to the original issue of the chair competition. One of the judges wrote a book which is considered the authoritative work on the “history” of chair design. A review of the book exclaimed the following:

“The radical notion put forward by a new breed of ergonomic designers that chair design…should not be restricted by ‘traditional cultural expectations.’ They want to change traditional workplace design. For them, the beginning and end of design should be the body.”

The implication here is that the ergonomic needs of the body are universal, and that the cultural epiphenomena that have (needlessly) dressed up our chairs for millennia are finally giving way to the rational, scientific knowledge of what is naturally appropriate for our bodies. But, again, I would argue that the body is much less a knowable object than a collection of innumerable contours, gradients, and differences, which are seized upon to the carry the emblems of culture, and the ergonomic is merely one system of ordering the body among many.

Given this, I cannot imagine a perfect chair. I cannot imagine a chair that is universally appropriate to a body which is constantly made, unmade, and remade in historically, geographically, and culturally specific ways. I cannot imagine a chair that is inherently good for the environment [this is another dimension of the question whether technologies are political… can a technology be inherently green? I’ll deal with that in the next post, I hope.]. The perfect “form” does not and cannot exist.

But this post is so long and boring already, I might as well dream up a few chairs, just for the hell (or futility) of it.

  1. The Bone Chair: A chair made of human bones. What better to address the needs of the human frame than a human frame! And humans are certainly renewable… zestfully so. Designer Joris Laarman has a less macabre version:
    Joris Laarman's Bone Chair

    Joris Laarman's Bone Chair

  2. The Cactus Chair: It’s a cactus. Because you should be out biking or gardening or something. And it’s sustainable because it’s a friggin’ cactus.
  3. [ ]: Sitting shall not be commodified or abstracted from its context. Window ledges, nooks, sturdy shelves, logs. Look for the places already in the built/natural environment that invite sitting. And this chair is the true eco-chair: it doesn’t have to be built, because we already have plenty of places to sit.

I like the last one the most. But the $4,500 prize is intended to support the fabrication of the winning design, so I guess it wouldn’t work. Too far out there, suggesting we actually sit on the chairs we already have.