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.