I was about to turn my computer on last Tuesday evening when Mrs Spudman suggested instead we sit out in the field with a glass of wine in the sunset. We watched a fox quartering the slope beneath us, listened to the birdsong die in the rising gloom, saw the first bats of the evening emerge and heard a man walking up the lane beyond the hedge stop, unaware of our presence, and offer a prayer for the beauties of the season. Time well spent, I think.
But when I turned my computer on the following evening after 48hrs of internet exile, I found a huge queue of comments on this old post of mine about permaculture awaiting moderation. The awesome power of the retweet at play, I think. There are now 61 comments beneath this post, comfortably a Small Farm Future record, and so many that I can’t really engage with them all. A sweet thing indeed for any blogger to be able to write, but one tinged with sadness too. For when I do respond to a particular comment, I feel bad about all the ones I could have responded to but didn’t. Oh the blogging life is such a rocky road to travel…
Anyway, I hope some of you permaculturists who kindly visited my site will stick with it, and to tempt you along I’m going to add some further thoughts about permaculture here. But first I’m going to talk about something else entirely in order to accustom you to this blog’s typically digressive, allusive and eclectic (OK, rambling) style.
First up, then, an interesting little debate on the always excellent Agricultural Biodiversity Blog about Norman Borlaug, whose centenary year this is. Was he the saviour or the murderer of millions? Oh come on, however passionately we take up our positions in the polarised world of food politics, hyperbole of this kind on both sides gets us nowhere (and, as I argued here, the fact that Borlaug can be painted both hero and villain tells us something important about the contingency of the intellectual frameworks with which we have to wrestle in food policy). Luigi Guarino of the ABB makes a similar point about the hyperbole involved in both sides of the golden rice controversy. As a walk-on extra in the latter, I’ve certainly felt the heat of hysterically pro-GM ideologues, my badge of honour being the accusation that my scepticism about golden rice was tantamount to me travelling to Bangladesh and stealing wheelchairs from disabled children, or some such silliness that I can’t be bothered to look up to get the proper quote.
That accusation came from a familiar old adversary to this site, Graham Strouts. Much as I appreciate a bit of righteous anger, like Guarino I have no taste for wealthy denizens of the global north parading their egos in the misplaced belief that they’re advocating for the poor, and not much taste either for the crude ideology of neo-colonial agricultural improvement or eco-panglossianism that Strouts showcases on his blog. But I just can’t help coming back to him every once in a while. I think it’s because when you read a celebrity eco-panglossian like Stewart Brand his honeyed words almost tempt you into thinking ‘By God, maybe he’s right’ until you remember to re-engage your critical faculties. Whereas with Graham the seething ideology of it all is only too apparent. The historian J.G.A. Pocock wrote that Sir John Fortescue was “the kind of amateur of philosophy who helps us understand the ideas of an age by coarsening them”1. Well, I submit that Graham Strouts is the Sir John Fortescue of eco-panglossiansm. I said as much to a bloke at a party the other night, only for him to edge nervously away from me. Can’t say I blame him, really. Sometimes my erudite wit scares even me.
Anyway, this lengthy preamble is really just by way of justification to explain why I’m going to engage here with Graham Strouts’ comments about my piece on permaculture, and not with those of the many permaculturists whose thoughtful responses to my blog post are really more deserving of attention. But though Graham isn’t thoughtful, he can certainly be thought-provoking. I’ve already addressed a number of the problematic claims from his post in a post here, and implicitly in an article for Stats Views here – in the present post I’m going to focus specifically on his main challenges to the permaculture movement, namely:
- that permaculture lacks substantive content: its design principles are nothing more than banal platitudes
- that what I called permaculture’s ‘cheerful can-do amateurism’ is in truth more a ‘gormless can’t do naivety’
- that specific examples of permaculture principles being thoughtfully applied are required
- and finally that what he calls ‘these earnest PDC-ers’ should ‘just go to ag school, study science and GET REAL’
1. Permaculture Principles
Most permaculturists, I think, are happy to accept that permaculture offers little that’s new or original. It merely packages (perhaps sometimes over-packages) various useful ideas and design principles from other disciplines and thinkers and presents them in a format that’s digestible for modern urbanites who’ve suddenly come to appreciate the banality of their cosseted and unsustainable existence and want to do something about it, however humble. Sometimes permaculturists forget this, and are apt to make excessive claims about the movement’s originality and its capacity to solve the world’s problems (just as eco-panglossians are apt to make excessive claims about the capacity of new technologies to do the same). As Deano put it in his blog comment “It does sometimes seem to take a while for people to ‘observe and interact’ with the facts, and then accept the feedback, and apply self-regulation.”
For me, the main substantive (though not original) content of the movement inheres in its emphasis on holistic design (but let’s call it lifecycle analysis and input-output optimisation to avoid any spiritual baggage), on pattern language and on biomimicry. The last of these touches on a new front opening up in the eco-panglossian war against human sufficiency and its furious and frightened insistence on a philosophy of human overcoming. But my next few posts are going to examine that issue in some detail, starting with a look at Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden, seemingly becoming a keystone work in the eco-panglossian oeuvre, so I’ll leave that hanging for now.
Banal platitudes? Well, yes, I suppose. But what’s the nature of a banal platitude? It’s something that rings true and commands widespread agreement, but also something that’s difficult for people to get right – which is why they platitudinously resort to them as a reminder to stay on the right path. Quit while you’re ahead. Don’t count your chickens. Make hay while the sun shines. And so on (interesting how many of them derive from agriculture…) In a short permaculture design course it’s hard to do much other than mention the platitude and cite a few examples where it comes into play. But it takes whole lifetimes of agricultural thought and practice to apply them skilfully in specific contexts, make the right decisions and learn to farm well. Wendell Berry has written a beautiful essay about this, framing the issue as that of the ‘agrarian mind’ focused on the practical accomplishment of good work in the specific contexts of the farm2. I think permaculture has done a decent job of generalising some of the lessons one can learn from this ‘agrarian mind’, but it’s a dangerous enterprise and all too easy for students to take away from it outcomes when what they really need to see is processes (that was basically the point of my previous post on permaculture).
2. Gormless can’t do naivety
Well, there’s a lot of that about, to be sure. Particularly in the urban white collar worker who seems to be the eco-panglossians’ archetype of successful humanity, and who generally knows nothing about how to grow vegetables, fix an engine, butcher a lamb, make a fence or do a host of other useful things, but instead relies on artisans to do all of that for them, and naively elevates something called ‘science’ to the status of revelation and miracle.
Trust me on this, as a sometime academic sociologist I once was that archetype. But then I became a farmer – and, yes, my farming was pretty naive and gormless when I started. Still is, really. But I figure the world has more need of second rate farmers than second rate sociologists (it’s tempting to add that it’s also more in need of second rate sociologists than second rate eco-panglossians). Still, my farming is less naive and gormless than it was. To me, that’s the most important measure of ‘progress’.
Anyway, I think a lot of people who do a PDC come to it feeling miserable that contemporary education and economics has so deskilled them that they’re incapable of the basic self-care involved in providing their food, clothes and shelter (Simon Fairlie has written a nice article on this phenomenon of ‘distechnia’ here). If they graduate from their course and go on to grow a crap garden, or make some rubbish furniture out of wood from a skip, I salute them. Maybe their next effort will be better. Give me gormless can’t do naivety over wilful dependence any day.
And let’s not overplay the virtues of professionalism. When I get a professional in to do a job for me, sometimes they do it quicker, cheaper and better than I could. More typically they do it quicker, cheaper and worse than I could, because they don’t care about it as much as I do…and then it’s worth asking why I so valued the speed and cost that I hired them. Surprisingly often they do it slower, dearer and worse than I could – most of my faltering improvements to my skill set as a farmer have come from that realisation. And speaking as both a gormless permaculture farmer and a consumer of professional agricultural products from the shops, I’d say that the food production professionals do it quicker, dearer and worse than me…
In summary, gormless can’t do naivety can be rectified, whereas self-legitimating irrationalist scientism is virtually irremediable.
3. Examples of permaculture in action
Nope, I’m not falling for that one. I reject the tyranny of the exemplar. In the hands of the permaculture proponent it becomes exactly the kind of vapid exercise that I criticised in my previous post – Joel Salatin mob stocks his beef cattle, therefore all permaculturists ought to mob stock their beef cattle. And in the hands of its detractors it becomes a build ‘em up and knock ‘em down hostage to fortune of the predictable sort. There are countless examples of permaculture principles being thoughtfully applied for those who care to see, but I’m not going to play the name game. Oh what the hell – Vallis Veg is an example of the thoughtful application of permaculture principles. Is it a flawless example of permaculture design that others should flock to in wonder and then apply religiously to their own practice? No. But we came, we designed, we made it more productive than it had previously been and we (mostly) enjoyed ourselves while we did it. QED.
4. Learn science, go to ag school, get real
Well I’m all in favour of learning science and going to ag school, though I don’t think this bears any necessary relation to getting real. A ghastly pall of unreality afflicts the discourse of scientific agriculture, and the eco-panglossians are in the thick of its fog. Human problems are social problems and as I’ve argued here and here they are not solved simply by applying science or agricultural technology, which is not to say that the learning of science or agricultural technology is of no use. I would, however, venture to say that the crude techno-determinism and cultish mythologisation of science practiced by the eco-panglossians is, genuinely, of no use.
In a follow up post to my original one on permaculture I mentioned Hirschman’s ‘exit, voice and loyalty’ framework. The debate that the original post prompted convinces me that it was good to voice my doubts, rather than going for loyalty, even if the danger of the voice option is that it risks being gleefully picked up by those who wish to undermine from without the movement to which one still, after all, belongs. For me, that debate demonstrates that, as I wrote in my original post, “there’s enough self-critical dynamism in the movement” for it to retain my ultimate loyalty. Peace to permaculture, I say.
1. Pocock, J.G.A. (1975) The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton.
2. Berry, W. (2002) ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’ in A. Kimbrell (ed) The Fatal Harvest Reader, Washington.